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!



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.



New Orleans and the Dark Prince of Finance


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.



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.



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.



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…

A City That Breathes Music

It has been two weeks since Jasper Slijderink and me, Stan Vreeken, arrived in New Orleans. We are both musicians. Besides having our own band (The Big Hunger) we are part of Tijdelijke Samenscholing (Temporary Gathering), the theatre group with whom we work on a new play about New Orleans and its music. Stepping out of Louis Armstrong Airport, the air was humid. It was blazing hot and not long after we picked up our bags a heavy summer rain gave us a big, wet and warm welcome.

In the last days the air has cooled down a little and we’ve seen numerous bands and musicians, both good and bad. In Frenchmen Street we’ve seen brass-bands booming their horns into an overcrowded street, we’ve heard ragtime pianists display their nostalgia for the ‘Roaring 20’s’, we’ve been harassed by street-musicians with less teeth in their mouths then strings on their battered guitars, and we’ve been surprised by crafty singer-songwriters, hidden in dimly lit porches or on street corners, trying to get the drunken passersby to stop and listen. Throughout the whole city small bars and restaurants are scattered around, offering a huge variety of live-acts.

Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentelmen

Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentelmen @ Maple Leaf Bar

The city breathes music, its air is smelling like gasoline, sweat, alcohol and, at night, a sweet hint of jasmine. We’ve been touring the whole city on our bikes. Avoiding the cracks and potholes in the asphalt that we share with rows of big American cars and trucks, we’ve driven as far as Maple Leaf Bar, roughly an hour from our home in Holy Cross. Every Monday Jon Cleary plays the Maple Leaf. Jon and his band, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, are among the best bands the city has to offer. Jon is one of the few pianists in town who still masters the iconic, but vanishing, piano-style that was made famous by the likes of Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Professor Longhair and Dr. John. Last week Jon invited us to come over to his house in the Bywater. There, he gave us a short masterclass on how to play New Orleans Style on piano, and a lecture on the (social) history of New Orleans Jazz and funk. The day before, we had met with his guitarist, Big D, whose size does more than justice to his nickname. After I played him two of my new songs, Big D invited us to come over to his studio in Florida. Somewhere in October we will make the three and a half hour drive to record three songs with some of the best musicians in the Southern States. As Dr. John already sung in the opening sequence of ‘The Princess and The Frog’: “Dreams do come true in New Orleans”.

Jasper taking piano lessons with local piano legend Tom McDermott

Jasper taking piano lessons with local piano legend Tom McDermott

Besides meeting new musicians daily, we talk a lot with the locals on the street. Most times these conversations start with handing out a cigarette, and most times our partner in dialogue is of African-American descent. We’ve noticed that the young (caucasian) artistic elite in the city is much harder to approach then the everyday-man on the street. These conversations offer the most interesting pieces of information. With people like Monty, O.G. George and Tattoo we spoke openly about poverty, alcohol, drugs, Katrina, crime and other social issues that, besides music, are so evident in this city. New Orleans is not only the place where jazz and funk were born, it is also the city with one of the highest murder rates in the U.S. Throughout the day the streets are charming, and the neighborhoods are a welcoming array of colorful little houses and cosy little cafe’s. At night those same streets turn dark and more threatening in their abandonment. Especially for the weaker of heart, I am definitely one them, the ride home can be anxious and long. A striking example, for instance, is when we were waiting for Dr. John to start his show. We were smoking a cigarette outside of The Joy Theater that is situated on Canal Street, one of the main arteries of New Orleans traffic. Not more than 15 feet from where we were standing two young men (barely 18 years old) stopped in front of a traffic sign, speaking loudly to each other. I observed them for a short while and then I saw something that shook me to the bone. Attached to their belts I saw two guns dangling from their blue jeans, the red traffic lights reflected in the silver barrels. They carried their pieces in plain sight, for everyone to see and shiver. I realized, even though I knew it, that most people here must have guns, hidden in the dashboard cups of their cars, and this realization troubles me.

Waiting for Big D, who arrived 1.5 hour late.

Waiting for Big D, who arrived 1.5 hour late.

Two weeks after our arrival my infatuation with New Orleans is still far from over. But as it seems to go with all relationships, I slowly learn that there are less pleasant sides behind the inviting facade of The Big Easy. I look forward to the next five weeks, to the arrival of Michiel Bakker and Carole van Ditzhuyzen – the actors and founders of Tijdelijke Samenscholing, to meet up with more locals and to hear more music. Hopefully my relationship with the city will only change for the better, and I will come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of this historical city, in all her complexities.