The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, 2012. 2 views of mixed-media, interactive performance space.

New Orleans Airlift’s Insouciant Vernacular Modernism

As arts organizations go, New Orleans Airlift is one of a kind. Following a multi-disciplinary trajectory that has often seemed more improvised than programmatic, it has staged a number of unusually broad-based events that blur the boundaries between object and performance, vernacular and contemporary art, local and global. Founded in 2008 by visual artist and curator Delaney Martin and musician-impresario Jay Pennington, New Orleans Airlift was conceived as an artist-driven effort to interact with related communities elsewhere at a time when many of the city’s visual artists and musicians were still displaced by the Hurricane Katrina-related flooding of 2005. Although much has normalized since then, Airlift has continued to produce fancifully edgy multimedia expos and carnivalesque events. Its work often flew below the radar—at least until The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory captured the public imagination and generated notable interest from the news media. Launched in 2011, The Music Box continues to evolve to this day. 

Consisting of nine shanties that evoked Clarence Schmidt or Robert Rauschenberg assemblages and also functioned kinetically as experimental musical instruments, The Music Box took two dozen artists over four months to build. The constructions, used in numerous performances staged between October 2011 and June 2012, were accessible for public viewing and interaction on weekends, ultimately attracting thousands of visitors. Despite the significant ingenuity and labor that went into their creation, they were, in reality, a temporary byproduct of another, as yet unrealized project—a classic example of how some Airlift endeavors have a tendency to assume a meandering life of their own.

It all began with a dilapidated 19th-century Creole cottage. Empty and blighted, it had somehow survived Hurricane Katrina’s fury but was in dire need of repair. When Pennington purchased his comfortably weathered shotgun house on Piety Street in New Orleans’ old St. Claude district, a formerly blue-collar waterfront neighborhood that had recently morphed into a bohemian enclave where artists, hipsters, and musicians set the tone, the derelict cottage came with it. Pennington explored possible creative uses with various potential partners, and it was during one such discussion in 2010, with New Orleans Museum of Art contemporary art curator Miranda Lash, that the cottage, suddenly and without warning, collapsed into a pile of rubble. No one was injured, but the site had suddenly become a tabula rasa, a space no longer constrained by anything but the creative and financial resources of any interested parties. One potential collaborator was Pennington’s old friend, Brooklyn-based street artist and sculptor Caledonia Curry, a.k.a. Swoon, who regarded the rubble as a convenient source of materials. From the ruins of the cottage, she envisioned a whimsical new house, one that could be played like a musical instrument. Or as she put it, “It’s a house primarily, but it’s also an interactive public sculpture, which also functions as musical architecture.” It would be called Dithyrambalina.

Although primarily known as a street artist, Swoon made ripples in the international art world when she crashed the 2009 Venice Biennale with her Swimming Cities of Serenissima, a fleet of handcrafted vessels that doubled as both sculptures and stages elaborately cobbled together from found objects. After setting forth from the coast of Slovenia, she and her crew of 30 docked at Certosa Island in the Venice Lagoon, where visitors were entertained by a series of multimedia performances titled The Clutchess of Cuckoo. No stranger to maritime expeditions, Swoon had previously sailed similar fleets of intricately surreal, artist-manned, found-object vessels on excursions down the Hudson and Mississippi rivers. Although this would be her first house, its design was no less whimsical than her vessels, and its harmonic capacities would imbue it with a resonant added dimension. 

Once the basic design—a kind of fanciful pagoda with schematic flourishes not unlike Leonardo’s inventions—was devised, dis­cussions with artists, musicians, architects, and suppliers yielded no end of possibilities and challenges. With a cast of contributing sound artists and inventors proposing a mind-boggling array of unusual or obscure technologies, the functioning of its instrumentation became a central focus, and it was soon evident that creating a series of smaller temporary musical shanties could provide an invaluable way of conducting field tests before embarking on the construction of the permanent house sculpture. Thus The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory was born, and in July 2011, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise $12,000 for construction. By the time it ended, the total exceeded $23,000, a sum that was augmented by the enthusiasm of the participants. The target date for the first concert was set to coincide with the opening of the Prospect.2 New Orleans International Biennial on October 22, 2011. Despite notable differences in methodology, the two events proved mutually complementary.

The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, 2012. 2 views of mixed-media, interactive performance space.

Visitors to the evening performances experienced a kind of mythic village imbued with an aural dimension that ranged from musician-inventor Quintron’s Singing House, a drone synthesizer modulated by the weather, to Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s Gamelatron-Pendopo at the End of the Universe, a kind of Balinese mini-temple with an electronic gamelan sound system. Not far from a pylon topped by a scale model of Swoon’s Dithyrambalina stood Micah Learned and Elizabeth Shannon’s Glass House encompassing Colin McIntire and Angeliska Polacheck’s Tintinnambulation Station canopy of chimes, bells, and percussive baubles. Beasts of the Southern Wild art director Eliza Zeitlin’s two-story River House, with built-in autoharp and bathtub bass, was linked by a bridge-like structure to Aaron Kellner’s Control Tower equipped with lead sound artist-engineer Taylor Lee Shepherd’s Voxmuram ambient sound generator, a maze of circuits that bore a striking resemblance to one of Nikola Tesla’s experiments in electronic wizardry. Costumed musicians—ranging from Philip Glass Ensemble founding member Dickie Landry to Mardi Gras Indian Theris Valvery—added dozens of colorful characters to the mix. Performances ranged from haunting electro-acoustic soundscapes that melded elements of Stockhausen and Brian Eno laced with hints of funk and Bounce (a New Orleans hip-hop idiom) to even more exotic combinations of beats and styles depending on which guest musicians were passing through. 

Enlivened by the sounds and lights of the evening performances, the musical shanty installation radiated a mythopoetic aura that some described as “a fairy tale set in a junkyard,” and it soon became the focus of feature coverage by National Public Radio, Artnet Magazine, ARTnews, BBC World Service, Smithsonian magazine, and others, including a cameo appearance on the front page of the New York Times Web site. Over the course of The Music Box’s eight-month public existence, attendance exceeded 15,000 adult visitors and more than 500 school students. Since then, Dithyrambalina, Swoon’s original musical house sculpture proposal, has become the centerpiece of a planned permanent campus where it will be surrounded by a cluster of musical shanties. Last October, a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 for the first shanty structures yielded more than $60,000 from 655 backers, suggesting no letup in enthusiasm for the project.

The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, 2012. 2 views of mixed-media, interactive performance space.

But the bigger question may be why such an unlikely endeavor has resonated so strongly across diverse audiences, ranging from inner-city neighborhood groups to contemporary arts professionals. Some have suggested that the social psychology of its carnivalesque components is a factor. Mikhail Bakhtin explored the psychological impact of the Renaissance carnival’s joyous inversion of hierarchy and convention as a creative and socially liberating force. Echoes of that Rabelasian sensibility still linger in some of the traditional working-class carnival cultures of the Caribbean, Brazil, and New Orleans. 

In her essay, “Curating Carnival?,” Claire Tancons notes how a fusion of atavistic carnivalesque sensibilities and modern aesthetics has yielded new hybrid modes of expression sometimes called “vernacular modernism.”* The term makes as much sense as any when applied to New Orleans Airlift’s Dithyrambalina project, with its melding of Modernist idioms like assemblage sculpture and electronic music with the vernacular ethos of Mardi Gras Indians and the processional flourishes of neighborhood Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but there is no denying the palpable exuberance that has attended its progress so far. 

Note * Curating in the Caribbean, edited by David A. Bailey, (Berlin: The Green Box, 2012)