The Things that Didn’t Work

i. 9th Floor by Robin Rhodes

ii. Happily Ever After by Ghada Amer

iii. Tabula Rasa by Jose Damasceno

i. I knew what was behind the blue walls of the freestanding public restroom situated in an empty field– New Orleans’s Times-Picayune included a brief mention of it in their coverage of Prospect.1.  When I read the write up, I expected to agree and find the broken art installation  (the water stopped working weeks ago) unenlightening.  But the  otherwise subdued driver of a Prospect.1-sponsored van visiting the various installations in the Lower 9th Ward went inside with us.  The cement restroom had no roof or doors.  The driver told us we were not really supposed to be getting out, but because there were only 6 of us in the van and we were ahead of schedule, he was going to let us walk through. As we formed a wordless circle around the dry stones and upturned pipe, he told us how 9th Floor (created by artist Robin Rhode) is one of the few places he could come to quietly contemplate the devastation of Katrina and that even without the water, it created a place where people could want to be, unlike any other public restroom in the world.  As we walked back out, he paused to point out the rusty waterlines around the walls, showing the various levels the flooding inhabited before eventually draining.

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Robin Rhode. 9th Floor. 2008. Lower 9th Ward, Prospect.1 New Orleans.

ii. Ghada Amer‘s Happily Ever After was intended to be covered in foliage by the time I saw it over closing weekend of Prospect.1.  Residing beside the levee, most of the surrounding area is full of home sites where the foundation lines and naked parking lots are the only indicators of the way the neighborhood once was; nearly everything else is still absent.  With the exception of a few government rebuilds, a few straggling trailers, a handful of oddly contemporary homes constructed by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, and a church giving out food every Sunday to anyone who comes by, there is little left standing in this area of lowest elevation within the Lower 9th.

Since returning from the Biennial, I have seen photos of Happily Ever After during its installation at Sudeley Castle in 2005, covered in green vines.  Seeing it first in New Orleans, barren and accented by dry fields, it was strikingly more fitting than the way I could envision the green, optimistic version once seen on the grounds of a luxurious castle transplanted to this place.  Contemplative, like 9th Floor, in its circularity, when following the words from the center, the viewer encounters the straightforward view of the place surrounding the words rather than seeing an image obstructed by temporary growth and blossoms.

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Ghada Amer. Happy Ever After. 2005.  Lower 9th Ward, Prospect.1 New Orleans.

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Ghada Amer. Happy Ever After. 2005. Sudeley Castle.  Image from Artnet.

iii.  The Studio at Colton School was opened by the Creative Allicance of New Orleans at the junction of the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Wards. Walking there from the Warehouse District, transitions between neighborhoods are hard and immediate; beyond the obvious architectural differences, the quantity in businesses open and functioning goes from fairly standard city blocks in the Warehouse/Central Business District, to the density of the tourist industry in the French Quarter, to only occasional restaurants and small convenience stores in the area surrounding the Colton School. The most active business was a gas station, where cars were lined around the perimeter and several radios and conversations could be heard from across the street.  The Colton School has been closed since Katrina due to severe decreases in enrollment; I didn’t realize this until the end of my time there.  Based on the state of the rooms that were not being used as art spaces,  I thought it must have been closed since the 70s.

There was a sense of stark abandonment within the crumbling teachers’ lounge and fading  bulliteon boards.  Mirroring the functioning businesses surrounding the Colton School, the rooms alternated between classrooms that looked like they had been evacuated twenty years ago and functioning spaces, which in this building included CANO studios and the Prospect.1 sites.  Off to the side of a former lunchroom now filled with upturned pianos and Mardi Gras floats was a small classroom that hosted Jose Damasceno’s Tabla Rasa: a simple, grid-like calculator constructed on the floor out of sticks of classroom chalk.  By this point, a few pieces comprising the buttons had rolled out of place, possibly from a misstep or a draft through the open window.  In another location, the subtlety of the disjointed grid may have meant little, but in the disintegrating Colton School, the precariousness of routines and objects we subconsciously expect to continue working resonated from a few pieces of chalk on the floor.

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Jose Damasceno, Tabula Rasa, 2008, Colton School, Prospect.1 New Orleans

Prospect.1 was not successful because it had the best or most innovative art ever created. Experiencing as much as I could in a single day (the public transportation of the biennial was incredible; without a car, I was able to see 8 venues between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.) in no way made me an authority on the state of New Orleans.  I only saw art, and I saw the city.  In her essay “Being There”  in January’s Artforum, Elizabeth Schambelan identifies exoticism and spectatorial detachment as problems for Prospect.1:

“Perhaps more problematic than Prospect.1’s relation to the tourism economy…is its relation to the tourist optic–a detached, indulgent mode of viewing that can and does aestheticize all that comes before it, the more picturesquely decrepit, the better.”

Over-aestheticizing the city is certainly possible, particularly when looking at it from the window of a Prospect.1 shuttle, or simply as someone who has never been inside a public school in Louisiana previously.  There is a Gray Line tour of New Orleans that visits areas of the city made famous by the media as it filled with water.  Seeing the city through Prospect.1 seemed different from the idea behind the Gray Line tour because Prospect.1 was about seeing how things are now across locations with a range of associations and understandings, rather than merely revisiting sites recognized by the past.   The installations that had malfunctions or imperfections were among the most meaningful because they indicated how those of us viewing the biennial were not gaining a complete understanding, but we were seeing something; we were seeing a response to a city most Americans understand as representative of their country in some way, yet most know it only from newscasts and media imagery.  Although some of the most unassuming works were the ones that remained in my mind after the biennial ended, it was not because they relied fully on common images or made a spectacle of simplicity.  Rather, the most affective pieces in Prospect.1 worked within their constructed spaces as well as within the city of New Orleans, provoking a deeper engagement with those of us looking from the surface.

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