“Who are we? What are we? Where are we going?”
These are some of the questions curator Franklin Sirmans hopes to tackle through his selections for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, the third incarnation of New Orleans’ international art biennial. Founded by Dan Cameron in the years after Hurricane Katrina, this year’s exhibition runs from October 25 through January 25 at venues across the city and features more than 60 artists.
As Sirmans explained at a press conference this spring, the work comprising P.3 tackles issues of identity and the search for self, themes he sees reflected in a variety of elements of New Orleans culture, from literary classics such as Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer to works by painter Paul Gaugin housed at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“It’s a conversation that will in some ways be specific to New Orleans, but will also relate to the way that contemporary art is discussed in other environments,” said Sirmans, who serves as the contemporary art curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Music,” he added, “plays a big part in the exhibition.”
While music is obviously a cornerstone of New Orleans culture, sound in general plays an important role in how we as humans define ourselves and relate to others. Some of P.3’s most compelling sound-oriented pieces combine those two aspects, identifying local points of departure from which to explore more global and far-reaching constructs about identity, like the relationship between who we are and where we call home.
A current of that idea runs through Subterranean Homesick Cumbia, the P.3 contribution from Los Angeles-based audio/visual artists, Los Jaichackers (Julio Morales and Eamon Ore-Giron). Their two-channel video installation focuses on the accordion’s historical migration down the Amazon and the Mississippi rivers, using footage of the instrument floating down the Amazon in Peru and entering New Orleans through the Industrial Canal.
Together, the images are meant to reflect what Morales called a kind of “cultural flow” in which the same instrument traversed the Western Hemisphere’s largest rivers and, from there, played central roles in two distinct forms of regional folk music: cumbia, in Latin America, and zydeco in North America.
Morales likened the piece to “a fever dream” in which the accordion “ends up taking on an animal form when it’s floating in the river.” And that visual representation of something alive, traveling along its two versions of home, makes a deeper statement about connections between the Americas.
Peruvian videographer, photographer and sculptor David Zink-Yi’s video installation, Horror Vacui,looks at the folk music of Latin American cultures from a different perspective. By combining footage of a Latin band rehearsal with that of various Afro-Cuban musical rituals, Zink-Yi’s piece explores connections between musical self-expression and moments of religious uplift with a specific focus on how negative space or breaks in music create individual sounds and collective polyrhythms.
Among Prospect.3’s most global riffs on music culture is a piece by Christopher Myers and artist collective the Propeller Group.
“We’re working to create a second line of sorts that draws from the jazz-inflected funerals of Saigon as well as the long traditions in New Orleans. To that end, we are designing and filming a procession that starts in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and ends in New Orleans,” Myers wrote in an email. (The installation had yet to be named at press time.)
“The exciting thing about New Orleans, and this incarnation of Prospect, is that it’s international, but in a local way,” Myers added. “The world has traveled through New Orleans, and leaves bits of itself behind, making the whole place—the culture, the people—a document of world history and culture.”
It’s also true that New Orleans is uniquely, well, New Orleans. In some ways, our very insularity is part of what makes us exciting and different. There’s a place for that aspect of the city, too, inProspect 3. A satellite program dubbed P.3+ shines a light on the work of local artists while cultivating a relationship with the New Orleans art community.
Slated to go on view at the former St. Maurice Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, Space Ritescombines visual art and music with a community-oriented vibe that extends beyond the local art scene. It’s the brainchild of New Orleans Airlift, the folks who created the Music Box, a village of musical houses in the Bywater in 2011. Like that project, Space Rites is designed to encourage sound-oriented community interaction—in this case, via artist Taylor Lee Shepherd’s “altar” of oscilloscopes.
An oscilloscope is an instrument that visually displays non-electrical signals like sound in electric waveform. Shepherd’s oscilloscopes are made from reclaimed television sets that have been wired to broadcast voices or instruments in the form of light, creating a visual accompaniment to the sound being made by the performers or visitors. “I think of it as painting,” says Shepherd. “You can use big, gestural strokes and washes of color and light with sound. It’s responsive, real-time.”
In addition to inviting local musicians such as Rob Cambre to perform through the oscilloscopes, Airlift has arranged to have Rev. Charles W. Duplessis of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, whose congregation was displaced by Katrina, deliver his sermons through the installation on Sundays.
“Having made a bunch of friends in the community,” says Airlift Artistic Director Delaney Martin, “it’s a good time for us to shine together.”