Field Research in the Southern States
Antenna talked to Maaike Gouwenberg and Joris Lindhout, founders of Deltaworkers about being embedded and being on the road. Deltaworkers is a nomadic artistic production and residence program that investigates the southern states of the U.S. as one of the last mythical places in the West. Deltaworkers host and present European artists from different disciplines in New Orleans, a city that forms the perfect gateway to the south; a region where many of the historical, socio-political and cultural roots of U.S culture can be found.
Where are you now?
We are in the U.S, in Louisiana, in the city of New Orleans, in a neighbourhood called Fairgrounds, inside a house which we rent from Dawn Dedeaux, an artist from New Orleans.
How did you end up there?
In a nutshell: In 2010 we flew to Miami; we bought a car, we travelled around for three months crossing all the Southern States and ended up in New Orleans. We came to the city only because our plane back to The Netherlands was leaving from here. We just had been doing research into Southern Gothic literature on which we were writing a book and creating an exhibition at the time. We didn’t expect much from the city in regards of our research but we encountered this very interesting and lively grassroots art scene. Having traveled the U.S quite extensively we were surprised by the scale of this alternative scene in this loaded part of the country. We started thinking about getting artist here that wanted to deal with the history, stories and mythical identity of the region. So when we got back we went to the Mondriaan Fonds and we told them it would be an excellent idea to start up a residency in New Orleans and so we did with their help. It would be much harder to do this in another city in the region like in Atlanta for instance. In New Orleans we found a broad cultural infrastructure; this is basically why we chose this city as our home base.
Can you tell about your first year?
The first year we ran the residency it was a pilot project part of the international residency program of the Mondriaan Fonds. That year we stayed in an old school in the Holy Cross part of the Lower 9th Ward owned by Maria Levitsky, an artist from New York who lives and works in New Orleans. By philosophy we and all the residents live in one big house and we don't offer studios. The city becomes the resident's studio through our extended network and assistants. The Lower 9th is close to the famous St. Claude gallery district but it's separated from the city by the Industrial Canal. Our main means of transportation is by bike and the Industrial Canal bridge is a little scary to cross by bike, especially at night. We organise many events with our residents but also with artists from other places in the world and we always use the existing infrastructure of the city for these. We didn't want to add another space but rather embed ourselves in the local scene as much as we can.
But now you are elsewhere?
As we are a nomadic space we take it year by year. We are in another neighbourhood in New Orleans called Fairgrounds, located close to the horse racing tracks. Here it is easier to get to the different parts of the city by bike. We like this neighbourhood a lot and made contact quite quickly. To give you an example: we always print posters for our events and hang them in the windows; triggered by the poster for the first event we did this year, immediately our neighbour from across the street showed up, and introduced himself. We only knew him from before from sitting on the porch and waving in the morning (which is a local custom). We have been here in the new space only for one month so it is too soon to talk about a deep connection to the neighbourhood but things are going well!
Who is your guest right now?
This year we will receive three guests; Jacob Dwyer from the U.K, Léa Triboulet from France and Janna Graham from Canada. Janna wasn’t here yet when the photo was taken. Jacob Dwyer came through the selection of the Mondriaan fund. His proposal was based around a very famous book in New Orleans which is called A Confederacy of Dunces. It's about J Reilly from New Orleans who thinks of himself as an aristocrat European. He lives with his mother and he encounters all kinds of difficult and absurd situations in the city. The book is specked with dark humor and we think it does a very god job of painting a portrait of this -kinda- crazy city. So Jacob is interested in Ignatius and how he deals with the people he encounters in the novel. Jacob studied experimental cinema and is working on a film about the character, not from a script but by creating his own character based on Ignatius on the one hand. On the other hand the film is based on the tour guides that you see everywhere in the city. So he is slowly creating his character and is going about it in a pretty visual way. He is doing tours, is going to archives and is researching the novel and has a t-shirt made by a local airbrush shop with the portrait of John Kennedy Toole, the novelist. (see photo above) These are very huge hip-hop size shirts and on top of that he also bought an Oxboard, a Segway without a stick. So these two items are items that are forming the character slowly. At the moment he is scouting locations for the film and getting ready to shoot the film in about two months from now. Two weeks ago we ended up in some kind of oil drill museum and…
So he is taking you anywhere around the city with his field research approach?
Yeah, so Jacob is basically our ideal resident. Because he is very focussed on his research and he also keeps a very open perspective. He is re-reading the book, takes notes, films all the time and lets the work grow; he is very social and talks to everyone on the street. This approach is very interesting for us. It is ideal if the artist takes the time during the residency to be in the city letting the work grow in a natural way instead of coming here with a fixed idea and just produce that.
Would you call Deltaworkers an embedded residency?
In a way I can understand that people would think of us as an embedded residency but that has to do with the fact that we choose to be in a certain way in New Orleans; we choose to cooperate with so many people and organisations in the city. We choose to only have a house and use the facilities the city has to offer. So in that sense we are embedded deeply. Not in a neighbourhood but in the cultural scene of New Orleans. And you have to understand: New Orleans is almost like an island. Looking at the geography of this place it is hard to understand that someone 300 years ago thought that it was a good idea to build a city here! We are in the middle of the swamps; the only way to reach it is by a 40 km long bridge either over a lake or through the swamps (or by plane or by boat of course). Next to that this is not a place where a lot of big international art events come through. The local art scene is trying to open up more and more but is still somewhat insular. And I guess to be accepted as ‘one of the guys’ it is necessary for us to function within the system they have created. Initially we thought about the residency as a road-trip, we would still like to do that sometime in the future!
On the road? Leaving New Orleans?
Like in any place; if you want to get a bigger feel of it you have to get outside of the city. This is especially true for New Orleans; it is such a specific place that you really need to travel outside of it to get a real feeling for the South. And North America is just made for road trips in the sense that it facilitates it. Everything is built alongside of the roads where you can spend the night. We always try to do a little road-trip with our residents. In a way the structure of our residency is inspired by the old Capacete residency model in Brazil (see right column) and one of the things that Helmut Batista (founder of Capacete) did was making road-trips with artists through South America. We are charmed by this idea and have a dream of adapting it; a road trip residency throughout the Southern States. Of course you need to find artists that are up for it and are willing to spend three months in a car with us… It could work like this: we could take a filmmaker who is already working on a certain script or has a set of ingredients he or she wants to work on along the way and then travel from artist run space to artist run space; there are so many of them in the South and they all do amazing work. Another scenario would be to drive and stay over on the parking lots of the Walmart where people are allowed to park their RV and stay for two days. This way you could travel for free and only need to take a shower every now and than. This would of course be a more grim version. As you see, there are several possible scenario’s for the future, the main thing is that the field research approach -which is how we define our approach- will remain the core of our program and that it can take on many forms.