Very quickly after getting here, we realised we were going to have to traverse the city repeatedly to get to the meetings we had organised and to attend the buildings that are most relevant to the project. We have chosen to do this on foot, walking significant distances across different areas of the city, observing changing landscapes, atmospheres, and incidental moments of everyday performance. This isn’t ‘walking performance’ per se but has become something more useful to our thinking than just being about getting places. In part this is because it has allowed us to engage in a small way with what Ana Paulina Lee calls New Orleans’ complex ‘memoryscapes, the spatial and material dimensions of cultural memory’ (2017: 72) that are in conversation with the city’s rich and diverse performance and cultural histories.
From second lines to busking, marching bands to street poets, walking tours to Mardis Gras parades, New Orleans is a city that is at least in part defined by performances that take place in the streets. In this context, we have found walking in those streets to be important in revealing something about the city and its performances. Walking has enabled us to attend to the incidental and the serendipitous, to the performances that we’ve noticed happening around us, both formal aesthetic practices and those that are more part of the everyday.
The photos below document some of our time spent walking.
PD: In their essay ‘Making Groceries: Leadership, free spaces and narratives of meaning in post-Katrina New Orleans’ (2013), Menck and Couto argue that food can act as a ‘visceral representation of belonging’ (p. 424), that is, it can come both to define a place and be a profound means with which we construct, enact and experience ‘home’ through everyday practices. In the first few days of our being in the city the fundamental importance of food has been reiterated time and again by the people we have been speaking with. It has become apparent that eating, making, and sharing food is considered an essential part of the cultural identity of the city and its people. Indeed, the importance of food has become a refrain in all of the meetings we’ve had so far.
Maxwell Williams, the Artistic Director of Le Petit Theatre, spoke of food as a means through which one is welcomed to the city. An outsider to the city he came here for the job rather than the ‘outsider’ position being problematic he encountered people who said, in his words, ‘Welcome! Ya want something to eat?’.
Our own encounter with this mode of welcome and generosity came just two minutes into meeting Laura Paul from the non-profit organization lowernine.org. Having arranged to be shown around their rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth ward of the city, we met Laura at the Voodoo Lounge on North Rampart Street. After climbing into her well-used pick-up truck and offering initial introductions, Laura turned to us to say she was hosting a BBQ at her house in the Lower Ninth for volunteers of the organization and some locals that evening and would we like to come? We’d be very welcome and, she said, it would ‘continue our education’ on the Lower Ninth.
For James Carville (ctd. in Menck and Couto), food in New Orleans is about ‘love, lust, art, taste and diversity’ (p. 419) and, for Menck and Couto, ‘food spaces, like farmers markets, restaurants, cafes and bars’ do ‘emotional work because they reinforce local cultural food traditions, feeding both the body and the soul.’ (p. 425). This was reinforced when we met David Hurlbert, who runs the Marigny Opera House, as he pointed out that people ‘expect food’ if they are attending an event, and he later waxed lyrical about the culinary heritage of the city and the centrality of food to living, working and visiting it. His enthusiasm for red beans and rice guided our lunch choice that afternoon.
On the first full day here we went to the Contemporary Art Centre to introduce ourselves to Neil Barclay (the executive director) and talk through the event we are running there at the end of our trip. He gave generously of his time and energy in engaging with the ideas of the project. As an early encounter in the city, it was exciting to explore the potential of the event to open up new conversation on arts, the city and its challenges with him. And we were struck by his comment that while the arts practitioners of the city (especially at an institutional level) know each other and support one another, they don’t necessarily talk collectively about concerns they have in, for, and with the city. It seemed to open up the potential for our work here to contribute something, however small.
But how best to do this? We came in with a plan to present work, to ask for respondents, to facilitate a workshop-type event. Neil mentioned it’d be good to gather around a glass of wine and some food, and when we said we hadn’t arranged for food he immediately insisted this was a necessity and that he’d be happy for CAC to provide it. Beyond the generosity of this offer, the inclusion of food changes the dynamic of the event. It makes it more collegiate, more social, more embodied and, crucially, we realized it returned us to focusing on discussion. Eating has changed how we will run the event: made it more useful, less about us and more about a conversation about ideas.
What has become clear since landing is that eating is fundamental to the city’s identity.
SA: We’re at St. Roch Market, on St Claude Avenue. It is an old, single-storey building, with a high metal and glass roof, held up by central pillars. There are stalls down the long sides of the interior and tables and chairs in the centre: high wooden tables with stools, plastic tables and chairs at either end. We had gone there for coffee, sitting outside in the heat of the day. As time passes, the building begins to fill a little, there are families, people in suits who may work locally, soldiers in fatigues, one at least eating alone. This, it appears, is a popular place. It’s also racially mixed, there are a range of ages. I chat to a mother and daughter outside, asking about where we should leave our coffee mugs, they ask about our accents, we comment on the day.
We wander between stalls, reading the large menus printed on signboards above each one, and looking at the food laid out on counters. As we pass, people seem in good humour, there are friendly family conversations, people stroll easily from stalls to tables. There may be tourists here, and others for whom this place is unfamiliar, but the suits and fatigues suggest this is a place used and known by people from the city, if not from near neighbourhoods.
We order a ‘sampler’: shrimp and grits, red beans and rice, crawfish poutine. Standing reading the menu, Patrick remembers David Hurlbert’s comment about the importance of food, specifically red rice and beans, to the city. It seems appropriate we try this for ourselves. It’s the first meal where I stop to attend to the ingredients, where I send an inexpertly taken photo home. The crawfish melt in the mouth (a wondrous sensation that I have a day or so later with braised beef cheeks at Sylvain, on Chartres Street).
As we interview artists in New Orleans, they talk to us about food. One interviewee easily elides ‘welcome’ and ‘food’ as if they are one and the same. They speak of the importance of food to the South and to this city. If we are to talk about artistic practice in New Orleans, then we need talk about the food that, artists tell us, again and again, is so critical to life in the city. Of course, this is complex. Writing in 2007, and based on his interviews with tourism professionals, Kevin Fox Gotham comments that ‘food, music and history constitute the “holy trinity” of New Orleans tourism that unites the diverse cultural attributes of the city into a set of easily recognized and evocative themes’ (Fox Graham, 2007, p. 834). While Fox Graham suggests this message promotes the city, it also serves to ‘minimize the uncertainty of urban reality’ (Fox Graham, 2007, p. 834). As tourists, of a kind, we are at risk of reading this elision of art and food through city marketing strategies. Yet, sitting in the market, an hour or so after talking to Hurlbert, and a fairly short walk from the Opera House, we’re aware that there is work to be done on eating and arts practice in New Orleans, work that may be daily practice in the city but that is outside any perceived ‘trinity’ and too little discussed as a critical element of arts practice in the city.
PD: We’re told it’s really not that hot but not being used to it, we walk to the river to welcome the breeze and escape from the heat and humidity. The sound of the Mississippi is a relaxing distraction from the clamour of the city behind me, in spite of its aggressive swells and ripping currents.
Being in the Crescent City to research the relation of performance to the city has made me focus on the way the city performs itself, so to speak, more than I have previously (I have been here twice before, in 2013 and 2016). Walking through the city across the last few days, I have been struck by how different the noises of New Orleans are from those of London. Of course they share sounds of people and traffic but the machines that navigate New Orleans are different to London, and the focus of the noise of the people we have encountered seems different too.
The soundscape of the city is punctuated by the wail of sirens, by the invasive claxon of fairground organ music from Steamboat Natchez, by the horns of trains and ships.
I had forgotten how loudly the streetcars clang and clatter.
SA: As we walk through the city, we begin to make a series of audio recordings. These are tentative steps, we are beginning a practice here, a method of attending to a city. We begin, aware of the importance of both purpose and accident. There are sounds that we seek out, the horn sounded on boats on the river, a bustling market, an apparently empty street, music spilling out of bars as we pass, and our feet on the changing surfaces of the city. In other recordings, we have less purpose, we begin uncertain of what we will find.
In one early recording, we’re on Bourbon Street, there’s a live band on the street just ahead of us. We press record, and continue walking down the street. As we walk, I am acutely aware of listening to the sounds of the street: the sound of the band as we near, pass by and cross the street, and the quiet once we leave the Street.
The following day, we are at the river, standing at railings, watching boats navigate the curve of the river, the crescent that gives the Crescent City its name. This time, I am recording with headphones, listening for audio levels, and hearing, with augmented clarity, the steady thrum of the engines the lapping of waves that grower louder in the wake of each passing boat. There are three, perhaps four cyclists who stop at the railing for a time and, later, cycle in what seem indolent circles in an empty industrial hanger. They ring the high cycle bells a few times, there are snatches of conversation, but it’s not possible to hear the words.
Through these sounds, we begin to sense the work on the river, work with and against the current of the river. A man walks by, greets us and stops a while to talk. He pilots a boat at Baton Rouge. He points out the turn of the boats on the water, the effort the pilots make to stop each one heading into the side of the river, right where we stand. I listen again to the lapping of waves, struck by the weight of each against the edge, to which we stand.
I become aware that, as we record, so we attend to the sounds of a place, in ways that I find continue long after we stop a recording. To think about recording becomes an act of listening, of wondering about the openness and selection of what we collect, of wondering how we will come to understand these walks in the days ahead and in moment of listening back, listening again, listening to the city both here and, afterwards, from afar.
SA: As we descend, through the window of the plane, it appears there is more water than land. I find I am uncertain of appropriate terms for water, whether we are looking out on lakes, rivers or pools, and whether the distinctions between water and land are settled or shifting. On this, my first experience of landing in New Orleans, I am achingly aware of water.
Later, walking along Bourbon Street, I feel I am out of place here, out of step with the tempo of the street. There are bars that open onto the street and we begin to need to weave around the people gathered at doors, moving from pavement to the road. During Mardi Gras, Patrick explains, the street can be full. At such times, walking becomes a slow art, each step hard won. We meet friends of Patrick’s at the end of a narrow bar. It is reassuring to meet with people who live in this city, who knows its ways. They reflect on their selection of this place, and their sense that we might need somewhere in which to orient ourselves. We order Sazeracks, a drink that is of this city. The taste of aniseed is stronger than I’d anticipated, although it will be a day or so before I admit this.
PD: The last half hour of the ten hour flight follows the Mississippi before turning east to fly in to New Orleans across part of Lake Pontchartrain. Coming in to land, water is everywhere.
I find it almost impossible to sleep on planes and I’m weary from the flight. My skin feels slightly greasy from the recycled air and my body feels heavy from sitting for so long. The pilot and a crew member smile and nod goodbye and it’s a relief to be stepping through the door of the plane into a wall of warmth and humidity from the Louisiana evening.
Walking down the long corridor towards immigration, I’m aware of a school party chattering and of the mixture of excitement, fatigue, and nervousness that seems to spread among the passengers. The flight crew press their way through the crowd to join a dedicated line and I wish I’d remembered to dress in a BA uniform.
The line switches back on itself a few times. A wall mounted television plays a single ‘welcome to New Orleans’ tourist advert on loop that marks out the time maddeningly. As we get closer to the front of the queue we are able to see the border control operation unfold ahead and I’m struck by the differences in the guards’ behaviour between the domestic and international lines. I see a performance of racial profiling.
The taxi driver pretends to know where our apartment is but it’s evident from his hurried phone call that he doesn’t. I wonder what language he is speaking.
It’s a relief to take a short walk and the city feels familiar although it is strange to occupy the ‘insider’ role as I point out places and landmarks I remember to Stuart. Bourbon Street bustles with life and intoxication, tackiness and colour. The sweet-sour of the Sazerack’s orange liquid hits my tongue and feels like a hammer blow. The time difference catches up with me on the first sip.