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Art and Its Cultural Contradictions

What are the implications of biennials for urban regeneration, sustainable change and social justice? In this essay from the most recent issue, Joshua Decter considers the problems and potential of large-scale art events.


What is at stake when artists, architects, curators, organisers and other cultural producers facilitate bricks-and-mortar change, on the ground in cities, with citizens, communities and institutions? How do we test the interrelationships between the practices of artists and urban policy makers? What is the metric that we might utilise to determine effectiveness? And what do we mean by effectiveness? Critical effect? (Or, for that matter, critical affect?) The putatively emancipatory outcome generated by some kind of new situational knowledge? Or, is it a question of generating ambiguity, per se, as a means of problematising hegemonic political, economic and cultural formations?

Is it conceivable to imagine that the cultural and intellectual capital of artistic labour can generate sustained, and sustainable, responsiveness to urban crises that would offer palpable functionality (or applicability) for people’s lives – contra to the useful uselessness of the aesthetic condition that is supposedly ennobling of mind and spirit, or generative of disinterestedness as a prerequisite for absorption and contemplation? Have we taken into consideration that as art critics, art historians, curators and art theorists we might be misapplying criteria of aesthetic evaluation in relation to the evaluation of art projects that arise from sometimes uncomfortable, difficult circumstances? Is it perhaps just a question of re-calibrating our criteria of evaluation or, at the very least, how we communicate to others our experience of a specific work within a particular situation, so that criteria remain sufficiently fluid and tactical? What does it mean to encounter a work of art in the midst of economic and social ruination?

This essay seeks to raise such questions on the occasion of and in relation to a new biennial (Prospect.1) and a new cultural initiative (Transforma Projects), both of which emerged in New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster that in 2005 flooded 80 per cent of the city, and killed nearly 2,000 people, as efforts claiming to engage in the regeneration, rebuilding and revitalisation of various aspects of that city’s cultural, economic and social life. Prospect.1 and Transforma Projects are distinct from each other in terms of ideological and organisational strategies and infrastructures: the former presenting itself as the first international biennial in New Orleans (i.e. event-oriented), with official support from local and state government and major art world benefactors, and a more conventional ‘top-down’ hierarchical curatorial/exhibition process; the latter operating as a small cultural initiative on an emphatically grass roots level, involving ‘bottom-up’ socially participatory processes (i.e. rethinking normative institutional hierarchies) to generate and utilise art projects as a means of facilitating social rebuilding within economically and socially disenfranchised communities in the city, yet also supported by major art foundations.


What is a sustainable engagement? What are the criteria that we utilise to determine what constitutes a sustained or sustainable artistic project? Is one criterion the amount of time literally spent by the artist working within a place, with citizens or communities? What is the duration (or velocity) of a process of art labour in relation to a place or situation? Duration, velocity and questions of sustainability are interconnected: sustained engagements require commitments of time, the artist living and working on site for a sufficient period of time, involving research and discussions with the people who actually inhabit these places. Or, is it a matter of effectiveness – for example, facilitating changes on the ground within a given situation? Or, a more abstract notion of continuous ‘commitment’ to a set of ideas or politics?

Historically and in the contemporary period, some artists have opted for more extended periods of engagement, involving either extended long-term work within or periodic returns to a context. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, commencing in the 1960s, developed a series of environmental and performative works in relation to everyday urban processes of maintenance and sanitation, which eventually led to her unsalaried, ongoing position as ‘artist-in-residence’ at the New York Sanitation Department in 1977, and to projects such as Touch Sanitation Performance, wherein the artist shook the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers from July 1979 to June 1980. Another example of art in the service of sustained environmental engagement is Mel Chin’s Revival Field, a project initiated in 1990 for which Chin collaborated with scientists to generate garden-like environments that facilitate ‘hyperaccumulation’ – the process by which certain plants are utilised to absorb heavy metals from contaminated fields – as a means of restoring ecological health at various polluted sites. These distinct types of conceptual, utilitarian projects – Ukeles’s performance-oriented, Chin’s predicated upon cross-disciplinary collaboration – share a commitment (conceptual, ethical, etc.) for continuous, extended engagement with places, situations, communities or people that appear to be in some degree of crisis, and to require recuperative intervention or ‘treatment’.

Transforma Projects helped to provide logistical support and funding for Chin’s Operation Paydirt, a multi-part project launched with Safehouse: Cracking the Vault in New Orleans on 31 October 2008. A residential house converted into a bank vault, Safehouse was a platform for the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, for which US schoolchildren from kindergarten to the twelfth grade created their own versions of $100 bills (with the ultimate goal of 3 million students producing $300 million dollars worth of these Fundred Dollar Bills, which would then be taken by armoured truck to legislators in Washington, DC to be exchanged for $300 million real dollars in goods, services and funds to help rehabilitate the city of New Orleans). Chin’s Safehouse: Cracking the Vault event coincided with the opening of Prospect.1 but had no direct connection to it, and instead took advantage of the biennial’s opening to attract attention to his broader project of Operation Paydirt, in which artists and scientists work together to utilise a soil remediation technique to eliminate the absorption of unsafe lead from contaminated soil. With the support of Transforma Projects, Chin is using New Orleans as a pilot city for this initiative; the city is one of most lead-polluted in the US, with an estimated 86,000 properties with dangerous levels.

We might contrast this mode of artistic operation and organisational framework with the artist who parachutes into situations for a short-term rendezvous within the limited duration of a biennial or related art event, of which Prospect.1 is an example. Artists who participate in the biennial circuit may still be invested in the notion that art might play a functional role in relation to so-called real world circumstances, and we cannot simply dismiss these endeavours. Yet such artists maintain a more distanced, temporary and transitory (perhaps even more immediately reactive) relationship to place, site, location and community, even if some engage in on-the-ground research and socially participatory processes. Some practitioners navigate in between these modes of operation: Mark Dion, whose steadfast fascination with environmental issues for twenty years has led to a sophisticated interplay of distinct modes of production (at once aesthetic and social) and velocities of engagement (research-based projects that often incorporate social processes in producing installations and objects). For Dion’s Tate Thames Dig(1999), the artist used volunteers in an elaborate, quasi-archaeological process of collecting, identifying and cleaning artefacts found in the River Thames, which then formed the basis of a non-scientific, trans-historical inventory (i.e. non-hierarchical classificatory system) of these items displayed within a cabinet. Tate Modern’s acquisition of the cabinet turned it into a mixed media work authored by Dion in which site-specific, socially participatory activities are compressed into a museological object. In late 2007, I became aware that Marjetica Potrc – a Ljubljana-based artist and architect who has for many years worked with communities in the developing world to devise sustainable design solutions in response to ecologically challenged and economically distressed conditions – had been engaging in ongoing research and dialogues with citizens in New Orleans. She eventually engineered visionary works that suggested pragmatic DIY-oriented solutions for the localised environmental conditions of a sodden urbanism, which were presented in the exhibition ‘Future Talk: Great Republic of New Orleans’ (2008) at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York.

The interrelationship between intervention, response and the temporal dimensions of sustained or non-sustained engagements such as Potrc’s can be interpreted in various ways, predicated on how the artist constructs him- or herself in relation to the field of cultural ethics. Artists always make decisions about how to frame conditions of authorship, autonomy and singularity; how to enlist collaboration, participation and interaction to destabilise authorship and autonomy (in terms of artistic labour); and how to test new ways of redistributing creative labour among various agents (in theory and, perhaps, in practice) with the possibility of germinating more broad-based creative agencies that reconfigure normative bottom-up and topdown (and specialised and non-specialised) cultural hierarchies in art and architecture. Potrc works with community members to find workable solutions to everyday local conditions (a particular kind of redistribution of cultural and intellectual capital), even as she tactically injects her art into other marketplaces, producing it for various audiences and consumers. The collector who acquires a Potrc drawing at a New York gallery may have no apparent links with the owner of a home in New Orleans who utilises one of Potrc’s functional rain-gathering works, yet we can imagine the material and symbolic interconnections between the two (for instance, in terms of how Potrc may redirect capital from one situation into another). Such a decision, about how and where cultural capital is distributed and how capital is recirculated to support different activities, is ultimately a political and ethical one.

There has always been acrimony within the contemporary art context in the US (and to a certain extent in Europe) about what constitutes ‘public practice’, ‘communitybased practice’ and ‘cultural-activist practice’. At times, this becomes a debate about who has the right to articulate the interests of a community and whether so-called outsiders can legitimately work with a particular community; this may ultimately be a question of cultivating trust – one of the most complex challenges facing artists who seek to work with or in relation to citizens and their life-spaces. Transforma Projects seeks to function organisationally as a long-term incubator of bottom-up art initiatives, such as Chin’s ambitious Paydirt project, whereas Prospect.1 may desire to continue functioning organisationally as a periodic mechanism to introduce local practitioners within the environment of New Orleans to either existing or newly commissioned artworks by international artists. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these are not mutually exclusive models.


The opening of the Prospect.1 biennial on 31 October 2008 brought me to New Orleans for my first (and so far only) sojourn there. My four days in the area were at once revelatory and frustrating, uplifting and depressing. In the taxi from the airport to the hotel, I passed by the Superdome stadium, which had seemed like a futuristic edifice when it was built in the 1970s, but signified everything that went wrong in 2005, when the structure was converted into an immense shelter for tens of thousands of displaced residents. Better than nothing, I supposed. But what I did know? I was merely another cultural tourist within an unknown territory.

I had been circumspect, duly sceptical, about the prospect of a new biennial in New Orleans, an exhibition that had been promoted as a necessary cultural rejoinder to the incompetence of the federal (and other levels of) government in 2005. Katrina brought the rain, wind and tidal surges, but it was the breaching of certain parts of the levee infrastructure that actually allowed the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward of the city, prompting questions about planning and policy in New Orleans. 01 What ultimately made the biggest impact during my visit to New Orleans was not the opportunity to go to a big party at the W Hotel to inaugurate the biennial; the sight of Ray Nagin, the controversial mayor of New Orleans, wearing an Obama T-shirt at the official ribbon-cutting ceremony; or the outrageously delicious roasted pig and the fried alligator at Cochon restaurant, but rather the few hours I spent walking – or, as it seemed then, trespassing – through the Lower Ninth on Saturday, 1 November 2008. Some of my notes from that experience:

A ghosted neighbourhood, barely inhabited, scarcely visited. We are all interlopers here, in this aftermath of governmental neglect, looking for signs of life, the remains of community. A landscape of malicious neglect, burned into the mind. At one street corner, a skeleton of a house, no longer an actual place of dwelling. Metal poles extend up from the mowed grass that used to be a front lawn, undoubtedly what is left of fence that once demarcated the parameters of this modest lot. Unlike the immediate territory, largely overgrown with high grasses and weeds, this particular lot has been attended to – the grass appears recently mowed. Is the owner living elsewhere in New Orleans, or in a neighbouring state, still maintaining the lot for the possibility of a future rebuild? All that remains is the foundation of the house that once stood in this place of non-places. It is a relic from another time, another world, an eviscerated community, just three years old, not an ancient civilisation. What does it mean to trespass upon someone’s property, into the remains of their home, as if visiting an archaeological site? This is the archaeology of disaster. I will spend my nights safely ensconced in the W Hotel, on the edge of the Warehouse District, just a few blocks from the French Quarter, injecting tourist capital into a city apparently starved for it. But what is art doing in this situation? And what am I doing in this place?

One of the most eloquent analysts of the post-Katrina urban environment in New Orleans is sociologist and Tulane University professor Kevin Fox Gotham, who has published extensively on the subject. In an article co-written with Miriam Greenberg of the University of California, Santa Cruz, titled ‘From 9/11 to 8/29: Post-Disaster Recovery and Rebuilding in New York and New Orleans’, the authors argue that urban recovery in New Orleans, as in New York, is a market-driven phenomenon ‘aggravating inequalities and impeding community recovery efforts’. They write: ‘Such inequity will likely continue unless there is a significant shift in the priorities and oversight of post-disaster recovery efforts, and in the aims and measures of urban revitalization more broadly.’ 02 Will the current recession effectuate a fundamental rethinking of the social and economic politics of urban redevelopment, or merely induce a pause?


One of the central issues behind the linking of contemporary art initiatives to processes of urban revitalisation emerges out of Enlightenment thinking: that is, the belief in the beneficent effects of the creation of publics for art. Equally, the notion of an increasingly democraticised realm of culture, in which various forms of art are displayed for the growing publics of cities, has always been predicated upon the largesse of state and/ or private spending, and so the market has always lurked around the edges of art’s becoming a public phenomenon.

Certainly, with the increase of the privatisation of the public realm of art in the US since the 1960s (and perhaps a bit later within European contexts), the definition of public culture has demanded reappraisal, particularly in light of the amplified fascination with the value-added benefits of contemporary art for the public cultural life of cities, regions and nations. Longstanding episodic large-scale nation-state and municipally-based exhibition projects such as documenta, Skulptur Projekte Münster, the Venice Biennale, the Bienal de São Paulo, the Whitney Biennial, the Istanbul Biennial, the Carnegie International and other variants demonstrate the continued attraction – and drawing power – of international expositions in relation to the growth of contemporary art-oriented tourism, which may function as an incubator for broader economic growth within cities and nations.

Within the United States, percent-for-art programmes within municipal cultural affairs departments have sought to take advantage of the bubble economy (now burst) of commercial and residential real estate as a way to insert art into urban public spaces. (The pre-recession economic growth, incidentally, probably overemphasised the entrepreneurial significance of gallery zones in relation to urban redevelopment.) These are all distinct kinds of initiatives – some public, some private (or partnerships between these sectors) – but all are connected, again, to Enlightenment ideology. The more recent state-based or private/corporate neo-liberal policies that conjoin ‘cultural enterprise zones’ to the redevelopment of cities often lead to gentrification, with communities fragmented by predatory economics, unregulated real-estate markets and other manifestations of unfair social policies that have created a wider gap between the working poor and the US upper-middle class.

The operating code of the contemporary art world is generated in the psychological, physical, political, economic and cultural interpenetrations that take place across the global space – placelessness – of capital. Biennials and other periodic exhibitions attempt to instrumentalise art as cultural capital to re-inscribe the power of place – the building and/or rebuilding of a city as a cosmopolitan centre for the production, promotion and display of art practices, whether this is in Berlin, New York, Venice, Sharjah … or New Orleans. One of the side effects of biennials and other periodic exhibitions is the mobilisation of thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of people into making pilgrimages to these events and situations. These events generate temporary, constructed zones of public space experience – transitory moments of social interface that produce the fiction of collective cultural experience. They rest on the power of art to harness the energies of multiple creative agents, and yet we often seem unable to connect the dots between the biennial as a ritualised festival model and the biennial as facilitator of sustained (and sustainable) engagements with place – beyond the assumption (neo-liberal or otherwise) that any large-scale art event will bring some economic benefit to a city.

The financial support for Prospect.1 largely came from a network of major art benefactors that included both private foundations and individuals.03 In 2007, rumours began circulating that a well-known curator, Dan Cameron, had begun an initiative to establish a new art biennial in New Orleans, the first iteration of which was scheduled to open in 2008. As described on the Prospect.1 website,

Prospect.1 New Orleans [P.1], the largest biennial of international art ever organised in the United States […] has been conceived in the tradition of the great international biennials, and showcases new artistic practices as well as an array of programs benefiting the local community. Over the course of its eleven-week run, Prospect.1 New Orleans will draw international media attention, creative energy and new economic activity to the city of New Orleans. 04

The question, however, is whether this kind of effort inadvertently reproduces the logic of ‘disaster capitalism’, to invoke Naomi Klein’s book, which brings me to Fox Gotham’s article ‘Fast Spectacle: Reflections on Hurricane Katrina and the Contradictions of Spectacle’ (2007), in which he writes:

Since the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, local elites have attempted to advertise New Orleans as a comeback city that is regaining its vibrancy, style and confidence. Exemplary of this effort has been the development of ‘voluntourism’ and ‘disaster tourism’. ‘Voluntourism’ is a term that integrates voluntary service experiences with entertainment-based tourist activities to attract energetic volunteers from around the world to help with demolition and rebuilding … In addition, Katrina has inspired a new industry of ‘disaster tourism’ that involves the circulation of people to flooded neighbourhoods in a guided tour bus. Beginning in January 2006, Gray Line New Orleans Bus Tours began offering its ‘Hurricane Katrina: America’s Worst Catastrophe!’ tour through devastated neighbourhoods. 05

This, then, leads back to the fundamental questions of this essay: how do we evaluate the role and effectiveness of an international art biennial in the midst of complex social, economic and infrastructural conditions? Whose interests were served by Prospect.1? Did the biennial participate in this contradictory logic of disaster tourism, at least to the extent that a component of the exhibition was staged within the context of the Lower Ninth? And if so, couldn’t this be understood as a potentially beneficial type of cultural intervention that might help to generate the symbolic, ideological and political pressures (since arguably art can really only facilitate symbolic ‘effects’, or perhaps merely the ‘affects’ of social transformation) for economic and social justice?

Although many of the artworks featured in Prospect.1 were displayed conventionally at institutional sites such as the Old US Mint, the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art, Cameron did commission a number of works for the context of the Lower Ninth. Among these, Mark Bradford’s Mithra (2008) attracted considerable local and national attention, since it was the most spectacular of the context-specific works. A huge ark-like construction – 7-metre high by 20-metre long – it was assembled in Los Angeles from plywood barricade-fencing recycled from local construction sites, disassembled and placed into containers and shipped to New Orleans, where it was reassembled in an empty lot on the corner of Caffin Avenue and North Miro Street. It is a clever piece of pop culture-infected protest (with fragments of posters advertising events and DVDs, including a glowering face of Denzel Washington) that alludes to the Old Testament while also drawing on Bradford’s established aesthetic language. The artist’s decision to display the actual shipping container is humorous yet poignant, reinforcing our understanding that this ark arrived much too late to evacuate the residents of the Lower Ninth. Ultimately, it functions as an allegory of its own powerlessness, its lack of direct social effectiveness. Other notable efforts included Nari Ward’s eccentric multimedia installation inside the food-ravaged Battle Ground Baptist Church at 2441 Flood Street (yes, Flood Street), and Paul Villinski’s mobile Emergency Response Studio (2008), which I encountered at the site of the ‘Global Green Project’, an environmental non-profit, on an empty lot on Andry Street (but which moved around to other sites during Prospect.1, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and Loyola University). On the down side, however, I found German artist Katharina Grosse’s gestural repainting in orange-red of an apparently derelict house and front lawn on Dauphine Street an ineffectual and somewhat gratuitous attempt to deploy the codes of painting as a way to signal the emergency of urban blight. Not so ironically, the abandoned ramshackle house immediately next door expressed much more about the circumstances of this neighbourhood than Grosse’s simulation. Here, the real trumped art-adjusted reality in the most profound way: the power of the thing in and of itself over the signifier for the thing.

It appeared that only a few projects in Prospect.1 incorporated mechanisms to facilitate potential means of redistributing not only symbolic cultural capital but actual money back into the local community. Wangechi Mutu’s Mrs. Sarah’s House (2008-09) on Caffin Avenue was essentially a site-specific sculpture in form of the frame of an actual shotgun house (a type of working class residence characteristic of New Orleans) that once inhabited the now empty lot; the skeletal frame was covered in lights and set on a black platform, with a single chair in the middle of the structure. This is the ghostly echo of a home owned by an elderly woman who lost the money to rebuild due to contractor fraud. Mutu apparently created a series of prints of her work in the hope of raising sufficient funds so that the real Sarah could finally rebuild her home. The Danish art group SUPERFLEX developed a project titled When the Levees Broke We Broke Our House(2008), which was comprised of a framed black-and-white photograph featuring a house and its residents in what appears to be a suburban context, with the following descriptive text:

This Danish family bought their house in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina caused a drop in the interest rates in Denmark, enabling the family to afford the house. This photograph has the price of $20,000, equivalent to the amount the family saved buying their house. When sold, the money will be spent on construction materials to be used by families in the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans.

The photograph and text were hung in an empty warehouse-like space in the Lower Ninth, the dimensions of which corresponded to those of a typical home in the neighbourhood, alluding to the potential conversion of the project into something with restorative use-value for citizens within this particular community (contingent upon whether the photograph is actually sold). In conceptual terms the project required some decoding, especially in relation to the claimed causal interrelationship between Hurricane Katrina and interest rates in Denmark. 06

While it is apparent that SUPERFLEX substantially researched the interconnectivities of local and global economic systems, and desired to return the capital (both real and fictitious) from the sale of this photograph to families within the Lower Ninth, it remains unclear whether this model was designed to be sustainable in terms of the long-term rebuilding needs of this section of New Orleans, or whether it was a well-intentioned symbolic gesture that might have some beneficial social impact somewhere down the line. For example, is the photograph a multiple that generates $20,000 each time a copy is sold?

Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul (in collaboration with Tyler Russell) organised Narvin’s Party(2008), an actual funeral parade (qua art event) for the late Narvin Kimball. The banjo player for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Kimball died in March 2006 in Charleston, South Carolina, where he had been evacuated to just before Katrina struck. Kimball’s original funeral in New Orleans was not considered sufficient by the community, so Rawanchaikul and Russell facilitated a proper jazz funeral that travelled through sections of the city, ending at the Jazz Preservation Hall. Rawanchaikul also commissioned billboard painters in Thailand to make a number of paintings commemorating Kimball, which were carried through the streets and eventually given to Kimball’s family. I witnessed the start of this art event/funeral procession and got one of the freely distributed Narvin’s Party T-shirts before being whisked away by friends who had heard of something ‘more real’ – i.e. a non-art funeral parade for another New Orleans resident in an adjacent neighbourhood. We located the other funeral event, and walked through the city with people we didn’t know, but who welcomed us. Perhaps this kind of encounter between strangers within the flow of everyday life is what constitutes ‘real’ social experience, in distinction to other kinds of experience generated through a socially participatory art event. But who’s to say which funeral parade was more ‘real’? Complicated, isn’t it?

If Prospect.1 achieved anything, it facilitated bringing outsiders (yes, cultural tourists) to observe the ongoing extent of social, economic and infrastructural entropy in the Lower Ninth Ward. Is that enough to justify the existence of the biennial – or the possibility of its future? Is turning the cultural tourists generated by an international art biennial into witnesses of unacceptable urban decay the most effective and practical utilisation of capital (both real and symbolic) to address or redress the underlying economic, social, class and racial problems that plague this part of New Orleans?


In 2007, I first learned of Transforma Projects, a New Orleans-based project developed by a number of non-local and local artists and organisers, including artist and community organiser Rick Lowe, based in Houston; artist Sam Durant, based in Los Angeles; art consultant Jessica Cusick, based in Santa Monica; and organiser Jessica Garza, based in New Orleans. This is an excerpt from the project’s mission statement on the Transforma Projects website:

Transforma Projects New Orleans seeks to unite creative thinking with the physical and social needs of our city. Our goal is to highlight and imbed the arts into the decision-making processes that affect all neighbourhoods and communities. Some strategies for accomplishing this are:

Actively engaging and giving voice to local artists and art communities.

Infusing pre-existing local cultural projects with new ideas and resources.

Creating projects that partner local communities with national/ international artists.

Providing resources to artistic vehicles that fundamentally impact a community (such as residencies, long term/short term projects and cultural preservation) in the following areas: Housing, Education, etc. 07

Transforma Projects might be understood as an initiative purpose-built to provide a cultural infrastructure for New Orleans by promoting the idea of artists (and art) as potential facilitators of urban regeneration, and working with communities and citizens to influence actual civic policies. The project aims to develop a cultural platform that the people of New Orleans will take symbolic and pragmatic ownership of, thereby creating a dependable umbrella organisation for locally generated projects that benefit communities as directly as possible. One of the central components it administers is the application-based Creative Recovery Mini-Grant Program, which ‘supports work that exists at the intersection of art, social justice and recovery in New Orleans’, and ‘fuels the recovery by supporting the vibrant activity that occurs on the ground’. 08

Grant amounts range from $500 to $2,500, and to date three rounds have been awarded. The funded projects are diverse and operate at different scales and levels of complexity, including: ‘St Claude Avenue Sankofa Sustainable Marketplace’, a community-building initiative featuring utilitarian artworks, horticultural arts and music performances in the Lower Ninth Ward; New World Wailing Wall(2008-09), a sculptural installation sited on the vacant lot of a former family home; ‘7th Ward Artist Residency’; ‘Open Window Project’, a news and culture website developed by youth in collaboration with media professionals; and ‘How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress’, a community-based initiative that will document how artists, writers, activists and other citizens from various backgrounds have contributed to the reconstruction of New Orleans.

One might even consider that Transforma Projects functions in a manner akin to a cultural NGO, channelling funding from major art foundations directly into local cultural projects – and perhaps appropriately so in the economically and environmentally challenged site of New Orleans. It seems that the strategy of Lowe and Durant has been to play down the possible perception of Transforma Projects as an ‘art project’, per se, and instead embed it, grassroots style, as a self-organised entity with deepening interconnections with the social and environmental textures of those sections of New Orleans that require ongoing support. This still depends upon the assumption that cultural projects have the power to generate sufficient cultural capital to raise other levels of support for these communities – for instance, persuading the local government to participate responsibly in the rebuilding of various infrastructures (educational, environmental, architectural, etc.).

Though Transforma Projects has sought to avoid being pigeonholed as an art world phenomenon, part of its funding comes from traditional institutional sources such as The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Joan Mitchell Foundation, not to mention larger foundations such as the Annenberg and the Ford. This reflects the degree to which the higher profile protagonists of the project (Lowe and Durant) are able to leverage their cultural capital for the sake of Transforma Projects (certainly an ethical redirecting of symbolic and real art world capital). In Lowe’s case, his feet are planted firmly within community-based art and cultural organisations (e.g. Project Row Houses in Houston, which he founded in 1993), yet he is also adept at navigating the complex territories of the contemporary art world, and certainly of the world of art foundations. So, it appears that the only way, in financial terms, to embed an cultural initiative within a distinct local community – at least for Transforma Projects in New Orleans – is to utilise seed money from foundations that are principally based in New York or on the East Coast. Capital (abstract and literal) flows through all of these systems, and cultural partnerships across diverse geographies and social groups are essential in terms of facilitating initiatives that one day might become self-sustaining in terms of an economic model applicable to one specific context.


In the US, the UK and other contexts, the term ‘neo-liberal’ has sometimes been affixed to urban redevelopment schemes wherein multi- or trans-national corporate entities dictate the terms of localised development, particularly where what is beneficial to the corporation trumps what is best for the community in terms of jobs, for example, or the cohesion of the social fabric. Development is a tricky process, and New Orleans is a testament to these complexities; one always has to determine whether development is in the service of economic justice or bottom line motives – and, furthermore, what role art culture plays in these processes.

Prospect.1 was organised to promote cultural tourism (and, by extension, to spur urban renewal), and a range of tests (empirical, statistical, sociological, anthropological, psychological) would be necessary to determine the impact of the biennial upon the ity’s economy and its people. Yet it was possible, if only to a limited extent, to observe the conversion, the transvaluation, of art into cultural capital, and then into the capital of cultural tourism, and to consider the ethical, economic, social and other implications of this process as it unfolded through the streets of New Orleans during the biennial. It is conceivable that the primary issue in terms of the function and/ or role of contemporary art within New Orleans is not the question of art in relation to public space or the public sphere, or even modes of community/social engagement or participation, but rather the potential of cultural production as a public service. This is not to suggest that all art-making or exhibition projects need to understand themselves as public service initiatives, but rather that the citizens of a city such as New Orleans will undoubtedly be asking themselves, and others, a functionalist question: does contemporary art (or biennials, or grass roots art-cultural initiatives) serve the needs of my city? And are the needs of the city – imagined collectively – consistent with the needs of particular groups of citizens who are marginalised from a greater collectivity?

This might be how the effects of an art-cultural initiative such as Transforma Projects could achieve relevance and permanence within New Orleans – as a hybrid, networked cultural service provider, on the ground. It will only be sustainable, however, for as long as it needs to be sustained, at which point it might disappear, or become something else. As a type of quasi-formalised entity (organised and maintained by both outsiders and locals), Transforma Projects will need to be agile – duly responsive to the changing needs of the city. A biennial structure such as Prospect.1 – even if it is re-made every two years with a new set of contextually-driven art commissions – is less flexible because it has identified itself, institutionally, as a formalised biennial. Prospect.1 managed to distribute itself through a variety of sites across the city, and a map included local art spaces that were not officially part of the biennial, suggesting a desire to accommodate the indigenous situation – perhaps so that the biennial might institutionalize itselfas intrinsic to the context on a sustainable basis. And then we must return, again, to the question of whether the biennial actually functioned as an effective engine for a new kind of cultural tourism, and whether this engine is (or should be) sustainable, which is ultimately a decision that the citizens, communities and local government officials of New Orleans will have to make.

The question is not whether New Orleans (or other parts of the US that are experiencing significant budgetary, infrastructural and social challenges) should be rebuilt to benefit impoverished citizens and communities, but rather how to ensure the eradication of future unequal and inequitable urban development. Rebuilding does not have to lead to profit-driven corporate redevelopment schemes, and therefore to the most pernicious processes of gentrification. For decades and decades, there has been widespread economic and social inequity in New Orleans, and so just rebuilding, per se, is not sufficient. Such communities engage in grass roots efforts to empower themselves, but local and state government need to make sure that the disenfranchised are protected, supported and further empowered. Communities that do rebuild, in partnership with governmental and private entities, need to be given the sufficient legal basis to control their own destinies in terms of protections and rights.

With the possible withering of neo-liberal strategies of urban gentrification due to the recession and political shifts, the question is how local communities can assert more control in terms of the reshaping of their places of habitation in relation to local and state governments (and related public institutions), and in relation to private developers. The realities of these issues are complex, and a possible evaluation of the impact that art and culture might have in terms of urban redevelopment only complicates matters further, because we really have no empirical yardstick to measure success – even though we have a plethora of art and cultural initiatives that try to effect policy change.

Will residents ever return to the Lower Ninth? Can community be reconstituted? If smart, good faith efforts to rebuild the Lower Ninth into a zone of sustainable, affordable housing – through initiatives such as URBANbuild, a programme of the Tulane School of Architecture and the Tulane City Center, or even the Brad Pittinitiated Make It Right Foundation – inadvertently pave the way for eventual corporate redevelopment and gentrification, it will have been a waste. 09

Meanwhile, to get a sense of just how confusing and dysfunctional the situation continues to be in the official recovery efforts nearly four years after Katrina, take a look at an article that appeared in The New York Times on 7 May 2009, titled ‘Leaving the Trailers: Ready or Not, Katrina Victims Lose Temporary Housing’. 10 It will make you bristle with frustration about the continued apparent ineptitude of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). No wonder, then, that many former residents of the Lower Ninth are still reluctant to return. Will the more empowered citizens and communities within New Orleans join in a sustainable partnership with the disenfranchised of the city (and the displaced residents who together constitute a kind of internal economic and social diaspora within the US) to not simply reconstitute some aspect of what has been lost, but actually establish economic and social justice?

And how do we evaluate the impact of Prospect.1 upon the various micro-economies of New Orleans (not merely on the macro-level) – particularly in relation to those communities experiencing economic and social crises? Did Prospect.1 merely function as a preamble to the neo-liberal redevelopment of these undeveloped precincts? Which citizens, communities and economies benefited most from the biennial – and who wants it to become a sustainable event in the city? Do the local artists, art spaces, galleries and museums desire a sustained international biennial? And then we must also ask whether a more below-the-radar, grass roots-oriented cultural project such as Transforma Projects suggests a paradigmatic shift towards post-symbolic, socially transformative processes (much in the way that Lowe’s Project Row Houses project has successfully functioned)? And how would we measure these social outcomes? Is a choice between less and more progressive forms of cultural tourism the best we can hope for, whether articulated through the organisational and discursive logic of the contemporary art world(s), or by the operators of community-entrenched art initiatives? Or, in the midst of a deep recession, is the objective the creation of tourist industry and urban development (i.e. construction) jobs in various cities struggling with unemployment?

These are, after all is said and done, not rhetorical questions, but enquiries that impact upon reality, for if we are truly concerned about the potential of culture’s instrumental capacity in relation to economic justice and social (and infrastructural) rebuilding in a context such as New Orleans, we must understand that this is all about those people who still remain in the Lower Ninth Ward – or who left after the flooding and remain exiled from their community and place. It isn’t about the contemporary art world, regardless of our progressive intentions. Just as Paul Chan’s project Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007, co-produced by Creative Time and The Classical Theatre of Harlem) could be read, at least partially, as an allegory for the endless waiting of the citizens of the Lower Ninth and Gentilly neighbourhoods for federal government help in the aftermath of Katrina, an optimistic reading of efforts such as Prospect.1 and Transforma is that each emerged because it was no longer possible to wait for others to marshal the cultural capital of art in order to give a different depiction of the situation than the one offered by the mass media. Yet, had I not participated in the logic of artculture tourism, I would not have become a temporary witness to a place like the Lower Ninth Ward. Before that experience I would not have believed such devastation could exist in the United States in the twenty-first century. And so the flood of contradictions, and questions, surges on.

* This essay’s full title is ‘Art and the Cultural Contradictions of Urban Regeneration, Social Justice and Sustainability: Transforma Projects and Prospect.1 in post-Katrina New Orleans’.

– Joshua Decter


  • These may soon be answered in court: in April 2009, six survivors of the Katrina floods sued the US Army Corps of Engineers in Federal Court, arguing that the construction and maintenance of the shipping channel of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet undermined the safety of the levee-protection system. See Patrik Jonsson, ‘Katrina Trial: New Orleans’ Truth Commission’, The Christian Science Monitor, 22 April 2009. Also available at accessed on 30 July 2009).
  • Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg, ‘From 9/11 to 8/29: Post-Disaster Recovery and Rebuilding in New York and New Orleans’, Social Force, no.87, December 2008, p.1055. Also available at (last accessed on 17 June 2009).
  • Sponsors included Toby Devan Lewis, Peter Lewis, The Getty Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Agnes Gund, Bloomberg, Metabolic Studio (under the auspices of Lauren Bon and the Annenberg Foundation) and governmental institutions, such as the State of Louisiana (Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism).
  • Available at (last accessed on 18 June 2009).
  • Kevin Fox Gotham, ‘Fast Spectacle: Reflections on Hurricane Katrina and the Contradictions of Spectacle’, Fast Capitalism, vol.2, no.2, Autumn 2007, also available at (last accessed on 18 June 2009).
  • A member of SUPERFLEX explained in an interview that this was as an attempt to reference certain (abstract and invisible) globalised economic conditions in terms of real estate markets. See ‘Economic Sur-Realities: A Conversation with Bjørnstjerne Christiansen of SUPERFLEX’, art: 21 blog, 2 June 2009, available at accessed on 18 June 2009).
  • Available at (last accessed on 17 June 2009).
  • Ibid.
  • For more information on these initiatives, please visit their respective websites: and (both last accessed on 18 June 2009).
  • Shaila Dewan, ‘Leaving the Trailers: Ready or Not, Katrina Victims Lose Temporary Housing’, The New York Times, 7 May 2009, p.A18.