The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory

This review originally appeared in ART PAPERS March/April 2012. 

One of the most popular, if improbable, recent sensations in the New Orleans art world was at neither a museum nor a gallery; it was part of neither a biennial nor an art fair. In fact, the works were never intended as finished exhibition pieces at all, yet The Music Box- A Shantytown Sound Laboratory became a local cause célèbre, as well as the subject of numerous national media stories, including a feature on the New York Times homepage last November [New Orleans Airlift; October-December 2011, April-June 2012]. Although it coincided with Prospect 2, the less than stellar successor to the critically acclaimed Prospect.1 biennial, The Music Box– an installation of ramshackle huts that doubled as experimental musical instruments-took on a life of its own after its debut performance in October.

The work of a mostly-below-the-radar guerrilla arts organization known as New Orleans Airlift, The Music Box was originally created to test the electronic and acoustic sound systems to be installed in the Dithyrambalina, a pagoda-like house/musical instrument that evolved out of the group’s collaborations with New York street artist Swoon, curator Theo Eliezer, and musician Quinton. Founded by artist-curator Delaney Martin and music impresario Jay Pennington, New Orleans Airlift is mostly known for fancifully edgy art expos and musical performances, as well as surreal Tableau Vivants, among other carnivalesque events. Sometimes described as a fairy tale set in a junk yard, The Music Box’s nine musical shanties took two dozen artists over four months to build, and they all appeal to something between a Louise Nevelson assemblage and a voodoo temple with Clarence Schmidt overtones. Occupying the site where a two-hundred-year-old cottage had until recently stood, The Music Box gave the wreckage a remarkable rebirth. There was no self-conscious art historicity at work here, but more of a mythic sensibility, as if the ancient planks had somehow reconfigured themselves into a magical village of otherworldly shanties. The three performances, on October 22nd, November 19th, and December 10th, imbued the space with an aural dimension that ranged from Quintron’s The Singing House, featuring a drone synthesizer modulated by the weather, to Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s Gamelatron: Pendopo at the End of the Universe, a kind of electro-gamelan hut. Micah Learned and Elizabeth Shannon’s Glass House shanty included Colin McIntyre and Angeliska Polacheck’s Tintinnambulaton Station, a canopy of chimes, bells, and percussive baubles, while Eliza Zeitlin’s sprawling two-story River House-featuring, among other instruments, Ross Harmon’s fairly self-explanatory Built-in Auto Harp and Bathtub Ball– and Aaron Kellner’s adjacent Control Tower and Bridge- equipped with Taylor Lee Shepperd’s Voxmurum, a kind of ambient sound generator- lent the dynamic spaces additional dimensionality. The often costumed contributing musicians- a group ranging from Philip Glass Ensemble founding member Richard “Dickie” Landry to Mardi Gras Indian Theris Valvery- added dozens more colorful characters to the mix. Conducted by Quintron, the performances were mostly haunting electro-acoustic soundscapes that melded elements of Stockhausen and Brian Eno with hints of funk and bounce.

Beyond mere novelty, The Music Box marks a departure from the usual Euro-American modalities of artmaking in that its collaborations, funded by Kickstarter campaigns and small grants, evoked the sorts of serendipitous anarcho-utopian approaches once idealized by the Situationists, but which recur in the collaborative cultures of the Afro-Caribbean world- of which New Orleans’ self-defined “culture of celebration” has always been a part. Here, creativity is ultimately about the art of living, but in an age when so much that happen in the art world reflects a Wall Street mentality, an endeavor such as The Music Box– propelled more by intuitive collective passions than by market-driven careerism-resonates almost like an act of joyous civil disobedience.