Metaphors to work by, roles to live by

The practice of the artist is hard to define, hard to consider, especially when dealing with a vast research that encompasses and compares people’s attitudes, the state of ecology and nature in both the Mississippi and Danube delta’s. 

As I travel around Louisiana in mad dashes of activities, searching out scientists, alligator trappers, hermits, ecologists, artists and rocketship builders, a question keeps crouching in the back of my mind: Who am I?

What am I doing here?


Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell,” Walter Benjamin writes in his essay about Leskov; ‘The Storyteller‘. But am I really just a storyteller? We could just as well say I’m the collector of Benjamin’s other famous essay ‘Unpacking My Library – A Talk about Book Collecting‘. I think about the notes I took, recordings and pictures I made and experiences I stored in the memory. 

In my travels, I took on many guises. Bike rider, joke teller, manic dancer, lover, friend, cook, communicator, question asker, daughter. But when I think about the times when I was most productive, happiest, I was like a fisherman.

My fascination for the Mississippi river started years ago, I think it’s rooted in the stories of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and in my genes. My grandfather was a truck driver and he always preferred being on the road than at home following daily routines; a bit like a fisherman as well perhaps.

I would record the river, its flowing, its washing away of land, its pollution, and something else that I can’t describe and that might be poetry. I threw out my Hydrophone and GoPro in the waters of the Mississippi, of the Gulf of Mexico, in DA BAYOU, and I listened carefully to see what would get caught in my net. The recordings I collect document a moment in time, a minute, an instant, a specific state that will never be recreated again.

The psychic center

“The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.” This is a line from Joan Didion’s recently published notebook South and West, written during her stay in the South in June of 1970.
Further on in her notes she writes: “There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.

I spent two months in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, with a plan that was similar in its ephemeralness to ms. Didion’s. I’ve been obsessed with the Medieval flagellants for quite some time now. From my studies, a number of themes emerged: the whip, the blood, spectacle, a claim on supernatural or mystical knowledge.

The image of the flagellants keeps haunting me, but I want to move this image to a contemporary setting, using a personal narrative of obsession as its basis.

The idea of the South as the psychic center appealed to me. It’s in many ways a religious place, a place where the occult still plays a role, where mystical, supernatural ideas keep their grasp on some people. In Cajun country, people whip each other during Mardi Gras. The whipping stems from the Medieval flagellants, some writers have claimed.

And so there we were. The flagellants believed they could overthrow the natural order of things by whipping themselves. Joan Didion believed she could learn things about California by visiting Louisiana. I believed I could learn things about the flagellants by visiting Becca, a Cajun ‘traiteur’, or traditional healer, in Scott, near Lafayette.

When I arrived – hungover, I admit with shame – Becca took me to a tree that was spiritually significant to her. Her identity is largely based on being part of the community, and for her there is a transcendent component to being part of Cajun culture. A travel writer from a different state who was drawn to Becca came with us to the tree. She talked about the energies she felt there, the colors she saw emanating from the tree. “Y’all are crazy if you don’t come check out this gigantic thistle”, she shouted from across the field. “There’s a ladybug on here!” We did not comply with her request.

Do you feel energy emanating from this tree?”, Becca asked me. I said I did not. It felt like a confession. Why was I feeling guilt?

Later in the car, I talked to Becca about the significance of the Courir de Mardi Gras for the Cajun culture, for the local communities. “It felt like an echo of a tradition”, I told her. Becca nodded in agreement. The travel writer chipped in and started explaining to Becca that Mardi Gras was actually only about money. “It’s transformed into something to lure tourists to Louisiana, which is good for those people”, she said. Becca was displeased by this notion. You should never try to explain someone’s own culture to them, I thought. So I took care to listen to Becca carefully.

That night, she read to me from a notebook. She told me stories about her life, how she was diagnosed with a mental illness, that she’s a cancer survivor. Being a healer helped her at first, but now she’s transforming into an artist. I wondered what I was, at that moment. I felt I came looking for a transforming miracle myself, but I wasn’t finding it. She told me about her amputated breast, which was very real, and she told me how her deceased daughter was giving her instructions – via a spiritual medium – about how to be the healer of Cajun culture itself. She wants to bring light and love to the darkness of her culture. “My daughter’s helping me heal the collective Cajun unconscious”, she said. Here then was mystical, supernatural information, and yet I couldn’t relate to it the way I could relate to the scar I imagined to be on her chest, or the grave Becca showed me where she would come to lie upon her death.

The next day, Becca took me to the place near where her daughter had violently ended her own life. I looked for a transcending experience, yet found beauty in this kind of emotional intimacy.

To Live in the South, One Has To Be a Scar Lover. That’s the name of the book Maaike Gouwenberg and Joris Lindhout made in 2011, referencing the writer Harry Crews.

Writing, researching, is traumatizing in an abstract way, because the fabric of your expectations is always being torn up. Thankfully, scars can be very appealing. Just wait ‘til you see mine.

Somewhere at the bottom of my memory are the sunken remains of all the films I have ever seen

What the fuck are you looking at? Why are you staring at me?

He tells me, irritated, one of three guys sitting on the porch of a house on – I don’t know what street. I would have replied “ah no, sorry, I wasn’t looking at you, but at some kind of specter of you which is buried in a cinematic elsewhere. In this case a very recent elsewhere since I’ve just seen Moonlight (2016), because everyone was telling me that it’s an amazing film, and so a scene came to my mind… I don’t care what you’re doing, I looked at you with the same stupefied face as I looked at the kids playing baseball in the backyard of a house some blocks down. Me, I’ve only seen this thing in the movies. From my own personal archive I’m drawing frames or stills which I have unconsciously saved and which, just as unconsciously, pop out as I’m cycling or walking.

Obviously I don’t reply anything like that to the irritated guy. I limit myself to looking down and sneaking off as quickly as a rat when startled by a sudden noise.

One thing all films have in common is the power to take perception elsewhere. As I write this, I’m trying to remember a film I liked, or even one I didn’t like. My memory becomes a wilderness of elsewheres. […]

I will allow the elsewheres to reconstruct themselves as a tangled mass. Somewhere at the bottom of my memory are the sunken remains of all the films I have ever seen, good and bad they swarm together forming cinematic mirages, stagnant pools of images that cancel each other out. A notion of the abstractness of films crosses my mind, only to be swallowed up in a morass of Hollywood garbage. [Robert Smithson, A Cinematic Atopia, in Artforum. Special Film Issue, edited by Annette Michelson, September 1971.]

The fact is that my first week in the US, in New Orleans, is a trip down these personal elsewheres from cinema or national television. They ask me what has struck me the most in these first days in New Orleans. “Hey Gio, so what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen till now?

I don’t know“, I say

I like to wander around and look at the houses at different moments of the day.

In fact there is no shortage of richness in architectural styles here. I have a little booklet from the Historic District Landmarks Commission of New Orleans in which they’ve gathered all the different types of houses in the city: from the Shotgun to the Townhouse and Greek revival.

But, before I can put my new architectural knowledge to use, television images from my childhood pour into my mind. Images floating in my cinematic subconscious. “They float down here…they all float down here” as Pennywise said to Georgie before killing him in the TV miniseries IT (1990). In fact, I can’t help but notice I’m riding a cruiser bike like one of the kids in the series.

So, in order to get to the center I head towards the house of “Freddy Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street” and then, shortly after, I cross this sort of jet market from the “Simpsons”, turn right and find myself on the street with colonial houses which seem like “Gone with the Wind” reshot in 2017… and, bam, I’m in the center”.

My mental maps are a collage of overlapping and interchangeable visions, a film privately projected in the movie theatre behind my eyes. The fiction preceding my gaze, which has crept in as a filter between the landscape that surrounds me and the retina of my eyeballs. Many are those who tell me that the first week is the one in which the jet lag manifests itself most intensely; you find yourself intoxicated for free, a constant wakefulness which slightly distorts the perception of things and of the flowing of time. You are, in other words, constantly “stoned”.

Horror movies play with our strongest emotions and the fear and distress they evoke cause their images to remain in our visual memories the longest. They are glued stuck there, like chewing gum under school desks until you lay your hand on them.

During my gothic metal teens, I watched an infinity of horror movies (to be honest I’ve always watched them but in my teens it was my duty as a metalhead), thanks to this visual baggage, Louisiana (the one geographically situated in my imagination) has become a land of horror. We (me and the metalheads) often watched interviews with the vampire.

In my mind, even films that weren’t filmed in Louisiana were filmed here. Louisiana is the name of the receptacle which contains my personal archive of horror memories. These residential areas which I’m passing through, anonymous and new to me, are not familiar because of experience but are mentally decoded by my perception to be familiar. It is this feeling that I’m “reliving” things that amplifies the unsettling aspect of them, they are an echo of a deep-seated image infesting their appearance. As in The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

The objects surrounding me […] I couldn’t deny the extent to which everything was known to me, and nonetheless I was surprised to perceive how strange the fantasies were that those ordinary images agitated in me.

In 1980, Lucio Fulci came to New Orleans to shoot the movie The Beyond (1981), which I have always called by its Italian name L’aldilà e tu vivrai nel terrore. Here (or in an elsewhere) is the Seven Doors Hotel that the main character reaches via the endless freeway which cuts through Lake Pontchartrain. The same dwelling, with slight adaptations, is featured in the movie Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1988), directed by Claudio Lattanzi and produced by the legendary Aristide Massacesi alias Joe D’Amato. Obviously I visited this house (now museum) during my first days in Louisiana. I needed to geographically pinpoint one of my cinematic elsewheres, to remove it from abstraction and experience it as a physical place, to then let it drift, as a mere image, in my memory.

The Otis House. The photo on the phone is a still from Fulci’s The Beyond

I also wanted to go to the house used for the movie Amityville Horror (1979) but that is in Toms River in New Jersey. Strange though, I was convinced that I had seen it on – I don’t know what street, in New Orleans.

(…) sites in films are not to be located or trusted. All is out of proportion.

Scale inflates or deflates into uneasy dimensions. We wander between the towering and the bottomless. We are lost between the abyss within us and the boundless horizons outside us. Any film wraps us in uncertainty. [Robert Smithson, A Cinematic Atopia, in Artforum. Special Film Issue, edited by Annette Michelson, September 1971.]

Still from The Skeleton Key

Current photo of the house by Giovanni Garetta

Open call for New Orleans based artists

Open call for a residency for New Orleans based artists at the Centre for Contemporary Art FUTURA in Praha, Czech Republic.

Future Prague

CCA FUTURA and Deltaworkers offer a one month residency at the A.I.R. FUTURA program for August 2017 (1st till 31st 2017).

The residency is offered to one individual artist based in New Orleans.

CCA FUTURA provides travel expenses (max $1400).

CCA FUTURA offers a 40 square meters living space, a 20 square meters working studio and necessary assistance and guidance in pursuing related research and production.

Note that the artist is responsible for their own production budget and daily expenses. Daily expenses are estimated at around $12 a day.

CCA FUTURA requires a presentation of the selected artist’s current work. This may take the form of an open studio or smaller exhibition at the end of the stay.

To apply send a portfolio, a current CV and a brief statement describing your artistic practice to The deadline is April 1st.

The applications will be reviewed and selected by Michal Novotný, director of CCA FUTURA and Maaike Gouwenberg & Joris Lindhout, directors of Deltaworkers.

We Could Dance in Circles…

The promise

At the time, I was preparing a work titled We Could Dance in Circles Around the Campfire by Night, Disappearing as Fume Into a Distant Day during my residency at Deltaworkers. I was busy with two things: understanding the city of New Orleans and organizing the documents necessary for an upcoming stay in Brazil. I was oscillating between these distant places in my thoughts, which nevertheless have so much in common. Justine Bird and Maggie McWilliams, who worked as assistants at Deltaworkers, were generous in guiding me around the city. During the four weeks of my stay, I learned about the history of New Orleans and about the roots of modern popular culture. It seems that a place like New Orleans, which received a panoply of cultures, was specifically predisposed to be a cultural incubator. The societies of Brazil are, like New Orleans, to some extent a result of creolization. Over centuries, populations in the former colonies formed new cultural practices on the basis of their (in part violently-imposed and involuntary) migrant communities. While in New Orleans practices developed into what subsequently became a global culture industry (blues and jazz), in Brazil other practices developed—along with a rich local music tradition—that correspond to its political and economic conditions. What interested me in Brazil were certain ways of lucid, spontaneous interaction and charming ways of persuasion, as part of a “Gambiarra” attitude: one in which one uses workarounds or quick-and-dirty solutions. I wanted to experiment with such tactics, about which I have learned in Brazil, in order to see how they connect to New Orleans, especially in terms of creating intimacy and oscillating between enchantment and disenchantment.

The PARSE project space provided their gallery for the realization of We Could Dance in Circles…. At the time, they were located on Carondelet Street in downtown New Orleans. Advertisements were printed and distributed; these announced that people could make an appointment on March 29th, 2016. On the date, a new person came every 30 minutes to join the experience, and sometimes several people at a time. The interior of the exhibition space was not really open to the public. I rather used it as a workspace to prepare the work and scatter my thoughts on the walls. The space had a large storefront window, which was completely covered with posters produced to advertise the situation-piece.

Oliver Bulas Poster

I met the guests in front of the entrance on the street. After everyone introduced themselves, we initiated our walk through the streets of downtown. Soon we would arrive at a Cuban-Mexican bar-restaurant close by. I announced that the performance would take place in a moment, and suggested that we should have a coffee first, so we entered the establishment. Informal conversation followed, during which I would sometimes be very open about what I felt or observed at a given moment. For example: “I am sorry, but it seems I can’t possibly fulfil the expectations that you feel entitled to have.” After fifteen minutes, I admitted to recording the whole conversation, and I asked everyone if they would let me keep our collective product. I then said goodby, left the spot, and returned to PARSE, where the next visitor would wait to partake in a similar, but always-changing sequence of interactions. This went well, except that at some point the restaurant employees refused to serve us because they came to feel wary of what was going on. I had to talk to the owner of the place on the phone to assure her that it was a work of art.

Oliver Bulas Performance

The title We Could Dance in Circles Around the Campfire by Night, Disappearing as Fume Into a Distant Day already in some ways captures a process existing in the work. A circle dance around a campfire is like an ornament, repetition or cycling being the most fundamental elements of the ornament. The title itself acts as the ornament that frames the situation, which takes place over the course of a scheduled in-person meeting. The title, as a constitutive element of the invitation, sets the framework for everything that follows. This includes the physical act of meeting at the spot, as well as the imaginative production in the minds of the potential visitors before the event (and even of those who did not accept the invitation). From that point on, the title acts as a promise. As a result, it not only functions as the dance it refers to, but also as the fire around which everything revolves: a pivot and a subject of desire. (The dance regulates distance from the edge; one is close enough to feel its power, but still far enough to avoid the high price of ever touching it.) Perhaps it is possible to compare the dancers around the campfire to the visitors of the situation. It is only their busy and excited circling around the invitation’s promise which brings the magic of the promise to life.

But in the end, in the morning after an ecstatic night, all spirits will have disappeared. They will have dispersed into all directions, and only some abandoned smoking coals remain to testify to the nocturnal debauchery. The dance around the fire is one grand feast in honor of movement and energy, in the same way that fire is the unleashing of chemically-bound energy for the movement of particles. If we look at it this way, everyone circles around an empty center, which means that it is the celebration of movement itself.

Suspend the political conditions (who has the right to watch?). Create a vacuum. Interrupt the stream of perception.

Then make the failure apparent. Show/talk about the fact that little meaning can be derived from pure, dull intersubjectivity.

Maybe the whole piece was a literary work whose main element is its elaborate title? Perhaps the title acted as an invitation, a seduction, a promise and its redemption, all at the same time? Posters to advertise the situation, printed by the New Orleans-based risograph print shop Constance, served as the material carrier for the title, which took the form of a sentence and which described a transformation and a circular movement. Invitations on social media and web pages maintained by Joris Lindhout and Maaike Gouwenberg from Deltaworkers served as a sounding board and duplication structure for the title. The physical place and the appointment for a meeting in person gave the title a material equivalent, in order to live through the promise together for a few minutes. The promise was granted a place in the life of the participants, thus merging text and body, and meaning and matter, in a transient moment. “What will happen when we join these things?” This was one of my questions when I provoked this little laboratory.

It calls into question whether the artist necessarily has to deliver something, and it stages the process of art reception, rather similarly to a conversation between a beholder, an object and/or an artist. The situation demands the efforts of the beholders. I wonder, in the case where beholders do not make this effort— whether because they lack the capacity or because they espouse a consumerist attitude—if then, consequently, their experience also turns out accordingly to their personal investment.

Provoke a situation that destabilizes roles, scripts, and conventions. Prepare situations where things can start to become fluid and everything can become subject to negotiation. Create a zone of production, where the outcome is not set and everyone involved enters an unsecured state that challenges individual beliefs and abilities. It is a field that is ideally open to the decisions of the people present and allows for their decisions to contribute to the process underway. Everything slips and slides. The destabilization of hardened things helps to achieve an increased porosity and permeability of places, boundaries, objects, and rules.

But maybe the failure of the possibility of provoking a real conversation became apparent during We Could Dance in Circles…. Perhaps it had to fail because a “real” conversation is always free of any purpose. What I tried was to bring freedom into the piece, but what actually happened was maybe rather that I effectively precluded freedom of conversation in that situation?

My intention with We Could Dance in Circles… was to celebrate “the habit of attention,” “the art of expression,” “the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position,” “the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts,” “the habit of submitting to censure and refutation,” “the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms,” “the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy,” and “the art of working out what is possible in a given time” (citing from William Johnson Cory).

To leave the exhibition space accommodates the desire to withdraw.

My most vivid interest is in hiding, in going away, in disappearing, in veiling, in withdrawing, in absence.

It is possible to claim that these gestures are all expressions of escapism. But they have brought us such beautiful things as clothing, mythology, the veil or curtain, disguise, etc. and have likely had an influence elsewhere too, for instance in architecture. In fact, it would not be bold to claim that this movement is inherent to all things and processes if we look closely. Strategies of disappearing can create new forms of even more spectacular appearance. They deflect the gaze; they direct attention. My attachment to magic is greatly inspired by this aspect of disappearance labor. Even dance can be seen as a constant withdrawal, as an oscillation process that creates an in-between space between bodily intimacy and eternal distance.

Finally, this is the stuff that mythology is made of: an ideology that obscures what works behind it. Is this among the reasons why science does not come to a hold with its constant uncovering? For example, in modern physics, we learn that behind one curtain there is another, and behind that one another, and so on. The world proves to consist of nested envelopes, packages that contain nothing else than another package, and unpacking them seems to be to no avail. Perhaps the lack or the void that we feel here is not induced by this kind of knowledge specifically. Maybe the concept of lack has its roots earlier, in the ideology of “spirit” or intrinsic identity in the first place. What leads us to think that there must be some core substance to reach altogether? Presumably it could be remnants of older mythological beliefs that remained at the depths of our culture, assuring us that what we do every day makes sense and is valid. Unearthing, dismantling, and unfolding this personal “core” reason of why we are doing things causes fear among more than a few people, and it also puts them at a high personal risk (of “disenchanting” even this last source of their vitality). On the other hand, this might help to remind us that radical disenchanting, disassembling in the name of research, aggressive uncovering, insensible stripping off for the sake of transparency and enlightenment represents an aggressive point of access to the things in the world. Not only does it strip away the magic of things, it also deprives them of their autonomy and of their right to an intrinsic “self.”

Proofreader: Ian Erickson-Kery

De houdbare stad

New Orleans is een van de meest uitgesproken steden van de Verenigde Staten. Het is een parel in het moeras, een moeilijk te bereiken oord dat door haar rijke culturele leven en bewogen geschiedenis overal ter wereld een grote aantrekkingskracht uitoefent. De stad, met zeer diverse culturele achtergronden (o.a. Frans, Spaans, Afrikaans en Caribisch), is na de verwoestende orkaan Katrina in 2005 een trekpleister geworden voor kunstenaars, muzikanten en filmmakers (het is de derde filmstad van de Verenigde Staten) en steeds meer hedendaagse cultuur vindt er een weg naar een groter publiek.

In april en mei verbleef ik in kunstenaarsresidentie ‘Deltaworkers’, een nomadisch artistiek productie- en onderzoeksplatform dat de zuidelijke staten van de Verenigde Staten (als een van de laatste mythische plaatsen in de westerse cultuur) onderzoekt. Makers uit verschillende disciplines (beeldende kunst, theater, film, literatuur, muziek, architectuur en design) worden uitgenodigd voor een werkperiode. Namens het Nederlands Letterenfonds was ik de eerste schrijver in hun residentie te New Orleans. Voor mijn derde roman mocht ik onderzoek doen naar het watermanagement en de cultuur van deze unieke stad in Louisiana. Een stad met een houdbaarheidsdatum.

De reis
In New York neem ik de trein naar New Orleans. Een reis van eenendertig uur door zeven staten. Ik ben de enige white boy in het rijtuig en weet me omringd door enkele stevige dames. Hun handen gaan schuil in zakken chips. Vanaf het vertrek is het meteen gezellig. De vrouwen noemen me hun ‘Dutch white boy’ en ‘sweet baby’ en horen me uit over Amsterdam, mijn liefdesleven en marihuana. Ook vinden ze dat ik een echte baan moet zoeken, leraar of zo.

Het spoor, zoals veel sporen ter wereld, snijdt hier dwars door de zelfkant van de samenleving. Buiten zie ik mannen in slordige hemden op houten veranda’s van verpauperde huizen zitten, gammele kotten pal aan het spoor naast vergane fabrieken waarvan ik betwijfel of ze ooit jaren van voorspoed hebben gekend. En toch wappert hier op elke mesthoop de nationale vlag. Opdat de hoop nooit verloren gaat.

Als de avond valt leg ik mezelf tegen het treinraam en vind ik ontspanning in het luisteren naar het ritmische gekraak van de zakken chips en wat gekeuvel, zoals ik ook kan genieten van het knarsende begin van een langspeelplaat waaruit een zangstem opkomt. Ik staar naar mijn witte smoel in het avondraam. Misschien moet ik inderdaad maar leraar worden, mijmer ik in een vlaag van wereldverbetering. Zorgen dat zo min mogelijk mensen in de toekomst aan lager wal naast het spoor hoeven te wonen.

Een dag later rijdt de trein New Orleans binnen en ziet de wereld er weer heel anders uit. Mijn avontuur, mijn zestig dagen in Nola, in The Big Easy, gaan beginnen.

De woning
Ik woon in een zogeheten ‘Shotgun House’. Dat houdt in dat er geen gang aanwezig is; de ruimtes volgen elkaar op en zijn gescheiden door gordijntjes – je moet zodoende door elkaars kamer wanneer je naar de keuken, wc of badkamer wilt. Vroeger betaalde men in New Orleans per ruimte belasting, dus ook over de gang, vandaar dat deze in vrijwel alle huizen is wegbezuinigd. Wanneer je de voor- en achterdeur openzet kun je er symbolisch met een wapen doorheen schieten: een Shotgun House. Je zou er ook een grote sneeuwbal doorheen kunnen laten rollen, maar de Amerikanen houden nu eenmaal veel van hun tweede amendement.

Mijn kamer bevindt zich direct achter de voordeur. Soms zie ik ’s ochtends de ogen van de postbode als hij bukt om de post te bezorgen. Dat went eigenlijk niet. Stel je maar eens voor dat je een luikje in je slaapkamer hebt waar iedereen op elk moment van de dag doorheen kan kijken. Een constante peepshow. Op een ochtend knipoogde de postbode naar me terwijl ik op bed lag te lezen. Voor wie geïnteresseerd is in het gluren door luikjes raad ik overigens deze prachtige longread uit The New Yorker aan: The Voyeurs Motel.

De Deltaworkers-residentie is onderdeel van een kleine compound waar meerdere internationale kunstenaars verblijven. Omdat iedereen zijn of haar specifieke onderzoeksterrein heeft, kom ik in de achtertuin tijdens diners of nachtelijke wijngesprekken ontzettend veel over de stad te weten. Een kruisbestuiving. Iedereen inspireert elkaar.

The Gonzales Gun Show

De eerste dag
Op straat glimt een witte kralenketting. Ik stap van mijn fiets – een Amerikaanse cruiser, eenzelfde model waarmee het knulletje Elliott samen met E.T. in zijn mandje voorbij de maan vloog – en raap de ketting op. Ik overweeg om ermee naar het politiebureau te gaan, afdeling gevonden voorwerpen. Het sierraad blijkt nep, de kraaltjes zijn van plastic. Waarschijnlijk verloren door een kind. Ik hang de ketting te vondeling aan een paaltje en fiets verder. Plots zie ik er weer een, een groene, en aan de overkant van de straat een paarse, en een blauwe, een rode.

Die middag sta ik op een begraafplaats voor het graf van Hollywood-steracteur Nicolas Cage, en vraag ik aan Maggie, een van de twee Deltaworkers-assistenten, naar het verhaal achter de kettingen op straat. Zij verklaart dat deze tijdens het beroemde Mardi Gras-carnaval worden uitgedeeld aan vrouwen die hun borsten laten zien en aan mannen die op eenzelfde verzoek hun onderbroekje laten zakken. Een traditie dus. Maar ook buiten de delirium Mardi Gras-maand vinden er wekelijks muzikale optochten en verkleedpartijen plaats, waarbij de kettingen vanaf praalwagens naar het publiek worden geworpen. De stad ligt en hangt er vol mee.

Acteur Nicolas Cage kan dat zelf allemaal gewoon meemaken. De excentriekeling is nog lang niet dood: hij heeft enkel zijn laatste rustplaats alvast in zijn geliefde New Orleans laten bouwen. Zijn graftombe, een tamelijk megalomane witte piramide, is een populaire attractie op een van de vele imposante bovengrondse kerkhoven. Niemand wordt hier in de aarde begraven; dan drijf je binnen de kortste keren in je kist door de straten. Het is een goed gebruik dat de fans van Cage hun lippen roodstiften en zoentjes achterlaten op zijn piramide. Het lege graf bezoeken kost enkele dollars. Voor de geïnteresseerden: even buiten Haps (Noord-Brabant) ligt achter het heksenbos bij Gassel naast een vieze stinksloot een omgeploegde modderakker waarover mijn as uitgestrooid zal gaan worden. De entree is vooralsnog gratis.

De graftombe van Nicolas Cage

Het sprookjesbos
De eerste week waan ik me in een sprookjeswereld. Het is betoverend, de zon schijnt, er klinkt muziek en overal staan groetende of dansende mensen op straat die meteen bereid zijn om een woord, een emmertje crawfish of een slok met me te delen. En dan heb ik het nog niet eens over dat beeldende decor: de kleurrijke houten huisjes, die nog het meest aan een sprookjesdorp doen denken. Maar het vrolijke verandert in een oogwenk in iets droevigs als je er langer bij stilstaat. De groezelige kant van de stad, de armoede. Oververhitte schreeuwende dronkaards op de straathoeken; donderwolken die me aanspreken waarbij ik van angst geen woord uit mijn mond krijg. Geweerschoten in de verte, het bizar hoge aantal moorden per week (vorig jaar werden er 170 moorden gepleegd in New Orleans – een stad zo groot als de provincie Utrecht). Diep in het sprookjesbos wonen de heksen en de wolven.

Op weg naar de stadsbibliotheek zie ik midden op een kruispunt een oude man met een schuiftrompet tussen het voorbijrazende autoverkeer staan. Hij lijkt niet alleen op Louis Armstrong, maar hij blaast ook een lied van de jazzlegende die hier is geboren en een park en een vliegveld naar zich vernoemd weet. De man glimlacht zijn mooie witte tanden naar me bloot als hij merkt dat ik vol bewondering naar hem sta te kijken. Ik voel het kriebelen in mijn buik. Het is op dat moment dat ik me realiseer dat ik nog van toeten noch blazen weet. Dat ik nul benul heb in welk oord ik ben beland en enkel op mijn vooroordelen vaar. Ik besef dat de komende maanden een avontuur gaan worden.

De gemeente
Ik weet uit betrouwbare bron dat Eberhard van der Laan het bevolkingsregister van Amsterdam op zijn nachtkastje heeft liggen. Elke avond voor het slapengaan bladert de burgervader daar even doorheen. Zijn rookgele wijsvinger glijdt daarbij langzaam over de namen. ‘Ach, Olivier Willemsen,’ zucht hij dan tegen zijn vrouw, ‘hoe zou het toch met hem zijn?’ En zo wordt elke inwoner van de stad uitgebreid in bed besproken.

In New Orleans zijn het vooral de kapitaalkrachtigen die de aandacht krijgen. Op dit moment ondergaat de stad een proces van gentrificatie; door extreem snel stijgende huizenprijzen breidt dit proces zich uit tot de armste wijken van de stad. De middenklasse dreigt ook hier te verdwijnen. Onlangs werd Ray Nagin (van 2002 tot 2010 burgemeester van de stad) veroordeeld tot tien jaar cel vanwege corruptie. Na de verwoesting door Katrina stopte Nagin voor tenminste 500.000 dollar steekpenningen in zijn zak van zakenlui die opdrachten voor de wederopbouw in de wacht probeerden te slepen. Hij had geld, snoepreisjes en vrachtwagenladingen graniet (!) voor zijn familiebedrijf aangenomen. De frauduleuze burgemeester viel elke avond gierend van plezier in slaap. Maar hij was en is absoluut niet de enige. De federale regering heeft miljarden dollars in de regio gepompt, die op grote schaal in de zakken van gecorrumpeerde tussenpersonen zijn verdwenen. Toch is er wel degelijk geïnvesteerd in de stad en na ‘The Storm’ zijn er absoluut verbeteringen gekomen (in onderwijs, zorg, huisvesting – hoewel de meningen daarover sterk verdeeld zijn), maar desondanks is er nog altijd veel mis en is de smaak van corruptie niet verdwenen. Veel Latijns-Amerikanen, destijds ingevlogen, wachten bijvoorbeeld nog altijd op uitbetaling voor hun herstelwerkzaamheden na Katrina.

Een van de zeldzame plekken in de stad waar wel alles op orde is, waar de straten gladgestreken en proper zijn, is – hoe kan het ook anders – het Central Business District (CBD). Met klerkentuinen reikend tot in de wolken en vlakke trottoirs waarop je een potje poolbiljart kunt spelen als je de putten slim gebruikt. In veel andere wijken wordt alleen zo nu en dan een stoplichtpeertje vervangen. Sommigen knipperen enkel nog oranje. Ze lijken te zeggen ‘Zoek het zelf maar uit’. Van der Laan zou hier geen oog dichtdoen.

Gordeldier in Vermilionville

De stadsdieren
Plots komt er vanonder het huis, ’s middags rond een uur of vier, een schildvarkentje, een gordeldier. Alsof er op de tekentafel van Moeder Natuur iets niet goed is gaan, zo ziet het fantasiebeest eruit; een rattenstaart, roze biggensnuit. Zich voortbewegend in een stalen accordeon, geniet het even van de zon.

Ook de koeskoezen (de possums) wonen onder de huizen van de stad. Geen enkele woning in New Orleans heeft een kelder, dus onder de huizen is het goed verstoppen voor de fauna. Deze buideldieren laten zich vaak na zonsondergang zien. Als je ze laat schrikken gebeurt er iets wonderlijks: hun pathetische doch effectieve verdedigingsmechanisme treedt dan in werking. Als het diertje namelijk in het nauw wordt gedreven, houdt het zich voor dood. Het valt theatraal op de zij en rolt zich op, mond geopend. De opossum kan vier uur lang onbeweeglijk blijven liggen en daardoor verliest een roofdier zijn belangstelling. De Amerikaanse uitdrukking ‘playing possum’ betekent zoiets als je dood of ziek houden.

De prachtige en door de cipressen met het spookachtige Spaanse mos eraan soms behoorlijk griezelig ogende moerassen rondom New Orleans, zijn het terrein van de Mississippi-alligators. Toeristenboten varen er doorheen en voeren de oerdieren hotdogs en marshmallows. Ook in het stadspark kun je tijdens het joggen zomaar door een alligator in je bil worden gebeten. Ik ren mijn snelste schema’s sinds jaren. Alligators zijn in tegenstelling tot krokodillen echter nauwelijks gevaarlijk. Een van de spannendste avonturen om de functie van het moeras te begrijpen, is the swamps met een kajak in te trekken. Alligators zwemmen rakelings langs je bootje.

Kajakken in de moerassen van Lake St. Martin

Het risico van een muur
Mijn onderzoek is deze twee maanden voornamelijk gericht op het watermanagement van New Orleans. De stad is een lege badkuip omringd door vloedmuren, de zogeheten levees, die het water op afstand én uit het zicht houden. Enorme pompinstallaties staan 24/7 op strategische punten klaar om het water te beheersen. Maar dat is niet genoeg. Nola ligt diep onder zeeniveau en is op sommige plekken zelfs wat zinkende. In combinatie met een stijgende waterspiegel en het verdwijnen van de wetlands, is het voor veel experts zonneklaar dat de stad haar houdbaarheidsdatum rap bereikt als er niets gebeurt. De inwoners maar vooral de lokale en federale autoriteiten zijn echter niet al te happig om het water de stad in te laten, zoals architect David Waggoner het graag zou zien. Zijn bureau is belast met de zware taak om de stad voor de toekomst te behouden. Ik voer gesprekken met Waggoner naar aanleiding van zijn inspirerende ideeën. Waar het op neer komt is dat hij het water de stad in wil brengen. Ik bezocht vele plekken waaronder de Mississippi-delta, de (ondergrondse) kanalen, bestudeerde de plannen wat betreft de herinrichting van de wijken, de constructies van de paalwoningen op Grand Isle in de Golf van Mexico en het Make it Right-project van Brad Pitt in de totaal verwoeste wijk the Lower 9th Ward. Ik sprak met inwoners en studenten en verdiepte me in de sociale veranderingen die nodig zijn om de stad met ‘het water te laten leven’. Sinds reuzin Katrina hier de daken van de huizen pelde en de zeevloed maandenlang stinkende kanalen van de straten maakte waarin tientallen lijken voorbijdreven, is men begrijpelijk als de dood voor het water. Velen willen daarom niet zien dat New Orleans ermee omringd is.

Als je mensen vraagt wat hun oplossing is, dan zijn het hogere vloedmuren. Het liefst tot aan de hemel, voor het aller veiligste gevoel. Muren bouwen dus, populair in de States tegenwoordig… Dat is echter een levensgevaarlijke oplossing, zeker daar waar het de levees aangaat. Wall is safety – wall is risk. Een breukje in een van de kilometerslange vloedmuren en de badkuip stroomt geheid helemaal tot de nok vol. Volgens experts kan de stad in 2060 serieus in de problemen geraken als er niet snel iets constructiefs gebeurt. Dat wil zeggen: dat de stad met het water leert leven en het de stad in mag komen. Maar niet alleen New Orleans wordt bedreigd. De kustlijn van de zuidelijke staten verliest elke dag vele hectares aan grond. De stijging van de zeespiegel en de kans dat bedrijven uit het Zuiden wegtrekken gaat in Amerika nog voor spannende decennia zorgen – zeker met een hansworst als aanstaande president die global warming ontkent.

Bij mijn onderzoek ben ik veel geholpen door auteur Moira Crone, die het watermanagement eveneens uitgebreid en beroepsmatig bestudeerd heeft. Zij kon me alles vertellen over de stad voor en na Katrina. Over de evacuaties, de sociale spanningen. De anarchie, de plunderingen. Daarnaast heeft ze me bevlogen rondgeleid in de literaire wereld van New Orleans alsmede enkele lezingen van mijn roman Morgen komt Liesbeth geregeld, waaronder een bij Faulkner House Books. We hebben eveneens veel gefilosofeerd over mijn nieuwe roman – iets waarover ik in dit publieke verslag voor het fonds niet al te veel wil zeggen.

Restaurant in Mississippi

Een conclusie
A beautiful mess up, zo omschreef iemand New Orleans. Iedereen heeft zijn eigen hartstocht, vaak nauw verbonden met muziek en drank. Veel inwoners zijn dronken of daarvan aan het bijkomen. Elke week trekken parades met kralenkettingen door de straten.

In eerste instantie werd ik geconfronteerd met mijn vooroordelen. De beginweken volgde ik het stadsnieuws op de voet. Ik las over schietpartijen en berovingen om de hoek waar ik woonde. Met knikkende knietjes fietste ik ‘s avonds door de wijken, wachtend op dat pistool tegen mijn hoofd. Ik zag groepen op de trappen van een veranda hangen. Maar het waren slechts de filmbeelden en niet de kogels die door mijn hoofd schoten. Mijn verwondering won het van mijn vooroordelen en mijn angsten. New Orleans bleek naast de plek van mijn onderzoek een bron aan inspiratie en een introspectief avontuur, en ik keer er zo snel mogelijk weer terug.

Rest mij om een aantal mensen te bedanken zonder wie dit avontuur niet mogelijk was geweest: allereerst alle medewerkers van het Nederlands Letterenfonds en met name Orli en Pieter Jan, daarnaast directeuren Maaike Gouwenberg en Joris Lindhout van Deltaworkers voor… veel te veel om hier op te sommen, Moira Crone, mijn literaire gids en haar man Rodger, assistenten Maggie en Justine voor de roadtrips en het laten zien van de mooiste plekken van Louisiana, architect David Waggoner, Rosemary van Faulkner House Books, uitgeverij De Harmonie, Dawn DeDeaux voor haar bevlogenheid en onnavolgbare kookkunsten, Toon voor The American Spirits, Eric (‘My heart will go on’), Lala & Tim en allen die ik hier nog meer had kunnen noemen die deze twee fraaie maanden in The Big Easy onvergetelijk hebben gemaakt.

Hotdogs voeren aan wilde alligators

Space Trailing USA

Space Trailing USA

The last part of my residency in the Southern States consists of a road trip through New Mexico and Arizona to look for remnants of the coinciding Space Age, Atomic Age and Computer Age. I fly to Albuquerque where between 1975 and 1979 Microsoft build the foundations for the computer revolution that would transform the world and the way we live beyond recognition. But the story starts earlier. Inherently connected to the development of the first computer was the attempt to decipher Germany’s secret codes during the World War II. The fear of the Germans creating a new bomb by splitting atoms, fueled the American desire to be the first to obtain this unprecedented power. After the capitulation of Germany in 1945, many German scientists working on the V2 rocket program were incorporated in the Manhattan project, and later on helped in the space program, that was depending on the captured German V2 rockets. First, me and Marjolijn Dijkman (who came over to join me on this space trail adventure) go to the Nuclear museum in Albuquerque that exhibits models of The Gadget, the first atomic bomb that was detonated on a site called Trinity, near Alamogordo, New Mexico on the 16th of July 1945, and Little Boy and Fat Man, the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan a few months later. In the museum there is a map that shows the percentage of Uranium that is mined in different countries. D.R. Congo is not present, although Uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine accounted for the large majority of the needed material to create both The Gadget, Little Boy and Fat Man. Without the Uranium from D.R. Congo there would not have been such an ‘early’ success in the Manhattan project. In the entire museum, only in a letter of Einstein, the most rich Uranium mine in the world (located at that time in Belgian Congo) is mentioned. I hope that the reason for not including D.R. Congo, is international security (the Shinkolobwe mine is not (well) protected and small shipments of illegally mined Uranium are frequently intercepted), instead of a global conspiracy to make sure that D.R. Congo doesn’t develop itself into potentially the most wealthy and powerful nation on the planet (sic).

World Wide Uranium Mining - web

Fat Man

The next day we go to Los Alamos, the city that wasn’t there. One-hour drive from Albuquerque, a new and secret city was build for the Manhattan project. Most of the inhabitants did not even know what they were working on. Only a hand full of people got the entire picture. Today, the whole facility is gone, what remains are a few houses from key figures that lived there during the development of the atomic bomb. Everything else is a new city with new houses and new inhabitants. We drive up to the Black Hole, a thrift store that bought up all the remaining equipment from the Manhattan project. On arrival, the site looks abandoned. A man walks to his car in front of the gate and as we approach he hesitates to get in, since we are clearly in the wrong place. There is nothing else to be seen close by that could explain why alien tourists are approaching the gate. I ask him if he knows about the place and if it is still open. He says he is the owner and sold all the remaining material 4 months ago. ‘The website should have been taken offline long ago’, he groans, ‘because people keep coming’. I’m clearly disappointed and tell him I came all the way from Belgium to visit his shop and the more I tell him about my intentions the more I see him hesitate. ‘But what are you looking for?’, he wants to know as he slowly warms up to me. I tell him I’m an artist and I don’t know what I’m looking for. Just anything that has a certain form or function that could inspire me to make a new work with. I clearly hit the right button, since he made some artistic work himself. ‘Do you see that white container there? Everything that is left over is in there’ he says while we walk over to the door. ‘There are no stairs so you should climb in’, he adds while he opens the lock of the heavy door. ‘You have 30 minutes. Take whatever interests you and put it in the door opening. We’ll make a deal afterwards, cash only.’ I cannot believe my ears, and even less my eyes, when I enter the container: the last remnants of the Manhattan project, piled up in shelves and boxes, one big mess of treasures. I feel like Indiana Jones discovering the Holy Grail! I’m not sure how this adventure will end and how much value he thinks these last remnant have, so very carefully I select some objects and put them in the door opening, also considering the fact that I still need to be able to ship them home. After half an hour he comes back and we decide on a very reasonable price (we’re both happy, let’s keep it at that). He urges me to ship the stuff and not try to take it with me on the airplane. I will only fully understand his concern when I fly back home, but that is for later.

Black Hole

Black Hole2

First we visit the Very Large Array (VLA), an iconic collection of satellite dishes that became world famous thanks to the film ‘Contact’ with Jodie Foster as leading actress listening to the skies to hear messages from Extraterrestrial life. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) research was never done here, although the site will always be connected to that field of study. VLA was used by astronomers to make key observations of black holes and magnetic filaments, and to probe the Universe’s cosmological parameters. The sky turns dark as we hit the road again. Something is coming…

Very Large Array2

Very Large Array

It is the first Saturday of April, one of the only two days that the Trinity site is open to the public, so at 8am I drive up the road leading to the Stallion Gate and hit a traffic Jam. Hundreds of people had the same idea and form a snake to be able to visit one of the most problematic tourist destinations. Once we are allowed to drive through and are thoroughly checked, we form a line of curious visitors as we near the site. The parking is already packed, coffee is served and before 9am the first sausages and hamburgers are ready on the bbq. On foot, or some fat examples of the American sub-species Homo Hamburgerensis, by golf cart, we march the last mile to the monument, a rough-sided, lava-rock obelisk of 3,7 meter high, erected in 1965 in the center of the site itself. The gentle remaining valley is encircled by a fence, after the initial crater has been cleaned and filled up. Outside nobody is allowed. First hundreds and than thousands of people flock around the small monument, posing and smiling in front of it. A sign on the fence states that it is a federal crime to take anything from the site, so as all the other collecting treasure hunters we absolutely do NOT take any Trinitite from the site. Especially not from the far edges on the right and left, close to the fence. Due to the enormous heat of the explosion, the sand was transformed into a greenish glass like new substance, which was called Trinitite, or Alamogordo glass. Outside the site itself, several people sell the stuff from their car in self-made shops. They position themselves opposite the so called ‘Downwinders’, a group of furious descendents of the +/- 50.000 people who lives in the area surrounding the test site that was supposedly free of people. Many of them died of cancers and other diseases and passed it on to their children and grandchildren. In the morning of the explosion children ran outside to play in what they thought fresh snow, and rubbed it in their faces. Contrary to the ‘Downwinders’ of the new test site in Nevada and other atolls in the oceans, which were present in a much larger safety perimeter, the survivors of the Trinity test never received recognition or compensation.

Trinity Site waiting line

Trinity Site

Trinity monument

Trinity Test


We drive up to Alamogordo, the city that is forever linked to the first atomic bomb and also the place where a major myth of computer history was proven true. After the bankruptcy of Atari, a pioneer in arcade games, home video game consoles, and home computers, truckloads of games, and most notoriously E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, that according to some legends caused Atari to get bust and features in many list as the worst game ever made, were buried in a landfill in Alamogordo. After several years of research and convincing, digging started on a specific location that was the most likely to contain these fetishised contemporary archaeological treasures. People from all over the United States came over to witness and be part of this very recent and remarkable historic event. In April 2014, the first games were discovered. Nearly 900 E.T. games were salvaged from the dump and the city wrapped and labeled the majority and sold them on e-bay for over 100.000$. Today they are still for sale for up to 1000$ a piece. A beautiful example of contemporary archaeology in the present day geological garbage layer we keep adding in an unproven attempt to manufacture a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, the Age of Man.


On the way to Arizona, we stop briefly at the White Sands National Monument, the largest gypsum dune field in the world, and the White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States that also includes Trinity Site. Both are part of the Chihuahuan desert that straddles the Mexico-US border. The sun is high up in the noon sky and the reflecting light is almost as intense as a nuclear explosion.

White Sands

Next stop is Biospere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, the most spectacular experiment to survive in a closed environment, possibly on another planet. Financed by billionaire Ed Bass, and finished 1991, the structure was inaugurated when 8 people (four women and four men), entered with the idea to survive inside for two years, surrounded by samples of all climatologically different environments on Earth. After 16 Months, the oxygen level was so low that they had to open the windows. Apparently the outburst of the Pinatubo volcano in 1991 caused the amounts of sun-hours to decline to such a degree that the nutrition was at an all-time low and photosynthesis was stalling. On top of that they discovered that the concrete that was used to build artificial rock formations was absorbing more Co2 than anticipated, which proved to be a very important discovery late on, but at the time a very catastrophic coincidence. The experiment was considered a failure in the disaster-addicted media, but was an incredible success in the scientific world. The site is now used by the University of Arizona to do supplementary research on pollution and natural productivity and resilience in an enclosed environment.

Biosphere II-5

Biosphere II

Biosphere II-4

Biosphere II-2

Biosphere II-7

Biosphere II-6

In Flagstaff, Arizona, we visit the Lowell Observatory, an iconic place where the beautifully restored and preserved Lowell telescope has been made visible to the public. The astronauts of the Apollo missions came here to train and pick a landing spot on the moon, and between 1912 and 1914, large recessional velocities of galaxies were discovered that ultimately led to the realization that our universe is expanding. In 1930 Pluto was discovered in the Lowell telescope.

After a tour through the telescope we are guided to the Rotunda Museum where a document mentions the role of the Lowell family in the development of the cotton industry. Francis Cabot Lowell is even considered as the father of the Industrial Revolution in the United States and a town in Massachusetts is even named after the family. I ask the guide what the role was of enslaved people in the development of the wealth of the Lowell family and thus the creation of the Lowell Institute and the Lowell chair/room at Harvard. She is shocked but intrigued and promises me to look into it. Before the end of the tour she ran into the offices to talk to a colleague of hers who reacted apparently in the same way but nevertheless dug up two books that might help in this important quest. Very sensitive matter… If you google however 5 minutes into the history of the Lowell family, it will be hard to maintain that they had nothing to do with slave trade or that their wealth did not come about thanks to the slave labor of African Americans. They should at least acknowledge that in their Rotunda Hall of Fame and give credit to all parties involved.

Lowell telescope

Slowly making our way back to Albuquerque, we stop at Meteor Crater (or Canyon Diablo Crater), the best preserved and first officially recognised meteor crater in the world. The meteorites found around the crater helped to determine the age of life on planet Earth, but before they were proven genuine, the majority was melted into railroad tracks to conquer the Wild West. Somewhere in the United States you can travel by train over several miles of melted meteorites. One day, meteorites might prove to have brought life to our planet, finally solving the long mystery about the origin of life. We might be the Aliens we are looking for and we landed on earth already a long time ago.

Meteor Crater

We pass through Petrified Forest National Park, a truly magnificent place with landscapes that seem to have escaped from another planet. As the name suggests already the place is packed with petrified trees, mostly spread out in bits and pieces, logs left on the ground after a chainsaw massacre. The growth rings are still visible but they turned purple, green and yellow. The blue and purple clay layer that covers them is washed down by the rain and unearths more and more trees, still causing the petrified forest to grow year after year. Sometimes the trees stayed intact after the mudslide down, making them indistinguishable from the wooden tree they once were. Messages carved in stone tell of the importance of the location for ancient civilisations and there are even some (reconstructed) settlements build with stone logs creating a beautiful symbiosis between the two most used building materials known to man. The fee area of the park is 440 km2, big enough to spend the whole day there easily, but it is time to get back and start packing for the return trip that will prove to be an adventure on itself.

Petrified Forrest2

Petrified Forest

I manage to ship most of the material I bought in the Black Hole, wrapped in the cotton I got in Memphis, but since I’m not sure the package will arrive, I decide to take two massive glass lenses in my luggage. At the check in my suitcase is way to heavy so I need to shift some stuff into my carry on luggage. Since the lenses are quite heavy I decide to divide the weight and take one in my backpack. The security scanner gives an instant alarm, so I’m taken aside. A small toothbrush size sensor is stroked on the edges of my backpack and used as a probe to sample the contents. Again high alert. The security officer takes out the content but has a special interest for the lens that is checked separately this time. WIUUUUU WIUUUUU!!! She calls her supervisor to repeat the test. WIUUUUU WIUUUUU!!! They know what it means, since the scanner is used to find traces of explosive materials, but they don’t understand why a simple glass lens is creating this upheaval. I just play dumb but can’t help thinking: COOL! This really proves that the stuff I got is the real deal!

Uncertain what to make of it and blaming the curved glass for the anomaly, they let me go. What a relief. It takes a few more weeks for the package I send by mail to arrive, but it includes everything I packed. I just need to pay an additional fee (on top of the ridiculously high shipping price) for special customs check where they probably scratched their heads in the same way as they did at the airport. Enough traces of explosives and/or uranium to check the contents, but not enough proof of criminal wrong-doing or intent to confiscate it. Everything arrived safely in my atelier, the cherry on a very fruitful and productive research trip. Thank you!



Flood on the Levee

Inspired by the Dutch, New Orleans is looking at adopting a more sustainable water management plan. The Greater New Orleans Urban Management Plan emerged from a series of conferences with Dutch water experts called The Dutch Dialogues. The plan will address “flooding caused by heavy rainfall, subsidence caused by the pumping of storm water, and wasted water assets.”

New Orleans’ emerging water management plan is being steered by local architect David Waggonner. Listen to my conversation with David here.

A Tourist In Africatown, Alabama

While looking for things to do in Mobile, Alabama, on itself an important place in the history of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, and considered the birthplace of Mardi Gras, I stumble upon the remarkable story of Africatown. In 1860, the last ship with enslaved people strands in the harbor of Mobile. A successful bet proved that more than 50 years after the abolition of international slave trade (1808), it was possible to purchase and hide 110 enslaved Africans in a specially build (schooner) boat named Clotilda, and bring them to the US. Once on land the last slaves of African descend were split up for the course of the Civil War that broke loose almost immediately after their arrival (1860-1865). 60 people were kept on a piece of land owned by Timothy Meaher, who had arranged the illegal expedition. Once they were freed at the end of the Civil War they first tried to get back to Africa. When it became clear that that was not an option they purchased the land on which they were living from their former slaveholder and decided to build the next best thing: Africatown, the first self-governed city by people of African descend. When the other people who arrived on Clotilda heard about Africatown they all came down and managed for a long time to hold on to their way of living, including language, medicine, law and traditions.

While talking with people in New Orleans where I am doing a residency, it seems nobody has heard of the place, so I decide to go and visit Africatown to see this remarkable place with my own eyes. In the History Museum of Mobile, I get a map of the African American Heritage Trail, highlighting locations and persons who played an important role in African American history. The map includes Africatown, just a few miles out of Mobile, in the middle of an industrial zone. I start with the Welcome Center. What I find is beyond any possible expectation or even imagination. The sign indicating the presence of the Welcome Center is so old and made in such a home made style that the curled up letters nearly fall off. Of the Welcome Center itself only the brick stairs and the metal handrails leading to the door, are still standing. The rest of the building is turned into a pile of rubble. After visiting the Historic Mobile Preservation Society in the Minnie Mitchell Archives Building, I learn that the building was hit hard by hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the following neglect caused it to collapse entirely. Next to the visitor centre a monument was erected in 2007 by two African filmmakers Thomas Azinsou Akodjinou from Benin and Felix Yao Amenyo Eklu from Togo, who placed two busts in honour of Cudjo Lewis, the last slave of African descend and the last survivor of the Clotilda who passed away in 1935, and one of late Prichard Mayor John H. Smith, who took an major role in the establishment of the Africatown Folk Festival.

Africatown welcome sign-web

Africatown welcome center-web

Africatown monument

Both busts were decapitated in the middle of the night in 2012 leaving a very grim monument representing horror rather than honour. This horrible start of my visit is however only the beginning of what I can only describe as a blunt attempt to erase this unique place from history. The graveyard in front of the ruins of the Welcome Center, which includes most of the remains of the original enslaved people arriving on the Clotilda and their direct descendants, is slowly sinking in the ground and being taken over by nature. Graves are disappearing in the ground, some only leaving a cavity in the hillside.

Where are the surviving family members? Why is the city not taking care of its former inhabitants? Some graves contain soldiers who served in World War I an II and many other wars the US was engaged in since. Why do they get a different treatment after serving their country? Is the amended LD 1662, “An Act to Clarify the Laws Governing the Maintenance of Veterans’ Graves,” signed by Governor Paul LePage on the 6th of April 2014 and made law on the 1st of August 2014 not applicable to them? The site looks like a bombed hill, full of craters, where the dead would be turning in their graves if only they could find the space.

Africatown graveyard1-web

Africatown grave1

Africatown grave2

According to LD 1662, municipalities must ensure that grass is “suitably cut and trimmed,” “keep a flat grave marker free of grass and debris,” and “keep the burial place free of fallen trees, branches, vines and weeds.” As defined in law, it should also be considered and treated as an ancient burying ground, as it is a private cemetery established prior to 1880. What a shame!

Africatown graveyard3-web

The fact that the whole graveyard is sinking in the ground and slowly disappearing is made even more visible by the presence of a new graveyard, just next to the old one, levelled nicely at least 6 foot higher up. The contrast is mind-boggling.

Africatown graveyard2-web

I decide to go for a walk into what is left of Africatown. Almost half of the houses are abandoned, caved in or burned to the ground. I can but wonder what happened here. As a tourist destination it could not be more eerie and shocking at the same time. Although people are friendly, it is clear that a white tourist walking in the streets is like seeing a man walk on the moon; a very rare event. Cars drive by slowly and people ask if I’m fine or what I’m doing there. Another survey perhaps to shift taxes or resources around without making any difference on site? ‘An artist from Brussels?’, a woman asks surprised after she pulled over for the second time, ‘you make sure you leave town before dark, ok?’ When I ask her if I should be afraid of the people living there she sais: ‘oh no, it is the people from out of town who come here at night to cause trouble and make it unsafe’.

Africatown houses

Africatown house2

Africatown house1

Why isn’t Africatown part of National Heritage? Or even International Heritage? A UNESCO World Heritage Site perhaps? What am I missing? This should be an attraction or pilgrimage site like Santiago de Compostella, or Lourdes. It should be commemorated both by black and white Americans for it represents the ultimate American (self made!) dream of self-governance. It’s a story of pride and perseverance in the most difficult situation one can be in and it represents a pivotal moment in American history. In 1985, the Alabama legislature officially recognized Africatown as an historic area and made provisions for its establishment as a State park with the name Africatown USA. To please the opposing industrial companies surrounding historic Africatown, a compromise was made pushing Africatown State park 3 miles away from the historical site. It was also decided that there were no original structures left from the early settlers, forcing historic preservation authorities to deny its recognition as official historic district. What an incredible mistake or set-up.

Due to a political shift the plans were never put in motion. Now, in the beginning of 2016, Mobile launched the Africatown Neighbourhood Plan in order to redevelop the site entirely. It looks good on paper, again, but what about the reality?

Africatown Alabama

The inhabitants of Africatown are still fighting against the surrounding industrial lobby. On the16th of March 2016 there was a public hearing, again, to protest against the Above Ground Oil Storage Tank Zoning Amendment. Or plainly put: against the extension of big oil storage tanks in their backyard. Why isn’t Mobile fighting with them, why is Alabama not stepping in, and why is the United States overseeing this unique historic treasure go down the drain by allowing Oil companies to build storage tanks between the town and the river? Fossil fuels are part of the past. There is no need to store more oil since the majority of the already extracted oil worldwide can’t and won’t be used because of irreversible climate change. In addition, last year a turning point took place, making alternative energy become cheaper that fossil fuel energy. Wind power is now the cheapest electricity to produce both in Germany, the U.K. and Australia, even without government subsidies. In California, Chile, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain and Greece, solar energy is cheaper than fossil fuel for residential power, as well as Mexico and China for industrial power. Or as Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani, the veteran Saudi oil minister, said already in 2000: “Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil – and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil,”. The end of the Fossil Fuel Age is near; do not invest in a corpse!

Invest in the sun, and not oil, and let it shine on Africatown, a historic landmark that should be part of the future and that will generate more revenue on the long run than any industrial investment.

Maarten Vanden Eynde - Oil Peak4

A volunteer at the Minnie Mitchell archives explains why he never goes to Africatown because it is so tense and he feels he is not supposed to be there. He is doing his yearly duty however to count the homeless people that live under and around the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge, that opened in 1991, cutting Africatown in half. I ask him how many there are and he replies: I don’t know, I just count them’.

‘Are you talking about a dozen, hundreds or thousands?’, I insist. ‘Rarther thousands’, he answers reluctantly, ‘for sure also including some the descendents of the original Clotilda arrivals’. I sure hope there is room for them as well after the planned gentrification of Africatown. I hereby pledge to come back as a tourist again in a few years to see if history is repeating itself.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, April 2016

Triangular Trade

For centuries, goods and people, for a long time considered as commodities as well, have been shipped around the world. Triangular Trade focuses on the trade between Africa, Europe and America, i.e. the North Atlantic trade route. For my research I narrowed the triangle down to the Kingdom of Kongo (representing Africa), New Orleans – and the Southern States (representing America), and Belgium (representing Europe). In my search for traces of African culture in the Southern States I am looking at material remains and influences. Besides music (Congo square, Blues, Jazz, Rap and Hip-Hop), religion (Voodoo) and ceremonies (Mardi Gras, Second Line) there are not many physical materials that are still visible today. Cotton however, which due to its economic impact in America and Europe can be considered as the most important driver for the Triangular Trade, is still dominantly present. Fields of cotton are part of the landscape in the Southern States and people wear a wide variety of cotton cloths and pay with paper dollars that are made with cotton. After the invention of the cotton gin and the start of the industrial revolution in the United States, the import of enslaved people peaked, as well as the export of raw cotton to Europe. The finished product was sold around the world, including Africa, completing the triangle in an unsettling way.

American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860 (a bale is a compressed bundle of cotton weighing between 400 and 500 pounds). The number of slaves in America grew from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860.


Most plantations are not in use anymore, while some are turned into museums. Together with the other residents of Deltaworkers and the always present assistant Maggie, we visit both Oak Alley plantation, one of the biggest and most known plantations along the Mississippi, which at the time was completely divided in plantation plots, and Whitney plantation, the self-proclaimed ‘only slavery museum in the United States’.

Although I appreciate the effort to tell this very sensitive and complex history, the way in which it is done, raises serious questions. The tour guide is a bored African American with dreadlocks hanging almost to his knees who tells the same jokes over and over again while we visit one memorial after the other. He speaks slow as a teacher in front of an ignorant class full of children and leaves regular spaces that need to be filled by the cleverest and toady student. Most of the time he fills in the blanks himself since nobody speaks up. His claims are sometimes questionable (The only three slave monuments in the United States can be found here) or just false (Mardi Gras Indians came about due to the incorporation of escaped slaves by Indian tribes – a long debunked myth). We are guided past lists of names carved in marble, contemporary monuments, stories and portraits embedded in stone, and again names and dates. To make things more ‘real’, the founder John Cummings, asked a local artist to make statues of enslaved children based on original photographs, that are spread through a church building like mass produced fashion dolls. Some are exactly the same cast coming from the same mould. In their attempt to make them look real, Whitney plantation moved from historical representation to theme park disneyfication. Most of the site consists of fakes, including objects and buildings. New trees and bushes are being planted, paths paved, sprinklers installed, ready to create the scenery for future history telling. I wonder if the emphasis on the interpretation and creation of history is the best way to show that same history. Especially when you take it upon yourself to be the only slavery museum in the US. Would this obscured past not benefit more from an objective approach?

children of whitney high res

After the tour we wait in the shopping mall of slave souvenirs and an old man comes to us and wants to now if we liked the tour. Thinking he is waiting for the next one and wants to get a heads up, we answer his question. When we ask him whether he is taking the next tour, he comes forward as the founder himself! He is intrigued about our honest comments and takes us to a new section of the museum that is under construction. ‘Look here’, he said, while he grasps a hyper realistic black slave head from a big cardboard box. ‘This is for a new sculptural addition in the garden, a special ‘Adult Only’ area where heads will be put on metal spikes, by the same artist who made a children in the church’. We stand there, flabbergasted, with the head in our hands. He is clearly convinced of his approach and leaves us empty handed when he takes back the head after a long monologue about the importance of education and throws it back in the box filled with heads.


A few days later I go with Maaike Gouwenberg to the Cotton Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where another strange encounter magically presents itself. Along the way we visit Vicksburg, arguably the turning point in the Civil War, opening up the Mississippi to New Orleans and splitting the confederate states in two. On the surrounding hills where the fight for the city lasted several years, the post mortem inaugurated monuments are so abundant that they almost add another geological layer to the historic site. The typical American drive-through approach helps enormously to make this memorial highway bearable. Contrasting to this gravestone overdose is Poverty Point (what’s in a name…), a World Heritage Site since 2014 where it is hard to see any trace at all of this past civilization which claims to be ‘an engineering marvel, the product of five million hours of labor and one of North America’s most important archaeological sites’.



We stop briefly in Clinton, a small town just outside of Jackson that is not at all, but seriously should be, known for having the largest scale model in the world. German and Italian prisoners of war created the whole Mississippi delta in concrete slabs on a scale of 1:100 vertical and 1:2000 horizontal, to do tests with water elevation, dams and canals to predict floods and change floes in the system. It is now completely deserted and taken over by nature, leaving a strange landscape behind.



Along the way we tried to contact Calvin Turley, the founder of the Cotton Museum, without success. On arrival in the hallway an old man pulls up in front and starts to unload musical instruments, enough to form a small one-man band. He asks us if we are looking for something in particular and after explaining who we are looking for he grins and says: ‘Are you Police?’ He avoids answering our suspicions that he is just the guy we are looking for, until we help him get all the instruments out of his car and into the elevator. He promises to come back and answer all our questions. Just before he closes the car, we see the name ‘Calvin’ on his coffee mug. He does come back however and gives us a very elaborate tour in the former Cotton Exchange, in which he worked himself, until it was not desirable anymore to mark the value of the separate bales of cotton in chalk and the computerized trade took over.



Calvin generously donates a bag full of cotton to work with before he disappears again. We visit the artist Greely Myatt in his beautiful and inspiring studio and have the best BBQ in town before we head back down on route 55. Empty fields of once harvested crops washed down by a Dutch drizzle rain, giving us the blues. We are welcomed back in New Orleans in an ‘old fashioned’ way, with bourbon, bitters and a garnish with orange slice, and a cocktail cherry.