Time Passes and the Gulf Water Rises as New Orleans Airlift Rallies a Culture Against an Impending Apocalypse
by Will Juntunen
“Baptized when the levees broke”. The expression manifests itself on tee shirts silkscreened at Studio BE and upon murals on fences around the Upper Seventh Ward. The expression inspires the lyrics of Erykah Badu and the filmmaking of Spike Lee. The waters of the Great Flood washed away the sins and sinners of an old world and left Noah a new world still tinged by the culture of the old. For example, why was Noah put in charge and not his wife? In a similar key, all contemporary New Orleans art that is authentic is Postdiluvian. One has to look for a stain of flood water in the paint. The epitome of post-Katrina artists revel in baptism in the waters of the storm surge and continually reject the tincture of racism, apartheid, segregation, patriarchy and stratification. A constant striving visible in this finer art seeks to remake New Orleans culture anew.
(Top) L: Roving Village City Park, 2015. photo Tod Seelie. R: Pitchbow House
(Bottom) L: first Music Box ,Piety Street, 2011. photo Morgan Sass. R: MVP, End State
To these heights, New Orleans Airlift raises its audience and collaborators, and the separation between audience and collaborators thins rapidly. On the slope of a new levee engineered to hold back floods and sea surges if a Category 5 hurricane directly strikes the city once more, New Orleans Airlift has taken shelter smackwater in the former compound of a metal fabrication concern. In more dire forecasts, there’s no shelter here for more than several decades. The fifty-year plan of the Coastal Protection and Recovery Authority readily concedes polders and polders of the Mississippi Delta to the gulf and has nothing planned that will hold against a Category 6 hurricane or a thousand year flood.
New Orleans Airlift has roots as a collaboration of artists reaching back to the years immediately after Katrina. However, the organization has just formalized itself as a 501-(c)3 organization and consolidated its Music Box Village programming at the compound on the industrial canal. Fairly astute at reaching out to foundations for grants, NOA has begun to build a base of entry-level donors through Kickstarter and events in the village, including two Mardi Gras celebrations, the Music Box Market on Saturday, February 18th and Sirens of Shallows, the first Airlift Masked Ball, Sunday, February 19th, 2017.
“New Orleans is the last great bastion of living folk culture in the United states. Airlift projects honor tradition alongside innovation, leading our artists, culture and communities in meaningful new directions.”
Take any New Orleans organization, and it begins to act and function as a Social Aid and Pleasure Society in February. The only Krewe in New Orleans easier to join would be the Guise of Fawkes, which is more Anonymous than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In the words of Ziggy Marley, the weekend promises to be one Conscious Party.
Delaney Martin, Creative Director of New Orleans Airlift, understands the Krewe structure of New Orleans and how these cells create community, connoisseurship, and excellence. Martin can marry them together through spectacles and events, making societies even if for a single day. One friend who had mastered the art of building street rods in the spirit of The Fast and The Furious. He wanted to move on to building custom street bicycles, the kind where the rider is elevated high above the pavement. He insisted on meeting the high standards of the insiders.
Moved to excitement by his enthusiasm, Martin found gurus in the bike tweaking community for him. This knack for cultural programming made possible the highly successful Spring event, Rally Under the Bridge, transforming the car show into a dynamic exhibition of custom culture art aligned with the Microsoft social outreach called One Million Square Feet of Culture.
Indeed, the collaborator page of NOA seems to function as a panel from a visual programming environment, exposing curated groups and individuals as resources to be plugged into artistic contexts. Take a deconsecrated church in Arabi, add a popular minister without a church for his congregation, add the audio-visual wizardry of Technical Director Taylor Lee Shepherd and add a bit of NOLA savoir-faire. The result, Space Rites, astounded audiences from October through Christmas 2014. In the day of the curated audience of TEDx, New Orleans Airlift is an issuer of credentials, often to people who had never thought of themselves as artists.
Martin might be understood, if comprehended at all, as a person who uses words as magic spells. What makes a house into musical architecture is the inclusion of “gesture”, a way a participant can interact with the structure to produce music. “Collision” evokes the creative process practiced by the collective, taking disparate practitioners and placing them within range of one another. One collision might produce discord and a second, music. One might list these magic words as the creative director speaks. “Yotam”, the Guggenheim honored composer who teaches at the University of New Orleans, discovered NOA and began to compose music in collaboration with them.
Yotam might be a verb in Martin’s vocabulary. At the closing lecture for, SIREN SONG: A Prelude to New Water Music, Yotam Haber and Martin shared the stage at Barrister’s Gallery to share how the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra would employ hundreds of musicians, fish tugs, shrimpers and oyster boats and create an hour long musical spectacle on Lake Ponchartrain, half water ballet, half blessing of the boats and half second line parade in spirit. Skip the math. It’s a recipe for cultural gumbo. Many of the boaters have had their livelihoods threatened by the ecological changes in the Mississippi Delta as civil engineers struggle to save the cities of the delta.
Inspired by Handel’s music Water Music, composed for King George I of England, New Water Music will be presented free to the public in early April and will be used to rally on the beach the food and do-it-yourself community of Gentilly, an ungentrified section of greater New Orleans. A ticketed event at the Orpheum Theater will give Haber’s composition a proper world premier with comfortable seating Thursday, April 6th. A projection produced by filmmaker Isabelle Hayeur will add a maritime environment to the hall. Haber hopes to give life to a popular piece for boats conveying musicians on waterfronts from Lake Michigan to the Dead Sea. He has taken Unsilent Night by Phil Klein as his model while planning for New Water Music.
SIREN SONG opened as the January show at Barrister’s. Gallerist Andy Antippas had challenged the team of Haber, Hayeur and Airlift to use his grottoesque galleries on St. Claude Street to model the spectacle in a minor scale. Behind a four story high black scrim, Haber’s Wine Dark Sea played on endless loop, a heroic anthem that hints at New Water Music. The scrim speaks to the hidden elements that might always characterize Martin’s work.
Antippas has long watched most carefully the rising of artists and collectives in the Crescent City since his days exhibiting art on Royal Street. Surely, he knows the moment when a collective goes up a quantum leap. NOA has readiness to make that leap.
A few issues might delay take-off for Airlift. Delaney Martin cannot be compared to Amanda Palmer, a musician famous for asking musicians to play for free on a tour already funded by Kickstarter.
Martin’s integrity insists on paying as many performers as possible. However, greater art spectacles might require appealing to the power of pure amateurship and the wiki nature of new work. Although NOA’s facility on the industrial canal can be compared to The Factory of Andy Warhol and The Haus of Gaga, we can be sure that The Haus of Gaga and Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World operate at least on a job shop system. A guest with a manufacturing background talked this point to a member of the leadership team at the closing night. She responded, “But how would we allow everyone to collaborate and discuss every single element”?
That’s not an argument. That’s a collision. The same guest might talk about standardization of the Musical House concept with guidance from an architect and a musician. Standardization and documentation would empower enthusiasts to build variations for their hometowns, modeling the Little Free Libraries and Playscapes that have sprouted up everywhere, constructed by teams of locals, barn-raisings in spirit, for their children. That’s not an argument either. Call it one more collision inside of an arts collaborative built to be stochastic.