New Orleans and the Dark Prince of Finance

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Having spent a month now in New Orleans, I found that there aren’t many places that wear their history on their sleeves the way New Orleans does. A rich and difficult history  stretching over hundreds of years, making it a place where a constant and often painful dialogue with past is present. A past that is still hard to deal with while simultaneously informing its rich culture. Throughout my stay here at the Deltaworkers this history presented itself to me in very real and visceral ways.

Connected, but less viscerally present, is perhaps the role New Orleans and Louisiana played in the development of our current financial system. New Orleans served as the ‘subject of investment’ of what we might call the first modern financial bubble in history. As it turns out, the founding of New Orleans has a peculiar relationship to our current global economic system.

To understand this we have to go back to the year 1716. Louisiana was already under French rule, but the city itself, New Orleans was yet to be founded. The Louisiana territory stretched out all the way in the Mississippi River valley of North America and was believed to be full of potential, ready to be discovered and mined for resources. By that time the french economy was in ruins. The wars waged by Louis XIV left the country completely wasted, both economically and financially. France was desperate for an answer, and in 1716 the John Law, a Scottish economic theorist, and financial wizard established the Banque Generale in France. Law proposed to stimulate industry by replacing gold with paper credit, increasing the supply of credit, and to reduce the national debt by replacing it with shares in economic ventures.

So under the control of Law the Banque General obtained the authority to issue notes. A decision Influenced by the time John Law had spent in Amsterdam. During his time there he was impressed by the share system of the Dutch East Indies Compagnie and the Bank of Amsterdam. He noted its contribution to the prowess of the Dutch in their trade and commercial endeavours, (despite having no more natural advantages than for instance his native Scotland). Furthermore The Bank of Amsterdam had created an internal system where merchants could settle their accounts by direct cashless transfer. Although impressed John Law simultaneously felt the system fell short – The Bank of Amsterdam never issued bank notes to the public.

Determined to improve this Law concocted a breathtaking modification of the financial institutions he had encountered in Amsterdam, combining the properties of a monopoly trading company like the Dutch East-Indies Company and a public bank. If these were in place the sky would be the limit, or so he thought.

Law had moved to France and had worked his way up in French society which was run at that time by the Duke of Orléans, who functioned as a regent for the youthful king Louis XV who was not yet of ruling age. With the support of the duke, Law was ready to unleash a whole new system of finance on a unsuspecting nation. A year after they founded the Banque Generale, they established the Compagnie de l’Occident which obtained the exclusive privileges to develop the vast French territories in the Mississippi River valley of North America. New Orleans, named to flatter the susceptible Duke of Orléans,  was to become the flourishing harbor town trough which all the goods would be exported to Europe. Law’s company soon monopolised the French tobacco and African slave trades.  By 1719 the Compagnie des Indes, as it had been renamed held a complete monopoly of France’s colonial trade. Law took over the collection of French taxes and the minting of money and in effect controlled both the country’s foreign trade and its finances.

Frenchmen regardless of rank were encouraged to buy shares into the new company. In Law’s vision the whole nation of France would become a body of traders. The huge profits would come from the development of Louisiana,  which he projected as a garden of eden, taking the success the dutch east-indies as an example. The stockprice of the Compagnie des Indes soared. Scenes of frenzy took over the streets of Paris and a classic stockmarket loop unfolded – the more expansive the share price became, the more people wanted to buy them.

However, to pay out the returns promised to the first buyers of shares, Law could not use the profits of the company as these were yet to be made. He instead used the money earned by selling even more shares, while simultaneously pumping more money into the economy through his Banque Generale. France was in the grip of a mania.

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Meanwhile in Louisiana the new colony still lacked settlers. As the frenchmen were more interested in stockmarket speculation than colonisation, John Law recruited men from the franco-german borderlands to colonise Louisiana. Several thousands of bold germans signed up and set sail to the promised land. But Louisiana did not turn out to be the land of riches that John Law had painted it to be. Instead they ended up in a insect infested swamp and it turned out that the monopoly in trade with Louisiana was worthless. Soon rumors started to circulate in Paris and the share price started to drop, rapidly. Angry crowds started gathering at Law’s bank. And by December, only a month after the stocks had launched, the shares had lost more than 90 percent of their value. The Mississippi bubble had burst.

The anger of the crowd started to direct itself towards Law and he was forced to flee the country and soon became europe’s most hated man. Not only did the Mississippi Bubble take down the French economy but it took the rest of Europe with it. The world’s first global stock market bubble had suddenly burst and along with it destroyed the dreams and fortunes of speculators in London, Paris, and Amsterdam overnight. Law became the subject of ridicule and mockery as he became the posterboy for everything that was perceived to be wrong about speculation within this new stockmarket system.

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A document that seems to be a perfect testament to this can be found in the Williams Research Centre here in New Orleans – a book of Dutch of satirical prints, plays, poetry, commentary, and financial prospectuses entitled Het groote Tafereel de Dwaasheid (The Great Mirror of Folly). Flicking through the book one can see scenes of desperate tradesmen holding up signs containing cries of help. A Devil who by means of bellows inserted into the rectum of a trader, inflates him to the point where he starts to vomit share-papers over a cheering crowd. The drawings are as dense as they are crude and filled with an incredibly dark sense of humour. We see John Law triumphantly feeding a desperate man while he simultaneously shits stock papers over a frenzied crowd. It is perhaps the first document to so viscerally depict the anger towards the failure of a financial system. It perfectly illustrates the folly and misfortune of speculators in a unique and lavish record of the financial crisis and its cultural dimensions. The book presents incredibly effective metaphors. Stocktraders are consequently named is ‘windverkopers’ and “windkopers” which translates as windsalesman. Referring to the wind that is necessary for the boats to make trade possible, while at the same time referencing the game of gamble and the empty promises of John Law.

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I cannot help but draw a curious parallel in these metaphors when thinking about the role of wind in the economy, when considering New Orleans. As Katrina it blew away the homes and lives of people it simultaneously paved the way for a wave of privatisations while citizens were too emotionally and physically distracted by the disaster. A logic that perhaps sound too crude, but is perfectly exemplified by the article Milton Friedman wrote for the Wall Street Journal only weeks after Katrina. In this article called The Promise of Vouchers’ he wrote that the chaos hurricane Katrina left behind, offered the perfect opportunity to privatise the school system. To this the Friedmanite American Enterprise Institute would later add “”Katrina accomplished in a day what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying”. The logic not only effected the school system but for instance also the public housing, of which large parts were replaced with mixed income housing with Goldman & Sachs being one its main investors. Perhaps it is fruitful to attempt to connect this history of New Orleans and the criticism and metaphors present in Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid, to understand the current tenets of capitalism in relation to the changes it engendered in post-katrina New Orleans.

To be continued…

Sometimes, in New Orleans

Some memories of my Deltaworkers’ residency…
Thank you so much Maaike and Joris for making it happen and to make my time in the residency wonderful. And also a big thank you to Maggie and Dawn DeDeaux for their precious help!

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mercredi 11 novembre 2015
Wednesday 11th of November 2015

La lumière attaque la surface rugueuse des briques,
laissant seulement la chaussée dans l’ombre.
Il parle tout seul – au bord de l’artère aux voitures filantes.

L’air chaud s’échappe des corps et du bitume,
et aussi, l’odeur forte caressante des cuisines des cantines sur St Bernard Ave.
Ils, la réparent encore – la vieille ford grise, sous les arbres.

Les couleurs s’immiscent à l’orée du jour,
écrasant les reliefs à cette heure là du Sud. Les berges du Canal s’assombrissent.
Elle, d’un autre âge, roule son cyclo-pousse rose scintillant, en chantant – I will love you forever.

Et les trois soeurs, la nuit tombée, rentrent à la maison,
oubliant derrière elles la journée passée.
Elle, la plus petite, chante aussi – And I will meet you, you, you again.

——-

The light strikes the rough surface of the bricks,
Leaving only the pavement in the shadows.
He speaks to himself- at the edge of the road to the cars shooting past.

The hot air rushes out from the bodies and the tarmac,
Along with the strong, caressing smell from the kitchens on St Bernard Ave.
They fix it again- the old grey Ford, under the trees.

Colours interfere at dawn,
Crushing reliefs at this hour of the day (in the South). The banks of the Canal darken.
She, from another age, rides her shiny pink trishaw, singing – I will love you forever.

And the three sisters, in the twilight, go back home,
Leaving the past day behind them.
She, the smallest one, also sings- And I will meet you, you, you again.

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).

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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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