A funny regional quirk about New Orleans is that they call traffic medians neutral grounds here. Everything in this city is casually overdetermined. Last week, during the opening of the third edition of Prospect, the contemporary art biennial founded here in 2008, which (in the true spirit of bureaucracy in New Orleans) has never managed to open biennially, I was driving under the I-10 freeway, which cuts straight through what used to be the heart of the city’s main black business district, when traffic slowed to a full stop and a gaunt woman emerged from beneath the overpass carrying a cardboard placard that said “STARVING ARTIST.” She looked straight at me and smiled before traffic picked up again and I went on my way.
This iteration of Prospect is called “Notes for Now” and its curator, Franklin Sirmans, has said he was inspired by Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a 1961 novel about one man’s ramblings through New Orleans in the midst of a spiritual collapse as he approaches his 30th birthday—a fine-enough reference since holding a biennial in New Orleans is riddled with all sorts of potentially existential problems. The Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art shares an unfortunate wall with the Civil War Museum next door, an apologist monument to the legacy of Jefferson Davis. The artist Mary Ellen Carroll’s project to give free Internet access to the city’s poorer residents by tapping into unused frequencies along the I-10 has an office “in the armpit of Robert E. Lee,” as Carroll described it to me from her makeshift command center in Lee Circle, where a statue of the general seems to gaze disapprovingly upon the New Orleans Museum District.
She said she thought of the I-10 as “a public amphitheater,” which, in one of the stranger ironies of this place, is basically true: despite the stream of blight accumulated over the decades by the freeway’s construction, the locals have more or less reclaimed the space, painting murals on the concrete columns, making do with what’s there.
At dusk on the first day Prospect was open to the press, a sampling of the New York art world had gathered in front of the U.S. Mint building on the edge of the French Quarter. They were waiting to see an installation by the artist Tavares Strachan. At least two Chelsea art dealers were there, as were a hefty number of museum curators, and a cavalry of publicists and art writers.
“I think the first edition of Prospect set the bar really high,” Jens Hoffmann, the deputy director of New York’s Jewish Museum, told me while we lingered. “There was such a glut of enthusiasm, but people have stepped back their support a little bit. What is good about this is the combination of New Orleans and art. Who doesn’t want to come to New Orleans for a few days?”
Prospect was founded with good intentions after Hurricane Katrina by Dan Cameron, a curator with a great fondness for New Orleans but little other connection to it, to foster the “social and financial benefits” of an international art festival in the hope of “rebuilding the city,” according to the Prospect web site. I’m all for well-meaning outsiders, but another irony, of course, is the group of New Yorkers themselves, whose very existence over the next few days rested somewhere uncomfortably between intellectual connoisseurs and cultural tourists. People still talk of Katrina here often and in hushed tones. The cofounder of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, one of Prospect’s venues, referred to the storm at the opening press conference only as “our disaster.” There are scattered reminders of the devastation, especially in the Lower 9th Ward, where sections of the neighborhood have been gradually reconverting back to swamp and, elsewhere, flashy avant-garde houses funded by Brad Pitt have sprouted out of the tall grass.
A loud voice cut through the murmurs of the crowd: “We’re celebrating tonight an art installation that’s also a mobile app!”
This was Timothy “Speed” Levitch, our licensed tour guide, who would walk us from the U.S. Mint building, across Canal, and through a wharf where we’d find Strachan’s installation. “I am featured on the app!” Levitch said.
The group ambled over to the wharf while Levitch told everyone the history of the po’boy sandwich and the status of 632 Elysian Fields, home to Tennessee Williams’s Stanley and Stella Kowalski (it’s now a bike tour company). We walked straight past the enormous No Trespassing sign and into the wharf, where people were still working a shift and the symphony of industrial clangs and whirs obscured Levitch’s voice. He stopped in front of a closed garage door that someone then began to lift manually, adding to the cacophony, after which Levitch introduced a “very special guest,” the Mississippi River. The crowd burst into applause as they walked onto a landing. And there was Strachan’s work—an enormous pink neon sign that says “You Belong Here,” on a barge floating down the water. Champagne was served. A fawning crowd had gathered around Strachan. A woman struggled on the uneven concrete in high heels. Someone else had conveniently found a place to plug in his iPhone. The selfies came fast and predictably. There was no guardrail between the crowd and the river, and the shouts from the dockworkers inside served as a constant reminder that this was an active worksite. All of us really didn’t belong here, but as Strachan put it to me on the bank of the river, “Who’s you, and where’s here, and who gets to say who belongs where?”
The first piece I saw at Prospect was outside the Ashé in Central City. This could be a rough neighborhood depending on which street you walked down. On the corner of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Felicity Street, four young men in white tank tops and shorts were sitting on a bench that had been set up for them, smoking cigarettes and drinking Abita beer out of a cooler. They had a stereo that was playing Lil Wayne. A huddle of people wearing pink badges that said P.3 were watching them cautiously, as if unsure whether this was something to be studiously observed or just a normal street scene. This ambiguity was, I hope, part of the point of the work, which was called Crossroads, Days and Nights and was organized by the Chinese artist Liu Ding.
“I guess it originated with Liu not liking ‘No Loitering’ signs,” one of the performers, a New Orleans filmmaker named Ben Johnson, told me. (Liu was also there, but on his way out: “I don’t want to be here,” he said. “I want a more natural loitering.”) Johnson said they’d be on the corner for about two hours—“This is it,” he said when asked if there was anything more to the performance—and that they had done this in different neighborhoods throughout the city, entangling the responses from the public in the piece.
“In the French Quarter, where the tourists are, people were talking to us,” Johnson said. “When we were in the Lower Garden District, we actually had the police called on us. Here, people don’t really notice us.”
There are 58 artists spread out across 18 official Prospect venues in the city, which is only a fraction of what’s on view when you consider the 50 or so satellite events. As far as biennials go, this one is important for including a high number of artists of color, which should be seen as much as a reflection on New Orleans as it is a rebuttal to the usual structure of the art world, which tends to skew white and male.
In a room at the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African-American Art, a creaky wooden house near the Lower Garden District, Carrie Mae Weems had taken a turn for the Lynchian with Lincoln, Lonnie and Me—a series of holographic projections against a red curtain on a stage. In one section, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” plays through a speaker while the projected image of a black woman laughs menacingly before delivering a terrifying monologue: “I’ve seen you. And I know you. I know you don’t believe me, do you? But I’m gonna take ya and I’m gonna break ya. Cuz I want you to know the suffering I know. It’s not gonna be pretty. Revenge is a motherfucker.”
At the Contemporary Art Center on Camp Street, Lucien Smith’s cheesy painting of a sunset on a rocky beach triggered in my mind the womp womp of an out-of-tune trumpet, but Douglas Bourgeois, a Louisiana painter, solved this quickly. His portrait of a woman in an evening gown pulling a carton of Dole pineapple juice out of a fridge stocked with raw meat, a globe, a gun, and pizza rolls was just ominous enough to have a sense of humor and didn’t look like anything else I’d seen.
Artists made careful use of the city, as with Tameka Norris, who had a feature-length video at May Gallery, a giant brick building resting on the edge of train tracks off Claiborne. In the film she spends a long time just wandering around New Orleans. She eats crawfish and corn in the park. She sings karaoke. She gets a pedicure. The film moves along with such a strange sense of purpose it’s hard to look away from.
On the outskirts of the official events, the artist Castillo installed threads of canvas snaking through the abandoned house at 526 Caffin Avenue in Holy Cross, culminating in a giant sphere of the stuff on the front lawn. It makes a fine object on its own, but whether the material will become a blank slate for a neighborhood art project wasn’t clear to me. The only living thing I saw when I visited Saturday afternoon was a black dog aimlessly wandering down the middle of the street.
“When we raise the question of discrimination everyone gets upset. You have a problem when I bring up discrimination, well then stop discriminating and it won’t be a problem for you.”
This was Andrea Fraser, at a performance at the New Orleans Museum of Art on Saturday. She was dressed sleekly in black and stood at a podium in an auditorium in the museum. She stood there the entire time, acting out a script based on an 8-hour City Council session from 1991 about an ordinance proposed by councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor to end racial and gender discrimination in the private luncheon clubs during Mardi Gras. Fraser acted out various Southern accents of the City Council members, who expressed a whole spectrum of indignation.
“I ask you to vote against this ordinance because you do not want to be remembered as the councilmember who killed Mardi Gras.”
“It’s like people who say ending slavery will damage the economy of the South…Right is right.”
“We do live in a free country…People do have a right to get up and voice their opinions.”
The audience chuckled at the expressions of ignorance and cheered the more enlightened passages and railed against the mention of the failed 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial campaign of David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “The only way you can solve a problem is to face it,” Fraser said, quoting one of the council members in a careful Louisiana drawl. Fraser’s work has often dealt with institutional critique as a means of exploring the power structures of the art world, but here she had both transcended and literalized this term by critiquing the institutionalized racism of the South. Taylor’s ordinance passed unanimously, though two of the private clubs subsequently stopped marching in the parade.
NoMA, the flagship museum here, was a far cry from the grim florescent lighting of Delgado Community College’s City Park campus, where I had to walk past classrooms marked “Radiology” and “Funeral Services” to reach the third floor art gallery, where the Italian artist Piero Golia was showing a work called The Comedy of Craft (copying the nose of George Washington). He was working with Delgado students to construct a replica of George Washington’s nose from Mount Rushmore. The art gallery there has massive arched ceilings to accommodate such an endeavor, and a beautiful wall-sized window that I imagine brings in better light than whatever happens to be in the funeral services classroom. A few people were working on the mold and Golia was inconspicuously hiding in a corner under an Oakland Raiders cap.
“Do you know Commedia dell’arte?” he asked me through a thick accent. “I found out on Google that the English translates this as ‘Comedy of Craft.’ I was very impressed by this. I was interested in using craft as communal experience. When you go into an institution you always see the end of something. I’m more interested in the fun of making something.” Apropos of nothing he added, “I’m getting old,” and here he lifted the cap to show me his bald head. “See, I’m losing all my hair.”
Lesson one of art school, he said, is learning to copy something. He settled on Washington’s nose because “you look at pictures and it’s just there”—he bopped himself on the nose—“it’s there to be copied.” Golia has a reputation as a trickster. One of his pieces involved talking someone into getting his face tattooed on her back, and in another he traveled across the Adriatic Sea from Italy to Albania, effectively reversing the usual flow of travel to ostensibly become Albania’s first illegal Italian immigrant. The Washington sculpture was also a performative joke, but he spoke of it with a level of sincerity that was actually touching. I asked him how he picked this venue.
“I’m doing more in here than I would in a museum,” he said. Then he gestured to the ceiling: “Do you think I would find another location like this? It’s my first time here and I’m completely in love. Yesterday I went to the post office, and this lady gave me this smile like she really wanted to be here. And this shit, we do this for those smiles.”
I drove to a gun buyback on Saturday in St. Roch organized as a Prospect satellite event by Kirsha Kaechele, a controversial figure in this city, who championed the New Orleans arts scene directly after Katrina by buying houses around the Bywater district and using them for art installations, only to retreat to Tasmania, “leaving thousands in unpaid property tax bills and liens behind,” in the words of the Times-Picayune. She then married a man who made a fortune as a professional gambler, and he was helping to fund the $100,000 buyback, which was held in a converted room off a carwash that was painted purple and called The Embassy. There was a mock presidential podium in the center of the room and a table with an information sheet on it that read:
$250 assault weapon
No Questions Asked!
The room was empty by the time I arrived. Off to the side was a temporary recording studio painted gold, where a rapper named Mr. Serv-On, who normally works out of a studio in the Central Business District, was sitting behind a console. He had on a purple shirt that said The Embassy and had silver grills on his teeth. He was there to help people from the city record for free.
“The thing about it is,” he said when I asked about Prospect, “with the black community, we’re giving kids a chance to see the arts. I think they need to see different parts of the arts that aren’t just music. But this studio, we set this up because we know the studio is how we got off the streets. You never know what could come of it.”
Outside, an anti-violence rally was gathering in the neighborhood. The rapper 5th Ward Weebie was singing on the second-floor roof deck of a beat-up house. Four young men wearing orange vests that said “Don’t Shoot I’m a Man” were on horseback, standing atop their saddles and dancing. A man wearing a hat with a feather was drinking Champagne from a plastic flute and walking a chicken on a leash. A lady motorcycle gang called Caramel Curves was showing off their rides. Children were holding signs that said “Vote Early.” A woman dressed in a white jumpsuit had a giant snake wrapped around her neck, as did her young daughter. The crowd stood on the neutral ground listening while 5th Ward Weebie rapped: “Bitch, don’t think you’re all that/I could hit ya from the back for some Wing Shack,” a popular New Orleans chicken restaurant. When he was finished a woman announced, “Everybody please head to the church!” It was something of an awkward transition. Several Mardis Gras Indians emerged from inside the church and moved out into the street to perform. There was a black-and-white portrait of a black man hanging on the side of the church that carried the caption “JUDAS SENTENCED TO LIFE, ANGOLA.”
This was my second experience with a gun buyback that week. Jonathan Ferrara Gallery on tony Julia Street, home to Emeril’s and a row of kitschy galleries, had organized a group show where the gallery had acquired guns from the NOPD—this took two years of bureaucratic navigation, Ferrara told me—and commissioned pieces using the weapons by a number of artists. These ranged from minimalist sculptures like R. Luke Dubois’s Walther 9mm resting on a steel plate to less subtle symbolism like William Villalongo’s gun resting on a velvet pillow with a ceramic sculpture of a baby’s head acting as its chamber to Skylar Fein’s bong constructed out of a Mossberg shotgun (“Mossbong”). Everything was for sale. The most expensive piece was by Luis Cruz Azaceta and cost $45,000.
Later I went to a gallery in the Marigny neighborhood featuring Charlie Hoffacker, a former New Orleans homicide detective who was reassigned after allegedly writing “help” in a victim’s blood at a crime scene. This event was packed, but off the Prospect grid. The gallery was showing Hoffacker’s portrait of a drug trafficker he had investigated, who was selling crack in order to put her son through college. In the painting, she is cast as the Virgin Mary, but holding a gun and flipping the bird. The phrase “Money Over Everything” is written in Latin on top.
“We didn’t end up arresting her,” he told me. “Not because we didn’t want to, but because the whole thing fell through. It was actually a good thing. I’m pretty happy about it.”
Like a lot of the locals I spoke to, Hoffacker was fairly unimpressed by Prospect, even if it momentarily shined a brighter spotlight on his work.
“People talk about Prospect like it’s the second coming of Christ,” he said, “but I’m just like, do what you would normally do.”
A few hours before I left New Orleans I attended a performance by the rapper Beans at the Tremé Market Branch, a crumbling former bank building where the artist Gary Simmons had installed a soundsystem and invited people to perform. The Tremé Market Branch is weathered but still standing, and it rests thoroughly in the shadow of the I-10 overpass, rendering the block around it mostly empty save for the bar next door, Paulie’s. This was without question the saddest bar I’ve ever been in, too expensive to be a dive, too big to be welcoming, and featuring a heavily bearded bartender who clearly had the misfortune of working his first shift ever on a night when a swarm of already lubricated art enthusiasts just happened to be next door.
He didn’t know where any of the alcohol was. He was still figuring out how to dispense soda water. He stopped taking credit cards. “I’m not going to give your card back to you if you give it to me,” he told one woman who wanted to open a tab. When I ordered three shots of Patrón after an extended waiting period, he removed the baseball cap he was wearing and began hitting his thigh with it hard while muttering, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” I thought he might start crying, but he did manage to complete the order. The friend I was staying with in New Orleans, who lives in Bywater, suggested I use the bartender as a metonym for the entire city because when things fail here, as they often have, an unproductive level of misery gives way to mere acceptance and everyone just gets on with it however they can. In the end, he said, “nothing works here. Not even a fancy art biennial can change that.”
Earlier that week, my friend had shown me an abandoned elementary school near his apartment that was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. It still had its marquee on display. Some of the letters were missing but the overall message remained clear: “REGISTRATION: 8/07/2005. STUDENTS RETURN: 8/18/2005.”