“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’

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.  

Invitations to Innovate

In case you’ve not yet had a chance to engage with our interim project report, and we wholly encourage you to do so, we thought it may be helpful to distil some key findings from it here. The report focuses specifically on how arts practices in cities can be useful to future pandemic emergency preparedness and response.

Mobile Vaccination Clinic outside O2 City Hall Newcastle, Oct 2021

In the report, we have identified five key emergency challenges that arts are already engaged in addressing:

1. Reach communities in and across a city.

2. Re-work city spaces for safe public access.

3. Engage local populations with key public health messages.

4. Manage perceptions of life during Covid and of vaccination.

5. Connect people to alleviate isolation.

In addressing these challenges our research finds that:

* Covid-19 has underlined the vital role arts practitioners play in identifying and responding to local and city challenges both creatively and at speed.

* The pandemic reveals, starkly, the lack of channels of communication between academics and professionals in the arts and in emergency and resilience management.

* To understand how the arts comprise pandemic response, we need to resist conventional and often simplistic definitions of arts practice.

* Arts venues offer strategic engagements with communities that can be beneficial to sustaining social distancing and communicating its importance at city level; this affords connections and relationships not always available to municipal structures. Emergency planning processes, policy and practice can account for this in pandemic planning and physical distancing strategy.

* ‘Signs don’t work’ but performative interventions in city spaces can. Artists can make strategic, local interventions into city spaces that enable communities to practice social distancing in more sustainable and sustained ways.

* City council emergency planning policy/strategy does not (generally) join up with cultural strategies, missing an opportunity for more nuanced understandings of places in emergency contexts.

* Performance can reveal how places work in the context of their urban politics, as experienced by people in those places; experiences which elude clear articulation in written texts such as, in this context, policy guidance.

* We need more properly to understand signs as cultural artefacts, as a critical part of the place in which they are situated, speaking to people who use that place. We thus we need to develop messaging that directly addresses those people, encouraging and enabling them to incorporate restrictions into their daily experiences and modes of being in the city.

There are more challenges and more means of response – we invite you to share your thoughts on this or examples of interesting cultural practice addressing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic with us here.

The full interim-report can be found here.

Our Crisis Response Journal article can be found at