Conversations across St. Charles

On 20th February 2022, we went to the intersection of Girod Street and St. Charles Avenue to watch the Krewe of King Arthur roll by. A little daunted by the aggression of some of the throwing of throws we witnessed on Canal Street earlier in the day, we approached with some trepidation (though Patrick was intent on getting a branded throw for is son, Arthur). As we approached, it became clear that the atmosphere here was much different to that on Canal Street: families were gathered, conversation was flowing and people were helping each other to catch and collect throws.

Crowds gather to watch the Krewe of King Arthur

A few minutes after arriving, we noticed three girls across the street trying to attract the attention of those opposite. Making eye contact, they bounced small bouncy balls across the street when the parade came to a halt every now and again. This became an ongoing means of communication across the space; a silent performance of community, joy and collaboration evolved over the next couple of hours. Hand signals, reaching to catch, eye contact, pointing, occasional vocal calling and much laughing came together to create a conversation between strangers; the girls and (what we took to be) their parents on one side, a slowly rotating/changing group of parade goers of all ages on the other. There was no hierarchy, no competition. The game was inclusive, spontaneous and joyful; participants laughed, feigned exasperation if a catch was missed, and actively looked to reengage one another if the conversation was interrupted by the passing of floats or marching bands.

An elderly couple dance on a balcony opposite our position. They laugh with one another and with those in the crowd who spot them and dance ‘with’ them from the pavement. They, and we, sing to familiar lyrics played by passing trucks or brass bands. These performances create and enact communitas; people are brought together through joyful practices that encode a sense of (perhaps temporary) belonging, equality and understanding. This is an experience of being together in time and space, of being part of something bigger than one’s self. Though perhaps an idealised reading of carnival – and one that needs more critical attention to some more problematic gendered representations of sex, sexuality and race, the performances on Girod and St Charles suggest means of understanding the political potential of carnival beyond its excessive consumption and histories of segregation.

This impromptu community of participants cut a striking difference to the seeming aggression of earlier encounters between parade goers and float riders. The ball game seemed, by design or accident, to enable revellers to participate in the embodied experience of carnival with a greater degree of connection to one another, rather than clamouring for only for the ‘magnificence’ of receiving a particular set of beads, a doubloon or two, or a sought-after handmade gift. This social performance lent weight and clarity to the experience: carnival became visible as an opportunity to connection across race, class and age lines.

Reflections on Travelling

Preparing to travel internationally for the first time in two years, in a global pandemic, has been an anxious time. I have been concerned both about a last minute COVID-19 infection scuppering the best laid plans of this research trip (some 12 months in the planning and execution), and about catching the virus while abroad. The former manifested in self-imposed isolation in advance of the trip. The latter continues to guide how it feels to be in another country, at a busy time in the Crescent City.  

Reflecting on the historical development of airport buildings and importance of architectural design to the embodied experience of travel, geographer Peter Adey argues that historically airports offered means of building and experiencing civic and national identities. He suggests that they held a role beyond their travel function:

Airports were places to not only travel through but places to travel to and, importantly, view from… It is vital, therefore, that the contemporary fascination with such sites should not release the airport terminal from its historical role as builder and purveyor of interest and identity (2008: 44)

I like airports. I have always been struck by the strangely out-of-time experience of them, the potential of the journey ahead, the excitement of travel. This is not to ignore the climate emergency and the problematic role air travel plays in this. And so, arriving at Newcastle International Airport I am struck by the familiarity of the experience: the mundanity of processes and practices of the place, and the way that transitioning through the liminal space of the airport seems ‘in’ my body. The process is like picking up a highly practiced hobby after a long break: I am rusty, but it comes back swiftly. 

The mundanity of the experience and the ease with which I slipped into the practices of the space – belt removing, coin searching, laptop placing, arm lifting, belonging scooping, screen scanning – served to alleviate the anxiety of the build-up. (The negative lateral flow test that enabled me to engage in the practice of airport transition may have helped too, of course). I found a near empty bar, bought a beer, sat by a window overlooking the airport apron and turned to my laptop to work. 

After an hour or so, I glanced up and spotted a bight dot on the horizon. As the plane approached the runway, its wings see-sawed quite violently but the plane landed safely, and I thought little of it. My wife messaged shortly thereafter: “So windy”. I boarded the flight and buckled in; as we taxied for take-off the captain mentioned it was a bit blustery so there may be some turbulence but, in the end, take-off was uneventful and the flight smooth. 

Cutting through the clouds as we came in to land, the mood on the flight changed a little as the clouds darkened and the plane began to be buffeted by the wind. The wheels came down and we approached for landing; the plane was see-sawing and being pushed around. Maybe 15 feet from the tarmac a gust hit the plane and suddenly we were pushed back into the seats, the pilots making the engines roar as we accelerated hard and lifted in a steep climb away from Heathrow.

A sharp bank to the left felt as though the wings were almost vertical (they weren’t, of course) and the turn was prolonged; there was complete silence for a few minutes until the captain’s calm announcement: ‘Sorry about that Ladies and Gentlemen, we got hit by a pretty big gust as we came in to land there and so performed what we call a “missed approach”. We’ll come around now and try again…’ 

I realise how tightly I have been holding the seat in front of me. This was not so much ‘in my body,’ though the experience of it was powerfully embodied: I braced muscles, uncrossed my legs, planted my feet on the floor, pressed my back into the seat, gripped the seat in front of me. The ‘fight’ between the embodied experience and the desire to hold on to the logic of flying as safe and trust in the pilots’ skill was pronounced, particularly when coming in to land the second time.  

Approaching Heathrow, the first time.

The missed approach reminds me how strange it is to be travelling again after more than two years of pandemic restrictions; it asks questions about risk and research travel. It is all too easy to look at research fieldwork in New Orleans, the ‘Big Easy,’ the ‘Birthplace of Jazz’, and think of fun, frivolity, and hedonism. As the Beyond Borboun Street podcast recognises, the importance of tourism to this city means that it is forever at risk of being defined through a particular set of restricted and reductive practices and understanding.  

However, Adey’s argument that airports hold a bigger function than might be first apparent makes me thing about how this is a city that can reveal new understandings of performance and resilience. We have known this since before our first PCR visit in 2018, but Covid-19 and Hurrican Ida have again raised the prospect that New Orleans’ performance cultures afford ways of thinking about place and crisis that can impact understandings internationally. 

Nevertheless, the jet-lagged early mornings (even on day 4 as I get set to publish this blog), asks questions of what the embodied experience of travel might reveal about ways of thinking and being in a place, far from home and catapulted there as such speeds that the body cannot really process it. This then might ask us to be particularly attentive to how we balance the positive impact of our work (we know, for instance, that our research influenced Covid-19 responses in the city) against the pressure is places on our families and on the planet.  

Reconnecting: New Orleans, February 2022

It is February 2022 and we are back in New Orleans to research intersections between performance and emergency preparedness. One of the prompts for this trip, as well as re-engaging in longterm conversations with the city, was our sense that New Orleans has been and continues to be extraordinarily impacted by the pandemic. Indeed, the city feels different this time – businesses that were once thriving and seemed powerfully secure have closed, practitioners have lost their livelihoods and public health has struggled to keep up with the pressures of the virus. Yet, at the same time, as we argue in our interim report Performance and Pandemic Response: Invitations to Innovate, with the #SleevesUpNOLA campaign the city has responded with creativity, skill and performative acumen to the challenge. So, in part, on this trip we are interested to explore New Orleans’ processes and practices of pandemic response.

Families prepare for the arrival of Mardi Gras parades, St Charles Avenue, New Orleans, February 2022.

During our time in New Orleans, we are meeting with arts, culture and hazard mitigation professionals, surveying key sites in which arts and culture bearers have addressed the pandemic and other challenges that have arisen since the last time we were here. We will feed back our findings to colleagues in the city and also in the UK and internationally, to demonstrate specific ways in which arts and culture enable new and vital means of pandemic response. 

As part of our ongoing AHRC-funded project Social Distancing and Reimagining City Life, we expect to publish this work in briefing and policy documents that we hope will inform ongoing responses to the pandemic, and to planning for future responses to public health challenges. Indeed, it was gratifying to hear from the current Hazard Mitigation Administrator, Austin Feldbaum, that our research to date has informed and led to innovations in the city’s pandemic response strategy (conversation with investigators, 18 February 2022).

The work will critically inform our ongoing publications on the city, significantly a co-authored book we are developing with LSU Press to rethink city resilience through performance cultures in the city of New Orleans. In this book, we address the ways that challenges in a city are rarely neatly delineated. Of course, Covid-19 is a major and ongoing frame to thinking about city resilience at this time; but equally, New Orleans continues to grapple with the climate emergency, with underlying ‘stresses’ of race and economic inequity, and emerging ‘shocks’ such as Storm Ida (August 2021) that the city is still actively engaged in recovering from.

Blue tarpaulin protecting the roof of a house in the Treme, New Orleans, February 2022.

We are in New Orleans from 17th-25th February. If you are engaged in thinking through or responding to Covid-19, or other such ‘resilience’ challenges, through arts and culture, emergency or resilience planning, or public health in or beyond the city, and you would like to be involved with this work, we would love to hear from you.