Household: Learning from Leaving New Orleans

Curator's Note

Editor’s Note: In Media Res will be on hiatus until September 17, 2007 and will resume its regular schedule at that point.

I left New Orleans, my home of ten years, on July 12, 2007. I now live in Brooklyn. Tonight, as I write this in dialogue with Betsy’s, Michele’s, and Mark’s comments and images, I am struck by the effect their words have on me. It is the case that, since I’ve been away from New Orleans, I’ve noticed that the city is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. It is as if New Orleans’ presence is framed by a discourse of absence or one of truncated return. Even media texts, cultural icons, and events (such as the recent collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis) that would seem to bear no direct relation to New Orleans, are read back through the flooding of the city and the lives of people still living with the effects of years of infrastructural neglect. Visual culture is full of unintentional reverse references, apparently, from such diverse examples as the flood sequence in the Coen brothers’ film O, Brother Where Art Thou (2000) to more elite cultural texts such as Winslow Homer’s painting The Gulf Stream (1899), or even Gordon Matta-Clark’s intentional and public performative “cuttings” of homes (Splitting, 1974) and other structures as well as his critiques of real estate (Fake Estates, 1973-4) seem especially provocative in relation to the land-grab going on in New Orleans.

What strikes me, though, as I sit here in Brooklyn and regard an example of New Orleans ephemera (a bumper sticker that encourages you to “Be a New Orleanian. Wherever You Are.”), are the conditions placed on the appearance of New Orleans in other places and what it means to experience New Orleans elsewhere. This sense of disappearance and reappearance takes many shapes, from New Orleans tourism ads on The New York Times home page to New York sculptor Takashi Horisaki’s “reconstruction” of Roosevelt and Billie Johnson’s flooded home at 1941 Caffin Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward, to a small, “pretty” wooden box constructed from an artist’s flooded home (part of the aesthetic of disaster that Michele describes, no doubt, and yet something more) that sits on a friend’s table here in New York. Horisaki, originally from Japan, lived in New Orleans while studying at Loyola University, then he moved to New York. Returning to New Orleans to create a latex mold of an actual home, Horisaki’s sculpture is now installed at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. According to his blog, Horisaki wanted to recreate the “skin” of the house to “raise awareness about the situation in New Orleans.” (http://socialdress-neworleans.blogspot.com). While Horisaki received substantial press coverage and even a stop on the local New Orleans disaster bus tour, I am interested in how Horisaki’s sculpture participates in an “aesthetic of disaster” and the ways this “second skin” of the home may cover larger, foundational gaps (http://www.takashihorisaki.com). The questions become what do we learn by going to New Orleans and what do we learn when we leave New Orleans? Do we take traces — political, cultural, and social — with us and, just as importantly, how do we make those memories, ideas, or revelations mean where we are?

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