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Large and Permanent Gestures

Street Artist Swoon Talks About the Bywater's Musical Shantytown That She Wants to Turn Into a House and Being in a Museum

Music Box Winds Up Again Nov. 19


One of the Prospect.2 opening weekend's biggest crowd was at an event only marginally related to the citywide biennial.  At the New Orleans Airlift’s installation The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, the line was literally around the block. The Music Box - a dream-like village of wood and glass structures outfitted with amplified sound devices, all constructed on a Piety Street lot in the Bywater—is a P.2 “satellite exhibition,” which means they receive no funding and only minimal advertising from Prospect New Orleans.  Still, organizers had to turn people away at the door as the shantytown filled to capacity, the raised bleachers overflowing and guests sprawled out wherever they could find a spot in the narrow spaces between buildings.


The evening’s performance was conducted by Quintron, who led a group of musicians in a cacophonous symphony of creaks, groans, bells and strings. Afterwards, the crowd was free to wander the shantytown and explore the instruments, bringing the village to life beneath strings of white lights.


The Music Box gives the Airlift a chance to prototype instruments for a larger project, Dithyrambalina, an interactive, permanent three-story house to be built on the lot now occupied by the musical shanties. Dithyrambalina is a collaboration between the New Orleans Airlift and Swoon, an artist originally based in Brooklyn who now leads an international community of vagabond artists and builders working on projects around the world.


Swoon got her start wheat-pasting elaborate cut-paper pieces on buildings in New York City.  When she talks about working “outside,” she means it literally, as in “out-of-doors,” but it’s also true that her outdoor work is outside of traditional art institutions and the commercial art market.  Gradually, Swoon gained recognition by those institutions and that market, showing her work in museums and galleries all over, including NOMA, where her enormous rendition of the sea goddess Thalassa spanned the museum’s Great Hall.  Still, she remains true to her roots, continuing to work outside on a large scale, like the community center she collaborated to build in Haiti, or the armada of barges made from salvaged material that she floated down the Mississippi River with her merry band.


The Airlift, along with plenty of other downtown artists in New Orleans, are trying to make a similar transition, a transition that allows them to stay true to their roots, while gaining wider recognition and acceptance by the conventional art world.  Delaney Martin, co-director of the Airlift, believes that it’s time for artists in the Bywater and Marigny to take themselves more seriously and find ways to reach larger audiences.  If The Music Box is any indication, it’s working.


In the days before opening night at The Music Box, NoDef had a chance to talk with Swoon about her life in art and her role in the New Orleans arts community.


NOLA Defender:  One of the things that’s interesting about your story is the transition from a community-based street artist to an international museum and gallery artist.  Can you talk about how that happens?


Swoon:  There was this was period of my life where people could Google me, and they could get in touch with me online.  I had a public email address.  I don’t have that anymore, but there were a bunch of years where people could have this relationship with my work outside and find me.  People would be like “Oh, can I buy a work of yours?”


I would invite people over to my apartment, and they would buy things from me.  It was definitely, in the beginning, those parts I was grateful for because I was able to not have to waitress anymore, and I was able to spend more time on my work.  And then slowly smaller, then larger, institutions starting getting in touch with me, and I was definitely really terrified at first because I wondered what it meant for my ethic of working outside and my desires to create a world that wasn’t dependent on those institutions and other questions of selling out or being entrapped.


ND:  Because at the some point you’re entering the market, right?  


Swoon:  Yeah, you are.  And of course there have been some negative effects of, you know, once the work that you make outside becomes a commodity then people start stealing it and people start regarding it in a different way where it’s not just this moment that isn’t attached to any sense of commerce or capital.  Because it’s meant to be this moment of freedom in this impermanent space.  The thing that I have always tried to do is to just make sure that everything that is important to me I keep doing and that I don’t let life—as somebody who’s working in these larger institutions—get gobbled up.


ND:  So how do you maintain your credibility among this community of artists without scaring off the museums and galleries and without being accused of selling out?


Swoon:  Well I think that I do both of things. [Laughs] I don’t know that I have credibility.


ND:  Sure you do.  You took over the Great Hall at NOMA.  That’s credibility.


Swoon:  I do think there are plenty of people that are like “sell out” or whatever, but for me it’s just never not doing something that I want to do for any reason, just following my impulse and heart all the time, and so not ever thinking that now that I’ve done this super official, legit thing it doesn’t mean I can’t go back to this other way of working where I roll up with a duffel bag and I’m covered in mud. 


For me, it’s just recognizing that those museum institution projects are just one piece of a whole puzzle, and so that’s why it doesn’t scare me like it used to.  The reason that I hated it in the first place is because when you’re in school, when you’re just perceiving what it means to be an artist, a lot of times there’s this perception that that’s the whole point, that the reason you’re making this, is so it will end up in a museum one day, and that’s the end of the story.  That totally isn’t the end of the story at all, that’s just a set of brackets within which to speak to a certain audience of people and there’s nothing wrong with it, I don’t hate, but I certainly can’t let that be the only thing that I do in my life.


ND:  This is sort of a transitional moment for New Orleans art, going from “downtown kids in the Bywater” to getting some attention and starting to be roped into things like Prospect.2.  What do you see in terms of the Airlift making that transition into—in quotation marks—“the art world?”


S:  I don’t know.  I think it’s a thing that’s happening organically to all of us.  The people who are Airlift are the people who have been my community for the last ten years, and we’re all part of this process.  So for me, as I start getting sucked into this world of whatever kind of legitimacy, they are also in their own way creating other forms of legitimacy and making larger and more permanent and more recognized things happen.  One of the reasons to accept a certain kind of legitimacy is because you become able to make large and permanent gestures, in the way you become able to make a house and make it be a real fixture on the block, and so I just feel like we’re all kind of growing together.


ND:  How do you sustain that growth?  What happens when the barges come apart, or the shantytown comes down?  How do you keep going?


Swoon:  You know, we’re in the conversation of growing up.  That’s almost like a conversation of responsibility, like working on the project in Haiti.  We’ve been there for a year, and now people are starting to wonder when we’re coming back and what’s next.  This is the part where we’ve made a commitment.  We’ve made a commitment to a project and we’ve made a commitment to a community.  Now we have to find in ourselves that follow-through.  Whereas like on the Rockaway, which was these boats that we built, the second year we docked them in a public place, and they got burned, and there was a certain kind of follow-through that we just didn’t have then.  We were kids, you know?  And so this is, I think—God, it’s weird—it’s this community growing up and starting to develop some follow-through and starting to develop this sense of building permanent things in the place they love.


ND:  So it’s a question of art, but also a personal question, like “how do you grow up and still maintain all the things you still hold dear?”


Swoon: That is my question in life right now.  [Laughs] You hit the nail on the head.


The next performance at The Music Box will be November 19 and musicians will include Mannie Fresh, Dickie Landry, Hamid Drake, Shelia Santamaria, Jim White, Kiowa Wells, Rusty Lazer, James Singleton, Theris Valver, Flag Boy, Black Feathers Tribe, and Jeff Mattson.  For more information, including information about purchasing tickets in advance, visit the website

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