I went to New Orleans over the weekend to the opening of the city-wide arts biennial, Prospect.1. The gorgeous bluebird skies and perfect 75 degree days were conducive to driving around the city, locating arts sites, and exploring neighborhoods I’d never set foot in before. Actually in the two days I had allotted to Prospect.1, I managed to see such a miniscule part of the entire event that I’ve promised myself to hightail it down to New Orleans every free moment I get between now and the show’s closing on January 18, in an attempt to take it all in.

Prospect.1 is not like any art show I’ve ever seen before. Art turns up in all sorts of manifestations. There’s the photography show at the L9 center for the arts in the Ninth Ward where one gallery exhibits a series of photographs by Keith Calhoun that date back to the 1970s depicting everything from second lines to baptisms. On the other side of the shotgun house which houses the gallery are another series of the photographer’s prints, etched by a dousing in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. Around the corner, in the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture, an old corner store, Sebastián Preece has hauled chunks of foundations from flooded and ruined buildings as a sort of urban archeology exhibit. As interesting as Preece’s take is on the storm, it was just as fascinating to walk around the interior of the old store, musing on what had been for sale once upon a time before the city sank. Closer to the levee break, Mark Bradford’s huge ark, a stranded boat built of plywood plastered with tattered paper advertisements stood poignantly alone in a sandy lot in a neighborhood still uninhabited.

The following day I made it to several of the sites in Bywater, in a section of town now called the St. Claude Arts District. The Charles J. Colton School, closed by the Recovery District, has reemerged as a beehive of artistic activity. One show I loved was a room filled with pianos, some missing their soundboards, some without keys. A bit of poking around revealed CD players tucked into the pianos. You had to have the initiative to press “Play” to turn the exhibit on. Ragtime, boogie-woogie, Fess, Cajun fiddles, classical etudes, brass bands — all sorts of New Orleans and Cajun music filled the room, perhaps formerly the school’s cafeteria. There was no sign I could find listing the artist’s name, or the title of the piece. But that sense of being open for interpretation was one of the things I enjoyed about the show.

There are hundreds of shadow exhibits that have sprung up in response to Prospect.1, housed in adjacent galleries to the sites, or just out in an empty lot. Artists are in full creative mode, pieces are going up daily, and the energy is contagious. It’s as if visiting the biennial is like participating as an artist yourself. Perhaps it’s the heady delight in wandering around neighborhoods that I had deemed too dangerous before Katrina. Walking down St. Claude and over to the St. Roch Tavern, a typical neighborhood bar of the Vic and Nat’ly sort made me feel like I was back in the New Orleans of the 1970s.

And that’s one of the objectives of this huge city-wide exhibit. Curator Dan Cameron gets it — the need to heal the city from the ground up. Neither bureaucrats nor politicians have been able to reach deep into the collective need to resurrect this city’s soul. But artists are always a few steps ahead of politicians, and it’s this explosion of art that is drawing uptowners to St. Claude Avenue, and folks from Central City into the marble halls of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Yes, international tourists will come, but this is a time for the residents of Louisiana to really get to know all the neighborhoods and meet the neighbors. This is a time to let go of both fear and frustration and go see so many amazing creative responses to the storms of 2005, and maybe find some answers to the big question mark that is 2008. 

Here’s a review of Prospect.1 from the New York Times. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg, you really need to go see this exhibit, event, happening, for yourself.

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