In this episode, we take you to New Orleans, Louisiana, where vivid encounters with culture and history await you on every corner. But considering the mouth of the Mississippi River a global destination for contemporary art is still a fairly new concept.
Prospect New Orleans, a city-wide international art exhibition in its third iteration, is starting to feel at home. This episode features two project sites where we found a deep connection between art and community. [In order of appearance] Timothy Levitch, Tavares Strachan, Margaret Thomas, and Gary Simmons reveal why Prospect makes perfect sense for the Crescent City.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Photos courtesy Tavares Strachan and Teresa Thomas, Tremé Market Branch
Episode sound: The Roots of Music Brass Band‘s performance of “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair during the live WWOZ broadcast from Jazz Fest on May 1, 2014. Beans performing for Gary Simmons “Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark,” 2014, at Tremé Market Branch on the occasion of the opening of Prospect.3: Notes for Now, New Orleans, October 25, 2014.
Feature photo credit: Joseph Vincent Grey
TIMOTHY “SPEED” LEVITCH: Take a moment to appreciate the concrete beneath your feet. The concrete is, after all, the epidermis of the great city teacher New Orleans. And, as you walk the streets of the city, you should know you’re also massaging the city’s flesh. And when you’re skipping and enjoying yourself, you’re caressing the city’s skin. And when you’re appreciating the beauty of the place and moving to your own beat, you are actually eroticizing the city teacher, creating goose bumps that become potholes. And every traffic jam in the city becomes only a tantric orgy, complete with horns and exhaust. Let’s roll!
CATHY BYRD: I’m Cathy Byrd, and this is Fresh Talk. Today we’re in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tour guide, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, believes that here, even the concrete beneath your feet offers a sensual experience. In fact, vivid encounters with culture and history await you on
every corner. The French Quarter and the Garden District, Mardi Gras, and the Jazz Festival are all known and loved around the world, but the idea of the city as a destination for international contemporary art? That’s a fairly new concept. In October 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the art world gathered here to explore a new citywide exhibition: Prospect New Orleans. Fast-forward to 2014, third time’s the charm. Prospect is beginning to feel at home. In this episode, we take you to two project sites where we found a deep connection between art and community. We begin at sunset on Esplanade Avenue Wharf with a crowd that has come to behold artist Tavares Strachan’s monumental message to New Orleans. From the Bahamas, now based in New York, Tavares wrote the words “You belong here,” in violet neon on a sign that’s 100 feet long and 22 feet high. This sign sits atop a barge that will float on the Mississippi River at the edge of the city for 3 months.
TAVARES STRACHAN: I think it’s a very friendly and loving and welcoming statement. But, at the same time, I think it’s asking a lot of kind of hardcore questions like, “Who are you?,” “Where do you belong?,” and “How do you define ‘here’?”
CB: And that’s what this whole Prospect.3 is about. “New Orleans,” says Tavares, “is a key player in this project.”
TS: None of this would be possible without New Orleans, so the piece is literally produced by New Orleans. It couldn’t…I don’t know if it could exist in any other scenario. It’s totally a result of being here.
CB: Philosophically, where do you think the project stands? What about its relationship specifically to New Orleans?
TS: My grandmother used to say, “Sometimes you have to show people the termites in the wall,” because you don’t see them. So it’s always stuck with me, like thinking about artmaking as a way of giving access to where there is no access, or illuminating something that might have been sort of hidden away. And there’s a lot of that. I mean in history we get it wrong all the time, but yet we hold history up on a mantel like it’s this piece of poetic justice—is how I see it. And so, it resonates with New Orleans, but I think New Orleans is a city teacher. I think it has a lot of lessons for a lot of other cities.
CB: We found another Prospect.3 project on Claiborne Avenue in the shadow of Interstate 10. I-10 is infamous. In 1967, the highway cut New Orleans in half, disrupting life in many of the city’s communities. The Tremé District was one of them. Margaret Thomas and her family are determined to revive one corner of the neighborhood where she grew up, the former bank building known as Tremé Market Branch.
MARGARET THOMAS: We want to restore this historical building. We’ve owned it for a little over two and a half years. We have been searching and applying for various funding. The building is zoned as a cultural arts theater. Our intention for the building is to house cultural art that is specific to New Orleans, and we also want to attract tourism into the Tremé neighborhood. It’s one of the last neighborhoods in New Orleans that doesn’t have a true, strong tourist base, and we’re walking distance from the French Quarter. We are so excited. In looking at the lineup of galleries that were chosen as sites, we are in the major league. So having Prospect.3 here just is breathing the life into it that we need. So from this point on, in the state that it’s in, we will continue to do community events here. We’ve got a stage. We’re claiming that stage.
CB: New York artist Gary Simmons is the man behind that stage. Gary worked with local musician John Crown to assemble a platform, spotlights, and a speaker tower from scavenged materials. The dub sensation referred to as “Beans” flew in from New York to celebrate the new performance space.
BEANS: …don’t you understand that a chain in command is the chain … with your understanding? The command….
GARY SIMMONS: Oh, it was brilliant. I mean it all came together. I think the space was fantastic. The acoustics of the room were — you couldn’t ask for anything more than that. It was really old school. We kind of ran the electricity out the front door and down the street and into the bar, Paulie’s next door, and those guys were really cool in letting us do that. And Beans, once he turned on the speakers, it was just, you know, it was magic.
CB: The community is embracing this.
GS: The community completely embraced it, and I was really interested in doing that. I didn’t want to just drop something like an alien spaceship into a neighborhood. I wanted it to be part of the neighborhood, and Tremé is loaded with a lot of different musicians. You know, the folks that own the building are really involved in programming it and getting other people to play in there, so it’s not just about reggae or hip-hop. It’s about zydeco or second line, jazz, blues, or any of the other genres of music that are down in New Orleans.