Doing the Time: On Paul Chan

Doing the Time: On Paul Chan

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans is a field guide to the life of an idea worked out in a community over eight months.


Paul Chan first traveled to New Orleans in 2006 to give an artist’s talk at Tulane University. He returned a year later to stage, with the backing of the art organization Creative Time, an unforgettable example of ephemeral public art: five gratis productions of Waiting for Godot, performed by the Classical Theater of Harlem in the flood-ravaged and mostly abandoned neighborhoods of Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward. In subsequent panel conversations and publications, the most recent being the collection Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide (Creative Time; $45), Chan repeatedly used the word "hallucination" to convey the city’s haunting silence and unnerving darkness, and the parlous prospects for anything still alive and writhing. Grim and forsaken, post-Katrina New Orleans was an ideal setting for a play in which little happens in a blank landscape. But what is Chan really getting at when he calls the city a hallucination?

Part of it is the delirious cruelty of reality. Against its will, New Orleans was reconceived on the sly. A federally mandated wave of privatization outsourced rebuilding mostly to private contractors instead of using unemployed local residents. Three thousand city workers were fired. Dozens of public schools were closed and replaced by privatized charter schools. Housing projects were razed to make way for condos. All this, of course, came after federal funds initially earmarked for fortifying New Orleans’s levees were siphoned into Bush’s beloved Homeland Security Fund. Lately, another avoidable environmental catastrophe has again made southern Louisiana the country’s primary site of mass public humiliation and anguish. "That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth." That’s not Antoine Batiste in Treme but Pozzo in Godot.

I think Chan’s use of "hallucination" might also apply to the surreal texture of daily life in New Orleans. In a country so devoted to notions of privacy and the individual and so allergic to the public and collective, to label New Orleans "anomalous" within its American context is to shortchange reality. To call it a hardcore social hallucination does not. In New York, the only other American city where spontaneous cross-cultural interaction is commonplace, thousands see you daily and hardly anyone acknowledges you. The average stranger’s affectation is annoyance at your invasion of a private moment. In New Orleans, disarming greetings, good-natured hustles and the general feeling of being enmeshed in everyone else’s business is unavoidable, and if you’re caught mispronouncing Tchoupitoulas or Burgundy, prepare to discuss what brought you to the Big Easy, bud. A stranger’s affectation, and it’s debatable that it is an affectation at all, is to care more than anything for a moment.

The de facto spokesperson of the New Orleans art community is undoubtedly the mixed-media artist Willie Birch. After the storm, during a panel on the art of recovery that also featured Chan, Birch thundered, "New Orleans found out how different it was in relationship to the rest of the United States. They found that it was community based. They found that the city, the core, as far as I’m concerned, comes from the bottom." Not everyone evokes New Orleans’s difference as baldly as this, but anyone who has spent time here can feel it, and it’s not just purple houses or étouffée: it’s the surrealism of public space. A brass band might burst into a bar, blow a few riffs into the smoky air and vanish just as abruptly. People hang out in folding chairs and drink beer in street medians. Hustlers prowl the French Quarter telling anyone whose eye they catch, "I can guess exactly where you got those shoes." When they guess correctly that you got them right now on the ground at the corner of Decatur and Toulouse, they’ll shine those shoes with dish soap and a rag and triumphantly cock their head, awaiting a tip. I can’t even step outside my ground-level apartment to tend to some domestic task without an air of performance, knowing better than to disappoint the half-dozen or so porch-sitting or window-gazing sets of eyes trained on me.

* * *

After Katrina, it wasn’t uncommon for out-of-town artists to visit the city and gawk with their Nikons or seek "inspiration" amid the rubble. They became known to the local art community as carpetbaggers. In late August one such ethically debatable project by an out-of-town artist traveled from the New York gallery ClampArt to New Orleans’s Ogden Museum: Dave Anderson’s portraits of residents of one Lower Ninth Ward block striving to rebuild their homes and lives after the storm. The issue isn’t necessarily that Anderson’s lush photographs of architectural debris and the grim faces of determined New Orleanians are patronizing. What nags is the bad form of venturing into a disaster zone with the primary intent of creating a personal body of work.

In "That Tree, That Levee," her contribution to Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, the writer Anne Gisleson wonders whether disaster tourism is contaminating New Orleans from within: "With all this post-Katrina cultural boosterism, I feel as though we’re in danger of self-parody and provincialism, always pointing our fingers back at our own ‘uniqueness’ but always at the same uniquenesses, which become more and more commodified, less and less attached to their origins and ultimately threatening the true cultural strength of the city." In other words, by having second-line brass bands escort the audience for Waiting for Godot to their seats and serving those audiences gumbo, Chan was toeing a paper-thin line between summoning the "authentic" New Orleans and the one that has been the subject of voyeuristic awe.

A Field Guide goes to great lengths to make plain that the verdict doesn’t apply to the bulk of Chan’s Godot effort. Part scrapbook, part artist’s book, and arranged thematically under chapter headings like "Remember," "Relate" and "Organize," the book is a multivocal project description. There are nineteen authors, none of whom could be considered a primary one, and their contributions foreground the daily grind: complex itineraries, eternal to-do lists and artless snapshots of sites in progress or people engaged in discussions, negotiations and rehearsals. In a 2007 artist statement reprinted in the book, Chan says that he’s "allergic to working with people." Curious, then, how adamantly the book trumpets the project’s social dimension and how completely Chan immersed himself in it. For those who participated in the project, its only heroic dimension was its inclusiveness. The performances of Godot, by all accounts incredible, are, if anything, downplayed. Creative Time curator Nato Thompson writes, "We realized that this social-organizing model is endemic to how New Orleans, as a culture, gets things done." A Field Guide isn’t about the plays; it’s about the life of an idea worked out in a community over eight months.

Chan understood something about New Orleans that most artists working in a site-specific way fail to grasp, despite the lip service they pay it in their press kits: the significance of simply being in the city for the long haul. The magic of Chan’s Godot wasn’t only that it drew large numbers of people to largely empty and mostly black neighborhoods of a very segregated city; it was Chan’s insistence on maintaining transparency throughout a collective process. Potluck dinners and community meetings were as much a priority as the production of the play, and Chan made time to teach both a semester-long contemporary art seminar at the University of New Orleans and practicum workshops for student artists at Xavier University. By "doing the time," the project mantra of The Field Guide, Chan acquired enough local knowledge to recommend arts and civic organizations for donations from his Shadow Fund, a little-known facet of the Godot project for which Chan and Creative Time corralled donations of more than $45,000.

* * *

A few months ago, during a panel discussion at the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center on collaborative art-making, one panelist matter-of-factly used the derogatory term "plop art" to describe public work that makes no attempt at a social connection to its site. The boundary between good and bad public art is a thorny one, but most of the public art projects funded by the local arts council in the wake of Katrina qualify as plop. A social gathering does not automatically make good public art, but the most memorable public art I’ve experienced here has been social in nature.

For a period of four weeks in May and June, four women from a group called Life is Art Collective established a semipublic residency for themselves called Eiffel Society in a majestic, vacant restaurant that was once a section of the Eiffel Tower. They referred to their activities (creating a biodynamic garden, hosting invited guest artists, focusing on their art, living in public) as a "living installation/performance" and vowed to remain on site for the entire month. Visitors were welcome and were generously guided through the architectural curiosity and given lengthy studio visits. The group’s previous projects include several feasts and the establishment of an urban farm at its St. Roch headquarters tended by neighborhood kids who sell the fruits and vegetables to local restaurants.

AORTA Projects, a grassroots organization run by the dynamic New Orleans artist Elizabeth Underwood, has established a reputation in the city for fostering antiplop public art. After securing sites in neglected or storm-damaged areas through negotiations with local government and church leaders and by simply listening to the needs of residents, Underwood invites artists to create work that prompts dialogue with residents and community leaders. For Pittsburgh artist Sean Derry’s 2007 project in the Mid-City neighborhood, thirty-five life-sized, car-shaped fabric balloons were inflated with a bellows system designed by the artist in an unused parking lot. Derry’s installation caused exactly the ripple effect Underwood hoped for: the local press subsequently reported on the impoverished conditions of the neighborhood; artists, residents and nearby homeless men and women commingled at the site, where free food was available; and the business adjacent to the parking lot began to tend to its property.

At the height of the siege of Sarajevo in 1993, Susan Sontag famously produced a version of Waiting for Godot with local actors, and her lengthy essay on the experience is reproduced in Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. "Beckett’s play, written over forty years ago, seems written for, and about, Sarajevo," she wrote. "In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art." When Godot’s messenger boy visits Vladimir and Estragon for the second time to deliver the message that Godot will again not be coming, he asks what response he should deliver to his boss. "Tell him that you saw me," Vladimir responds. There is importance in making suffering visible and transfiguring it through art, but providing visibility isn’t the same as committing to the all-consuming process of listening, especially when you’re countenancing a hallucination on the scale of New Orleans. "You gotta leave something behind for the community," Ronald Lewis, founder of the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum that documents New Orleans’s irrepressible Mardi Gras Indian culture, told Chan when asked how to do Godot in what he considered a locally responsible way. And so Chan left behind almost $50,000 in donations, but the artist who was allergic to working with people also left behind a legacy of accessibility and transparency, and commitment to see the city before the city saw what he wanted to show it. Paul Chan saw New Orleans, but much more important, New Orleans saw Paul Chan.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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