COMMUNITY ART IN THE POST-DISASTER LANDSCAPES OF TODAY

Monday, March 26, 2007

Site #15: "Picture This" Elizabeth Underwood/Naftali Rutter: Deslonde between Miro & Tonti: Lower 9th Ward

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New Orleans has always been a target, as it were, for photographers. Post-Katrina this phenomena has intensifed and taken on some conflicting elements. The impulse and need to record the damage and/or absence of what used to be is elemental in spreading the message of the situation to the rest of the world. At the same time, photography can perpetuate a disconnect between the "artist" and "spectator" (one's camera is between one's self and the world) and issues of ownership and privacy are inherently raised.

In a city so visually fetishized, pre and post Katrina, a visitor might assume that taking photographs of something you aren't intimately familiar with is acceptable. Despite photography's power to connect people, articulating the needs of its subjects, questions regarding its parasitic component are always valid. In a landscape that now symbolizes the horrific destructivness of marginialization/"other-ing" (for the sake of time/space, this over-simplification of the how's and why's of the levee breaks will have to suffice) how does one who genuinely wishes to connect with the landscape/story via photography do so with respect and dignity?

Another angle: for months after the storm the loss (and attempts at recovery) of family photographs became a shared experience for survivors; a common refrain of survivors is how losing their family photos is what hurts them to this day. The power that a photograph has to function on an comforting medicinal level becomes clear. At the same time, strangers walking the streets could happen upon private family photos in varying stages of ruin and feel no qualms about taking them as souveniers (with no obvious "owner" in site, weren't the artifacts fair game? Finders keepers? Or: if I don't pick up and save that smeared photo of a kid in front of the Christmas tree who will?). How does this process connect people, how does it further object/abject-ify people? These questions linger.

In some respects, this tree filled with Polaroids of birds in varying stages (ceramics, needlework, live and in flight, etc) is nothing more than a gesture toward giving something back to this landscape that has been so relentlessly exploited. By leaving photographs versus "taking" them, the process is reversed and a measure of balance can be returned, even if only symbolically. The quiet simplicity of this gesture aims to function as a poetic remedy to the noise of the murderous waters rushing in, the tragedy, and grief. As the baler's twine disintigrates in the hard winds, the photographs are falling from the tree, a strange fruit reminiscent of photos found after flood waters receed. The surfaces of the Polaroids are altered by the weather and take on qualities that can not be anticipated. Someone might stand underneath this tree and think about what they are surrounded by (vast empty space/unmarked graves) and consider their role in the story. Someone else may not even look twice. Both reactions are valid. The photographs and the tree and the memories remain.

All are invited to contribute photographs to this tree. The only requirement is that they be of joyous, singing, and/or celebratory images.

5 comments:

Alternative Arts New Orleans said...

to me it reads as nature gone bad in some way. photos hanging from a tree, a tree that appears dead. like an elegy, the photos replacing things gone, filling in memories. I haven't seen it in person - I will go to see if it feels sad in person, like it does for me in photos.

ARTinACTION said...

That's interesting - "nature gone bad". The way I see the landscape in the Lower 9 (for example) is as proof of how "human beings gone bad" has created a pattern that kills, or affects nature in a negative way.

But it is without doubt sad - even as an offering to honor what's gone. What's gone is gone & nothing we put there can replace that. It really is a haunted site, and again: you're right: sad. I do think it can be positive to be honest about how horrible it is, though, so somehow what's sad can begin to become something else.

ARTinACTION said...

Though I do get that you mean that the Polaroids hanging are what seem like "nature gone bad". Instead of fruit its a frozen picture, instead of a bird its a symbol of a bird. They function as a human attempt to confront/address human destruction. Again, it can't replace the fruit or flowers or laughter but it doesn't really try to. Elegy is a good word for it.

Geo said...

I want to see this tree. Any word on its current state? How do polaroids hold up in the elements?

ARTinACTION said...

I just took an ArtInAction ArtTour group to this site on Sunday past. Many of the Polaroids have fallen to the ground but are continually being arranged in the tall thick grass by the wind (and visitors - how else would they get arranged in a perfect circle?). Though some are still in the tree, embedded, they begin to look as if they grew there.

The Polaroids are distorting nicely in the sun & rain, interesting discolorations and patterns are forming, though they're still very "readable". In this way they begin to look just like the photos I (and thousands of others) pulled out of my flooded house. They begin to look like documents of something that couldn't have been imagined.

There's a fan in the roof of the house here that spins and whines in the wind. You would think you were standing on a vast prairie with gigantic hawks and ghost sounds. It's a very intense spot - humming with the past trauma, poised in a strange way (because it won't stay this open, this wild, I don't think). Standing there I feel like I'm truly standing in a liminal space.

Please visit and let us know your experiences! Thanks!