Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RMB City remembers New Orleans

I went to New Orleans for the first time in August 2005. As soon as I hopped on my first street car I felt I had found my feet. It was all that I imagined and better and I settled in as hard as five days would allow. Five days after I left, the city was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. I felt my heart breaking as I watched events unfold on the news. Ironically, I had been at a conference full of archivists – experts in preservation. After the disaster I remember a woman contemplating the ruins of her house. She held up a wet and torn piece of paper. “It’s my grandmother’s gumbo recipe!” It was her most valued possession.

Years later, the city still struggles to recover. In November 2008, Chinese artist Cao Fei (an artist with seemingly boundless energy) and architects Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix (MAP Office) collaborated on a project for Prospect 1, the largest international biennale in America, based in New Orleans. The artists created an environment in SL at RMB City. They illustrated and animated a line drawing depicting an area of the Lower 9th Ward (part of the city hardest hit by the flood). The installation was projected into the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New Orleans, and allowed gallery visitors to wander around the sim using ready-made avatars. A blogger for the Times-Picayune – the local paper – described the installation:

“Translucent waves sloshed over us from time to time. Buildings regularly collapsed... Drifting zombie-like through the sparse, lonely landscape was an endless loop anxiety nightmare -- an accurate depiction of post-flood New Orleans, wouldn't you agree?” (read more here)

I wandered around the colorless setting, admiring the strong black lines of the drawings. It took me a while to find a tiny square prim (on the ground near the trailer) that turned on the animations. Once I clicked on it, the sky immediately darkened above; clouds gathered, rain fell, waves pushed against the illustrations, which suddenly seemed as vulnerable as the gumbo recipe on paper. I sat in a little shed and felt the cold waters creep up around my ankles. A bigger disaster than Katrina would be if we forgot what happened there in August 2005. To read more about recovery activities in New Orleans read here.