The Aesthetic of Disaster: Live, Broken, and Pretty

Curator's Note

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.


I think that an issue that we all need to think about in this context is irony. It is one of the most overused words, usually in ways that have nothing to do with what the word actually means, but I think that in this case it is appropriate. New Orleanians have long used tragi-comic irony as a way of coping with adversity--from the art on abandoned fridges after Katrina to the very notion of Mardi Gras. But Michele's piece shows another, sobering use of irony--as a way of surviving emotionally and psychically in the face of abandonment--by the political system as well as by a large segment of the population. Transforming disaster into art may be the noblest, and most optimistic, kind of irony.

For me, New Orleans has always been a refreshing deviation from the glossy, homogenous consumer corporate world that dominates most of America. The art installations documented in Michele's video demonstrate how artists here are able to find beauty in decay, and often envision New Orleans as a phoenix, rising from the ashes. Michele's commentary points to what I believe is a huge problem for the city, how to move beyond the legacy of decay, historically framed as charming and beguiling, and create a fully functioning city in which residents can feel some sense of personal power. The media certainly participates in facilitating a sense of disconnect between what is seen on television and what we as residents know from experience.

I think that Mark’s question about irony is very important. While not on our current topic, I sit watching such shows as HBO’s Entourage with a combination of horror and fascination. Given their utterly over the top representation of the American dream where boys from working class backgrounds in Queens end up in Hollywood with a seemingly infinite, but always about to disappear, amount of money and a stream of available young women to grope, have casual sex with, and dismiss with negative commentary about their embodied or intellectual capacities, I wonder if this is social critique or the most retrograde of representations. My conclusion is that, whatever the intentions, it can work as both but that the show provides for its viewers, who want it, a seemingly endless supply of women to look at, imagine as available for sex, and read as disposable. So returning to our current consideration, I wonder about how the representation of broken in New Orleans hovers between critique and nostalgia. What is the critical vocabulary of these objects that makes them different from other deployments of the broken and disposable? How do we correlate the horse drawn carriages and images of black “mammies” that are sold throughout the French Quarter with the people still living in their FEMA trailers and half-repaired homes. Who gets to see the irony and who enjoys the old style city? The tourist art in many island and developing cultures has long employed broken, brightly colored, and scrap materials. This is what many visitors to these places are seeking and expecting. For those who travel to these places and buy this material, the objects are funny and funky rather than really providing a critique of why people visit such places, how these objects act as reminders of getting to “go native,” what the conditions continue to be in the places that they visit after these objects are arranged in their homes, and what tourist economies do and don’t deliver for people living in such tourist destinations. I also want to address Mark’s question about Mardi Gras but suspect that might be best done in another post. In the meantime, I am curious what people identify as the ironic aspects of Mardi Gras and if they think any aspects of local culture are not examined in these performances? Thanks!

I was struck by Michele’s comment about tourist art in developing countries. Such work is usually made with the detritus of civilization, and tourists buy it for the “local flavor,” (think alligator heads) even though it is often, on an economic level, an attempt to deal with struggle and poverty. As an artist and the video documenter of the Neighborhoods event, I admit that part of the draw of such work is the beauty found in decay and New Orleans certainly had that market cornered in the US long before the storm, a legacy of our history and John Clarence Laughlin's aesthetics. The other part, irony, is wonderfully demonstrated in Johnathan Traviesa’s Party Van (the video shows a brief glimpse of the van at the beginning, from the upstairs porch, but does not capture it after nightfall.) A flooded-out van in the neighbor’s yard blares music from an 80’s mix tape and pulses with the light from a strobe. This piece is certainly nostalgic, but more conceptual than physically beautiful. The “aesthetic of the broke” is the need to work with the material in front of one’s face, with the fabric of daily life. Along another vein, I am thinking about Robert Vicknair’s drawings on roofing (tar) paper, long drawings white on black, that create a landscape of the rebuilding process. This reminds me of another local artist, Sally Heller, and her hardware-store installation aesthetics – do we have not only an aesthetic of the broken, but of the “fixable” as well?

I have been thinking about Courtney’s provocative argument for an aesthetic of the fixable for the last few days. I have been wondering if it is an aesthetic, which would adopt certain materials and have particular visual practices, or if it is a way of viewing the city and communicating with people that would propose ways of connecting things back together or even imagining urban networks that were previously unthinkable? Whether it is community-based activism or collectives of artists, some of this is happening. At the same time, I haven’t read or heard of many plans for reconstituting New Orleans as an urban and connected place that conceptualizes what it could be rather than cobbling back a version of what it was. There also seems to be a widening gap between what is happening in New Orleans and our connections to other places and people. Last night, I heard Spencer Bohren sing The Long Black Line, which describes the watermark that appeared on all the buildings after the flooding subsided. He also described the deafening silence upon returning to New Orleans—including a lack of insect or animal sounds. In some ways, posting to this forum reminds me of new versions of that silence where the only textual responses are from people who committed to posting blog entries and it doesn’t seem as if we have found a common language or politics to communicate with other people. Returning to New Orleans in late 2005, that black line was everywhere and worked as one of the many complicated reminders of the flooding of New Orleans. Jan Gilbert’s Biography of a House installation, which remapped the line on her family home by making it into a ribbon-like series of damaged family photos that wrapped the building, suggested one of the many stories that the line contained but did not convey. However, unless I remind myself to look, I don’t see that black line anymore and it may be that we have to keep such marks visible and in tension with our daily lives in order to even try to connect our histories to our possible futures and try to fix things

I just wanted to inform everyone about an art installation that is related to the thematic week on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which appeared on In Media Res last summer. An excerpt from my comments and a new essay appear as part of the following installation. It was a delight to develop a dialog with an art collaborative, which includes Debra Howell, Krista Jurisich and Jan Gilbert, because of my post. I appreciate the ways In Media Res facilitated these connections. I have included the announcement and the essay. Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, LA 900 Camp St. New Orleans, LA 70130 :: 504.528.3805 On View July 12 - October 4, 2008 THIRD ANNIVERSARY MARKS REMEMBERING AND REPRESENTING FLOOD LINES VESTIGES: THINK TANKS, in the St. Joseph Street side windows of the Contemporary Arts Center, features FLOOD LINES lightwork installation with photos by Debra Howell, Krista Jurisich and Jan Gilbert and text by Michele White. These large-scale photos generously are sponsored by Ridgway's. This project is another in a series of works produced by the New Orleans-based arts collaborative The VESTIGES Project while in residence at the CAC. Additionally this collective is a founding partner of the large neighborhood-based HOME, New Orleans' arts network. Its performance and installation-based collaborations, including the recent and ongoing WHISPERING BONES project, continue to crop up in churches, cemeteries, and gutted houses around town and to infuse the energy of art and audience as a neighborhood recovery tool. … Jan Gilbert, Debra Howell, and Krista Jurisich invited me (Michele White) to participate in this visual and textual conversation, which appears in the CAC windows, because of an Internet-based text that I wrote about the 2005 flood lines. In it I worried that unless reminded to look, I didn’t see the flood lines anymore and that we might have to keep such marks visible and in tension with our daily lives in order to connect our histories to our possible futures and try to fix things. Something has changed from that moment when Spencer Bohren sang “everywhere you look, everywhere you go” the long black lines are visible. This project is an argument for and meditation on seeing the dark, filthy, anger producing, terrifying, and connecting lines. Every day, people and time are erasing the physical marks of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Flood lines are commemorated in varied places by plaques and other memorials, which is a kind of containment and historicizing of the line. Nevertheless, flood lines are scars, traces, and etched reminders. In New Orleans and the surrounding region, they provide a visible map of where the water reached, the places water remained, a stark declaration of “this high” in relationship to homes and bodies, and indications of how drastically and unethically the government and its promised infrastructural system failed. Gilbert’s Biography of a House installation, which remapped the lines on her family’s Lakeview home by making them into a ribbon-like series of damaged family photos, suggests one of the many stories that the lines include but do not inherently convey. The flood lines are a watermark and chemical and dirt residue but they also contain us, physically wrapping around the city, and include trace quantities of our belongings and the tears, sweat, and excrement of the people caught and killed within the rising deluge. Lolis Eric Elie wonders about the disappearance of the flood lines, which include those pressure washed off of I-610, and argues that preserving “the filth of old watermarks is probably the wrong way for us to keep alive memories of the federal levee failures.” Yet, we can consider the varied meanings of the lines rather than trying to erase them. Like the hair that the Nazis cruelly harvested from people they were exterminating, and used as insulation during WW2, this residue is with us. Thus, we should smartly and politically think about these traces and what we can do with them. The flood lines remain in areas where people have not been able to recover their homes; inside the walls of homes, which may now appear to be cleanly plastered and wall-boarded; and chemically etched on windows. As people in the region continue to articulate painful gender, race, and class distinctions and forms of intolerance, the flood line is something that we share and need to act upon; but we have to see it. Bohren also notes, “everything is broken except the long black line.” However we are breaking the line, not as a way of configuring local and global connections and politics but as a way of making things appear more attractive and avoiding those terrifying marks that are, as he suggests, “sometimes to your knees, sometimes it’s to your chest or head, or up above the eaves.” We ought to work the line as a second-line—seeing how it connects us, highlighting and performing its histories, acknowledging that it threatened and destroyed some but not all the cultures of New Orleans, and using it to communicate with a country that is also intermeshed in governmental failures and political quandaries.

Michele, thanks for your comments and inspiring our CAC Windows installation with them. For all interested to see windows online, please go to: to see the context of this project and then scroll down to and click on Floodlines. Thanks again.

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