Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Aesthetic of Disaster: Live, Broken, and Pretty

by Michele White

Driving the New Orleans streets, I cycle between rushes of pleasure at the magnificent architecture and melancholy. Views of cultural heritage are intermeshed with scenes of flooded homes, interiors and personal belongings littering the streets, spray painted signs indicating the bodies and living creatures found after the flooding, and people who struggle to put their lives, homes, and communities back together as buildings molder and sag next door.

In a series of important installations in gutted homes, artists from NOLA have been considering home, stories about disaster, the detritus that is left behind, and how to rebuild community. In Neighborhoods:2426 BRADISH PLACE, NOLA artists presented obsessive archives of detritus; clusters of tin-can phones (Elizabeth Underwood); and chairs filled with books, which were suspended from trees and reminded viewers of lynching, school system failures, and things hanging broken after the storm (Jonathan Traviesa). These neighborhood installations featured broken things displayed against gutted homes--rooms only marked by weathered slats and beams. The artists used materials that are available and appreciated for their beauty--bits of debris, worn wood, and other recycled items--and continue to chronicle endeavors in blogs like Art in Action and Alternative Arts New Orleans.

New Orleans has long been a site of “charming” decay and some tastes--built on the aesthetics of Arte Povera, scatter art, architectural fragments, open beams, and shabby chic--may only increase our appreciation of failure, wear, and neglect and make it more difficult to read what decades of governmental, corporate, and personal disinterest have produced. This aesthetic of breakdown and failure seems to, but doesn’t, connect those who can choose clean parts of it to the material realities of those living in NOLA and other post-disaster places. We need to further theorize this aesthetic and what it renders.

The news produces armchair disaster experts and situates people, through the rendering of liveness and connected spaces, in places they have never been. Nevertheless, some of us are unsure how to speak from and of a place that so many people “know” from the media. In NOLA, we keep telling stories about lost lives, missing stuff, reduced networks and communities, and maggot-infested refrigerators. As the stories repeat, without a new vocabulary that makes them legible to people in other places, we use a language that is harder to understand in a country that has moved on and suggests people can succeed without help, “get over it,” and “love it or leave it.” New Orleanians need, but have not fully found, visual and narrative strategies that have personal meaning and critical power.


ARTinACTION said...

Very well said - I appreciate this entry a a great deal. And I agree that "New Orleanians need, but have not fully found, visual and narrative strategies that have personal meaning and critical power."

It is my instinct that we will create these strategies as the work we are doing now "does its job" as it were, leading us to the next level, the deeper relationship with our experience.

I do think some artists have already moved into this stage: Christine Catsifas' video projects at the CAC now (as part of the group exhibit on the 2nd floor) very effectively "speak to" the post-K experience while also broadening the dialgoue on an aesthetic/critical level.

All in all it's a fantastic point and I read it as an inspiring call to arms.

ARTinACTION said...

The tin can phones truly function. The symbolism in their exhibition is that the sophisticated machines that we build also fail to communicate our needs. The archaic, nostalgic tin can phone actually works, and in order to work it must "bring folks closer". They're not a pile of deitrus but a commentary on communication - how it broke down/breaks down post-disaster and how it is possible to rebuild it, not just symbolically but by cultivating intimacy.

In this regard my hope was to do more than describe what it is to live in a city of piles of broken-ness but to illustrate the kind of psychology and imagination necessary to respond to and work from/of/it. To keep talking.

The multiplicity of the cans, the volume, though referencing piles/the abundance of piles, is meant to say, loudly, that we need to move in closely, listen more closely, speak more intimately. This is in my mind a post-disaster reframing of what it means to survive.

Elizabeth Underwood

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