Christophe Gauspohl + Scott Carter + Mario Schambon, Untitled, 2009. DesCours, New Orleans. Photo: Meredith Sims.
by Meredith Sims
New Orleans showcases DesCours, a week-long, contemporary architecture and art event that explores the latest in design and technology through the presentation of innovative, large-scale architecture installations. Thirteen installations will nightly transform hidden spaces across the French Quarter and the Central Business District of New Orleans.… (from the press release for DesCours)
Thinking this will be a one evening event, I soon find out that the scope in number of installations and geography, not too mention the cold and drizzly weather, preclude it from being one. My one evening of seeing the work becomes three, requiring a postponed flight in order to cover more ground after record breaking rains keep us away.
Being predominately light based and in spaces that are hidden or otherwise inaccessible to the regular public, many of the installations can only be seen after 6:00 PM. We decide to venture first to the outlying installations, those that need a car to get around, and to save our walk through the French Quarter for the next evening.
It’s dark, deserted and for New Orleans, unseasonably cold as we disembark at our first stop, Chime, an installation by Jennifer Hiser hidden away in one of four deserted store fronts along a lonely section of South Rampart. If you weren’t looking carefully, you would miss it altogether. The buildings, which were jazz clubs in some distance past, are an appropriate setting for Chime, which is both musical and participatory. Glass pendants float in a sultry lit room where viewers direct the play of sound through movement of fans, or, if of sufficient height, simply by walking through the upside down glass bed, using the head as a percussive source. Although Hiser considers the nature of destruction through the way the elements of the work are displaced by currents of air wafted their way by the spectators, the piece feels gentle and warm, in strong contrast with the dull and lonely exterior of the building it occupies.
We move on to Carondelet and Photon Garden, situated inside of an old shipping container which, according to the host students, has traveled all the way from Tokyo. The piece is a collaborative project directed by Hiroyuki Futai, Associate Professor at Musashino University. I enjoy the way Photon Garden, a created forest of 400 translucent tubes and 1600 light emitting diodes, reveals itself within this enclosed space. The inner walls are mirrors which infinitely reflect the photons, viewers, and a back panel movie screen projection. On the night we are viewing, the mirrored projection is opaque – the doors of the container are open and the headlights of passing cars create their own interplay of light and interact with the internal environment. We were particularly tickled when our host whips away the front of the “garden” to reveal its mechanism: a laptop projects two-dimensional monochrome images through photo sensors to create the three dimensional play of light patterns that sweep through the forest. It’s clever and it creates a space that feels both intimate and expansive, a secret escape in which you want to linger.
Onwards to the gloomy and towering vaulted ceiling of a former bank, situated inside of a Gothic 1920’s skyscraper in New Orleans's Central Business District. A wind-swept and decidedly chill-blasted docent directs us inside to Saccade-based Display. It’s an interesting space, and at first we’re not quite sure what we are supposed to be looking at. Yes, there are some colored LED lights--shades of Dan Flavin--but are we missing something? The space itself is so imposing it’s kind of cool to hang out there, but then the docent pops in and gives us a clue – move your head from side to side while looking at the LEDs - and suddenly images light up the space. The effect as your eyes move across lights is Wow, Kazaam, Kaboom, like a fleeting pop art display, images and words revealed only by the residual afterimage on the retina. We’re surprised and pleased by this subtly clever creation, another Japanese installation from Hideyuki Ando, Tetsutoshi Tabata, Maria Adriana Verdaasdonk and Junji Watanabe. This and Photon Garden are the only installations to incorporate technology in unexpected ways. (Francis Bitonti and Brian Osborn’s openHouse is also technologically innovative, but it is mechanical in nature.)
Heading back uptown we stop at Lee Circle and, later, at Piazza d’Italia. Inside the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects New Orleans Center for Design at Lee Circle, we’re told by the docent that the performance element of the installation is not present. There was supposed to be a video projected on the wall behind the crazed yet eloquent structure of wood and light that reaches through the space. I heard later, on our second visit, that there was also to have been a performance of Maculele, an Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, however it’s exam week at Tulane University, and the students who were to provide the performance are instead sweating it out academically. Nevertheless, the sculptural explosion of light and form through this contained space creates its own sense of revolt and is definitely high energy. The piece, whose jagged structure evokes the rhythm of the wooden sticks, or grimas, used in Maculele, engages viewers in their own dances as they attempt to move around, through and under it. This site provided one of the more successful explorations of the tensions among architecture, space, and the human form to be seen at DesCours.
From Left: Jimmy Stamp + Sergio Padilla + Frederick Stivers (NO/other) + Gumbo Labs, Orpheus Descending. Hiroyuki Futai + EP3, Musashino University, Photon Garden. Mary Hale, Itinerant Home. All from DesCours 2009. Photos: Meredith Sims.
At the Piazza d’Italia, Extra Terrestrial Carpet Obscura, which is supposed to be a cosmological landscape, appears instead as a watery extension of the Piazza’s pool, mini fountains spread across the pavement. The piece is not working, unfortunately, and so we return the next evening for a second try. The lone docent (I have to admire the volunteers – it was not fun to be outdoors, and foot traffic was minimal at these outlying sites) is hopeful that we are there to fix it but, alas, we can only view the unintended play of light and structure in the pink glow of the Piazza’s regular neon lights.
With my plane ticket rearranged so the circuit can be completed, we head off on the fourth evening to the French Quarter, this time to journey on foot to the remaining sites. Our first stop, DésirDesCours, hidden behind a hairdressing salon on Iberville, is a courtyard hosting a series of projections on the defining and neighboring walls, some less accessible than others and activated by a proximity sensor. Its creators hail from Paris, France, so perhaps it's not surprising this installation explores emotional responses to the urban environment against a backdrop of love in scenes from classic European films. With the courtyard empty, the original intentions don’t resonate, but ghostly images on nearby windows hurtle you back in time and you can almost imagine the commerce, illicit or otherwise, that may have been in progress there.
From Iberville we edge north and find ourselves outside the entrance to a warehouse that has been converted to lofts. A DesCours sign directs us in, but once inside there are no further clues. Fortunately, we run into Skip; he informs us that he is a loft resident and artist as he leads us up to the roof top. Itinerant Home, a wearable inflatable house, perches precariously between the pool and the edge of the building. Its creator, Boston Architect Mary Hale, tells me that artists participating in DesCours have no idea ahead of time of the installation space they will be given - the site for each installation is only revealed to the architects on their arrival. So instead of her wearable shelter walking around the quarter, as she had envisioned, it is pinned to a rooftop lest it cut loose and float away. I kind of liked it up there: it felt playful and evoked itinerancy more than the enclosed urban streets might have done. After testing it for ourselves, (fittings for 8 people were available), we wind back down to the street.
On the way to the next site, we pass the DesCours second line parade, en route from Orpheus Descending at the former residence of Tennessee Williams to the closing night party back at DésirDesCours on Iberville. I’m hopeful that we will make it back there; with five more sites to go, we keep moving, on to our next stop, Yellow Smoke. In a narrow passage off of Royal hidden, appropriately, behind a lighting store, three columns rise glowing from the fog, the color and setting reminiscent of old gas street lamps. The mist is artificial, but seems in this setting to be a natural extension of the local ambience.
Onwards through Jackson Square and the nicely positioned Lateral Loop, inside the exterior arches of the Cabildo Museum. Contemporary meets traditional, and it works, transforming the space while also mirroring the architectural motif in design and function. The purple glow wouldn’t be amiss on a Mardi Gras float and echoes both the color and gaudiness of many local festivals. Lateral Loop is one of the few publicly accessible works in DesCours; stationed on the busiest square in the Quarter, it definitely attracts attention.
Hoofing it along Decatur Street, past Café Du Monde and the Peter Street Market, we almost rush right by the small alleyway that leads to Night Garden. I actually love this piece. In a barren courtyard, if you could even call it that, almost a square of concrete behind an interleaved patio, it’s a gem, translucent, glowing, with an almost otherworldly feel. It could have landed in this obscure space from anywhere – it’s certainly not of this place, although its unabashed “look at me” persona is definitely familiar to this town.
Moving now to less busy and sometimes less friendly terrain, we pick a well-lit street to head up to the last of the installations. At 1014 Dumaine, the film of A Streetcar Named Desire is projected inside a redefined space created by the installation Orpheus Descending. The use of a giant inflatable structure over the pool in Tennessee Williams’s former courtyard intrigues, but ultimately disappoints, although as I enter for the last time, I overhear another viewer exclaiming, “this was the best,” so perhaps I am simply ready to be done. Around the corner in an adjacent courtyard, luminescent plastic topiary sheep gambol on what appears to be their own little rural pasture as part of Nocturnal Topi-Scapes, an interesting juxtaposition against the backdrop of the Quarter. Still, this is the residential section of the French Quarter, not Bourbon Street, so it’s not entirely out of place.
One block away at openHouse, the rooftop of 1031 St. Phillip is transformed into what appears to be an underwater universe, as a canopy of glowing blue winged skate-like amorphous jellyfish suck in and out with a robotic whirring. A submersed experience may not be the intention, but given the trials the unexpected rain has caused here and elsewhere, it seems appropriate. The kinetic, not actually amphibious devices are designed to interact with rooftop inhabitants, who inject new loops of movement by sitting or placing their glasses on interspersed platforms. Unfortunately, the cumulative days of dampness have taken a toll and this layer is not operational. It’s a common theme across many of the installations, and perhaps a fitting one, given the grand scale of the destruction the elements have wrought on this city and the failure of man-made remedies to alleviate it.
DesCours works well as a different kind of spotlight on New Orleans and as an exploration of the transformation and manipulation of space and perception, although the necessity of staging it at a time of year when it is already dark (and cold) by the opening hour of 6:00 PM means less exposure than would be otherwise. And although many of the installations take playful looks at the relationships among space, form, and human beings, one can’t help feeling that they could have been designed to better withstand the elements. Because of the nature of the spaces in which they are constructed, all of the installations are relatively small; it would have been interesting to have included something on a larger scale, perhaps even something accessible during daylight hours, to create contrast and tension within the structure of the series itself. Of course, this would be at odds with the title motif, DesCours, which refers to the hidden courtyards this event illuminates - and I do like the magic of discovery that entails. Technology and materials notwithstanding, the dark, damp, and cold take their toll on the effective revelation of complexity. Ultimately, it is the playfulness of Itinerant Home, the jagged passage of the installation at the AIA, and the luminescence of Night Garden that resonate.
Virginia San Fratello + Ronald Rael (Rael San Fratello Architects), Night Garden, 2009. DesCours,
New Orleans. Photo: Meredith Sims.