At first, everyone was taken aback. A woman dressed in a suit was standing at the lectern, and she was asking someone in the back of the auditorium at the New Orleans Museum of Art to quiet down. It’s true that the place was very crowded, and everyone was chatting while they waited for the performance to start. But this presumed museum staff member calling for quiet seemed a little uptight. As she then called for a police officer to either quiet the person or escort them out, tension suddenly replaced the friendly chatter. And so, with no introduction, Andrea Fraser had already begun her performance Not just a few of us (2014).
The attempt to quiet a disruption was taken straight from the recordings of a 1991 City Council hearing, in which a proposal to ban discrimination in Mardi Gras krewes was being debated (recordings preserved in the City Archives at the New Orleans Public Library). (See news coverage here and analysis here.) Fraser performed the last hour of what had been a day-long marathon session, leading up to and concluding with the vote that passed the ordinance. It was not theatrical—there were no costume changes, and she didn’t even move from her position behind the lectern. Fraser subtly shifted characters without relying on the convention of stepping aside to indicate a new character. Instead, her voice would change registers, and her expression changed to suggest the varying empathy of the voices she was embodying. She was more like a medium channeling 19 different voices than an actor. She wasn’t fazed by the Nawlins’ accents either, and managed to avoid the “movie Southern” dialect so often relied on. The performance was a tour de force, met at the end with a standing ovation. There were many moments when the audience laughed, but at the end, everyone agreed that it wasn’t all that funny.
A little background here: If you haven’t experienced Mardi Gras, you might think that it is just a bunch of drunk frat boys on Bourbon Street leering at women who lift their shirts in exchange for beads. This popular image of Mardi Gras is far from the truth, though. For most people here in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is not synonymous with a party on Bourbon Street. It’s a tradition and a way of life. It’s not just a day; it’s a season. As soon as Twelfth Night passes (January 5) and the Phunny Phorty Phellows parade down St. Charles Avenue on the streetcar, the season is open and the king cakes come out. The season lasts one or sometimes two months, leading up to Mardi Gras Day. In the weeks before the big day, organizations called Mardi Gras krewes sponsor parades, and the parades are the heart of Mardi Gras. Each krewe strings together a series of floats pulled by tractors, and members ride the floats, throwing beads and other items (called ‘throws’) to the throngs lining the parade route. Between floats, the crowd is entertained by high school marching bands and majorettes, flambeau carriers (basically torch bearers), and other entertainment. While these parades once happened in the French Quarter, thus associating Mardi Gras with Bourbon Street, they now take place on established routes outside the quarter (most use one route called the “uptown route” that follows St. Charles Avenue from Uptown to Canal Street, at the edge of the quarter).
The parades are family affairs, with people staking out positions with lawn chairs and ladders to serve as elevated seating for the kids. The atmosphere is definitely celebratory,and tends to encourage a kind of neighborly mixing. While a local would find that type of mixing normal during Mardi Gras, theorist Mikhail Bakhtin argued that it is, in fact, quite special. In his essay “The Carnivalesque,” he describes Carnival as a world turned upside down, a time of complete liberation, where the usual laws and customs do not apply.. He traced some of the tropes that express this transformation, such as reversals of hierarchy: authority figures turn into lowly peons, or lowly peons are elevated to kings (in the Krewe of Tucks, the king’s throne is a toilet). The reversal functions as a satirical critique of authority, revealing its capriciousness. Recognizing this fact might endanger the entire system, but since Carnival is limited in time, it’s okay to turn the tables.
A pile of Carnival costumes that Fraser gathered in Rio de Janeiro is installed in the center of the main gallery at Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University. As the work is now more than a decade old, it operates here to create a foundation for the performance. But I would argue that Fraser has always utilized the carnivalesque, even if not intentional or apparent. Performances such as Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk and Official Welcome take practices associated with authority and turn them on their heads.
In the video Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), she takes on the persona of a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At first, her mimicking of a museum guide is pitch perfect: fawning, adulatory, pedagogical. But slowly, the tour descends into madness, and then becomes an explicitly Foucauldian critique of art museums as prisons (applying Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish to the museum). The temple of beauty—the palaces for the people, as Nathaniel Burt put it—has now become its opposite, a torture chamber of art. In Official Welcome (2001), she critiques the institution of art awards by mimicking artist acceptance speeches as well as the critics who introduce the artists with hagiographic flights of ecstasy.
Fraser has a certain reputation for flagrantly bucking the system in episodes that often end with her naked—in Official Welcome, she strips off her clothes in a parody of Vanessa Beecroft, an artist who stages performances with nude (or nearly nude) fashion models. Or there’s the work where she sold herself to a collector for one night only, resulting in a sex tape-cum-art object (Untitled, 2003). The NOMA performance did not trade in the easy shock of a naked female body, and its tone departed from the more humorous satire of the earlier performances. Here she was measured, immersed in the historical actors that she was playing, with no acknowledgement of the fiction taking place. The subject of Mardi Gras may seem light, but the subject of race is not.
Toward the end of the City Council session that Fraser performed, one speaker noted that discrimination in Mardi Gras parades was really a minor issue compared to more fundamental issues such as education, employment, and housing. Yet Mardi Gras cuts to the heart and soul of New Orleans. It becomes a starting point for discussions about race, those discussions being the larger subject of Fraser’s inquiry. For those who have taken Bakhtin to heart, they see Carnival as offering hope for a world permanently turned upside down, where injustices can be righted and we can all live in peace and harmony. Racial integration is key to this vision, as Carnival is supposed to cancel out racial differences and participants are supposed to be freed from laws and customs that enforce racial differences. So, black and white people can mix during Carnival celebrations such as Mardi Gras in a way that is not normally possible.
I say that this is supposed to happen because at Mardi Gras it really doesn’t. As the curator and writer Claire Tancons has argued, Mardi Gras in New Orleans became a way to maintain, rather than transcend, racial differences. There was, historically speaking, a black Mardi Gras and a white one. Black Mardi Gras was maintained by the Krewe of Zulu and the Mardi Gras Indian tribes, who traditionally gathered on Claiborne Avenue (until I-10 was built and destroyed the beautiful tree-lined neutral ground, a moment that many interpret as a form of segregation). Meanwhile, white Mardi Gras was associated with the krewes that organized the uptown parades with their floats and throws. Tancons argues that this segregation was a response to Reconstruction, a kind of belated attempt to preserve the racial segregation that was systematized in slavery before the Civil War. What all this means for the state of Mardi Gras in 1991, when the proposal was introduced, is that Mardi Gras krewes were segregated, and that they justified the segregation with the argument that krewes were private clubs, and as such, not subject to government regulation.
After quieting the “disruption,” Fraser began reading the ordinance that was introduced by Dorothy Mae Taylor, followed by her analysis of what makes an organization public, pointing out that krewes are public if they are over 50 or 75 members large, have received a carnival parade permit, and use city streets or other public facilities funded with taxpayer monies. The ordinance proposed denying parade permits if the organization was discriminatory. John Charbonnet then argued that New Orleans could not afford to pass the ordinance. Or rather, I should say that Fraser, as Charbonnet, argued that krewes would stop parading if the ordinance passed, and that the city would lose the money that the parades generate, especially from tourism. His argument received guffaws from the audience—“let’s not kill Mardi Gras.” Furthermore, where would such non-discrimination stop? … What if someone of a “peculiar orientation” applied? James Grey, representing a society of attorneys, upheld the ordinance, earning chuckles when he reminded people that it does not affect what you do in your own home, i.e., you can still discriminate privately, just not with public money.
The thought that Mardi Gras could be “killed” seems laughable now, as does the deliberately obfuscating language of “peculiar orientation.” But it only seems funny in retrospect; our laughter revealed a distance between now and then, us and them. The laughter also revealed how progress has clarified arguments that don’t work, like one speaker’s insistence that forced integration has hurt whites, or the reference to David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Republican State Representative for the state of Louisiana, who in 1991had just lost a bid for state governor. The laughter was temporary, though. By the time Fraser reached her climax—a climax that she designed by controlling the volume of her voice—no one was laughing.
Following Charbonnet, we met Beau Bassich of the Mardi Gras coordinating committee, Taylor’s primary opponent. It was Bassich that argued that krewes were exempt from federal orders of integration because they were private clubs. He dangled the specter of government regulation, suggesting another potential threat to the life of Mardi Gras. Standing up for Taylor were several speakers who praised her for continuing the work of Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. the Board of Education, while also deconstructing the white krewes’ defense as a campaign to maintain antebellum power inequities. With a soft voice, Fraser brought in Shirley Porter, speaking on behalf of the NAACP. Her observance that “this room is filled with a lot of bad, bad feelings” felt like a sucker punch of truth. She explained that no one was looking to take something away here, but instead, that it was about giving everyone an opportunity to participate.
About three-quarters of the way through the hour, the climax finally came, as the voices rose in pitch. Fraser screamed the objection that “racism is racism,” immediately switching back to the voice of the council moderator, yelling “point of order, point of order!” The next speaker got up, saying “that’s a tough act to follow.” There were closing remarks, including a plea to reject the ordinance that drew a gasp from the audience: “let’s not deprive our poor of the greatest free show on earth.” Fraser delivered the line with absolute sincerity, and you could imagine that its speaker must have thought it a valid argument. The phrase “greatest free show on earth” recalls the tagline of Barnum and Bailey’s circus, but also, for me, the version of Barnum and Bailey that Michael Ray Charles usesd in his painting (Forever Free) The Greatest Show on Earth (1999), where the slogan is paired with blackface minstrel performers. The white performance of derogatory stereotypes of blackness is subtly deconstructed in Charles’s work and linked to questions of how race itself is constructed in social rituals such as Mardi Gras.
At the end, the council members voted—seven yeas, no nays—and the ordinance was passed. Yet the passage of the ordinance felt anticlimactic after the previous hour of extremely heated debate. Part of the power of the performance comes from knowing that the passage of the ordinance should be celebrated yet not feeling celebratory at all. I was actually surprised to hear that all of the city council members voted for the ordinance. Given the ferocity of the debate that Fraser had enacted, I expected a more split decision. It’s not that the ending was a surprise—especially for locals who remember the battle—but that it felt like a “say what?” moment, just like the one I had when Ylva Rouse, deputy director of Prospect New Orleans, told my class (I’m teaching a class about Prospect at the University of New Orleans) that the law dated to 1991. 1991?, I asked, in shock. That late?
Even though the ordinance passed, as anyone here in New Orleans will tell you, “it didn’t work.” Instead of integrating, the white krewes Comus, Momus, and Proteus chose to resign from public parades. The krewes still exist but they do not parade down St. Charles Avenue. While the krewes insisted that this might kill Mardi Gras, it did not. Instead, new krewes replaced the old ones, especially “superkrewes.” These larger krewes are more open in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity. The Krewe of Orpheus, started by Harry Connick Jr. and Sonny Borey in 1993, is still one of the most popular parades today. Meanwhile, one of the segregated krewes still rules Mardi Gras Day: the Mistick Krewe of Comus. Though they do not parade, they host a ball on the evening of Mardi Gras Day, and the end of that ball signals the end of Mardi Gras. Most locals know the ball from PBS, which has live coverage of the event. Given that Mardi Gras Day starts really early, I’m always home by the time the ball comes in, and I tend to fall asleep while watching it. (I love the episode of Tremé about Mardi Gras Day in season 2, when Antoine Batiste returns home to find his girlfriend asleep in front of the TV with the PBS coverage of the ball playing. In that episode, they get the rhythm right—the day is not in high gear every single minute, as a movie might show.)
I watched the ball on TV with fascination the first year that I lived here, thinking it was really surreal. There’s a king and a queen who bless all the attendees with their scepters. There’s a court, and the introduction of the young women in their white dresses along with their male escorts brought back memories of the debutante society that I observed, but did not participate in, while growing up in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet the tone of Charleston’s rituals was much more subtle; it would have never involved royalty costumes or live television. The funny thing about the Rex and Comus ball is that its tone is quite serious, lacking the satirical edge that Bakhtin ascribes to the carnivalesque. It’s as if the participants believe in the authority of the scepter. And this belief gets at the heart of the problem, that for much of our country’s history, white people believed that they were better than black people.
Perhaps this is the thing that the audience was laughing at, and that is probably a very good thing. And yet, there is still the ball on TV, there are still black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, there are still structural barriers to fully ending discrimination (barriers that Katrina brought into relief). In other words, there is still a problem, and this seemed the lesson of Fraser’s performance, that these words from 1991 still matter. We may think that the issue is old, but it is still present. And it’s not just a local problem. The City Council debate offers a microcosm of American society today—one very particular instance that can stand for a large number of other instances, in other cities, with other figures in play. There might be more consensus today about wanting to end discrimination, but how does that desire get played out in specific, small-scale challenges that might not look obviously like discrimination, but are?
Prospect.3 is on view October 25, 2014-January 25, 2015 in New Orleans. For more information, visit http://www.prospectneworleans.org
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.
1. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Carnival and the Carnivalesque,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 2nd ed., edited by John Storey (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998): 250-259.
2. Nathaniel Burt, Palaces for the People: A Social History of the American Art Museum (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977).
3. Claire Tancons, “The Greatest Free Show on Earth: Carnival from Trinidad to Brazil, from Cape Town to New Orleans,” in Prospect.1 New Orleans, edited by Lucy Flint (Brooklyn: Picture Box, 2008): 52-63.