Allora & Calzadilla

A Man Screaming is not a Dancing Bear

© Allora & CalzadillaWho still remembers the aerial views of inundated New Orleans in the summer of 2005? Although the US delegates to the 2007 UN climate summit still had in mind the consequences of Hurricane Katrina when they agreed at the last minute to the world climate change agenda, by 2009 at the Copenhagen world climate conference, these images seemed to have lost their power to convince. Efforts to conclude a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto protocols were not furthered by the USA. And all while climatologists are predicting an increase in the frequency of hurricanes caused by ocean warming.

Instead, the US government put New Orleans’ state of shock following the inundation to use, to privatise the public school system. Reconstruction of the public transportation system is still nowhere in sight, privatisation of infrastructure and subsidised housing is continuing. Protests against privatisation and also gentrification did not take place during the city’s post-disaster situation.

© Allora & CalzadillaNew Orleans is still in an extreme situation, except for the fact that it no longer has the attention of the media and the politicians. For many inhabitants of New Orleans, everyday life is accompanied by insurance claims. “Before” and “after“ Katrina is a significant temporal distinction for them. In the context of this turning point, the artists Allora & Calzadilla have created sensitive, poetic and pointed portraits of the local situation. The video installation A Man Screaming is not a Dancing Bear (2008) succeeds in making this catastrophe’s presence felt, even more than four years later.

© Allora & CalzadillaWith rhythmic countershots between tracking shots through a New Orleans apartment building that had been damaged by Katrina and then abandoned, and lush, green, peaceful Mississippi River alluvial meadows, the artists lend this theme a new urgency: inside the house, the camera shows shelves with odds and ends left by the former residents. Water streaks on the walls are reminders of the flood. In summer 2005, water levels were as high as 7.6 metres. The subtle tension between nature’s beauty and its cruelty is intensified by a young man’s drumming. He is drumming from outside on the blinds of a window whose glass pane no longer exists. His drumsticks leave higher and flatter wave-like shapes in the soft, yielding slats. Seen in artistic terms, it reminds the viewer of a Bridget Riley op art painting – the stylised flood waves are a metaphor of New Orleans’ tensely shimmering present.

© Allora & CalzadillaIn their works, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who have been working together for almost 15 years, often reference concept art and minimalism. They investigate complex systems such as governmental architecture or natural phenomena with artistic means. The works presented here gain in complexity through their title, which derives from the poem, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (French original title: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal). Aimé Césaire, an Afrocaribbean-French theorist of négritude and politician, wrote the poem in 1939 with the intention of communicating a new sense of self-confidence to African and Afrocaribbean intellectuals.

Transferred to the framework of the video installation, this means understanding the sounds produced by the venetian-blind slats as a reference to New Orleans’ Afrocaribbean identity; the city that gave birth to jazz. Far more blacks than whites live in the areas devastated by Katrina.

Allora & Calzadilla construct an intentionally metaphorically reduced image of the current situation in New Orleans, as it was in 2008. They build a multilayered description of the place on the basis of what is directly visible. With their special sense of conflicting realities, they create an alternative monument in video form that reminds the viewer of the present from within the present.

Vera Tollmann
works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2010


    © Allora & Calzadilla
    Jennifer Allora (*1974, Philadelphia) and Guillermo Calzadilla (*1971, Havanna) are an artistic duo who have been working together since 1995. Their work combines sculpture, photography, sound, video and performance art. Allora studied at the University of Richmond and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Calzadilla at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas San Juan and at Bard College, New York. In their conceptual works, which are playful and critical at the same time, Allora & Calzadilla deal with concrete locations and events world-wide, focusing on their immanent historical, cultural and political significance, which they approach by means of metaphor. The duo became known internationally with Hope Hippo (2005), a hippopotamus made of mud from the Canale Grande, and How To Appear Invisible (2009), a work addressing the demolition of the Palace of the Republic (the former seat of the East German parliament), among other works. Allora & Calzadilla live in San Juan, Puerto Rico.