|"Blue Velvet: Re-Dressing New Orleans in Katrina’s Wake" is a provocative engagement, in all senses of this term, with the ways that neo-liberal policies and the politics and economics of race and class, historical and contemporary, are literally remapping the meaning of the city. A project that is as much aural as visual, "Blue Velvet" defies linearity of time and of narrative while it simultaneously immerses the site’s users in a topsy-turvy environment. Much like the rearrangement of the natural and built environment (houses, office buildings, grocery stores, etc.) and the inversion of inside and outside (with the private contents of homes becoming public spectacles, people’s private lives—and deaths—shown on TV screens and elsewhere) that were the result of the city's failed levee system, "Blue Velvet" merges key phrases (24 in all, from New Orleans to Re-Dress) with images to produce a poignant and powerful representation of New Orleans as "America’s outlet" and "a city at America’s heart." One of the most salient features of the project involves the ways that the key phrases, once clicked upon by the user, fall from the middle of the screen down into the illustrated "landscape" of New Orleans, bursting through the levee and the breaking apart into derivative or related "morphemes" that then are further elaborated in written text that "floats" above a scrolling series of small images (photographs or maps). The written text varies in font size, as if the print had been set by hand, suggesting the unsettling effects of “Katrina’s wake” on narrative production. How to tell the story of this event that is part of a larger history of race, racism, and poverty, of contrived exploitation and passionate resistance, of love of place? There are several instances of double meaning in two key words from the title of the project that may serve as points for conversation. The first is the idea of "re-dressing." |
This, as becomes clear in the project, refers to how over a century’s worth of racial and class violence—at several different levels—may be re-dressed or even addressed now. How to re-dress racism? Would this mean un-dressing it? What are the distinctions? There is something uneasy here that suggests the city as a female, stripped bare from the flood, exposed against her will for all to see, a contemporary spectacularizing of African American women’s bodies, in particular. The second has to do with the double meaning of "wake." To be sure, this key word references the practice of mourning the dead, the rituals in which the living participate as active responses to death, whether it is that of a city or of an individual. But the term "wake" also has to do with a kind of path that is forged, a trace left behind for others to follow. There are, indeed, many "wakes" that Katrina and disgusting governmental disregard have forged and many possibilities for moving through and across such paths. The project's creators suggest that the process of re-dress is about “regaining place from space” but also about making a New Orleans not like it was, or is, but could be. This is a vision of possibility in the midst of mourning, a call to rise in a "city of cemeteries that just refuses to lie down." I could say more about the musical score, which combines ambient wind/rain with what sounds like helicopters circling a city combined with a heavy drumbeat. Take your time exploring this project (my first encounter with it lasted two hours and I could have lingered). What is most significant, I think, about this project is the how it tells the history of the current effect of neo-liberalism in the life of this American city. And, while the links of this form of exploitation and corporate engorgement may have been forged long ago they are lived in vivid and devastating ways today.
- Joy V. Fuqua, Queens College, City University of New York, 09.25.2007