Swoon print on Piety Street Fence. Photo by Nicholas Sackos.
Renowned street artist Swoon collaborated with a local New Orleans art non-profit, Airlift, to create Dithyrambalina: The Music Box, a piece of “musical architecture” aiming to re-purpose a blighted historic home and enliven the neighborhood by providing a piece of interactive art in the up and coming Bywater neighborhood in 2011 (“Dithyrambalina: Musical Architecture in New Orleans.” http://www.dithyrambalina.com/ Accessed 6 November 2012). After Airlift acquired the property of 1031 Piety Street in St. Claude, the group approached Swoon to do something with the site and the existing Creole Cottage that stood on the land. However, the 18th century cottage collapsed in the early stages of the process leading the artist and her team to propose a re-purposing of the materials of this historic cottage that defines this area’s urban fabric and to assemble a “free, public, and playful” musical sculptural architecture (“Dithyrambalina: Musical Architecture in New Orleans.” http://www.dithyrambalina.com/ Accessed 6 November 2012). Swoon intended to highlight the blight in the region in a positive way, which invited “the wider community to imagine and participate in a new landscape of potential and possibility.” In this case, the artists salvaged the Creole Cottage and developed a “shantytown sound library,” presumably based on the informal construction methodologies coupled with the small scale of the musical architectural objects. The project captures the larger moment of contemporary New Orleans in the way it merges place, culture, and history while capitalizing media attention depicting New Orleans as a success story of creativity paired with recovery.
Dithyrambalina: The Music Box shares the formal intentions with a number of other Swoon projects in that it is an “unexpected fusion of printmaking, street art, anti-architecture, and counterculture communalism,” according to author Jeffery Deitch in the introduction to a self-titled book by Swoon (Deitch, Jeffery. “Open Dreams.” Swoon. “Swoon.” Abrams, New York. 2010). This is Swoon’s first project venturing into the realm of musical architecture. Her most well known work is a collection of large-scale prints applied to urban surfaces making the streets the gallery space. In making the public her audience, she starts to enliven, enhance and encourage reflection of urban space. Additionally, she has worked on a few “transitional” projects, boats intended to float on various rivers and bodies of water. The Music Box shares the same values but it takes a different form in this place-based project. According to its official website, Airlift New Orleans is an organization with the mission of exporting New Orleans’ art and culture to the wider world. In this case they are pairing local artists with a widely known artist, Swoon, to do this (New Orleans Airlift. http://www.neworleansairlift.org/ Accessed 1 December 2012). By highlighting New Orleans artists and culture, the project gained the exposure for both. Although Airlift identifies Swoon as the leader of this project, it was designed by a collective.
Since the 1980s, the art industry has become more professionalized and focus shifted from collective projects to individual art celebrities, which Swoon has become one of, according to Deitch’s aforementioned introduction (Deitch, Jeffery. “Open Dreams.” Swoon. “Swoon.” Abrams, New York. 2010). Yet Swoon exploits her celebrity status within the art world by promoting, establishing, and participating in collective projects, as she is part of a larger movement to restore this communal aspect to the art world. This ideology of communal artwork enables the work to shift from solely the result and emphasizes the process. This project involved a collaboration of artists form all over the United States (most coming from Brooklyn or the New Orleans area): Delaney Martin, Taylor Lee Shepherd, Jayme Kalal, Quintron, Taylor Kuffner/Zemi17, Ross Harmon, Ben Mortimer, Simon Berz, Lindsay Karty, Nick Yulman, Angeliska Polacheck and Colin McIntyre, Ranjit Bhatnagar, Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, Elizabeth Shannon, Ratty Scurvics, Rainger Pinny & Johnag Emerson-Bell, Micah Learned, Aaron Kellner, Andrew Schrock, Jade Brandt, and Myrtle Von Damitz III. This group consists of artists in a variety of mediums including builders, photographers, sculptors, a filmmaker, a costumer, painters, and curators. This combination of the artists in addition to local musicians allowed for the large scale of the piece and complexity of merging architecture and sound into forms created out of the salvageable material from a Creole Cottage.
The project has an embedded history just based on the nature of reusing a Creole Cottage and its site in the Bywater. According to an article entitled “The Origins of Creole Architecture” by Jay D. Edwards in the Winterthur Portfolio, The Creole Cottage is a housing type that migrated to New Orleans from the Caribbean along with their people (Edwards, Jay D. “The Origins of Creole Architecture.” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 29, No. 2/3 (Summer – Autumn, 1994), pp. 155-189. Published by: The University of Chicago Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1181485). The housing type is scattered along the entire Gulf Coast and has proved successful in the hot humid climate. The simple plan proved to be successful and efficient based on the amount of creole cottages that have been built in New Orleans. Predominantly in the French Quarter and Marigny, the ubiquitous building type continues to define the streets to this day. The Creole Cottage, like the shotgun, has become outdated by contemporary living standards yet the architectural icon still exists and thrives in this neighborhood.
The project utilizes this decaying piece of our history by re-envisioning it and giving the site and building new meaning. Art critic Deitch identified this trend in Swoon’s earlier work based on her interest in “decaying vernacular architecture of rusting subway trestles, crumbling frame houses, and rickety Coney Island Cyclone” in New York and she translated this interest to vernacular architecture in New Orleans. This collision of her work with “anti-architecture,” decaying architectural objects of the past, is identified as aligning with outsider architectural assembly, where a more traditional architecture (in terms of form, construction, function and aesthetic) is dismissed.
This project uses recent coverage and depictions of New Orleans as a unique cultural center that is using creative capital as one of the means of recovery and adds to this discourse. Smithsonian Magazine’s article on the project quotes musician Quintron who participated in the project saying, “This is just what we do in New Orleans. It’s a kooky town, full of great musicians that just can’t keep their hands still, building stuff and tearing it down and inventing newness out of rubble” (Katz, Jaime. “You’ve Never Heard A Music Box Like This.” Smithsonian Magazine. June 2012. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Youve-Never-Heard-A-Music-Box-Like-This.html Accessed 10 December 2012). This type of coverage is typical of New Orleans based projects. The city’s identity has become tied with recovery and creativity, most often in the form of music, and this project pairs the two into a single project. Similarly, National Public Radio ran a story by Ann Powers entitled, “A Night Out In New Bohemia”. Powers noted that the project exemplifies New Orleans as a center for new bohemia, “American bohemia is about reinventing tradition, exploring lost or hidden pasts as a way of forming new families and becoming individual. It’s self-making through cultural pastiche. New Orleans, with so much rich stuff in its many lineage, is an ideal place for bohemias to grow” (Powers, Ann. “A Night Out In New Bohemia.” NPR. 13 June 2012. http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2012/06/11/154776190/a-night-out-in-new-orleans-new-bohemia).
The city and specifically the Bywater neighborhood have become this cultural center for a new form of hipster bohemian culture, which this project falls into. The Music Box operates beyond the building itself. Renowned music producer Diplo and local bounce musician Nicky Da B filmed their “Express Yourself” video at Piety Street fence and Theressa Anderson filmed her “Street Parade” video within the project (“Diplo – “Express Yourself” (ft. Nicky Da B) Official Music Video [Full HD Version].” Uploaded 12 March 2012. KarmaloopTV. Youtube. http://youtu.be/eF1lU-CrQfc;“Theresa Andersson – Street Parade (Official Music Video HD).” Uploaded 6 June 2012. http://youtu.be/s5ygRDLYYGM Accessed 12 December 2012). The space has a such a strong visual impact and the imagery is powerful enough to make its presence known online, without even associating the imagery with its musical intentions. Although this distances some of the projects goals of creating a musical architecture, this discourse successfully promotes the project’s core value of delivering the creative culture of New Orleans to the greater public. The project continues to evolve in this way. A portion of the project was redesigned and reassembled in the Ukraine in September of 2012 and according to the project blog there may be a more permanent iteration of the project rebuilt elsewhere in New Orleans.