Democracy in America | The National Camgaign
New Orleans, LA

Question #1:
Who is your audience and how does your work mobilize them towards strategic local concerns?

VERA WARREN WILLIAMS: Community Book Center’s audience is primarily a global world community audience. However, we have particular links with the African-American community. Our space and our work mobilizes the community by offering access to the space. This is a meeting space for youth groups to come together and organize. We also have meetings here regarding housing and the concerns regarding the whole housing situation here post-Katrina. We also have several groups of teachers who meet here in support of each other to help them to get through the challenges that they’re facing as teachers in the public school system. We also have social and environmental justice groups that use the space and meet here regularly, and in addition to that the elders often come, not necessarily as a group, but just to stop in and have conversations with whomever is in here, particularly the youth, just talk about current events, as well as historical facts and circumstances. Also, it is a space for not only visual artists, but performing artists and authors, as well. So we work together with all groups in the world community to do our work.

ELSA DIMITRIADIS: Our audience is primarily our participants, and the students, families, and communities that come to the performances. I think we’re fortunate because our art form, being puppetry, is kind of an innocuous, innocent sort of art form to a lot of people. When they come, they aren’t expecting anything that is politically based. In a current project that we’re working on the students chose to address things like their school conditions. False imprisonment was something else that they were very concerned about, as well as the aggression of law enforcement. Those are things that we’re currently dealing with. We’re mobilizing the community and the parents to be aware of what the concerns of their children, either in a village sense or their actual children, are. I think that it might mobilize them to either address it with their children or address those concerns as adults.

BRANDON ODUMS: Our audience is mainly college students and high school students; the group is made up of young people, so our audience is really us, ourselves. We use a method where we entertain to educate; we try to attract people by entertainment. We attract people by celebrities, interviews. We attract people by comedy. We attract people by the hip-hop element, music and stuff. Once we feel like we get the audience sitting there, then we try to insert as much education, as many issues, as much politics as we can. Our goal is not to try to escort people into a conscious state, but we do believe that human nature, once you realize that you’re in prison, if we shed light on the bars, if we shed some light on the cage, is going to do what it takes to free itself. Our main concern with Two Cent is to expose and shed some light on these issues and on these concerns. We feel young people are conscious enough and aware enough to do what they have to do to, make themselves in a better state or whatever. So that’s our audience and that’s how we mobilize them.

NATALIE SCORTINO REINHART: Our group first formed with a global audience in mind. We’re trying, seeking to set up during the International Art Biennial. But I think that each member in the group is strongly aware that we can’t keep a global audience unless we become locally sustainable. I don’t think anyone in the group wants this just to be a temporary exhibition that we put up and then it comes down. Several groups have formed to find ways of keeping spaces permanent, informing artist-run spaces. Some have already cropped up. This addresses one big local concern and that is the blighted and abandoned spaces in the city that artists are taking over and putting to good use. In a broader sense, it addresses the concern of the future of the arts in the city, which has one of the longest, richest, most interesting histories of the arts as an inseparable part of culture. So we all have this belief. Also, being a native New Orleanian is something that motivates me and many people in our group to continue to see the sustainability of this area and reach a global audience at the same time.

CHIEF DARRYL MONTANA: Our audience is community-based people, local, national, and international. One of the strategic plans that we were involved in had to do with a situation that happened St. Joseph Night, 2005, when the police department harassed the Mardi Gras Indians; this is something that has been going on in the community since the ‘40s. My father (Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana) got up in front of City Council to address this because he remembered as a young man seeing how the police would basically prepare to beat the Mardi Gras Indians when they would come out at night, and on Mardi Gras Day. I noticed several years prior to his death—he died June 27th in a City Council meeting, as he addressed the councilmen of the city—I noticed about five years prior to that how the police department was running the Mardi Gras Indians off the street. In traveling abroad and around the country, folks treat us like ambassadors. And here in your own city, we are basically—they want to discard you. In fact, right after Katrina, they were talking about the Mardi Gras ending, or the street culture of the city not coming back. And I made 13 trips from Houston, Texas until I was able to find a place to stay because I’m committed to what I do. I am not going to let anybody stop me from doing what I think I need to do, as it relates to our culture and our city. We [Mardi Gras Indians] make sacrifices. I would say that I spend over 5,000 hours a year to make a suit to mask on Mardi Gras Day. Besides possibly working one or two jobs, we use our hard-earned money to pay so that we can mask. Most of the guys have minimum wage jobs, but they still manage to dress and come out on Mardi Gras Day. I’ve had opportunities to exhibit my suits in several museums and galleries. This is where I generate funds to basically support what I do. But my concern is that between the second line organizations and the Mardi Gras Indians we spend over $300,000 a year in this city to put the city in the spotlight. And you hardly ever get a chance to reap any benefits of what you do in your city. Most of the money I make is outside of Louisiana. One of my dreams is to open The Allsion “Big Chief Tootie” Montana Mardi Gras Indian Museum. A museum that will exhibit, preserve, document, and celebrate cultural traditions of African-Americans. Where folks that are involved in the street culture, social, aid, and pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and second line clubs will have an opportunity to display [their items]. Also, they’ll be in a position where they can sell some of the goods that they make. There’s no venue in the city that affords them that opportunity. By way of the Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana Mardi Gras Indian Museum they will have a space to sell their goods, which can supplement their income. Again, this is a minimum wage city.

WILLIE BIRCH: I think that I need to speak as an artist. I hear everybody speaking as basically people who have organizations or whatever. But I think back to Katrina, from the standpoint that I’ve been an artist most of my life. I’m 65 years old and I’ve been in the Civil Rights movement. I know that black people here in particular have always had strong communities. So we’re not doing anything by creating a center for what we do. Those things come naturally, based upon our concept of how we see ourselves through the idea of community. In terms of this thing called The Porch that I created, well, it came out of a different position that I had to take in my community, whereby I had to become a role model. Not just being an artist, which people understood was an important part of their community, but as somebody who has lived around the world, to a large degree, at least two-thirds of the world. But also as someone who had ideas of how to use culture as a means of transforming community and give people another sense of who they were in terms of their own greatness. So The Porch was created out of that.
     On top of that, there was an incident in December where two kids were killed in my neighborhood. One of them I knew personally, because I watched this kid. I moved back to New Orleans in ’94. I watched this child and I saw the problems he had and his family had. But this kid and I had bonded. And I talked to him maybe a half an hour before he was killed. I’m coming from the drugstore, walking down Villary Street, and I see this kid fly through the air and the bullets are just flying all over. I immediately went down to the scene and, of course, he’s dead. The thing is that as an artist, I felt that The Porch couldn’t help me do what I wanted to do. So having more resources than most people, I knew this dancer, Greer Mindy. And I called her, because she has this piece called “Dance For Life.” And I asked her if we could find a way to do a collaboration within the community and she agreed. We raised a small amount of money; most people wouldn’t give us money, but I used my own money to do something for the community. And we did basically what Paul Chan did. We got in touch with the police. We closed off the block in the neighborhood. We had a second line. And then we had this incredible spoken word dance performance, right there at the corner of Irquat and Turout, where the last child got killed. We forced the community to interact with what was going on. My community is not accustomed to seeing art in that type of presentation and that made an incredible impact upon them, just by the fact that they saw people who were concerned about them. The nature of the piece was about healing, so we can talk about that. But the idea of using art to really dramatize and get people to think about their own responsibility to each other, as well as our responsibilities as human beings was very, very important. Now, I couldn’t do that in The Porch. The Porch has a structure and a council that does not allow for it and would take too much time for me to address that. So the idea as an artist whose reputation was made long before I moved back to New Orleans, I can do that. On some levels, the group dynamics work, on other levels, the individual dynamics work. As an artist, I can do both. And I’m fortunate enough to be able to play within all of those different worlds. I don’t know how much sense this is making in terms of what we’re trying to say here, because it’s much, much more complicated than that. But my basic role here is as an artist. I am here to document my time, in terms of my existence as a human being. That’s all I do. And I’m fortunate enough that people pay me for what I do (LAUGHTER).

MATTHEW SCHWARZMAN: I think this is the question for me. It’s been the question for me for 22 years, when as a member of a theater company in Philadelphia, I was visited by John O’Neal, who brought this question to me and to the company I was in from Alternate Routes. Alternate Routes is an organization of artist-activists. They had this question, which was, “Who is your audience and how do you want them to be different after what you offer them than they were before?” It’s a very big, presumptuous question, so you have to bring it down to wherever you’re talking about. But I really do think it’s the question for me. We can have different levels of audience: primary, secondary, whatever. But as a theater artist, I was trained in the university to not care about my audience (LAUGHTER) and to, in fact, avoid, seriously, to avoid contact with my audience, because that would pollute my work or be pandering. I think that those of us who do this kind of work, for me it’s the single clearest difference in our work, is that we actually want to know where our audience is. We actually have an audience in our mind. Not to say that I think it’s the definition of being an artist personally, but we cop to it in a way that I think is meaningful to me. So young people these days are my primary audience in the Creative Forces program that I mentioned. It’s a new program, so I’m still really figuring out, and the people I’m working with are figuring out how we answer the second part of the question, how do we want to affect them. But I’m working with people like Drummer Baba, Luther Gray, and theater artist John Grimsley, and a dancer named Rhonda Coleman. Anyway, what we’re trying to do is figure out how important what we’re doing is. How important is academic learning, because that is what we do, how important is science and math through theater, and how much of it is really a cultural shift we want to be stimulating, how much of it is about just reframing learning, as something that’s interesting, worthwhile, actually hip. You can tell I’m the one who’s in charge of hip. (LAUGHTER). But that is very much what I think I want to try to do here with my work personally. Because I think New Orleans can really lead the country, if not the world, in that idea of culture and joy and learning. I think it’s not necessarily in the schools that you find it, but you find it on the streets and you find it in the stores, and if you want to affect somebody’s behavior, whatever it is, you write a song about it. Or you write a rhyme about it. And you don’t really care whether you’re an artist or not. You’re trying to achieve something. You’re trying to modify; I’m a behavior modifier. Even if what it’s about is people wanting to feel better about themselves. That’s behavior modification right there.

Question #2:
Given that the ways we make money impacts the type of culture we produce, how does the local economy affect your art practice? Or another way to look at it is, how do you work to obtain and share resources?

JENNY LeBLANC: There are not a whole lot of ways we make money locally, as probably everyone in this room can attest. A lot of us teach for arts organizations, like Young Audiences, where we’re working with schoolchildren sort of on a part-time basis, but just to supplement our income so that we can make our own artwork, not because we want to be teaching children full-time. Others work for commercial printing operations. In my case, I’m a sculptor for a Mardi Gras company and I make huge props of owls that go on floats for Mardi Gras, which is exciting work, it’s special work, but all of these things that we do, I think, is to make money to actually be making our artwork. And it’s really difficult to support and sustain your art practice in this city solely on selling your artwork. What Hot Iron Press endeavors to do, at least right now, and we’ve been working towards this for years and years, is to take all of these side jobs and accrue their own set of equipment so they become the resource for other people. After the hurricane we collected donations, which we distributed to other grassroots arts organizations that, for whatever reason, didn’t have insurance or just lost everything, lost music equipment, lost books, lost paintings. And we were able to give 12 different groups or artists mini-grants from that. Since then it seems like almost weekly we’ll get a phone call from someone who just needs to use the exposure unit to burn a silkscreen, to print a poster for their friend who just died and they’re having a second line. We are totally open to those sorts of experiences, since we have the equipment now, and we want to be a resource for the community, because we feel it’s so difficult for all of us when you spend so much of your time just to earn money to make your artwork, then you’re not making your artwork. I wish that we all could work towards something that was our thing and we had it, and it was common knowledge that this person is a resource for that equipment, or this technical ability or whatever, and there was more sharing and swapping of those things. Because really, I don’t think any of us are just rolling in the cash (LAUGHTER). Seriously, when you’re waiting tables to get the cash to make your artwork, then the artwork suffers. There was the book release party for Constants last weekend; that’s an example of a situation where these two guys published this book, which brings exposure to all of these artists and writers, and then they have this art show, and it doesn’t cost anybody anything. And we all come together and have a good time. That’s something that happens in the city with ease. We all know how to do it. So that’s something that I’m excited about and I would look forward to that happening more in the future.

KATHY RANDELS: New Orleans has been a poor city for a long time, long before the federal flood happened. There are a lot of wealthy people who live in New Orleans, but I would say the majority of the people who live here are middle to lower income to poor. And so making art here, which in the larger American society and even in our own town is not valued is really hard. You have to look in the mirror every day and say it’s worth it. When you look in the mirror every day and you can’t say that it’s worth it, you have to reach out to other people who are doing it and have them tell you it’s worth it. And when they go away you’re fucked (LAUGHTER). No, but I think that I’m not going to cry yet. I think that our work is completely affected by the economic situation here. Where does the money in New Orleans go? A lot of it goes towards Mardi Gras. In the white community, the money goes into making floats and costumes, of course. In the black community, it tends to go toward individual blood, sweat, tears.
     There are tactics that you do when you live in a poor town and you work and you make a living off of something that there’s no money for. One of the things is you write grants. That takes up a whole lot of time. And you have to choose whether you’re going to do the work or do the work to find the money to fund the work. And so what I’ve done, and I’m 37, is I’ve placed the work first for all of my years. I moved back here in ’95. And I’ve always just, I’ve placed that first.
     There’s a program that we do that I haven’t mentioned, which is a theater program at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. It’s called the LCIW Drama Club. I started working there because I had a grant in ’96 from the NEA called the Regional Artists Project, which probably some of these people and some of the people in the other cities got to work under. That has since dried up. We had six months of funding for that project, but I’m still going there every Saturday morning. And I’ve roped in Ausettua Amor Amenkum, the Big Queen for the Yellow Pocahontas, and we both go there together to volunteer. We do that because we have to do it. We do that because we have a commitment to those women who would not have a creative outlet if we didn’t go there every Saturday morning. My ArtSpot work, my theater work that I do, I get funding from grants. I get a tiny, little bit from New Orleans every year. I get a little bit more from Louisiana every year. And every now and again, I get a little something from the NEA. And I am militant to a fault about paying other New Orleanians with that money. Sometimes people think that that’s small sighted of me, but it’s a pretty ferocious calling that I have from being here and knowing how hard it is. Many people will say, well, there are other artists who could do this job better. And I will say too bad, we’re never going to get to do the job better unless we are given money to do the damn thing. So that’s another tactic.
     Finally, another place and other work that I do is through the Students at the Center program, which is run by my brother, Jim Randels, and Kalama ya Salaam, another great writer. They get funding either through the education system or grants to support artists coming and working in the schools, and I do theater with their writing. That’s not my true calling; I shouldn’t really be teaching, but because I’ve had to teach for 12 years now I’ve actually learned to love it. It completely informs my work and who I am and what I do. It has changed my view of the world because I do work with the poorest students in this community. It keeps me real.

CHIEF DARRYL MONTANA: The money [in New Orleans] goes to the person that’s selling the product. Basically, the person that’s selling the goods. Perfect example. I was blessed this year. I have a young man from New Orleans who masks as a Mardi Gras Indian. He’s also an engineer for a car manufacturing company. And he and I linked up this year. I taught him how to do the design and sewing work. But one of the fringe benefits of us meeting is that he’s linked with the same companies that sell the goods to the people that I buy it from. Perfect example, I was using these beads this year. It was a small bottle of beads that cost $1.69, and I needed hundreds of bottles. He was able to get that same bottle of beads that I was paying $1.69 for, for 40 cents a bottle. That goes to show you the type of money that these people are making off of what we do. Hopefully, one day in the near future, we’ll have a place that will sell the same supplies that I buy from these folks and sell it at a lower rate that’s affordable for the other guys. That’s my mission.
     I teach the kids how to make the Mardi Gras Indian dolls. And at the school that I worked at prior to Katrina, they would do this thing they call a showcase, where the parents would come and see what their children were learning during their elective time at the school. One of the young ladies made a doll and she sold it to one of the staff members who was from either North or South Carolina. Well, she bought it for her mom as a Christmas gift. The young lady approached me the day she sold her piece. And she was pulling on my shirt. She said, “Chief, Chief.” I said, “What, girl? You keep pulling me.” She said, “I’m rich.” I said, “What you mean?” She said, “I sold my doll.” If I could take what I do that was given to me and pass it on to a child and give them something that they could make with their hands and earn an honest dollar, then, maybe, the dope dealer won’t be able to get them and have them out there selling drugs. So that’s my whole mission and what it is I do. I teach the children how to do the beadwork.
     I remember one year, my wife’s uncle lived with us, he would visit. He was a Jehovah Witness, and he was trying to get me to be a Jehovah Witness. He said, “That’s all you do [i.e. the beadwork], stay in the room and work.” He would always try to play this guilt thing on me: He said, “Do what’s important to you.” “Look,” I said, “You carry the Bible to get your audience. I get my audience by what I do. It doesn’t matter how you get one’s attention, long as you get their attention.” And that’s what it is.

VERA WARREN WILLIAMS: First, I’d like to say that Community Book Center is a for-profit nonprofit. We make money primarily by selling books, African-centered books. And we also work in a state with, if not the highest illiteracy rate, one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country. So that tells you that we’re not really selling that many books. And the local economy has affected us adversely in our market, because for our primary customers, who are African-American, buying a book has become a luxury and not something that you just do. So that affects us and our bottom line. We are working to obtain nonprofit status, so that we will have access to grants that would help to support some of the projects that we’d like to do, as well as support other organizations that utilize this space to help them with their projects. We make the space available primarily at no cost. However, it would be helpful if we did receive donations from organizations that can afford to pay us, for nothing but to offset the cost of utilities. Again, we are looking to collaborate more with other groups to utilize the space. It can be completely open, it can be closed. Also, we are fortunate to have a new collaboration with New Corp Small Business Assistance Center and the National Association of Minority Contractors, who installed the technology center in the back specifically for minority contracts. It’s also accessible to other small businesses with computers and specialized software that would help minority contractors to take advantage of some of the work that’s available here. Having them as a partner and the tenet has helped us tremendously financially.

ELIZABETH UNDERWOOD: I don’t think it’s an accident that you have a group of artists here that are devoted to working with the poor, the disenfranchised, the ignored, the isolated—that’s because we are it. I mean, we’re poor too. So there’s a sensitivity, a knowledge, and the desire to share the skills that we have as creative artists with our community because we understand the necessity and the value of this interaction. I think if you go into a wealthy community you will find that their concerns are generally not about taking care of the hungry and homeless, the at-risk youth, etcetera. In that way, the culture that comes out of New Orleans is directly and inextricably linked to the economics of the city.
     The current New Orleans art scene has a lot of new projects since Katrina dedicated to working in marginalized communities, in what would be considered a social/activist manner. I believe this is because we personally understand that creativity gives more than the tools for making money or objects, and we know this on a daily, cultural level. It’s no accident that artists in economically challenged communities pursue social, charitable creative practices. This is art functioning as necessity versus luxury. And because what happens to my community happens to me, my goal is to make work that takes the luxury out of how we’re taught to perceive fine art; to make art that is accessible, free, and supportive of the community it exists in. To flip the binary in terms of the landscape, turn the “bad” into “good”; bring the rich to the poor to see interesting art instead of the other way around. This method is a direct result of how I experience the economics of New Orleans, especially post-disaster.
     Also we have systems of getting by that are truly collective—there’s a lot of bartering, trading, and sharing that goes on across the board. We have to live and work collectively to survive. The aftermath of Katrina showed the horrible mistake of acting otherwise, the devastating effects of thinking that we’re not collectively responsible for each other. So now we’ve got exciting, socially conscious, contemporary art projects being initiated by locals here because that is the economic and spiritual reality we know. I’m not saying it’s good and fun to be poor. I’m saying that out of poverty alternative systems for living and thriving can be cultivated, and in New Orleans we happen to be really adept at this because economically and politically our city is a wreck.

NICK SLIE: I have to go outside of this state to make a lot of the creative money that I make. We all do, in terms of touring our work and getting it out there. This brought up something for me that I think is really important, which is the fact that it’s really hard when you leave this place to go do your work elsewhere to see a proliferation of people in the last two years come to this place and do their work here. And not only do their work here, in terms of just being in charge of their content, but being in charge in a very sophisticated manner of their money. Not only coming down here, but also coming down here and setting up shop administratively, setting up everything. Some of the money that’s been spent in this city on projects could have funded probably most of our organizations for two years. So that’s been a really significant thing. And as my friend, Kathy Randals, says, “It’s hard trying to figure out how to stare a gift horse in the mouth.” How do you be thankful for Jan Cohen Cruz coming down here while also being critical of the fact that we have so many people down here doing work that is not inspired by the community here? Why is Mr. Montana not supported financially like some projects are supported? It’s important for us not to just describe what has happened to us, but to explain what we’re describing. I don’t think it’s important just to complain about people coming here, it’s also important for us to look at our organizations and say, “Why are we not set up to take that type of money? What do we need to do now to get to the level that we can receive the amount of resources that people have?” Yes, it’s a problem; how are we going to put ourselves in the position to get those resources. And it’s okay for us locally to say, “I don’t disrespect what you’re doing out here, but I do have a problem with it, and this is my problem.”

Question #3:
Describe a local cultural event that productively expanded the social networks that your practice operates in. That is to say that the event produced a nuisance of community that had political potential.

ASALI DeVAN: One of the local cultural projects that I’m working on that I’m extremely excited about because of the group of people that I’ve gotten to know and become linked up with is the Swimming Upstream Project. The Swimming Upstream Project is a play that was coauthored by a group of 15 women from New Orleans, which just in and of itself is incredible. That work came into being with Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues coming to New Orleans to write about New Orleans and Katrina. She was challenged by Carol Bebell of Ashay to facilitate the women of New Orleans telling their own stories and to provide a national platform for those stories, which to her credit she readily did. Talking about the economy of art here in the city, I’m astounded, as an arts administrator and as a community person, about the money and the time and sacrifice that people put into their art. And to go all around the country and see other people make tens of thousands of dollars to make their livelihood off of the blood, sweat, and tears of so many New Orleanians, to work in Congo Square and see these people, photographers and other folk come in from these other places. Just the other day Mama Roukey made a Mardi Gras outfit for my son from her own good heart. But I went into a museum and saw a picture of my son for $500 and I can’t even get a copy of it. That’s appalling, you know. And it happens all the time. The cultural artists in New Orleans are continually raped for what it is that they do; other people continually profit off of it. This particular experience, being able to create and tell our own stories on a national platform, is very empowering. And we are appreciative and excited about how dynamic it is and how the potential for it is continually expanding.

DAMON ROSENZWEIG: A local cultural event that productively expanded social networks for us was the Creative Time/Paul Chan effort down in Gentilly and Lower 9, Waiting for Godot. Our group wouldn’t be together if it hadn’t been for that, in some respects. Maybe that’s overstating the case. But for me, it was a significant inspiration, because here’s an opportunity to actually plug into what is for me a new community. Throughout my life, I’ve had these opportunities of going places far away and doing exactly that, being immersed in an environment and connecting to a whole new set of subjectivities. One of the lessons that I get out of that, that constantly informs and re-informs the way I’m viewing the world, is the way that different people communicate. The rest of the world has not smoothed out art as a metaphor for the everyday experience, as we have. Down in Haiti, the sun doesn’t go down, it goes to bed. Water doesn’t flow down rocks, it flows down stairs. And I notice when we describe a situation here in New Orleans, it’s not a fence, it’s a muzzle. And these things evoke images and create new ways of looking at things as long as you’re open to them. That’s the miracle that you can create, if you can get it to work.

ELIZABETH UNDERWOOD: I’m going to mention the elephant in the room, I suppose, and say that a local cultural event that expanded the social networks that my practice operates in was Hurricane Katrina. With all of the grief and the loss, and I lost everything, I lost people and I lost animals, etcetera, it’s a common story, but there was a breaking open. I felt like in my exile I was like a firefly of New Orleanian culture that went out into the country and perhaps shed a little light on how they are or are not paying attention to us. There are people outside that are paying attention, for example, Creative Time, Joan Mitchell Foundation, Andy Warhol Foundation, the NEA; they’re paying attention, they’re interested and invested in what we’re doing. These organizations seem very committed to empowering us on many levels, and this is something I would not have known about were it not for the floods of our levee breaks. The Katrina experience raised me up to another level with my art practice. I’m an artist first and foremost and then I created this nonprofit out of my own personal agenda. That would not have happened if I hadn’t been able to take advantage of the grants, artist residencies, and the professional support of organizations outside of the city. I think that the horrible abuses we survived opened us up in ways that can be positive. We’re sharing information, organizing, and supporting each other’s new dreams. There’s a lot of bleeding into each other’s practices as we cope with the day-to-day challenges of surviving here. So one might say that by bringing national attention to our community, forcing us to expand our language, resources, and creative practices, the devastation of the levee breaks was a “cultural event” that is fueling us to act in progressive and productive ways.

ELSA DIMITRIADIS: Obviously, on a much smaller scale, about four months ago there was the State of the Nation performance at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. One of my frustrations is that I can almost anticipate the audiences at different events that I’m going to be going to. And sometimes I know that it’s going to be the very socially conscious-minded people who are going to be there. It’s frustrating to me, because I think it’s preaching to the choir. And then sometimes I go and I know that there are going to be a lot of very upper class people who can say that they went to a social event. And that’s somewhat frustrating. But what I really liked about this [State of the Nation performance] is that I was very surprised that there were so many different kinds of people in the audience. It was one of the very few times I went and was very surprised to see so many different walks of life. There were people who were much more street performer-esque types, all the way to professors from universities. I was really impressed by the variety of people in the audience. I think that maybe a lot of people were able to see it. There were several different types of performances that evening, from younger people who were singing, to poetry, to Mondo Bizarro to Kathy Randels. Some people got to see types of performance that they are not often exposed to.

JENNY LEBLANC: For the past year or so there has been a series of contemporary artist convening sessions that were sponsored by the Joan Mitchell Foundation and moderated by Joy Glidden, who is the new Director of Louisiana Artworks []. The purpose of these sessions was to get local contemporary artists all in one room to talk about the state of different organizations in the city—museums, galleries, etcetera—and how we felt that they were serving us, or how we felt that they should be serving us. That was the first time that I’m aware of where I felt there was a forum for this group of people that really didn’t have a voice otherwise. Someone from outside of the city had an interest in what we wanted to say and was taking notes of what we felt was important in order to put it to the people in the city who were supposed to be serving us (the arts organizations here). It was a summit of creative minds, and a little bit of a gripe session, but I met a lot of people through those sessions that I didn’t know and wasn’t even aware of their artwork prior to those events happening.

KYLE BRAVO: As the representative of the New Orleans Book Fair I want to say the New Orleans Book Fair as my example of an event. I feel like the Book Fair’s explicit goal is to expand the social networks of people that are practicing self-publishing and independent publishing and creating alternative media. That’s really what it’s all about, getting that community together so people can network and see what each other are doing. Jenny and I are really an example of how that worked because we actually came and attended the first three years of the Book Fair while we were living in Virginia and North Carolina for a couple years. It was such an inspiring, exciting event for us that—we’re both originally from Louisiana—it sealed the deal for us moving back down here. It was just such a huge inspiration for us to come back and establish roots in the city. We saw the potential of that community of people doing exciting things through the Book Fair.

REBECCA SNEDEKER: I want to talk about the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival [], which is now in its fifth year. The festival has a concrete mission to show local, national, and international films and to hold up the work of human rights organizations based in New Orleans. Stories of people and people doing work for human rights are screened for 10 days. The festival supports local organizations here by allowing time for the organizations to speak about their work, having fundraisers for various, organizing panels related to their work. Many people who are doing soul deepening, but often painful, day-to-day work are celebrated. The festival overtly links media and politics, and deepens relationships across organizing issues and professional fields. The films and the people that take part in the discussions after are down right inspiring.

Question #4:
As a politically engaged artist or organization, how does your practice relate to existing social movements? Also feel free to shout out kind of like historical stuff, I guess, as well.

MATTHEW SCHWARZMAN: I think I’m going to answer the question by talking about my own work. I moved here from Oakland [California], where I was very involved with the organization called The Center For Third World Organizing. We had a program called Urban Arts that was very much about training teenagers to be community organizers through the arts. The whole language of cultural activism and social change was very much in the forefront of that program; it was something that was talked about every day. And I’ve actually found since moving here and working with young people here, particularly post-Katrina, because I wasn’t really working with young people, well, I guess I was doing some work, but my work with young people has become my focus since Katrina, that I’ve actually stepped back from some of that language because the tangible issues here are so overwhelming, number one. Plus, the tolerance for bullshit here is so low (LAUGHTER). It’s a town that’s famous for bullshit but for people who are here, the tolerance is very low. I didn’t want to explain what I meant by the term “cultural activist,” so instead my work now is about teaching teenagers to be peer educators. And that to me is definitely cultural activism; it’s all the same thing. But the language is very much about doing the work, rather than the theory. I also have come to think that my job is that I’ve reached the limitations of my pride, being 47 years old, in the sense that the idea that I have political answers to give to young people has pretty much gone out of my mind. It’s much more about teaching or passing on what I know, and with a lot of the people I’ve hung around with, what they know. Also, figuring out what young people are going to do with it or the next generation is going to do with it; I have a role to help them make something of it. It’s not just here it is, do what you please, make more of it than I did, but rather it’s actually working with people from a developmental standpoint. I still feel very much engaged to social movements, but it’s very specifically about building social movements. We do talk about developing an army of creative young people, that’s what creative forces is trying to do. But I don’t see myself or any of the adults that I’m working with as the generals. And so figuring that out is very much where I’m at.

NICK SLIE: When I first learned about the story circle process from John O’Neal I remember him saying very specifically that no one owns this process. People don’t own ideas. And they don’t own tools. So use it as you feel it’s most beneficial. That’s been a big part of how I like to think the work connects to political movements: If people feel the need to have ownership over something in a serious way, and if what they have ownership over has power over people, then it’s important to be really wary of why they’re doing that. One of our missions is knowing that we don’t make the type of money or have the type of financial resources as an organization that we could or should have in our opinion; we have a lot of non-monetary resources, including a lot of video and audio equipment and a lot of skills and education in our bodies, so that this thing is more about a service, it’s a life of service, because it’s definitely not a life of getting rich or anything like that. It’s about understanding what you’re going into when you’re called upon and someone asks, and that you have to show up whether you’re getting paid or not. Most of the time, if you log your hours of what you do there’s no way to figure out how you get paid for 5,000 hours of service, minimum (LAUGHTER).
     The other big focus that has really been on my mind for the last three years right after Katrina is listening to the elders, not in terms of what worked, but rather what didn’t work. Because I feel like I know a lot about everybody’s triumphs in their artistic careers. And I’ve heard about all the ways, “One time, we did this.” But I rarely hear people talking about, “You know, we really failed here.” I’m still a very young person in my mind, and I feel like I’ve seen some of the people that I consider the elders in my artistic life starting to pass, and I feel like every time one passes, you miss an opportunity to talk to them and ask them those questions or record that information. If that whole generation of people leaves and doesn’t share with us what didn’t work then we’re going to be repeating the same mistakes. And I really am not interested in that. As I tell my friend John O’Neal: “I don’t want to be you at 65.” Because I don’t want to be facing this question of sustainability when I’m 65 years old. Because the way that this whole art thing is set up in our organizations is that it encourages dynamic individuals, those people out in the field that like everyone looks to and says, “You’re the person who’s going to get things done.” But collective structures seem to be more sustainable. Trying to figure out a way to get there is one of the issues now.

BRADY MCKELLAR: Several months ago Elsa and I were talking to Miss Vera about hosting a cultural puppet demonstration workshop that we’re going to do here this summer. We asked Miss Vera about what classified as being an at-risk youth. She said that since Katrina, any youth in New Orleans is potentially an at-risk youth. And there’s a lot of truth to that. So we like to work with these students a lot. They all have very real concerns. Some of them worry about the environment or they worry about the situation with police or law enforcement in New Orleans. In a lot of cases, they get told, “Okay, these problems are for grownups to worry about. You don’t think about this or you don’t talk about this.” Or they get told, “You know what, kid? I’m tired of hearing you complain. Go and play your video games or whatever.” So they don’t know how to say these things that are on their mind. In a lot of ways, they don’t know who to say it to or who might listen. We spend a lot of time with the students using the puppets to find out what they’re interested in and what they’d like to say. This last program that we did at the end of last semester was about recycling and environmental concerns because there were some issues that they had. The show that we’ll be doing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is about class issues and police issues. It creates a safe environment for these children to learn to communicate these things. A lot of people would say that what we do is like an outreach program, but I think of it more like we’re teaching these kids to be able to reach out. The social movement that we’re most involved with is to create new social activists. We’re working to create that next generation of people that know how to explain the things that are bothering them and can express it. Then they can create an artistic expression to get you involved or to get their parents involved or to get the people that will be younger than them involved. That’s what we spend our time doing right now and that’s our social involvement.

DAMON ROSENZWEIG: One of the things that I hear consistently, and that I feel very deeply and have internalized for a long time in my career, is that it’s not so much that my work relates to the social movements, but that it’s the social movements that drive my work. And hopefully my work becomes a decent expression of the desires that are the basis of the social movement. I would like to say a quick word about the idea of stepping up. There’s a real strong component. I see that here, folks who are interested in stepping forward and doing this consistently. Folks down here in Katrina Land, we’ve been through something that other folks around the country have not. We’ve been through something that folks think happened halfway around the world. Everybody in every other city has asked what’s going on in New Orleans. So we are part of the social movement. And we all have stories. They’re all hard. I worked the boats, pulling people out of the water. There’s a story to tell there. And I get choked up thinking about how to get that across. But there’s a drive forcing us to do it. We have to step up. We have to tell the story, because something happened. There are how many people in New Orleans? How many people in south Louisiana? There are that many messages.

ADELLA GAUTIER: In my work with the young folk it’s a whole different dynamic. Yes, we can learn from [elders] and I think it’s important that we find out what didn’t work, to impart that to these young people. But there’s a whole different dynamic that these young people are dealing with. Yes, it is important that they be given a voice, and that they tell their own stories without us interpreting them, that it just comes from them, makes them recognize their own worth. So that they can become self-validators, and not need to have somebody else say, “Oh, this is good because it’s acceptable by society.” They have to create their own images and their own worlds that they’re going to be living in. We’re not going to be here. When they talk about sustainability a lot of the old people don’t want to let go, but again, the future generals are not going to be us; it has to be those young people.

ASALI DeVAN: I see art itself as a social movement. In my formal education as a writer and as an educator there was always a debate about the didactic elements of art and the idea of art for art’s sake. I personally have never believed that there is such a thing as art for art’s sake. As human beings we are political and that we’re also going to be artists—every person. Teaching people to tap into their art as a means to promote their political realities and change them is just phenomenal to see. I recently taught a class at Tulane University on art and social justice and I used Matt’s book in that class, yes, sir. To witness this whole social notion of art being an agent of change, to see it just manifest all over the place, and to see people who were at one time not considered artists or who were considered folk artists and therefore considered not as artistic, to see that art becoming validated by the people who make it, by those artists themselves saying, you will not define me, I will define me, and you will use my terms when you speak of me: I absolutely love that, I absolutely love seeing it. And I love seeing it in all of the people here; this is an amazing collective of artists who all believe in using art to make social changes. I mean, it’s a revolution in this room and I’m just really honored and very pleased to be a part of it.

Question #5:
These conversations come out of a nationwide concern about the fate of democracy. How do you see your projects tying into a larger national structure? Is organizing nationally productive? What are its limitations?

REBECCA SNEDEKER: Last year I joined New Day Films [], a fantastic collective made of independent filmmakers who make engaging and educational social-issue related films and distribute them together. The company is over 35 years old and is thriving, and our members live all over the United States. In general, New Orleans’ documentary filmmaking community is on the map, but isn’t as strong or developed as those in New York and San Francisco. Of course the media frenzy post-Katrina is a whole other story. I fell in love with documentary making when I moved back to New Orleans after college. I was fortunate to work with a filmmaker who was here from New York named Julie Gustafson. I don’t think I would have been exposed to documentary making at that time, which was in about 1997, if I hadn’t met this New York artist who was here in New Orleans doing this project and who was hiring young people locally. I was able to really learn from her about this medium, which mixed my interests for visual and verbal, as I was painting and writing. I fell in love with this craft. I heard about New Day from Julie, and when I finally completed By Invitation Only I applied to join. Now as a member, I have a national network of filmmakers, a support system of artists who have incredible depth and breadth of wisdom about documentary filmmaking and distribution and publicizing our work. We each have a real interest in sharing knowledge because it’s healthy for strengthening our filmmaking, and because we own this distribution company together.
     Last summer, I went to the first annual meeting, which is run like a participatory democracy. There were all these reasons I wanted to join the collective, but I had no idea what it was going to be like to be part of running an organization via participatory democracy. It was like the UN. There are committees and we each have tasks we perform throughout the year, and we report back to the group, on everything from changes in the industry to marketing techniques. I was so moved by this democratic process. It was an amazing antidote and balm to what we’ve been living with in our current administration. For me, New Day Films is a great model of national organizing and networking. Being a member-owner allows me to grow professionally and have compadres who understand what it means to make a documentary film, while all while I stay in the place where I want to keep making work—New Orleans.

MATTHEW SCHWARZMAN: To answer the question, I think I’m going to try to come at it from several different vantage points, with short answers because it’s a tough question. I was part of a national organization of cultural activists called the Alliance for Cultural Democracy for about 10 or 12 years. I tried really hard as part of a group of people to move this idea of national organizing among grassroots cultural activists. While it was one of the most valuable times in my life, I did not walk away feeling that that’s what I would recommend (LAUGHTER). I think it’s that the idea of trying to nationally organize people who are deeply rooted in particular places is hard, as a general principle. It might have to happen at certain moments. And at those moments you need to have those relationships to facilitate action. But I would say that maybe rather than organizing national exchange would be very valuable in an ongoing way. To be willing to even stop at that point and say that exchange is enough, that it’s not necessarily a good idea to say, “Okay, now that we’re all together, we want to pick a day where it’s cultural activist day.” Of course, that was a big thing we were trying to do and it just never happened.
     I’m associated with a group called the National Performance Network. The work we’re doing there is very consciously prepared to be exported. That’s what I definitely want to encourage New Orleans folks to be thinking about. In this time Dr. Blakeley says we should be tired of being in the supplicant mode constantly. Taking some of these ideas that we’re developing and exporting them as something that other people can learn from is something I’m very interested in and hope that many of us do. I also wanted to mention something about the U.S. Social Forum; I think that’s another good example. I think a bunch of us probably went to the U.S. Social Forum and I was really happy that we went. But that didn’t catapult me into national or international organizing. It was more of a touchstone that has affected my work and my local relationships.

KATHY RANDELS: I’m a part of one international group and two national organizations. One is called Alternate Routes, another one is the Network of Ensemble Theaters, and another one is the Magdalena Festival of Women in Theater. And I find them all to be crucial to my work. It is really important to have other people outside of where you live to reach out to, to send a lifeline to and just to affirm the work that you’re doing. I want to focus on Alternate Routes in particular. It developed in the ‘70s on multiple levels, but on one level it developed as a response to the fact that artists and cultural workers in the southeast were in the most underfunded region of the country. And that’s still true today. And we’ve been working really hard since the ‘70s to come together to share the best practices, share consensus as a way of making decisions as opposed to hierarchy. We work to present each other’s work and present each other as teachers in our communities. So that’s been a really important network. Then I just want to push outside of the art realm for a moment and tie part of my answer to question #4—I’m somewhat a part of a movement because I work with Students at the Center, which is a writing program in New Orleans Public Schools. Something that’s happening in New Orleans in terms of democracy and capitalism is the privatization of the school system; New Orleans has become a Petri dish for testing this out. I’m somewhat working on that, just by continuing to work in the schools that are still New Orleans Public Schools or state-run schools, which is referred to as the Recovery School District. On that level, which again is a really dangerous thing that is happening in our democracy in terms of who has access to education and what kind of education do we have access to, I think it’s really important to keep in conversation with people from around the country and let them know what is happening in New Orleans, both on educational fronts, on artistic fronts, on all fronts, because we are such a test tube for privatization right now.

WILLIE BIRCH: This is a real tricky question for me. Because in terms of how I was trained, in terms of my formal art education, it’s an individual process. It contradicts the whole idea of the group. I can start by saying I’ve always been a socially engaged artist because I was in the Civil Rights movement. And as an 18-year-old kid that impacted everything I did for the rest of my life. So I’ve always been socially engaged and I’ve always had to work with groups. But as an artist I also enjoy the idea of working by myself. I find the limitation of this discussion the fact that we don’t seem to have this real discussion around what I call this racial and class divide. And so we talk around it. I find New Orleans in a real quagmire now. I feel that the arts are very much divided amongst what we know as a traditional Euro-centered way of looking at art in New Orleans and what those people who grew up like me and Darryl know as art. In terms of what Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid represent, that is not part of the dialogue that I see. And so I stopped going to these sessions, I stopped going to these forums. Because, first of all, I don’t know how many people of color you see at these sessions. And if people are going to be real honest about it, we need to be able to talk about the big gorilla. Because until we’re able to deal with our inability to talk about a very painful situation within all of our existence, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to make any real progress. I think the current election race between Barack [Obama] and Hillary Clinton is bringing out all kinds of ugly things in terms of race, class, and gender. I find that since these people we call black and these people we call white have never really had equal say in whatever this dialogue is, that dialogue is still a very painful but necessary part of what we have to begin to discuss before we can even talk about democracy. So I’m somewhat confused about this question, because we haven’t even gotten to the root of our divides; we’re starting at the top, when we haven’t discussed our real dilemmas. I can’t go any further than that or even act like we’re all being nice, nice, nice because of Katrina. I don’t find that. I find the city is more racially polarized than it’s ever been. I’ve been part of a forum, a group of people who have attempted to do sessions around racism. And we can’t get past the fact that racism is not necessarily geared toward the so-called redneck or the poor white who is racist toward black folks and get to the fact that you can be very well educated and still be one of the most racist individuals in the world. So I’m apprehensive about trying to answer this question any better than I have.

KYLE BRAVO: In the projects that I’m involved in, like the Book Fair, my real interest is in connecting the local to the national. The first step is working locally, making those connections locally, and creating a community locally that’s hopefully sustainable. And then connecting that, making these touchstones, not as a permanent way of trying to build this nationwide organization or anything, but as a way of connecting to other people in other communities that have similar things going on. The reason for doing that is because I feel like there are a lot of things that you can get out of a place like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or what have you that we can’t necessarily get here in New Orleans. I want to bring that energy from those other places here, to get us worked up and excited about things. But at the same time, we have such rich culture here and so many amazing things here in this city that you can’t find in any of those other places. I want to export that, the things that are unique to us here, on a national and international scale. So those are my goals, to do it simultaneously, locally and nationally.

BRANDON ODUMS: We connect with Two Cent with young people. I believe it was James Baldwin who said, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” I feel as though young people, my generation, all of our artists are disturbing the peace for the wrong reasons. I mean, I don’t know if it’s a wrong reason, but it’s not really from a conscious reason; they’re disturbing the peace for other reasons. So what we try to do, the way we tie in at least in what we do with Two Cent, is we take the best of the hip-hop generation, believe or not, what you might see on BET. We take the best of that and combine it with the social conscience element. We deal with nothing but young people in the communities. For so long you hear knowledge and education presented from the same sort of boxes, an older person, a professor, and not to knock any of those positions, but it puts this gap between you and that educational standpoint, because you don’t really feel a relation to it. So the biggest revelation for me was when I heard somebody present knowledge and education from a basis that was hip and sexy. I don’t have to mention the guy’s name, but he made education seem too cool, and that’s cliché, but that opened my eyes and let me understand that it can be presented in that way. And that’s what we try to do with Two Cent. That’s how we try to tie in with this sort of bigger movement of what the hip-hop generation and the hip-hop culture has created that has taken over this whole world. We saw that and realized that we can tap into that, but tap into it for better reasons.

ELIZABETH UNDERWOOD: First off, the idea of Art In Action is that the creative process is free, it’s for everyone, and it’s a tool for effecting social change and healing from trauma. Specifically, working in a post-disaster landscape is the agenda. I believe that disaster is going to keep happening everywhere, and that when it happens, whether it’s a hurricane or an earthquake or a terrorist attack, racial and class reasons for disaster are made visible and manifest. In that regard, it’s a great opportunity to enter with the energy and the skill sets that we have and help people respond in a creative way such that it strengthens them. It’s my experience that democracy is threatened when people are tired and feel like they’re not part of the political process. So by engaging and working together in the way that we do in Art In Action we’re connecting with larger movements that are working to keep democracy safe—or at least the idea of democracy that I don’t think has ever been fully manifest in this country, which we know here more than ever. I also have a larger goal with Art In Action, which is to mobilize internationally, to create an Art Corps that respectfully enters and works in sites of disaster and functions with the community to demonstrate a possible creative response to tragedy. I’m not a politician, I’m not a school teacher, I’m an artist; that’s what I am. And I can share this method that I have created that is helping me get over my personal trauma, making me less afraid to be home, and empowering me to keep fighting against injustice. In this way Art In Action connects to all organizations working to protect democracy and freedom. It’s obvious to me that we have to recognize our connections, globally. Denying this would be counterintuitive, contradicting the basic premise of my life’s work, which is to illustrate that creativity is universally understood and valuable, that tragedy connects people everywhere, and the creative process can do amazing things in response to that.

OSALLE DAVON: I find the premise of this question or this conversation being the fate of democracy really interesting. Personally, I’m more concerned about the fate of humanity. I think that democracy is an ideal that—I mean, let’s really talk about the state of democracy and the effect that it has on the human condition. What we learn in fourth grade social studies about what democracy is is not true. And how it’s carried out in the world has a real day-to-day impact on the way that people live everywhere. I don’t even know what it is to be concerned about the fate of democracy. I think that we need to be concerned about the fate of people. When I went to Egypt our driver, a good brother named Hussan, had a lot of questions about black people in America, because all he knew was civil rights and Katrina and Tupac. So if in 2007 this brother in Egypt, an Arab brother is asking me how do I deal with getting hung and getting dragged out of beds and crosses on the lawn and then the hurricane, and this is all he knows, then what is democracy? Let’s talk about the state of it and what it really is. Let’s talk about this criticism that people who practice democracy have about every other practice of government in the world but then they don’t do any better by people. That’s what my concern is. And I think that if we can carry the conversation to what democracy is, how it treats people, and how to really improve the human condition for everyone, for every single person in the world—that whole theory, that reality, is where we really need to begin. PAGE

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