Performing City Resilience: A case study of New Orleans

At the centre of a growing urban resilience movement is the pursuit to define and respond to specific and shared challenges faced by cities around the world. The arts can play a valuable role in this work, often used to communicate resilience messages or contribute to placemaking efforts. Here however we argue that there should – and must – be a rethinking of the relationship between ideas and practices of arts and resilience. The arts can help enrich understandings and practices of resilience in a given city and globally.

We are acutely aware that, all too often, the arts are missing from the work of urban resilience. This led us to develop the Performing City Resilience (PCR) project in which we seek to understand and highlight the contribution of the arts to resilience thinking. In bringing together artists and stakeholders in resilience, PCR facilitates cross-sector learning and the development of methodologies for realising resilience practices which emerge from, make use of, and integrate with a city’s cultural practices. PCR furthermore utilises theories of performance to understand artistic, cultural, and ‘everyday’ practices of resilience in cities. For us, performance can be an aesthetic and/or social practice, one that might just as easily take place in a theatre space as in the situation room of a disaster planning organisation. The intention of the project is to provide a means by which city officials and resilience professionals can discover the possibilities of leveraging arts thinking and practice as a means of contributing to a Resilience Strategy or developing resilience practice. At the same time, our work helps artists and arts organisations recognise and build on the ways their work contributes actively to the resilience thinking in a city, without compromising their practice.

In recent field research in New Orleans we sought to investigate this relationship, in one of the first cities to release a holistic Resilience Strategy. We conducted surveys of performance work as well as interviews with artists and resilience professionals in the city, to begin rethinking the usefulness of the arts to resilience.

Music Box Village Resilience
© Stuart Andrews and Patrick Duggan

Places of Performance: how do ‘venues’ help us understand practices of city resilience?

In New Orleans, the breadth of ‘performance’ practices that engage with questions of resilience is vast, although perhaps not framed in those terms. We became fascinated by places in which performances of resilience might be thought of as being ‘played out’ in different ways to re-articulate how parts of the city are understood or perceived.

We visited, for example, New Orleans Airlift’s ‘Music Box Village,’ located in a repurposed industrial workshop at the base of the Industrial Canal. To build the venue, the organization invited local and international artists to imagine ‘percussive homes’ – structures that can house performances but that might also be ‘played’ musically in some way. For Delaney Martin, Co-founder and Artistic Director of New Orleans Airlift, the Village offers a space for ‘deep and radical collaboration’ in a complex geo-political environment. Standing in what feels like the outskirts of the city, with ships looming imposingly above, the venue makes apparent the complex relation of the city to its industrial infrastructures and ecological challenges. The space reveals the enormity of the canal, its power, and potential for devastation. At the same time, Music Box Village performs resilience by gathering people together through performance to reclaim and celebrate a previously ‘abandoned’ area.

Southern Rep’s new theatre space, Bayou Road
© Stuart Andrews and Patrick Duggan

Closer to the centre of town, the Southern Rep Theatre, a New Orleans institution since 1986, is currently adapting an old church to become its new artistic ‘home.’ Aimée Hayes, Producing Artistic Director, is acutely aware that a theatre venue is far more than the site of performance events; it also offers significant possibilities as a gathering space. In previous, temporary venues, Hayes has set up voter registration booths in foyers and developed a practice of speaking with audiences at the beginning of shows. In the new venue, Hayes plans to blur the sense of inside/outside to echo the city’s own cultures of everyday street performance. With tables and chairs spilling from the café-bar foyer into the inviting courtyard, and free outdoor theatre, music, and dance events, the venue will be open to all neighbouring communities and will offer ‘lagniappe’ (a little something extra) to the main stage performances. As such, the building and subsequent practice of this space is the latest demonstration of Southern Rep’s long and sustained performance of city resilience.

New Orleans ‘Situation Room’
© Stuart Andrews and Patrick Duggan

As Hayes found a venue to be a place for critical practices that go beyond conventional arts, so we became acquainted with numerous other spaces in the city in which the key stakeholders perform resilience. In City Hall, we spoke with Hazard Mitigation Administrator Ryan Mast about his work within the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which has historically focused on the hard emergency management component of disaster recovery. In our discussions, Mast reflected on the need to protect cultural infrastructure and artefacts, as well as to understand the cultural underpinnings of the city’s identity, especially in terms of music and ‘everyday’ performances such as Second Lines. As we toured one of the city’s situation rooms, it became clear that this was a space that ‘staged’ its thinking. That is, in a space designed for responding to resilience challenges, rehearsal performances are played out in both round-table and live action simulations – as means of planning and thinking though for ‘the real thing.’ In the event of a real-time crisis or large-scale city event like Mardi Gras, this is a ‘venue’ in which performances of resilience practice take place.

Going forward, we hope Performing City Resilience will help arts professionals and city stakeholders understand the arts as fundamental to how cities understand, renegotiate, and remake themselves in the face of their particular challenges. The intention is to enable a more nuanced understanding of a city’s resilience challenges through analysis of its artistic practices. Building from the New Orleans case study, Performing City Resilience positions the arts – and performance in particular – as central to processes and practices of understanding a city’s identity and its challenges.