Asher Kaplan speaks with artist Toon Fibbe about public housing in New Orleans, economic ghosts, and his recent residency with Deltaworkers.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans City Council made a unanimous and highly contested decision to demolish the city’s four largest public housing developments. Demolitions of the Lafitte, St. Bernard, Calliope, and Magnolia Projects made way for a new wave of mixed-income developments designed to address a history of concentrated poverty, violence, and drug use in public housing by introducing a fixed proportion of tenants who pay unassisted, market-rate rent and, in most cases, by reducing the overall number of units on the new sites. In place of these lost units, eligible residents are provided with Section 8 housing vouchers, subsidizing some or all of the cost of their rent on the private rental market. Symbols of the new New Orleans, the pastel blocks of mixed-income developments take cues from traditional New Orleanian architecture while incorporating contemporary materials and design elements, expressing the city’s perpetual tug of war between past and future. Almost ten years later, how can we begin to understand what happened, and whether the new system is meeting its goals?
I was working at the front desk of the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center one day last month when a hot pink flyer I had not tacked up on the board caught my eye. It’s my job to tack flyers up on the board. I also book events at the Center, a hub for social services in one of the new mixed-income developments, but I hadn’t booked this one. The flyer advertised “The Dark Prince of Finance,” a lecture-performance by Dutch artist Toon Fibbe, happening later that evening in our largest conference room. It was an unexpected and exciting convergence of my work as the Outreach Coordinator at the Center and my personal interests in art and architecture. I got off work, rushed home to eat and shower, and arrived back to the Center a few minutes before sunset.
That night, images of houses, hands, and strange drawings floated about the conference room. As Fibbe delivered his lecture, everything around me shifted into alignment. During the day I work at the Center referring residents to health clinics and job training programs, faxing in their food-stamp paperwork, and helping tenant organizers develop their own independent non-profit. That night my interests in poetry and visual art collided with my seemingly unrelated work in public housing. Toon tied it all together in my own workplace, like a ghost from the future.
I spoke with Fibbe the following day at a coffee shop in Mid-City, where we discussed his three-month stint in New Orleans with Deltaworkers, a residency program for European artists; his research on the history of money and public housing in the city; and “The Dark Prince of Finance.”
Asher Kaplan: Could you briefly describe the different parts of your presentation “The Dark Prince of Finance”?
Toon Fibbe: Sure. First, all the objects that were part of the work were placed around and on top of a table where I sat and gave the lecture. In front of the table, there was a small constellation of candles and 3D prints, replicas of artifacts found at the Iberville site by archaeologists from the University of New Orleans. Behind me was an animation that I created using digital renderings of houses from mixed-income developments floating among objects found at archaeological digs at these sites. The houses and all of the objects float and turn about in a placeless zone against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. There was also another projection of Dutch satirical engravings, found in the Historic New Orleans Collection, called Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid, or The Great Mirror of Folly. These images were projected onto a piece of fabric fluttering in the wind of the projector’s cooling fan. Using a window frame mounted on the floor as its screen, another projector showed digital scans of a Lego block rotating slowly over the background of a stormy sky. The Lego block was one of the artifacts found during a dig at the site of the former Iberville Projects. A TV played a modified promotional video for the Harmony Oaks mixed-income development. I programmed an application to warp the images and sound according to fluctuations in the stock prices of corporations that financed the development so the development is literally distorted by the market.
AK: What drew you to using the digital models from the promotional video?
TF: My interest in the models came out of the way they present such a bright future. These slick images, accompanied by a feel-good soundtrack, leave behind the uncanny feeling often produced by images of perfection. For me, these are pictures of capital dreaming. In them, the skies will forever be blue; people will forever roam the streets in this sort of zombie-like fashion. A film like this is intended to project an image of the future, but these renderings, still used on the Harmony Oaks website, struck me because these houses have already been built. Now these images of an intended future seem to operate in a space outside of time.
I started to think about the idea of capital functioning as a ghost from the future. Economics has always shared an affinity with the ghostly. This is visible, for instance, in the way we attempt to comprehend economic processes by making use of metaphors such as the “invisible hand” and other hauntings. As the German literary theorist Joseph Vogl points out in his book The Specter of Capital, this is due to a certain uncanniness of economic processes in which circulating objects and signs seem to develop an eerie will of their own. He writes about capitalism as a ghost that is haunting us from the future. Whereas the usual ghost comes to haunt the present because of some wrongdoing or injustice in the past, capital has no interest in the present or the past, but is solely motivated by profit.
In my work, I’m looking for ways these ghosts of capital can become visible. It became interesting to take 3D scans of objects from archaeological digs which took place after the public housing was demolished and insert them into the virtual architectural models. Perhaps these objects could conjure up the past and somehow let the ghosts of the future speak to the ghosts of the past.
AK: I felt as if certain elements were composed like an altar.
TF: Yes, exactly. The 3D-printed sculptures are all replicas of objects dug up at the Iberville site. There were a variety of objects such as makeup containers and a porcelain hand used to store and display jewelry which dated back to the Storyville red-light district, but also more recent objects like small toys, coins, and pieces of plastic—all remnants of life at the Iberville Projects. The Archaeology department at UNO was able to go there and excavate all these objects from the old Iberville after it was demolished. I’ve been talking to Dr. Ryan Gray, who wrote an amazing dissertation about the development of housing in New Orleans from an archaeological perspective—very insightful and sharp. The sculptures were printed from 3D scans made by Alahna Moore, a student of Dr. Gray.
AK: Could you speak more about The Great Mirror of Folly—the book of Dutch satirical engravings—and how it relates to this idea of the ghosts of capital?
TF: The book satirizes the first global stock-market bubble, the “Mississippi Bubble.” Around 1720, an economic bubble formed in France around speculated profits from trade in New Orleans. Many French investors flocked to put their money here; it became incredibly popular to do so; and the Royal Bank of France started issuing profits back to them in the form of paper currency. At some point, the bank had to admit that the amount of paper money it had issued exceeded the value of the actual metal coinage it held in its vaults, and the bubble burst. It took down not only the French economy, but also the English and Dutch economies. The prints in the book deal with this bubble. It is perhaps the earliest document to so viscerally depict people’s anger towards the then new financial system. It presents incredibly effective metaphors: The engravings are full of ghostly creatures spurring economic activity, referring to the “wind” as that which made trade possible and pointing to the empty promises of the stock market. It posits New Orleans as a city founded on speculation, founded on what I would call the ghost of capital.
AK: Could you give a little background about your artistic practice and talk about why this concept of the ghosts of capital is so resonant for you in New Orleans?
TF: In my work, I often employ tropes of performance art as tools for research. I use different strategies, such as reenactments or characters, in order to intervene in a situation and gather material. I find it fruitful to think through the lens of a character, whether historical, fictional, or present-day, to access a different logic or to bring speculative futures into the present. I enact these characters to decode and analyse the inner organization of society on cultural and economic levels. Working in New Orleans, my position became complicated for the simple reason that I had never been here before. I felt that to make work here required first and foremost a position that would take my role as an artist in residence into account.
For a long time I’d been thinking about capital functioning as a ghost from the future. I had no character in mind and I had never previously visited New Orleans so I decided to use my residency period as a ghost hunt to locate the ghost of capital in the city. I thought that if there were a place where a ghost of capital could live, it would perhaps be in the digital renderings of mixed-income developments. Also, it felt appropriate to consider myself, as an artist in residence, a ghost. I only spent three months here, and, because of the relationship between artists and processes of gentrification, I also played the part of a ghost of capital.
AK: Gentrification is a major issue in New Orleans today, and I’m interested in how gentrification in American cities and the shift to privatized, mixed-income housing in New Orleans can be situated in a global context of uneven urban development. How has your work dealt with these issues?
TF: In a way I’ve always sort of dealt with cities and the people living in them, specifically in Rotterdam, which is where I’m from. The works I made around two figures there, Koperen Ko and Rigardus Rijnhout, are good examples. Koperen Ko was a street musician, and Rijnhout was an exceptionally tall guy, about seven foot nine inches, who worked as a walking billboard and was known around the city as the “Giant of Rotterdam.” Both were figures who became famous for being different. I was interested in the way they were each pushed to the margins of society. But exactly in the moment that they were pushed toward the margins, they became, you might say, symbols for the city. And although it’s hard to claim they were in real positions of power, they did gain regional fame that provided them with a platform, a voice. At the time Koperen Ko and Rijnhout rose to fame in the streets of Rotterdam, the city was in the process of rebuilding after the bombings of World War II. The entire city center was gone, and their roles as symbols developed just as the old Rotterdam began to make way for high rises and modern concrete architecture. My work and research dealt very much with the identity of Rotterdam and viewed the social and economic history of the city through these characters, which resulted in a series of works incorporating a performance, postcards, written texts, and small interventions around the city.
AK: I see a similar dynamic in New Orleans with the culture-bearers of the city—the musicians and artists and cooks and workers—increasingly being priced out of the rental market and forced to move out of the city. Deltaworkers, the residency program that brought you here, describes itself as an initiative that “investigates the Southern United States as one of the last mythical places in the West.” Do you see any relationship between the ghosts of capital and the mythic South?
TF: I’m interested in the idea of the ghost and ghost stories in general. For me the ghost of capital is a mode of talking about capital and policy—and about how policies that don’t exist anymore still haunt the present. I find it an effective way to speak about how things from the past operate in the present, how policy that is supposedly absent is actually still steering people’s behaviors, steering city planning. I’m interested in how these same movements are present in the literature of ghost stories. For instance, the example I gave in the lecture is the poltergeist, where the ghosts of those who inhabited a house in the past return to haunt the present. In the end it really is about the ghosts of the have-nots, the people that have been driven away that are still making themselves continuously present—in this case, in the architecture.
One of the reasons I’m interested in employing the metaphor of the ghost of capital is that it’s a way of talking about economic processes without using the language of economic science. The effort, for me, is to try and find a way to speak about these things, to develop a language that is accurate. It is striking to see the number of crises at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century and the inability of economics to prevent or even manage these crises. To me, it makes sense to use the metaphor of the ghost, especially considering the erratic and seemingly irrational movements in our financial system and how it shapes and haunts the spaces we live in.
AK: What kinds of things are made possible by engaging with this material specifically as a fine artist, as opposed to someone working with public policy or as an academic, an activist, or a researcher?
TF: As an artist, I can contribute metaphors. Metaphors can be used to speak about things differently. For instance, I might say, “The city is a dance.” I would then think about the movements and rhythms in a city—who wakes up at what time, where they are going, etc. If I were to say, “The city is a language,” I would think about the linguistic signs present in the city, and perhaps movement through the city would become a sentence. A metaphor offers a different position to speak from and think about something. While I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that people talk a lot about numbers—how many people returned after the storm, how many affordable housing units there are, and so on. The discourse of recovery is really based around all these numbers and facts, and obviously this data needs to be gathered and thought about. But at the same time, it doesn’t create strong enough handlebars to really think critically about a situation. I can offer metaphor, and people can decide whether that’s useful or not; that’s really not up to me. I’m basically just offering it.
AK: How do you see your work in relation to the community here? Do you see similarities or differences between community-oriented arts projects in Europe and the United States?
TF: I’m very invested in conversations around the usefulness of art, as I really do think it can be useful. I tend to be critical of the kind of ameliorative community arts projects that attempt to, for instance, increase social cohesion in a certain neighbourhood, or things along those lines. Obviously this kind of work has a different history in the U.S., but in Europe these kinds of practices arose exactly at the moment when, after the fall of the Wall, central-leftist governments rose in the new political landscape, like Tony Blair in England and Wim Kok in Holland. These central-left governments attempted to simultaneously realize socialist ideals and embrace the market, resulting in more privatization of public services than had occurred under the right-wing governments of the ’80s. It was simply Thatcherism with a more human face.
In this new political landscape, art was increasingly instrumentalized by politics through projects that would provide opportunities for the strengthening of social cohesion but often maintained an underlying form of control in the way these projects were commissioned by local authorities and art institutions.
These practices arose at a moment when governments were increasingly retreating from tasks that were traditionally considered to be public responsibility. At the same time that these “welfare state” policies were rolled back, governments began steering cultural policies towards social inclusion. For me, states should be held accountable to their policies, and I feel that these kinds of community art projects often jump in to provide support for communities that the government is abandoning or has abandoned. I don’t think art should jump into this gap; rather governments should be pushed to do so. Artists can help activists by bringing attention to this, but most of the time I think artists should be subservient to that. In regards to doing this work in New Orleans, I felt that, to take on a project that truly engaged different communities, three months would have been too short to do justice to that kind of work.
AK: Given that your time here was so short, how do you see this project moving forward?
TF: In the three-month residency, I wanted to focus on the visual language used to promote these mixed-income projects. I wanted to examine the role New Orleans played in the the development of the global financial system and to investigate ways that this system expresses its goals through the mixed-income developments’ promotional materials. This is research that is still very much ongoing. It turned out to be too ambitious for only three months so I’m planning to return soon. A final presentation and a publication in which the project will take a more concrete form are scheduled for next year.