Prospect.3 opened in New Orleans last weekend with four days of events that were at times celebratory, reflective, maddening, and definitely exhausting. Thursday and Friday were preview days for the press and VIPs, while Saturday and Sunday were the first days that the exhibition was open to the public. Spread out all over the city, the exhibition uses 18 different venues to feature 58 artists. The largest share of those 58 is on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, a kind of home base for the exhibition (the P.3 “hub” is there), but the weekend was dominated by special events outside the regular exhibition spaces. Some were P.3 events, such as performances by Liu Ding and Andrea Fraser, while others were part of P.3+, a satellite program of spaces affiliated with P.3, but not official venues. The P.3+ events included block parties for the two best-known gallery districts in New Orleans (Friday night on Julia Street, Saturday night on St. Claude Avenue) and events staged by New Orleans Airlift, a group devoted to what it calls “experimental public art.” What follows is a kind of annotated diary of trying to keep up with it all.
The events began with a press launch at Ashé Cultural Arts Center, where Kerry James Marshall has installed a storefront piece. The location was significant on two levels. Ashé is committed to the visual and performing arts of the African diaspora and thus signals the importance of African-American art to artistic director Franklin Sirmans. Several reviews, such as this one, have remarked on the racial diversity of the artists in the exhibition, as well as Sirmans’s refusal to address the matter (he seems to just shrug his shoulders when asked the question, and others have insisted that diversity was not intentional). The location was also significant for the neighborhood, an area of the city known as Central City. Deputy director Ylva Rouse has compared its significance for P.3 to the role of the Lower Ninth Ward in Prospect.1, which featured site-specific projects such as Leandro Erlich’s Window and Ladder, Too Late for Help. Erlich’s piece tapped into the public horror of watching Lower Ninth Ward residents waiting for rescue from their flooded homes when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Like the Lower Ninth Ward, Central City is also rebuilding, but the causes of its distress are more economic in origin. Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard is the backbone of the area, and is named after a civil rights activist. Several cultural institutions are situated on O.C. Haley, leading what promises to be a good example of gentrification: Ashé, Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, Southern Food & Beverage Museum.
African-style live music set a celebratory atmosphere for a roster of speakers. Brooke Davis Anderson, executive director of Prospect New Orleans discussed the organization’s commitment to the city of New Orleans, and let slip that Prospect.4 would open in 2017 and has since confirmed that Prospect will be a triennial moving forward (see here). Actually, it has always been a triennial, never quite making the deadlines of a biennial (Prospect 1 premiered in 2008, and if you ignore Prospect 1.5, Prospect 2 opened three years later in 2011). Sirmans offered a summary of his exhibition concept, and choked up when discussing the personal importance to him of P.3 artist Terry Adkins, recently deceased.
The event was followed by Liu Ding’s performance Crossroads, Days and Nights (“No Loitering”). Ding’s performance could easily melt into the general street life of New Orleans, as his performers were hired to just hang out. And so they did, sitting on steps, drinking beer, listening to music from a boom box, and chatting with anyone who cared to chat, activities that have been legally defined as loitering and are generally prohibited. This critique might have been apparent to the art world audience visiting from New York and Los Angeles, but it seemed lost on locals, who have not seen loitering prohibitions enforced.
The day ended with an opening reception at Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University, a P.3 venue exhibiting work by Andrea Fraser, Hew Locke, Ebony Patterson, and Monir Farmanfarmaian. Locke spoke about the meaning behind his installation The Nameless (2010-14), but was soon drowned out by the crowds. The glitter of Patterson’s mixed-media works sparkled in the low light of the gallery and, in the next room, visitors navigated around Fraser’s pile of Carnival costumes, Um Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas (A Monument to Discarded Fantasies), 2003.
On the first night of a series of block parties for the local gallery scene, it was Julia Street’s turn. Located in the Warehouse District, Julia Street is the heart of the commercial side of the local art scene. Arthur Roger Gallery featured several solo shows, and Jonathan Ferrara Gallery’s P.3+ exhibition was “Guns in the Hands of Artists.” All of the works in the Ferrara show were made with decommissioned guns acquired through a buyback program, and many brought attention to the high murder rate in New Orleans. After stopping into other galleries, such as Boyd Satellite and Octavia, I headed around the corner to the CAC, site of a high profile gala that evening. Considering the high ticket price, I hung out on the wrong side of the fence, watching the glittery gowns go by. To set the scene for Miss Vesta’s Swamp Galaxy Gala, film clips were projected side by side on the brick wall at the back of the parking lot. On one side, a canoe moving through the swamps; on the other, a moving shot of the eye of Hurricane Katrina on a weather chart, laid over a still photograph of the flooded city after the levees broke. The image was a reminder that Prospect began as a response to the trauma of Katrina, though Sirmans claimed that Prospect was now beyond that, as if Katrina and its impact was no longer an issue. While everyone might be tired of Katrina art, it was still discomfiting to see images of the trauma used as an entertaining backdrop for an expensive party.
Around 11am, people slowly gathered for the official opening, a ribbon-cutting ceremony staged at Washington Park in the Marigny neighborhood. The park is on Frenchmen Street, the heart of the local music scene (some think of it as the new Bourbon Street, dismayed by the transformation of that street from the heart of the jazz scene to tourist titillation). The mayor, Mitch Landrieu, was present for the ribbon cutting, and a costumed dancer and traditional brass band led the crowd outside the park for a “second line,” a New Orleans tradition, usually arranged by “social aid and pleasure societies.” These groups still sponsor annual second line parades in which the group’s members dress in coordinated outfits and strut or “step” through the neighborhood to the music of a brass band, followed by the “second line” of everyone else who shows up. The parade lasts for hours, with rest stops at local bars along the way.
The Prospect version was certainly more sedate, more like the imitation second lines that visitors see around weddings at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square in the French Quarter. Prospect’s second line lacked the dancing and the coordinated outfits of a true second line, but there were white handkerchiefs for people to wave (also part of the tradition). Much shorter than a true second line, it wound around the Marigny and returned to the park for a buffet lunch hosted by Leah Chase, Prospect board member and famous chef at Dooky Chase’s. Fortified by some red beans and rice, chicken creole, green beans, and mac and cheese, we were all ready to drive to the New Orleans Museum of Art for a performance by Andrea Fraser. The auditorium was packed, and Fraser blew everyone away (review to come).
Afterwards, I scooted across town to the Upper Ninth Ward for an event sponsored by New Orleans Airlift called “Public Practice,” a kind of block party/rally to stop the violence and get out the vote. Earlier in the morning, anyone could trade in guns for money at The Embassy, a gun buyback program organized by Kirsha Kaechele at a former gas station building that Kaechele is turning into a recording studio for the neighborhood. Kaechele curated a series of projects in the neighborhood for Prospect.1 under the name KK Projects, including the Gala Feast, an outdoor banquet, and Mel Chin’s Safehouse.
Delaney Martin, cofounder of New Orleans Airlift, and independent curator Claire Tancons organized “Public Practice.” Martin is known for The Music Box, a collaboration with Swoon that was featured at Prospect 2 as a satellite site and is now in progress for a permanent installation, while Tancons is known for Carnival-related research and exhibitions, most recently Up Hill Down Hall: An Indoor Carnival at the Tate Modern this past summer.
For the “public practice,” an emcee was installed on a blighted house’s front porch. Mardi Gras Indians gathered at a church across Franklin Avenue, on the outside of which were installed banners of Angola prisoners by Deborah Luster, a New Orleans-based artist who recently exhibited a series of photographs and an artist’s book based on photographs of murder sites, Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish. Mardi Gras Indian tribes have been central to the African-American community in New Orleans, and it’s always fascinating to watch their ritual of processing, call-and-response, and flaunting of their intricate beaded and feathered suits (they call them suits, not costumes).
Meanwhile, young black men on horses wore prison orange vests that read “I am a man,” a reference to the placards carried by the sanitation workers striking in Memphis when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The party veered into memorial mode to recognize the impact of gun violence on the neighborhood. White feathers were offered at a tree on the neutral ground (a grassy median) as a memorial to children who had died from gun violence. A blue dove was released from a wicker basket on the front hood of an electric blue hot rod. Then the party kicked into higher gear. Kids on bikes showed off their handiwork; a flag bearer and a baton twirler performed; young girls in black leotards flaunted their dance moves. There were snake handlers and iguanas, a guy performing something that resembled a hip-hop combination of belly dance and modern dance, twerking, smoke bombs, and a performance of hair styling. One stylist from the fantastically named Boss Status Beauty Bar was walking in circles with sass, releasing long jets of hair spray into the air. Women riding giant motorcycles were intentionally creating skid marks on the road. Finally, Mr. Okra drove by, his truck painted with folk art style signs.
Saturday night belonged to the corridor of galleries on St. Claude Avenue in the Upper Ninth Ward, at the edge of the Bywater neighbhorhood. St. Claude is funkier than Julia Street, its galleries known for more experimental work. Most of the galleries are artist collectives, a development that dates back to post-Katrina revitalization of the area.* The current anchors of the scene are Barrister’s Gallery, considered a pioneer for moving to the neighborhood in 2007, Good Children (which opened in 2008 prior to Prospect.1), The Front (also dating to 2008), Antenna, and Staple Goods. Most mounted group shows featuring the work of members, with an eye towards attracting interest from the out-of-town P.3 visitors. While I wasn’t one of the visiting collectors with millions to spend, I did score this drawing for only a dollar, from a kid hanging out in front of the Community Print Shop. My drawing was the envy of all who saw it; one woman stopped me on the sidewalk to say that it was better than the one she bought.
In addition to the gallery shows, there were open studios, one-night shows (I caught David Rex Joyner’s “Night of a Thousand Paintings” at the ShadowBox Theatre), new spaces (P.3+@ The Parlor), and Dan Tague’s Chapel of the Almighty Dollar. Tague, an artist represented by Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, is known for large-scale photographs of dollar bills that have been folded to create satirical sayings. His chapel was a giant gold pyramid, built out of plywood and wallpapered on the inside with examples of his work. For the occasion, the artist got ordained via the Internet, dressed in pastor wear, and let visitors spend time inside the pyramid. Several people came in after I did, and I eavesdropped on their chatter, including the expectation that something would happen (no, nothing does). I definitely want to go back to hear Rev. Tague’s weekly sermon at noon on Saturdays.
The one official P.3 venue on St. Claude Avenue is the UNO-St. Claude Gallery, exhibiting work by the Propeller Group and Christopher Myers (the UNO stands for the University of New Orleans, which runs the gallery). Housed in an old mechanics’ garage, the space is indicative of the gentrification that the area has seen since Katrina. It’s sandwiched between a bank branch, a barber’s shop, and several blighted properties. Noticeable on many of those dying properties was a P9 sticker, as if the falling down house was a venue for Prospect.9 in a futurist fantasy. Or perhaps the 9 referred to the Ninth Ward, as if the neighborhood were putting on its own Prospect. In the classic pink of Prospect’s logo, I read it as a critique of Prospect’s tendency to practice “ruin porn,” utilizing blighted properties as picturesque settings for displaying art. The practice was more prevalent in the first editions of Prospect, but P.3 featured one spectacular instance: an old bank building on Claiborne Avenue in the Tremé neighborhood, used by Gary Simmons for Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark (2014).
Later, I visited the Tremé Market Branch to see a performance that was scheduled to “activate” Simmons’s piece. A stage and wall of speakers, the sculpture is available to be used by anyone, and Saturday night featured the rapper Beans. People bobbed their heads, following each line with attention, but it was clear that an art audience was invading the neighborhood. Locations such as the Tremé Market Branch bring up questions about Prospect’s relationship to the rebuilding of the city, whether it is taking advantage of free space or bringing sorely needed income. While the P9 stickers brought those questions up for me, it turns out that they are a critique of another sort. Artist Christopher Porché West made and distributed the stickers as a response to the marginalization of local artists. Porché West makes photographic and sculptural work that he sells out of his studio in the Bywater, and he had applied to be a satellite venue for P.3. The P.3+ venues, however, are not allowed to be commercial. So he decided to to rebrand the Prospect identity as his own. As he explained, “I don’t want to be a plus … It don’t mean nothin’.”
As the openings on St. Claude closed down, people headed out to the Art House on the Levee to see Tavares Strachan’s You Belong Here (2014), a glowing magenta neon sign on a barge in the Industrial Canal that divides the Upper from the Lower Ninth Ward. As I parked at the corner of the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward, where the Mississippi River and the canal meet, I was drawn by the silhouettes of people standing on the levee, a grass berm about 15 feet high. The night sky was turning them into a figurative skyline as I walked up the slope to join them. As we all looked across the canal at the glowing letters, it was quiet and even a little chilly. Small groups of friends and strangers fell into discussions about the meaning of the phrase on the sign. I met a local poet and our conversation turned to the recognition that Holy Cross is currently undergoing a kind of bohemian gentrification as artists are pushed out of the Bywater area by climbing prices and have settled in Holy Cross. In this context, it felt as if the sign was telling the new residents that they belong here, in Holy Cross, yet they would not have belonged there before Katrina. For others, the phrase raised questions like: Who says I do? Who is “you,” and who’s doing the speaking? Not only do the pronouns shift the meaning, but the meaning will also change as the barge moves up and down the Mississippi River.
The P.3 feature was a panel discussion with Sirmans at Dillard University, a private, historically black college located in Gentilly, an area of the city near Lake Pontchartrain that was also ravaged by the post-Katrina flooding. The campus is showing two P.3 artists: Terry Adkins and William Cordova. The event included an overwhelming number of panelists, each of whom discussed the entries they wrote for the exhibition catalogue: Tiffany Barber, Mary Legier Biederman, Tori Bush, Rachel Cook, Kimberli Gant, Zoe Lukov, Larry Ossei-Mensah, and Emily Wilkerson.
I ended the weekend with another New Orleans Airlift project, a concert in its Space Rites series at the old St. Maurice Church (now deconsecrated) in Holy Cross to inaugurate Airlift artist Taylor Lee Shepard’s oscilloscopes. Oscilloscopes are electronic instruments with industrial application, but in this context, were installed as a bank of old television monitors that had been rewired to visualize sound as flickering wavelike images. Installed in a niche clearly designed for a monumental altarpiece painting, it became a televisual altar à la Nam June Paik. A very integrated audience streamed into the old church, most of us surprised at the large scale and European-style grandeur of the space. It was dark, the space lit by hanging pendant lanterns and candles on the ground, and the mosquitos were in full attack mode (at least, they attacked me). The Lower 9th Ward Senior Center Choir was arrayed in front of the oscilloscopes, in matching T-shirts, and started singing spirituals with keyboard accompaniment.
In the midst of the second song, we were all surprised to suddenly hear another choir behind us. The Murmurations Choir was sitting in the choir loft behind the audience. They looked like punk kids outfitted in stylish funky clothes, unified by a tasteful use of matte gold fabric and sequins. The style of their music was different, more like old English ballads. Proceeding downstairs and through the audience, they joined the senior choir in front of the altarpiece. Then the choirs sang together, a symbol of the uniting of past and present communities in the Ninth Ward. A soloist from the senior center choir started in on “We’re going to the chapel…,” the first line of “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups, a ‘60s girl group from New Orleans. The two sisters in the group were displaced by Katrina (see story here), as was the congregation of the St. Maurice church. The concert seemed to bear witness to that trauma, and the city’s struggle to recover, and was a perfect way to end the weekend. It acknowledged Katrina while also functioning as a peaceful observance of community and strength.
*See Miranda Lash’s essay, “Leaping into the Void: Recollections of Saint Claude,” in Prospect.2 New Orleans (U.S. Biennial, Inc., 2011).
Prospect.3 is on view October 25, 2014-January 25, 2015 in New Orleans. Click here for more information.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.