by Simon(e) van Saarloos
Residencies are not an easy thing because they are actually an easy thing: you are applying to be invited to visit a space. Thus, those who are lucky enough to be invited are also the ones who get to leave, those who can be present like a tide – coming and going, rising, reclining.
I wonder about using a water metaphor in this city. In 2007 engineers from The Netherlands were awarded 150 million dollar to ‘bring’ their ‘Delta Works (de deltawerken)’ knowledge to ‘help’ improve the levees in New Orleans.
This is a photo I took on the bridge towards the Lower Ninth Ward, where our residency house is based, on a Saturday morning, 7 am. I tried to capture the fog and I tried photographing the broken bridge or maybe it was a pathway but it is obviously broken, and I thought about a line by Adrienne Rich. I googled and found: ‘the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth’.
The artists demand to experience something ‘real’. The privileged demand to experience something ‘real’.
While in New Orleans, I got to experience speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin reading a story from her book How Long ’Til Black Future Month?. She reads about Tookie living in the Lower Ninth Ward while Katrina hits. Magical dragonlike figures appear in the story, but it was my most real experience of the neighbourhood since being there.
When I just arrived I said New Orleans right. A friend of a friend traveling through Amsterdam had told me it wasn’t New Orleeeens but New Orlahns. I felt happy when this was rewarded with the joy of a ‘real’ New Orleanian. I didn’t appear to be a tourist, I was only a ‘transplant’ (a word I’ve honestly never heard until arriving in New Orleans, where the use of the word surprised me daily, as it refers to a person or people, less than a structure: gentrification). But then, how disguising is the ability to blend? How telling which bodies can blend, just by pronouncing something ‘right’?
I met so many wonderful people. One of them said: it is hard to tell the difference between water and ground, here. The here – where here is located – apparently still clear. Another person said: Nature always wins here.
I’ve sensed a lot of truth in New Orleans because I’ve heard many, many conflicting stories.
Is it nature that wins? During her reading at Tulane University, N.K. Jemisin asked the audience several times whether she pronounced the street names in her stories right. Jemisin has lived in New Orleans several years. She currently lives in NYC. She knew but now she didn’t know how to pronounce those names. Is it nature that takes over or is it layers, added layers that create new shapes, sometimes resulting in forgetfulness?
I’ve met a lot of people involved with oral history. I participated in a workshop by the Oral History Project Louisiana and encountered oral historians discussing different techniques of transcribing and documenting audio files. I’ve listened to all of the Last Call: queer histories / queer futures podcasts, documenting intergenerational conversations on dissolved and reappearing lesbian and genderqueer life in New Orleans. Does water add a layer, fuse what is present or does it wash away loose surface? Does water create listeners?
After her talk Jemisin asked the audience to please come up to her and tell her when she got something wrong in her writing – in this case on New Orleans – but also on transgender experience, disability, cultural heritage. She asked to bring new layers.
In 3,5 weeks, I’ve experienced different layers, while mostly experiencing the haunting presence of so so so many more. This city’s psychopolitical multitudes, this city’s sticky love (as opposed to instant love, nothing feels instant here). I’m swamped.
As a participant in a residency program, I find it hard to believe I haven’t been eating hands while here.
I did go to see gators. I came across this sign on the do’s and don’ts. I especially stuck to the warning that alligators do not know the difference between a hand and a hand-out.
Is getting lost the most humble thing to do when entering a space, when encountering a body – or bodies? Or is getting lost a colonial romantic notion that accounts for a lack of responsibility?
Speaking of colonial romanticism, I came across this mural in the city. I don’t know what kind of wilderness is assumed here, with the beard and the pyramids, but I’ve heard there is a lot of debate about murals from artists from ‘outside’. Murals made for tourist are made to leave their site – too non-sticky for here.
In 2007 engineers from The Netherlands were awarded 150 million dollar to ‘bring’ their ‘Delta Works / Deltawerken’ knowledge to ‘help’ improve the levees in New Orleans.
The first day I arrived I went for a run on the levee in Holy Cross, in the Lower Ninth Ward. I spotted a line of graffiti that I felt was speaking to me, an arriving Dutch. I thought about taking a picture but refrained: it felt impolite to capture such ephemeral authority. Every day, I’d pass the words. On my last morning, I didn’t feel like running, but went anyway: I wanted to take a picture of the graffiti before leaving. Somehow, suddenly, the letters were obscured. Someone or something had tried to erase: ‘It’s a mixed blessing / to be brought back from the dead.’