Mississippi River, including part of Jennifer Odem’s artwork, Rising Tables (2017).

We arrived at the Jazz Museum just after eleven in the morning. It was a Saturday and the French Quarter was busy. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, it is a popular area with visitors to the city. Yet the effect was heighted with two festivals in close proximity, RiverFest at the Museum and the Creole Tomato Festival at the nearby French Market. Festivals have become critical means by which cities draw in visitors, revealing or introducing distinct aspects of a place, and limiting any singular version of that place. Here, in the growing crowds between these apparently unrelated events, we became aware of the ways in which a relatively small area of a city can be simultaneously framed by quite different festivals at the same time. We noticed an echo between the independent stalls that were gathered together in the covered French Market, and the independent festivals situated in the French Quarter. 

RiverFest celebrates ‘the cultural, economic, environmental & inspirational impacts and contributions of the Mississippi River to the Crescent City.’ (https://www.nolariverfest.org/river-fest). This was the eleventh year of the festival, a day-long event which included ‘live music, presentations and panels, walking tours, delicious local food vendors and a full bar, and more’ (Ibid). The festival brought together practices and perspectives on the river. While it was held at the Jazz Museum, and while this year the theme was the Delta Blues, the remit of the event extends beyond music alone, speaking to the multiple ways in which the river is understood in the city and the Gulf South. Set just a short distance from the river’s edge, the Museum is well placed to welcome inhabitants and out-of-towners to gather and reflect on the Mississippi. 

This was the first festival we had spoken at in the city, and we were pleased to have a chance to share our emerging research with the public. As we set up for our talk, we watched the arrival of performers who had launched RiverFest at Jackson Square, before leading a ‘second line’ to the Museum gardens below us. We were struck by the contrast of setting up our Powerpoint in a top floor room, while below, the Treme-Lafitte Brass Band, the N’Awlins Baby Dolls, and the Original Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians gathered at the outdoor festival stage below. Close by the Museum and festival entrance, a crawfish boil was being set up. Audience members arrived in the room, we chatted a little, time ticked toward noon, and we turned away from the window to begin. 

The Treme-Lafitte Brass Band, the N’Awlins Baby Dolls, and the Original Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians at RiverFest

Our talk focused on artistic and everyday practices of ‘living with water’, a phrase that has become increasingly familiar in academic literature and professional practice. There is something positive, possible about ‘living with’ water, although we are aware that life ‘with water’ is not always so positive. Relatedly, in the talk, we noted the interest in blue/green architecture and design, in which places are increasingly being developed or adapted to manage water, to slow its course, and limit flooding. In this context, we introduced and reflected on ways in which artists in the city, and everyday practitioners of the city, have helped advance understandings of living with water in the metro area and in Greater New Orleans. 

From venues such as Music Box Village and Studio in the Woods, to artworks including Rising Tables and Float Lab, to everyday negotiations of water, and water management strategy, we considered ways in which people in the city are revealing new means of understanding, practising, and managing water. While we framed our work in terms of water, rather than the Mississippi alone, the work of preparing the talk allowed us to discover and trace the significance of the river to our forthcoming book as a whole. We made a note to look for other such aspects of the city and region that exist in the emerging book but that aren’t mapped in the list of chapters. 

In conversation with participants after the talk, we discussed the ways that the arts addressed the pandemic, we considered the limits to definitions of the city, and spoke of the value of thinking about New Orleans in the context of the Delta, region, and state. We shared our concerns about any use of the arts to appear to ‘fix’ resilience challenges, pointing more to the ways in which arts practice may reimagine challenges, and the ways these understandings can be placed in productive dialogue with resilience initiatives. Time moves quickly and soon enough we’re back outside, amid the music and dance of the garden. We’re grateful to the organisers of RiverFest for programming our panel and to our spectators for their generous reflections on the work. 


“Who folks do trust and hold in esteem and look up to for social guidance are the artists and culture bearers—the people in the community who make music, who make Indian suits, who are chefs and culinary artists or poets, spoken word artists, singers.”  (Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, our emphasis)

On the evening of Tuesday 6th June, we strolled from our apartment in the Warehouse District to Catapult, a multi-arts and incubation space on St Ferdinand Street, where the Marigny meets the Bywater. A warm, sunny evening with the threat of rain seemingly passed, we were pleased to be walking. Our two-mile route paralleled the curve of the Mississippi and skimmed the edge of the French Quarter, and while we passed businesses and bars, we only caught glimpses of the river’s edge; the city seemed quiet, the streets fairly empty. This was reflected back to us the next day as ‘the great exodus’ having begun – some folks annually vacate the city in the summer to avoid the most intense heats.

Despite the quietness of the streets, a crowd of 20–25 arts and indigenous cultural leaders, organisers, and cultural advocates have gathered at the venue for our event: ‘Pandemics: Performance as Response and Refamiliarization’. The event began casually, through the breaking of bread and sharing some wonderful food from a caterer called 1000 Figs. As people make up their plates, wise words from the then Director of the CAC Neil Barclay shared with us on the first day of our first trip in 2018 come back to us: that food is essential when gathering people together in New Orleans.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit New Orleans hard, the consequences and aftereffects of it are still being processed: despite the pandemic being declared ‘over’ by the WHO, it is of course still a lived reality for many in this city (and globally). It is not over in anything but a technical sense, a sentiment that reverberates in the room as we share our research.

In this event, we offered reflections on ways that arts and culture matter in the unfolding emergency of a pandemic. Not least in this, is the way that arts and cultural leaders are very often trusted voices in many communities, especially in New Orleans (as the Eccelsiastes citation above reflects). More broadly, while the pandemic had global impact and changed arts and everyday practices, arts practitioners and organizations turned to face the pandemic in dynamic and meaningful ways with incredible speed.

At the same time, emergency planners globally turned to the Disaster Risks Management Cycle in conceiving their responses to the crisis. But, we suggest, the neatness of the ‘Mitigation – Preparedness – Response – Recovery’ cycle fails to account for the complexity of lived experience in a given place, at least conceptually. This is particularly the case in an ‘extended’ crisis that unfolds over some years.

In the talk at Catapult, we reflected on the ways that the pandemic is not a swift nor neat event that can be easily compartmentalized; ‘response’ and ‘recovery’ in particular are messy categorizations, to say nothing of how we might recognize when we move from one to the other. As such, we need new ways of thinking and new forms of practice in the face of events like pandemics: performance might offer new insights towards this.

Offering reflections on multiple performances that happened in the city responding to the pandemic, we argued that performance and cultural practice offered means of ‘rethinking’ the pandemic (and thus practices of emergency management) and afforded opportunities to think in new categorizations that might be seen to sit across and between those of the DRMC. We reflected on the usefulness of practices that point to the usefulness of Remembering & Reminding, Refamiliarizing & Rethinking.

As organizations and individuals ‘flexed’ with the unfolding of the pandemic, so they offered innovative means of understanding how to live productively within that context. Goat in the Road’s Scavenger Hunt offered means to test what it was to be back on the streets after so long, to refamiliarize the street performance practices so central to life here. The city’s #SleevesUpNOLA vaccination campaign deployed the cultural vernacular of the city to encourage vaccination uptake in terms familiar to local residents. Remembering the city’s cultural performance practices and reminding folk how they might once again be part of daily life. Ashe Cultural Art’s Centre’s multi-form response to the pandemic through public health work, redistribution of food and finances, cultural organizing and performances of place and identity in things like I Deserve It! offered multiple perspectives on the crisis that enabled a rethinking of how people might attend to the complex context at play. In so doing, Ashe, we argued, offered a site-specific performance of place that echoed Arielle Julia Brown’s call for ‘Black site-specific performance artists must think about how to mobilize community, build through creative coalitions, and reaffirm our histories and rights in public spaces’ (2017, 238-239).

All these works offer nuance and a messier understanding of how a crisis unfolds and is managed. It was a privilege to share our research at Catapult, and to converse with a brilliant group of generously critical colleagues from across a range of disciplines, practices, perspectives and communities in the city. In particular we are deeply grateful for reflections on critical issues in the city, and prompts to think further about:

  • Means of documenting cultural responses to the pandemic to network ideas together. How might this reveal the power of cultural networks and map the importance of transdisciplinary practices and thinking?
  • How might we problematise ‘recovery’ as ‘an essential good’, how might we move from recovery to positive, equitable and genuine transformation?
  • Where is the social justice in systems of emergency planning and resilience?
  • How do we account for grief and trauma in contexts of response and recovery?
  • In what ways can we account for and celebrate indigenous practices of medicine making and herbalism in contexts of pandemic response? How might we expand understandings of performance in doing this?
  • In the context of the infinite complexity of the cultural economy of New Orleans, how can we think productively about ‘recovery’ and problematise the neoliberal logics of resiliency in so doing?

Next up: RiverFest, 10th June, 12 – 1pm: ‘At the River’s Edge: Performing Water in New Orleans’

Docville Farm

On Saturday 3rd June, we presented research from our forthcoming book at Docville Farm in St Bernard Parish. Passing through the industrial landscape of refineries, auto shops, and railroads, the lush green of the Farm and the surrounding area is striking. Presenting in a meeting room on the fourth floor of the Farm’s main building, the view revealed new (for us) perspectives on the land, the water and the city – and the interrelation of these.

The event afforded opportunities for discussion and reflection on ideas of performance, place and resilience through the lens of ‘situation rooms’. In conversation with an audience of St Bernard residents, artists, film makers, coastal and environmental resilience professionals, and representatives from the Meraux Foundation’s board, we explored the critical potential for cultural spaces, like Docville Farm, and the Foundation’s St Claude Arts a few miles away, to productively recalibrate understandings of resilience, place, and identity.

For us, Docville Farm is a ‘situation room’ insofar as it brings in information from multiple sources and perspectives, reflects on and processes it, and uses this to make strategic decisions about (and reveal new practices concerning) the interrelation of place, land stewardship, agriculture, water, people, and education. This in turn affords a strategic opportunity to interrogate and rethink the understandings of the relation between ‘the city’ and its near neighbours (especially for Meraux, St Bernard Parish), and of course the Mississippi. In this work, Docville, and the Meraux Foundation more broadly, is staging a long-form conversation and innovative exchange between arts, land stewardship practices and globally important environmental sustainability questions.

It was a privilege to share our research at Docville Fram, and to engage in such a rich and generous conversation about our work in relation to theirs. Next up: Catapult, 6th June: ‘Pandemics: Performance as Response and Refamiliarization’

Conversations with New Orleans: Towards Rethinking Resilience

This June (2 – 11th) we are back in New Orleans to share thinking from the book we are writing on the city, Rethinking Resilience: Performance Practices of Contemporary New Orleans (LSU Press, for submission Sept 2023). We are doing this through 1-to-1 conversations, small group meetings/workshops, and larger public events where we will share chapters of the book to share our emerging ideas with arts, culture and resilience stakeholders and the public.

In coming back to the city, we are hoping to come good on our commitment to move beyond, or at least to avoid inadvertently perpetuating, extractive research practices that have previously been an issue in writing on the city. That is, this work only exists because of our continued ‘conversation’ with the city: engagement, generosity, and challenge from the people and organisations who live in the city we are researching is vital to the work we do and it usefulness in the world.

On this trip we are having conversations at:

Docville Farm: 2nd June, 10.30am – 1pm – ‘Rethinking Resilience: Contemporary Performances of New Orleans’

Catapult: 6th June, 7 – 10pm – ‘Pandemics: Performance as Response and Refamiliarization’

RiverFest: 10th June, 12 – 1.30pm – ‘At the River’s Edge: Performing Water in New Orleans’