What If…Disaster Relief Included An Arts Component?

by Nick Slie

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if disaster relief always included an arts component?

As I write, my homeland is facing yet another “natural disaster,” our second in so many years. Last Wednesday, I spent three days in Pierre Part, LA gutting the remains of my grandfather’s fishing camp with my friends and colleagues from olive Dance Theater. We arrived on Sunday, May 8th, about the time that I first heard news of the massive flooding from the Mississippi River occurring in Memphis. For three days we watched the water outside my camp rise two inches a day, bringing us about six inches from taking on a flood indoors. I began to listen to the stories being murmured in the local hardware store, on the streets and in the gas stations. People were concerned. They were not freaked out, but concerned. They knew if the Mississippi was cresting at 47 feet in Memphis that authorities would likely open the Morgazanza spillway, a move that would divert water from major urban areas like Baton Rouge and New Orleans but would likely flood thousands of people in the Atchafalaya Basin.

These are folks in the heart of Cajun country still waiting on BP checks nearly a year after the drilling disaster that decimated the local shrimping industry. Surprisingly, I heard few complaints. There is a quiet resolve shared amongst the people here. Disasters bring calamity and fear. They also produce wisdom. It got to me thinking about what I’ve learned in the years since Katrina. These days, when I listen to my friends and colleagues, I notice that something has begun to blossom nearly six years after the storm. What follows are three reflections about art and its role in society from flood prone South Louisiana.

Listening to Nature

South Louisiana is one of the most vibrant convergences of people, places and traditions in the world and it is on the verge of extinction. Few regions have witnessed the scale of environmental devastation— both natural and of human origin—we have experienced in the last six years. Every half hour, Louisiana loses nearly a football field’s worth of coastal marshes to the Gulf of Mexico, almost twenty-five square miles a year. For the last forty years, we have seen more of our shoreline fall prey to the waters lapping at our banks than any other region in the world. Many Louisiana residents south of New Orleans are seeing water rise to the point where it seeps into their homes during minor storms, while others have already watched their small fishing villages disappear under several feet of open water. Our century-long tendency to transform natural spaces that were once soaked in water into human built places that now exist below sea level has rendered our ability to live on this land nearly impossible. We have ended the natural process of the world’s largest river, preventing it from spraying sediment across the immense deltaic plain of South Louisiana. The mighty Mississippi no longer creates land. It creeps quietly between human-built levees. All these facts were true before April 20, 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig began spewing 2,604,000 gallons of crude oil a day into the Gulf every day for the next four months. Fast-forward one year:  several million gallons of water has been released through the Morganza spillway, making it’s way through the Atchafalaya Basin towards thousands of homes.

When you hear people talk about how this has affected them, there is no shortage of heartbreaking stories. This type of perpetual loss wears the soul thin. But you do not hear folks placing blame. You see them acting. You see them practicing presence. People who live in the path of water are ruled by the rhythms of nature. They are reliant upon systems like government but they do not wait for help. They act as though they are the only help that is coming. They fortify their own homes. They leave when the water comes then return to rebuild. They understand that this is a part of the way we live. They are patient. They do no expect the answers to come immediately. They do not mistake explanation for information. They learn to explain their plight by what they experience, not what they read. Nature’s lessons come in cycles, over generations. Nature asks us to cultivate a different type of memory, a memory that does not erode quickly and, thus, allows us to evolve over time in harmony with the amazing lessons of water, wind, fire and air. People in this type of environment are challenged to make art as if each day were their last, and at the same time, as though they have the whole of eternity before them. They do not have the luxury to simply entertain, although they are highly entertaining people.

Stories…Unity of Experience

Most analyses of what is occurring in Louisiana today come from a single discipline (i.e. environmental studies, health and human services, economics, policy work, right to return campaigns, wildlife and fisheries, arts and culture etc…), and recommendations consequently suffer from too narrow a focus. The wrongs we are suffering are being experienced simultaneously and inseparably from disciplines. Our work is born out of the belief that in story sharing, these diverse fields come together, making informed action possible. We believe that in story sharing there is a unity of experience that offers the potential to transcend disciplinary divides. In such transcendence, we realize the importance of our efforts as a part of larger—national and transnational—movements for justice.

Since the BP Drilling Disaster last April, and really since Katrina, thousands of artists, reporters and documentary media makers have come to record our story. Storytelling is vitally important to cultural resistance, but just as responses to Katrina and the BP crisis have been plagued by negligence and injustice, so too has storytelling. Though many have done well by us, responsibly exposing the human toll of the long-standing and systematic negligence on the part of government and industry in this region of the United States, others have come and gone, recording the narratives they need with little to no concern of how we will cope with the long-term effects of a land and a culture that is rapidly disappearing. Part of the reason that South Louisiana is in the dire situation it is in is because of the physical resource extraction that has occurred, impoverishing the land it comes from and those who live on it; those who take stories from people without helping to invest the power of these stories back into the community are also engaging in the impoverishment and exploitation of a people, no matter how wholesome their intentions.

Waiting for Paul Chan
Let’s Just Widen the Frame

One of the most famous examples of outsider art in post-Katrina New Orleans is Paul Chan’s and Creative Time’s now infamous Waiting for Godot. Staged in 2007 in the Lower Ninth Ward, the production has received major national attention and thanks to the recent publication of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide, has become the gold standard for post-storm, community engaged performance. People who still live here will tell you another story, as we continue to cope with the realities of life years after that production (and hundreds of others) packed up and moved on. We’re still dealing with the feelings of bitterness that come from folks riding into town to “touch the storm” and heading on their merry way. A disaster often catalyzes immediate, visceral action. It plunges us into survival mode. There are houses to gut, neighborhoods to clean, and myriad social services to be provided. It also inspires a desire to help. It is no surprise that people want to do something for those in need. However, insiders and outsiders alike must balance short-term impulses with long-term visioning.

Enter Paul Chan. I’ve been very vocal about my problems with Mr. Chan’s approach over the last four years. On paper, Mr. Chan looks great. The project he led in New Orleans appeared to do all the right things. They talked extensively to the community, hosted dinners, donated part of their budget to local organizations and hosted a free performance. But always, something was missing for me. I could never find a way to say what I felt without sounding angry or jealous. Now, with several years of distance, I can acknowledge the gratitude I have for Mr. Chan’s efforts. Any attention, especially at the national level, is good for us. Whether that attention is sparked by folks from here or from outside is not the point. The point is for the story to stay alive and we need all hands on deck. What I can say is that I hope Mr. Chan (and anyone else who is considering working here with us) can understand that we cannot critique his project through the reference of experience used to evaluate most art projects.

Mr. Chan’s work seemingly nailed the whole “value of art making in a disaster prone area” thing. But it misses the point that when Katrina struck, our lens and our call to action immediately widened. Our world changed irrevocably. It is widely acknowledged that the failure of the federal levee systems exposed the gross negligence of governmental systems created to protect us. From City Fall to federal programs like FEMA, from levees to emergency response plans, nothing worked as it was supposed to. One might even suggest that the system was intended to function like this. This is nothing new for folks down here. They’ve been blowing levees in these parts since the flood of 1927. A less acknowledged reality – one that is not addressed by projects like Godot – is that Katrina asked us to widen our frame of vision to include the fact that no matter how we talk about the storm, no matter what we do to fix our social infrastructure, much of South Louisiana will disappear into the Gulf of Mexico in our lifetimes. We have reached a tipping point in our precarious relationship with nature. If we do not allow the Mississippi River to fulfill its natural purpose and hold oil companies accountable for the environmental destruction they have and continue to inflict in our wetlands, an entire way of life will disappear. There will be no rebuilding, only a long migration of exiles heading north. In some coastal communities, this has already begun. To solve this we need the type of collaboration and unity that helped over 20,000 people walk through the streets and get to the Superdome after Katrina’s waters inundated the city (no one writes about that act of solidarity). This will take an unprecedented effort of harmony on behalf of the people, the government and nature. It will require steadfastness and courage. Short-term projects shrivel in the shadow of such a calling.

Remember. When you come and make a garden for us and feed us, there is a vacuum created when you leave and do not tend to the soil you laid down. Six years later, we’re still nurturing our dysfunctional gardens, figuring (through a series of brave experiments, tears and radical hopes) out what our community needs. We’re also taking care of all the other gardens created by outsiders who left without explaining their long-term exit strategy. Tending to multiple gardens is daunting work at a time when we need someone to relieve our tired hands. Critiquing Mr. Chan’s work through this new, wider frame of life experience allows us to see that projects like Waiting for Godot, which meets all the criteria for successful community engaged art, are not beneficial to us right now considering the enormity of our needs. We wish for works of art from the depths of our people that address the long-term, systematic eradication of our culture by calculated, historical neglect. We ache for art that is rooted in a sense of community that stays over years and passes its wisdom to the next generation. We need artists that are willing to relinquish their singular vision if it runs counter to what the people need, and the people’s needs are always greater than our own. We need more local companies like ArtSpot and Junebug Productions. We need more outside groups like the Urban Bush Women (UBW) who have come to town to empower locals over a five-year period.

Groups like UBW and my humble colleagues in New Orleans help me reframe the original question. What if we began to acknowledge the current state of affairs in our world as an ongoing progression of natural and unnatural disasters resulting from circumstances within and beyond our control? Might we then see the need for a type of art that exists in constant response to the calamities in our communities by illuminating beauty and demanding justice? Might we then see the need for art that is so deeply woven into the fabric of a community that it prevents disasters long before they occur?

So, for anyone who feels the need to build with us we say thanks. But here, where the water kisses the land, where we live with a perpetual state of disaster, we need less projects and more life-long commitment. We hope for more daring souls willing to do the hard work without the need to be seen doing it. We’re working to be more vulnerable, to figure this out. We’d love to have your help, or anyone else’s for that matter. Be prepared, though, we’ll need you to stay.

Nick Slie lives, works and breaths on the disappearing wetlands of coastal Louisiana. He is Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of the New Orleans based performance collective Mondo Bizarro. He creates original works of performance that are rooted in a particular sense-of-place reflecting the needs, desires, memories and possibilities of the community from which it is born. Nick’s work ranges from physical theater to multi-disciplinary solo work, from digital storytelling to collaborative ensemble productions. Nick is a proud member of Alternate ROOTS and currently serves as board president for the Network of Ensemble Theaters.