I was on the West (aka “Best”) Bank of the river, on the kind of February day that makes you sweat. Not because of the temperature – it’s in the 70s and a breeze lifts off the Mississippi. It’s a nervous sweat. If it’s this hot in February, what’s that mean for August?
I walked on the section of grass, sandwiched between the water and the levee that separates that water from the 19th century homes, 20th century bars, and 21st century couples, children and puppies that all work together to make Algiers Point so dang charming. But as February turns to March, and March turns to April, snow in the northern part of our country will melt and make its way into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The rivers will experience their annual engorging, and day-by-day, this strip of land will be submerged.
All this to say – the riverside of a levee is a terrible place to build a house. But many would say the chunk of land between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain was a terrible place to build a city. Prone to flooding, in the path of too many hurricanes, and among the swampy breeding ground of mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria.
Well – a city, there is. And, inexplicably, a house, also there is. And that house is what brought me over to the western bank of the Mississippi today. It was the closing weekend of Prospect.4, a triennial NOLA-wide art exhibit, created in the tradition of the mega art biennials in cities like Venice, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo.
For those, like me, who aren’t familiar with the concept, the idea is that a curator is chosen to organize an art show around a single theme, with installations spread across the city. Basically, the entire city is turned into the museum. At least, in the case of Prospect New Orleans, which has been organizing these shows since their first exhibit in 2008, many of the individual installations are in public spaces and can be viewed for free, while some of are housed in museums, where regular ticket prices apply.
The theme around which curator, Trevor Schoonmaker, organized Prospect.4 is in its name: “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp.” Here is a portion of the exhibit description from its website:
This aquatic perennial takes root in the fetid but nutrient-rich mud of swamps so that its beautiful flower may rise above the murky water. The flower’s grace is inextricably connected to the noisome swamp, just as redemption exists in ruin and creativity in destruction. Viewed as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism and Hinduism, the lotus suggests the possibility of overcoming arduous challenges. It reminds us that, from the depths of difficulty and desolation, art brings the invisible to light.
My friend, Tara, invited me to Algiers Point that Sunday to check out one of the most highly anticipated installations of the exhibit, Kara Walker’s Katastwof Karavan. The word, “Katastwof” is the Haitian-Creole word for “catastrophe.” The piece of art, itself, is a wagon—the “caravan” — portraying scenes of slavery in black and white silhouettes, resting on a wooden cart. Algiers Point was chosen to hold this installation because Algiers was the holding site for slaves before they were sold at various exchanges and trading blocks on the east bank.
Inside the wagon is a 32-note steam calliope and, on this, the closing weekend of Prospect.4, Jason Moran would be performing on the instrument.
Unfortunately, a bulldog I was walking earlier that day was especially aggravating, and I was a ferry-too-late to catch the music. Tara found me as I was examining the inside of the other installation on the west bank – the house I mentioned earlier – which appeared to be a research station filled with books, and various species of fish, bones and skin. “What in the world does this have to do with a lotus?” I shook my head.
We walked over to the caravan wagon and Tara described the music to me. “It was beautiful,” she said. “So eerie.”
“I wish I could have heard it,” I admitted as we circled the wagon, which had the benefit of the Mississippi River, St. Louis Cathedral, and the French Quarter as a backdrop. I inspected the carvings of black men carrying burdens through a hot, summer heat; of a child, suspended on low vines, trying to snatch something from the swamp; of three slaves on one another’s backs, attempting to grab something just out of reach – maybe something as literal as a piece of fruit, or as abstract as their freedom.
“Well, I’ve got some video – we can li—”
“Ah, you’re a hero! How about we grab a beer and I can get a listen?”
Tara agreed, because beer was probably always part of the plan, anyway, and we walked toward the Crown & Anchor English Pub, near the foot of the ferry terminal. “I still don’t understand what this all has to do with a lotus,” I said as we walked out of the sunlight. I hesitated as my eyes tried to adjust to what felt like a pitch-black bar. Dozens of 20- and 30-somethings sat in pairs and groups of 3 around the bar and each available table, drinking their pints of ciders, pales and stouts, and chatting or playing board games.
We found a pair of seats at the bar when the two men sitting there got up to catch the ferry, and we chatted about the exhibit. Tara went to school for art history, so I was lucky to have her walk me through the history of Prospect New Orleans, from its first big show in the years immediately after Katrina to the second and third installation.
“It’s crazy,” I said, “I run through Crescent Park almost every day, and I know the four installations they have there. I remember when they debuted. I’ve taken pictures with them. I just didn’t realize they were part of a larger project.”
Tara nodded and sipped from her beer. “I think that’s part of the value in these. They’re woven into the city.”
“But shouldn’t I at least know they’re part of a city-wide exhibit?”
“Sure, I wish there was more signage at each piece. But I also love how they feel like they belong. They don’t disrupt the space in which they’re placed. They change the space a little, and they help us notice them or think about them. But it doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a museum.”
“Like how the piece on the river reminds us of this neighborhood’s role in slavery?”
“Exactly.” She took another sip of her beer. “But you really should have heard it with the music.”
“I know!” I smiled and sat back in my chair.
“It was amazing,” she leaned in with both hands on the bar, “and so engaging.”
“Fine fine fine, let me listen to it, please.”
Tara queued up the video on her phone. A tall, lanky man with thick-rimmed, black glasses and a mustache held the door open for his companion, wearing red lipstick and tattoos haphazardly laid out over her exposed back, pink from the sun. He made a big, sweeping gesture with his right arm, guiding her by the door he was holding open, and she laughed and gave a curtsy in the doorway before walking out into the sunlight. Behind the pair, three women walked out, and as the door remained open, the stale heat of cigarette smoke creeped into the bar. I coughed and checked my watch, as another couple exited the bar.
“Looks like the ferry leaves in about five minutes. One more beer?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said, handing me her phone. “It’s my round. You listen to the video. You’re gonna love it.”
I held the phone against my ear so I could hear it above the chatter of patrons behind me, and the clanking of glass in front of me. I tapped the play button and was startled by the sound of rustling wind whipping against the camera. The squeaking of pipe whistles — not particularly in tune because I’m not sure it’s even possible to make outdoor organ pipes sound in tune – disorient me.
“Eerie?” Tara asked, eyes forward as she grabbed a beer and a cider from the bar.
The grating not-quite-harmonies of each new combination of pipes reminded me of how I plan my runs to avoid the docked Steamboat Natchez when its even-more-offensive-sounding massive organ crows through its lineup of folksy songs twice each afternoon. The sound coming from Tara’s phone makes me grit my teeth, which makes my nose rise, which makes my eyes squint, which makes me grimace. My face is stuck. I turn to Tara. “Eerie?”
“It was beautiful!” she laughs and slams her hands on the bar.
“It’s something,” I pause the video, “but I’m not sure I’d use the words you’re using.
“No way,” she grabs the phone from me. “I swear.” She angles the phone so we both can see. The screen is frozen on a what appears to be more than one hundred onlookers, sandwiched between the river in the background, and a man at a keyboard, which is attached to the wagon and its pipes in the foreground.
“They look like it sounds beautiful,” I say, investigating the faces of the audience.
“I. Know.” She exaggerates each word, and then unpauses the video, sending shrill combinations of notes huffing between our ears.
I examine Tara’s face, and within a second or two it begins its metamorphosis from defiance to befuddlement. “See!” I laugh and tap her shoulder. She waves me off and keeps listening. A few seconds later befuddlement has given way to disbelief.
“I swear it wasn’t –”
“Wait,” I cut her off and push my ear to her phone, “that was cool.” It happened again. “He’s doing a call and response.”
The ending emulated the kind of dirge we’re taught slaves would sing in the field. A leader sings, and everyone else responds. It’s the kind of call and response – not quite as desperate, and usually faster – that would become famous in jazz.
And then I understood the lotus.
How can something as spectacular, and hopeful, and world-changing as jazz come from something as catastrophic and purely evil as slavery? Why is there a research cabin on a sliver of land that will be submerged under America’s mightiest river in just a few weeks?
Well — how does a beautiful flower emerge from swamps most famous for inhabitability, disease and death?
That’s how a piece of land, covered in swamp and prone to natural disaster, made way for one of America’s great port cities – a city with music, food, architecture and a joie de vivre famous around the world.
On the ferry ride back to Canal Street, I see a flag on the front of the ferry – a patchwork of colors: lime green, pink, red, black, sky blue, orange and more. The colors are shaped irregularly, and some appear multiple times while others show up just once. Tara mentions this is also a part of Prospect.4, by the artist, Odili Donald Odita.
To me, it symbolizes the secret of how New Orleans emerged the lotus. Diversity.
Maybe, for example, the pink is our French heritage. If the flag was all pink, we could be a Paris. But a pretty shitty Paris. Maybe the lime green comes from the city’s African roots. Sure, we could be a subpar Dakar. Same if we tried to be Madrid or Montreal, New York or Port-au-Prince.
We delight because we’ve taken something from all of them, as well as a little bit from many of the other cultures the sailors who stopped in our port called home.
We’re the world’s best New Orleans – a city with as many unique contributors to our culture as the colors and shapes on that flag
I got off the ferry and hopped on my bike. I wanted to see what else Prospect.4 could teach me about my home, and as I biked around the city, I learned a lot. I learned something when I saw tables climbing out of the river in Crescent Park, or when I found a rusty room holding a shell, projecting the music of a cellist. I learned something when I heard a Japanese robin singing through the Spanish moss in City Park, and I learned something when I got to the Ogden and saw Yoko Ono’s famous message, “Have you seen the horizon lately?” scrawled across the side of the building.
What did I learn?
Listen, I don’t know what makes art great. But I know I enjoy it when I can’t pinpoint what the artist is trying to tell me. I enjoyed Prospect.4, in part, because it left room for me to interpret. Maybe great art encourages us to look at the places we pass every day, and to pay attention to them. Or maybe great art encourages us to seek out the places we otherwise wouldn’t.
Prospect.4 encouraged me to look at my world in a different way. It asked me to look at a flag on a ferry I don’t often ride, and to listen to the sound of birds in a tree I never stop to admire. It inspired me to walk into a rusty room I had run by for five months without giving it more than a thought, and it got me on my bike on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to explore and question the place I call home.
It asked me to question what makes New Orleans wonderful and horrible – both at the same time — and makes me wonder what I can do to make it a little bit better.
Have I seen the horizon lately? Project.4 asked us to consider how something as plain and nondescript can give way to each day’s great miracle.
Project.4 also made me consider a new horizon. The sun is rising. NOLA is too.