Lost & Found in Louisiana

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I’ve been back in Canada for almost a month. Sifting through audio recordings of my time in Louisiana, I’m transported back to Cajun country. Shuffling over corn meal on the dance floor, couples two-stepping the night away. T-fer, rub board, accordion, twin fiddles ringing through the night, the singer hollering, “Somebody scream!” 

I started the residency thinking I’d explore an endangered culture. With the French language being spoken by so few in Louisiana today, I expected to find that the culture was caught between holding onto an image fabricated for tourists – the story of Evangeline regurgitated – and a scraping together of the old ways still clinging to the sides of the cast iron pot. What I found, though, was a place that has adapted and evolved; a place where it’s possible to dig up the past through ancient ballads and stories and breathe new life into them. Keeping things moving forward by using the archives as a starting point and not as a tomb. I know there are always things lost, things forgotten. As we age, there’s only so much we can hold onto. Yet, it seems the spirit of L’Acadie burns brighter in Louisiana, with more tenacity and swagger than the L’Acadie of my ancestors in Canada.

The Pine Leaf Boys with Cedric Watson at Vermilionville during Black Pot in October 2015.

I am grateful to everyone that shared their stories with me, who shared contacts and took time to give me a window into Cajun culture in Louisiana. As the first Canadian Deltaworker, Maaike, Joris, Maggie and Dawn helped make my time in Louisiana magical. Over the coming months, I’ll be sifting through and editing the recordings for a series of radio pieces as well as an audio installation. In this clip, Bruneaux Miller describes a contraption he has rigged up to roast a large hog at Lakeview Campground outside of Eunice.

Documenting The Colour Out Of Space

Amy Mackie and Ricardo Barba, who are running the artspace PARSE in the Central Business District, invited us to curate an exhibition in their space in 2015. This was the first time we as Deltaworkers had the opportunity to showcase ourselves to the city by way of exhibition making. We came up with a format for a rotating exhibition: 3 films by international makers, Terrence Nance, Melanie Bonajo and Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorentz, were on continues display. One of these films was projected while the other two were shown on a flatscreen. The moment a film ‘premiered’ in the projection room we organised an event where we asked local artists and academics to react to the thematics the film dealt with. Read more about it in the press release for The Colour Out Of Space.

A lot of documentation was shot and we wanted to share some of it with y’all.

Photos by Jacob Dwyer, Maggie McWilliams, Maaike Gouwenberg and Guy Tem. Many thanks to everyone who made this possible: all the artists involved, PARSE, Prospect New Orleans, Xavier University, May Gallery, David Sullivan, International Film Festival Rotterdam and Fonds Kwadraat (f.k.a Het Materiaalfonds).

DAT LIKWID LAND

It has been just over a week since I returned from New Orleans. A city in which the familiar is skewed out of form like a classically gridded American road system warped by the curves of the river it flanks.

What I’m left with is a bank of imagery with more flavours than Elizabeth Shannon’s gumbo. A bank of imagery that began through research into John Kennedy Tooles unparalleled literary creation, Ignatius J Reilly, but grew through encounters and situations that I could never have imagined.

10 days ago I was in Jean Lafitte swamp on self balancing Swegway with Robert Swain. I’d met Robert Swain one day earlier in a challenging morning on a hazy stroll through a park by the Mississippi River. And now we were here… Swain in full Mardi Gras dress expounding on the concept of Liquid Land and occasionally asking other unwitting guests of the swamp where he’d left his drums? This is pretty much how things went down. These are the images I am left with and there are many people (many legends) who I have to thank for them. Specifically though I would like to thank Joris and Maaike who supported throughout the residency almost like the mausoleums below…

SEND EM HOME WITH A MOTHER FUCKIN BANG BITCH…

Dave Greber is Tripping

Born in the mid 1970s, I grew up understanding that “tripping” was that thing that happens when one takes LSD or mushrooms or some other type of hallucinogenic substance. By the 1990s, I found myself casually using the word to imply that someone was a bit out of the ordinary, but not necessarily on drugs. In the context of New Orleans’ artist Dave Greber’s new video, “Staying Connected: In the Void,” 2015, “tripping” is physicalized through a snippet from his recent journey along the Appalachian Trail. The four-minute piece is the first video Greber has made since he embarked on his “trip” seven months ago and it was created entirely on his smart phone. It functions as a modified video selfie of Greber walking through the woods while detailing his use of social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr as a platform for his artwork in lieu of his physical presence in society.

Deltaworkers commissioned Greber to create “Staying Connected” as a response to Melanie Bonajo’s “Night Soil/Fake Paradise,” 2014 included in the exhibition “The Colour Out of Space” they curated at PARSE. Bonajo’s video of richly composed visuals consists of a series of voiceovers of women recounting their spiritual, sexual, and emotional responses to the hallucinogenic plant, ayahuasca. Greber’s “trippy” video never mentions any hallucinogenic substance, but refers to “the void” as a mysterious place of potential enlightenment. For large portions of the video his mouth and eyes have been erased while the shell of his form remains. In addition to his ongoing voiceover, Greber has inserted quirky one-liners and sardonic sound effects throughout, playfully eradicating the possibility of too much heavy philosophical discourse.

Greber was raised Quaker, so it is not surprising that spiritual quests and alternate ways of seeing are entrenched in much of his work. In an artist talk he gave in 2014 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans, he talked about how he entertained himself during lengthy and largely silent Quaker services as a child by inducing phosphenes. This is the phenomenon that occurs when one rubs their eyes and “sees stars.” This natural way of “tripping” was the inspiration for much of Greber’s early work and it established a language and context that continues in his current explorations. “Staying Connected,” recalls this sensation while considering the relationship between the constructed world of the Internet and the nebulous space one enters when “off the grid.” Though he has managed to escape from most of the trappings of urban society over many months in the woods and essentially tap into yet another dimension, Greber has relied on social media to remain connected to this reality. As he reintegrates into civilization in the weeks ahead, the nuances of his journey may disappear, yet his transformation remains. Perhaps he will experience the ultimate afterimage of all seen and unseen in the void.

October 2015

My Deltaworkers residency started in the desert, in Taos, New Mexico. I decided to ride a motorcycle to New Orleans, half inspired by the 1969 road movie Easy Rider, but mainly because I like the contemplative space riding a motorcycle on one’s own creates.

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I was attracted to the Deltaworkers residency program because of the nomadic spirit of the founders. While based in New Orleans, the organisation encourages artists to spread their wings and explore the Southern States. As a radiomaker, my practice depends on throwing myself into new situations and talking to people. As a Canadian – particularly because I grew up on the border of the U.S –  I’ve always been fascinated by the United States. Riding a bike east from New Mexico, across the Texas panhandle and into New Orleans seemed like an appropriate way to contemplate the mythos of the American South.

I flew down to Taos from my home in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, a small subarctic city in Canada, in mid-October. I found a few bikes for $2,000U.S or under on Craigslist. I drove out to see one of them, ended up lost on the mesa and drove onto a property with ‘No Trespassing’ signs. The folks that lived there threatened to shoot me (turns out they were harvesting marijuana) if I didn’t get out of there. Needless to say, finding a motorcycle in New Mexico was not as easy as I thought it would be. Thankfully, a friend of mine spotted an ad in a Taos Laundromat which turned out to be the dream bike. Not only was it a solid bike that was light and easy to handle on the road, the guy I bought it from, Greg, took great pride in the old bikes he fixed up and pleaded with me to bring it back to New Mexico someday.

With my recording gear in a small hard shell suitcase bungeed to the back of the bike, I rode 1500 miles from Taos to New Orleans. Greg called me periodically as I made my way east to see how the bike was running. The route I took across the Texas panhandle took me into small towns and I took my time getting to Louisiana.

New Orleans is a wild, beautiful city but the focus of my research is in Cajun country. I spent time in Lafourche, St. Landry, Evangeline, Acadia and Lafayette Parishes.

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The origins of Fried Chicken

One of my favourite things to do in the Southern States is road tripping. Obviously my life here is largely determined by the needs and whereabouts of the residents. If one of them wants/needs to undertake a road trip and time permits me to tag along I always do a little dance of joy. At the very start of the 2015 residency period, when Jacob Dwyer was the only resident that had arrived yet, our landlady Dawn DeDeaux needed to get some things from her studio in Fairhope, Alabama. Jacob, Maaike and me all jumped in the car and off we went.

Sunset at Fairhope

Sunset at Fairhope

Two things I like to do when road tripping in the U.S. are listening to the country radio channel and laugh about poetic gems like ‘She Cranks My Tractor’, ‘Redneck Crazy’ or ‘Drunk on a Plane’, and talking about food. Locals aren’t usually so into laughing about cheesy country songs and since Dawn was with us we spent the ride talking about food. Days before we had entered a discussion about which place in New Orleans served the best fried chicken, probably because the landmark closest to our new compound is a Popeyes. Now we were wondering where fried chicken actually comes from. Most U.S. foods can be traced back to European, African or even Asian dishes quite easily. For fried chicken none of us was very sure. It’s definitely one of the most popular foods in the South and we thought we might be on to one of the very few truly U.S. foods here!

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Not entirely sure about this I did what we do these days in such situations: I searched Wikipedia. Turns out that fried chicken comes from Scotland and West Africa, two countries from which a very large part of the Southern people originally came. The Scots in search for freedom and independence, the people from several West African countries as slaves. Scots would fry chicken in lard unlike the rest of North Europe, where they would usually bake chicken. But the most important influence on the taste of fried chicken today came from the West African slaves: the spices in the batter. Slaves were usually allowed to keep a few chickens and they would fry them on special occasions, adding local spices to increase the flavour.

The rest of the trip we spent thinking of an original U.S. food that one could eat with class and dignity, without getting sauce and/or grease all over the place. We concluded at Waffle House eating bacon, eggs, hash browns and pecan waffles for breakfast. We did eat with knifes and forks.

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Thunder Cheese Circle

A true addict speaking from the heart

This late summer I arrived early at Camp Abundance Bee Farm (Deltaworkers HQ for the coming years). After stepping into the compounds garden I received a warm welcome of Dawn DeDeaux, our land lady. Not only is Dawn DeDeaux a true New Orleanian and great artist but also the only female winner ever of the Demolition Derby at the Super Dome in New  Orleans. So she knows how to rock. The welcome this time was accompanied by Popeye’s fried chicken (more about that soon) but most important were the Old Fashioned and Thunder Cheese, the real smoothers at the compound.

Dawn DeDeaux

Old Fashioned is the first cocktail Joris and I ever drank in New Orleans. Dawn’s specific Old Fashioned recipe: whiskey, oranges, bitters, maraschino cherries and some magic that none of us campers will ever match.

On to the Thunder Cheese, another magic snack that is so overwhelming in taste that once your mouth has come in contact with it, t, this seductive devil keeps you on your seat craving for more and more and more.

Thunder Cheese is one of the simplest snacks you can imagine but like Dawn’s Old Fashioned’s, this cheese trickster uses magic in its combination of ingredients. Sharp Cheddar, Montery Jack, pecans, dash of mayonaise and a royal amount of red chili pepper flakes create heaven and kicks in like Thunder: Boom!

Thunder Cheese has a dubious history and is not easy to find. We keep its origins close to the city and belong to the group that believes its a true New Orleans recipe. Even though the recipe is online it is a tough one to find in stores around town. There is basically only one good supplier that keeps its secret pretty well hidden. Once you know it and taste it, you won’t share this source with everyone. I will also not do this here but am very happy to share some with you when back in New Orleans. Myths around its origin are conflicted. It might come from the first contacts between the Brits and the Tabasco family. More clear is the history of a few ingredients; the pecan from New Orleans / Louisiana, the red chilli pepper from the Tabasco farms, and the sharp cheddar from British cheddar that accidentally aged during the long trip from the UK to Avery Island. The more dubious ingredients are the Montery Jack cheese, which is already a mix between the spicy South and the cheesy Nnorth, and also the mayonaise (Spanish origins but the French made it the popular sauce) which basically is the basic lubricant in too many good dishes. Maybe the amount of mayo is where the magic of the taste and texture lies.
So if Thunder Cheese is born from the clash between different cultures, the lightning that comes with thunder could be the enlightened conversations that follow after eating this beloved and addictive snack.

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In the last months Thunder Cheese has proven to be the holy snack, that combined with misses Dawn’s Old Fashioned’s brings the best in all of us. It serves as the starter for wonderful conversations, heated discussions, artistic projects, juicy stories, pole dancing contests and sometimes even out of world experiences. Thunder Cheese is the true binder of exquisite tastes and our newly found god. We welcome our artists with Thunder Cheese and when the days are too sunny or too rainy, we bring a visit to our supplier to keep the campers calm and happy.

We thank you Thunder Cheese

The Thing

I do a lot of driving. My hometown isn’t far enough to take a plane, but close enough for the expectation of regular visits. So I drive a lot.

I drove our resident, Jacob, to Jean Lafitte’s Nature Preserve recently. We both had never been. I felt ashamed of this having lived in New Orleans for five years. Both of us had heard about it from others. Jacob heard that it wasn’t worth it. I had heard that it was. But, still, I was skeptical. Being from Louisiana, I take the swamp for granted. As this heavy, very recognizable thing. My mistake is thinking recognition translates into knowing.

We arrive at Jean Laffite’s. “Parking lot closes at 5pm,” read a sign. We begin the first trail and it takes us some time. Jacob is filming the swamp and I am photographing Jacob. The raised wooden path is about three and a half feet wide. I’m wearing the wrong shoes. Sandals with a little wedge. We are alone mostly and we chat about the scene. Still, I’m photographing Jacob filming the swamp.

Jacob Dwyer

We finish that trail and Jacob wants to continue on to another one. We won’t make it back in time for closing if we both go so I walk back the way we came to get the car while he continues on.

I trip a little on the trail and take off my shoes for the walk back. Being barefoot feels electric like I’m really close to what holds me in this space but always never touching. I become increasingly aware of the atmosphere around me. Everything feels very familiar, shapes and colors I grew up with. But now they are enveloping and I realize just how unfamiliar they are. There is another feeling heavy in my awareness. I’m afraid of water. No, that isn’t it. It’s the thing that formed the fear. It’s the swamp. And I find myself immersed.

So what am I afraid of? The unknowable?

Books

It has recently become clear to me that in this day and age the only non pretentious function of books is to keep your hat flat.

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In the past the book on the top of the pile (written AD 523) had another function… it was the mantra by which the fictional character Ignatius J Reilly lived and understood his life in John Kennedy Tooles novel A Confederacy of Dunces (written 1963). Through the outsider Ignatius we spiral through New Orleans to the will of Fortuna: “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel”. I’m here searching for that wheel. Maybe I can get into its slipstream.