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.