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Katrina Plus Ten: Art and History

October 9, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Art and History

Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  What followed was a disaster of unparalleled magnitude in recent United States history, an event and its aftermath that forever changed ideas about urban resilience, the relationships between cities and the water bodies on which they are located, the roles of race and class in disaster response, even whether some cities in vulnerable locations should even be restored after disaster struck.  The Mississippi River was almost an afterthought during and immediately after the storm; the river itself did not flood the city and the most damaging levee breaches occurred in other locations.  Nevertheless, we feel that serious, sustained examination of the relationships between communities, water systems, urban space, and lived experience in the 21st century should start with at least a rudimentary examination of Katrina and its aftermath.

This is the seventh of ten blog posts examining crucial facets of the online coverage a decade after the storm. 

New Orleans may have the liveliest arts community, as a percentage of the city’s population, in the country. Few cities in America have as complex a history as New Orleans. So it should not be surprising that, ten years after the watershed event that was Hurricane Katrina, the storm has embedded itself into art forms new and old. Collecting and preserving historical materials associated with the storm has been the province of both traditional museums and collections of new digital forms.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band may be the most iconic arts group in the city, at least as far as the world’s public is concerned. Ben Jaffe’s account on the program’s web site placed the storm in a context encompassing seven generations of one family involved in New Orleans jazz, the Lower 9th Ward as a long time home for many jazz musicians, and the city’s priorities being expressed in the relative strength of its levees.

Preservation Hall Jazz band plays on sidewalk in front of the Hall via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PresHallBandJaquesA.jpg

Preservation Hall Jazz band plays on sidewalk in front of the Hall via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PresHallBandJaquesA.jpg

At first glance, Gallery of the Streets might seem to be the opposite of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The jazz band is a global icon; Gallery is not well known outside its close circle of makers. Gallery is new, subversive, breaking forms as varied as opera and visual representation, and recombining them to express the city and its sensibilities through some of the most easily-overlooked citizens. But on the other hand, isn’t that what was said about New Orleans jazz a century ago? Gallery of the Streets’ project “ECOHYBRIDITY: LOVE SONG FOR NOLA” is “a visual [black] opera in 5 movements. A touring exhibit and movement-building project, ECOHYBRIDITY fuses public art and direct action organizing to confront power. In addition to exhibiting the art, we are also collecting solidarity statements and other messages to share with New Orleanians in preparation for the upcoming anniversary.”

In the face of a historic disaster such as Katrina, what are the appropriate materials to preserve in order to memorialize the storm and what followed? This question, which is never easily answered, is complicated by the veritable explosion of digital media through which voices, images and other forms of expression can be created.

Of course if something is “historic,” that means the History Channel is on it. The “Topics” page on Katrina  features a number of short audio and video pieces, including a diverse array of perspectives. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History blog “Oh Say Can You See?” includes a feature on the challenges and heartbreak of collecting artifacts after the storm. In some instances people gave up prized possessions that, though “ruined” for normal use would stand as stark evidence of the flood’s damage.

Finally two newer collection programs have created extensive Katrina collections. A search of the Digital Public Library of America for “Hurricane Katrina” reveals over 4,000 entries. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media collaborated with a number of regional and national organizations to create the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a community- and crowd-sourced archive that allowed anyone to document their stories, images, and recollections of the storm.

Writing in Slate, Amanda Hess describes the book “Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina.” In 2005, the year of the storm, internet access was relatively widespread, but smartphones were not. This gap in technology left bloggers as the most immediate writers able to bear witness to the storm and its aftermath. By contrast, less than six years later, during the 2011 Mississippi River flood in Memphis, Twitter was a platform allowing real time, synchronous communication among besieged residents, emergency workers, and volunteers. It seems clear that artistic responses to Katrina will continue long after the tenth anniversary recognitions have faded. Indeed, as the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Mississippi Delta flood approaches in 2017, that earlier catastrophe, which coast far more lives and damaged a much wider area of the country, serves as a reminder that these powerful disasters become indelible parts of the multiple dimensions of human experience in place.

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