Cover Story: Art Begetting Art (Alternative Media Expo)
by Noah Bonaparte Pais,
It took Josh Neufeld only 13 panels to storyboard New Orleans' worst nightmare. The sequence begins with an astronaut's view of Earth and moves in slowly, to the Gulf Coast, the city proper, the French Quarter and Jackson Square. Side by side, a placid suburban street and a barely contained backyard canal run in mirrored images. Next we see similar snapshots of south Mississippi: Biloxi's coastline and the President Casino, Gulfport's SS Hurricane Camille Gift Shop.
In the eighth panel, dated Tuesday, Aug. 23, Katrina appears as a developing system off the east coast of Florida, and in the ninth, the Category-5 hurricane envelops the Gulf of Mexico. The last few scenes are all too familiar to New Orleanians: a horizon-stretching river of cars leaves the city via the I-10 Contraflow as a sea of evacuees encroaches upon the Superdome; the storm's bands grow ever larger as the skyline falls under a dark cloud cover.
Neufeld's 13th panel, the final frame in his fateful prologue, has nothing in it but the circling eye of the storm.
This intense, wordless intro opens A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, an ongoing, serialized webcomic created by Neufeld in 2007 and currently being published by the online magazine Smith (www.smithmag.net). On Saturday, Feb. 23, Neufeld — a Brooklyn cartoonist whose largely fact-based body of work includes longtime contributions to Harvey Pekar's seminal American Splendor series — will appear in New Orleans as the featured guest at the 2008 Alternative Media Expo, where he will promote the piece locally for the first time since its conception.
'As far as I know, it's the only comics project on Hurricane Katrina," Neufeld says of A.D. "Other comics have touched on it in one way or another, but it's usually goofy: "The superhero Thor is now battling somebody in the ruined streets of New Orleans!' That seems sort of obscene to me in a way. Most (of my work) is about real-life subjects. I wasn't thinking of doing comics while I was there. But a lot of people expected, after I went down to the Gulf, that I would eventually do some sort of project about Katrina."
Around the end of 2005, Neufeld, a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi after the storm, compiled his blog entries from that period into an autobiographical book, Katrina Came Calling. The self-published volume caught the attention of Smith founder Larry Smith, who began conceptualizing with the artist a factual account of Katrina survival through the eyes of residents. Doing interviews, probing contacts and conducting other on-the-ground research in January 2006, Neufeld and Smith came up with six "characters" whose real-life experiences form the backbone of A.D. "s story. "I tried to weave the stories together in a Robert Altman-esque sort of way," Neufeld says.
In a bit of symbiotic symmetry that evokes M.C. Escher, one of the characters, Leo McGovern, is the founder of the expo at which Neufeld will present the comic. "Josh actually read my (post-Katrina) blog," says McGovern, who also publishes the local music and culture magazine Antigravity. "He got people from all walks of life: there's a doctor, a kickboxer, a son of a preacher, a shopowner. And he wanted somebody involved in the media. Since I'm a comic fan, he thought it would be cool to have someone who lost all their comics as a character — anyone who read it would have that resonate with them. He emailed me and said, "We like your story. Would you like to be a character in the comic strip?'"
As fate would have it, the next year it was McGovern who was serving Neufeld with an invitation.
Their story of art begetting art — almost literally, of one hand drawing the other — is likely something close to the vision McGovern had in mind when he put together the first Alternative Media Expo in June 2003. Now in its sixth iteration, the event aims to bring together under one roof independent artists of all stripes: writers, photographers, designers, filmmakers, musicians, cartoonists, et al. The 2008 installment, set to run from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday in the Warehouse at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St., 528-3805; www.cacno.org), boasts nearly 100 exhibitors, a local following and national guests like Neufeld. But to hear McGovern tell it, the expo's origins were less auspicious.
'The idea grew out of the magazine Imbibe," he says. "The Poetry Night at Neutral Ground Coffeehouse issued a challenge (in 2001): "Come up with something in print form in one month.' I'd always wanted to do some sort of printed material, so I put together a 16-page zine on Microsoft Works. I showed up the following month and I was the only person who had anything."
McGovern's finished product was a loose-bound collection of fiction writing and essayed commentary. Despite its rough edges, production-wise, Imbibe sold more than 100 copies — three printings for the fledgling publisher — and spawned two subsequent issues. For the third volume, he reasoned a release party was in order. With the help of a friend, Rami Sharkey (aka local rapper Ballzack), who booked shows at the now-defunct music venue TwiRoPa, McGovern organized a gathering of like-minded, do-it-yourself New Orleans artists. Dubbed the N.O.D.I.Y. Expo, the unheralded show was a modest success: 12 tables, two local bands and 150 paid attendees.
'It did well enough that it wasn't too big of a jump to do another," McGovern says. "The second one was scheduled for February 2004. That's when it started to blow up. Once we began promoting it, we got great feedback and responses from potential exhibitors."
The next two expos, held in February and September of 2004, saw the event grow from a small collective of close-knit friends to a citywide collection of motivated self-starters. In between, McGovern's work grew, too, with Imbibe becoming Antigravity, a more focused, scene-canvassing monthly. The buzz surrounding the April 2005 showcase was palpable — borne out by more than 50 artists, a parade of bands, a fashion catwalk and roughly 300 attendees.
Hurricane Katrina put a temporary crimp on McGovern's momentum. TwiRoPa's owners abandoned the Tchoupitoulas Street building and, before long, the city leaving the event in limbo at the start of 2006. Reborn at the Howlin' Wolf on South Peters Street in August of that year, the newly branded Alternative Media Expo shed its music lineup — a crutch that had become unnecessary, says McGovern — and redoubled its efforts on cultural cross-pollination and multimedia exposure. Sponsorships came to reflect the show's grab-bag approach: from the fashion designer Dirty Coast, nonprofit organizer Charitable Film Network and guerrilla arts assemblage New Orleans Craft Mafia. Each of these sponsors returns in 2008, joined by the blog site Humid Beings, production company Static Television and subculture conglomerate Defend New Orleans.
'Everybody pitches in different things to get the same billing," McGovern says. "The Craft Mafia is putting together swag to give away to the first 150 people. They're printing up cotton bags, and every one has something different: comics, crafts, T-shirts. Static put together the film lineup. Dirty Coast is printing up the official expo shirts. The Charitable Film Network is bringing in (author) Deborah Cotton. Defend New Orleans gave us money to help fly in Josh Neufeld from Brooklyn."
Ever the pragmatist, McGovern draws a direct line between Katrina's setback and the rapid maturation of the event. "(The previous venues) were pretty big, but it still limited the amount of tables," he says. "Being at the CAC also gives it more credibility. No offense to the Howlin' Wolf, but the difference between a music venue and an art venue is huge."
The year 2008 ushers in other changes for the expo as well. For the first time, McGovern is subdividing and arranging the exhibitors by type. The four categories are comprised of comics, zines and written word; fashion, clothing and crafts; music, film and multimedia; and art, photography and community. McGovern says that although he prefers the formerly entwined format, the sheer quantity of exhibitors necessitated organization.
'I used to line them up so that next to somebody with a zine was somebody with T-shirts, and next to them was somebody with paintings, and next to them was somebody with poetry," he says. "You couldn't just go to the comics section and hang out there; it forced you to look around. Now, the fashion aspect of it has grown to equal the printed materials. We'll see how it goes. If this doesn't work, for the next one we'll go back and do it more helter-skelter."
Such happy volatility is in line with the nature of an alternative media event. In actuality, as the grassroots project has grown, expanding both in the number of crafters and in the breadth of their creations, it has become apparent that the expo itself is what is truly alternative. There is nothing else quite like it offered in the region, an attribute McGovern cites as the expo's raison d'etre.
'The reason I've done everything, from Imbibe to Antigravity to the expo, is because no one was doing it," he says. "I felt like if I wanted to go to something like that or read something like that, I was going to have to do it. It's the difference between doing it for work or doing it because you actually want to do it. I want to see new people come to it and get exposed to things they've never seen before, and I want to see artists get exposure that they never could have gotten otherwise. I enjoy doing it — I go around the expo and spend my personal money buying stuff from the exhibitors. I'm a fan, too."
In New Orleans, alternative is the mainstream. You don't have to dig very deep to find the city's subsurface arts scene, as it often seems to spring forth from the ground like some uncontainable aquifer. For four local independent artists showing their wares at the 2008 Alternative Media Expo — designer Erik Kiesewetter, photographer Zack Smith, author Deborah Cotton and musician Alec Vance — it's the main reason they're drawn to this geographically isolated, lovably dysfunctional metropolis.
'I used to live in Chapel Hill, N.C., which is one of the hipster capitals of the U.S.," says Vance, a principal in the experimental group Chef Menteur. "It was a really creative place, too, but there were so many people talking about what was cool that week that you kind of lost perspective on what you actually were interested in. The cool thing about New Orleans is there are so many people interested in so many different things. And no one's afraid to express it without being thought of as strange. In New Orleans, I've been able to say, "What do I want to do?' It was really refreshing."
With Chef Menteur, Vance has self-released one EP and two LPs (new release The Answer's in Forgetting appeared this winter) of original instrumental compositions, with the emphasis on original. The band's creative process, largely improvisational, results in some of the city's most wide-ranging aural explorations: hypnotic tape loops, low-hum drones, bravura keyboard melodies and trancelike passages that sound lifted from future film noir soundtracks. Take the spirit of free jazz, transpose it from brass to shortwave radio, then splice it with electronic music's DNA, and you're in Chef Menteur's faubourg. At once warm, edgy and slightly off-kilter, it's in many ways the sonic embodiment of 21st-century New Orleans.
'We've done really well getting critics to write nice things about us," Vance jokes, likely referring to a rare, recent write-up in the tastemaker U.K. music magazine The Wire. "But in terms of actually selling lots of records, I don't know if anybody's able to do that, with the way that everything's going (in the industry). We definitely consider ourselves an Internet kind of thing."
To that end, Vance and Co. founded Backporch Revolution, an online label of sorts through which Chef Menteur and bands of its ilk — nontraditional acts like Potpie, B. Killingsworth, Murmur and Archipelago — can organize, rally around one another and keep their self-funded projects on course. "The whole concept is basically to have a support network to let people rise to the surface or get it out there," Vance says. "Just having a group of people you work with helps put peer pressure on, to stop being lazy and get it done."
Smith, a gifted photographer who also drums for the rock band Rotary Downs, offers another aspect of New Orleans' creative appeal. "It's cheap," he says. "Money comes into the fold, but we're not doing it for the money. For photography, I've got costs, and rates that I choose. But as far as going to hang out with (musician) Alex McMurray in his backyard to photograph him for Leo, I just trade Leo for (magazine) ads. I don't want [him] to pay me."
The pervading feeling of community is a common thread among the exhibitors, from Vance's work with Backporch Revolution to Smith's fundraising efforts with the New Orleans Photo Alliance. Cotton, a Los Angeles transplant who compiled her post-Katrina columns for the black culture Web site www.EURweb.com into a self-published book, Notes From New Orleans, works full-time as the editor-in-chief of www.LouisianaREBUILDS.info, a public information resource for people looking to rebuild their lives along the Gulf Coast.
'It's like an online library where you can find anything regarding putting your house back together, schools or hospitals that have reopened, help for your business or job," Cotton says. "Because of the work I've done as a journalist — interviewing people, being out in the hardest-hit neighborhoods — I feel like I have a finger-on-the-pulse connection (with people)."
Kiesewetter designs private Web sites for a living. But his personal project is an annual art book called Constance that aims to put into print form what McGovern's expo does in person. For the second issue, Delicate Burdens — a 95-page, individually numbered color volume released this month — Kiesewetter collaborated with Patrick Strange, a former New Orleans resident and Antigravity associate editor who now holds the same position at the L.A.-based music magazine Filter. Their advertisement-free book highlights a different local artist on each two-page spread, from writers like Chris Chambers and Dave Brinks to photographers like Frank Relle and Vaughn Taylor.
Along with the new Constance, Kiesewetter also has begun work on a second community art project, Faub.org. The intriguing site, still in its embryonic stage, is planned as a "playpen" for Internet design professionals to color outside the typical lines. "I think it's going to turn into a bed for Web developers," he says. "We're trying to give people a place where they can showcase things that are nonprofessional, not in their field."
'I can't speak for everybody, but it feels like I'm in an incubator sometimes," Smith adds. "You can relate to another individual struggling or succeeding in this incubator. We do what we can do to help each other. And in doing that, we create this rich movement, whether it's magazines, a type of music, whatever."
Faub.org is, in a digital nutshell, already representative of the area's underground arts scene as a whole: freeform, individual expressions bound together by a profound sense of family. It's the central concept behind organizational siblings Constance, Backporch Revolution and the Alternative Media Expo. McGovern's first event in 2003 took the metaphor literally. "My mom made sandwiches," he recalls.
Now, the publisher's mind is fixed solely on expanding that family to include more artists, more media and more outside voices. "I'd like to bring in more national artists, big ones, to visit New Orleans," he says of his plan for future expos. "There are certain people who fit in with the vibe — Josh Neufeld is one. The comic strip, while it's going on, fits well. But there are people like Harvey Pekar that folks would want to meet. Someone who will bring in people who are open to seeing all the other stuff that's there."
Smith is now publishing new issues of A.D. on a nearly biweekly basis, which means that Neufeld's projected 12-chapter cycle will end up being more like 17 or 18. (Chapter Nine, titled "Neutral Ground," appeared the first week of February.) Neufeld is curious to see how the premise of a comics convention works when applied across media lines.
'I've been to SPX (the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md.) almost every year, and I've done independent shows out in California, when I used to live there," he says. "They have an independent show here in New York now called MOCA. But they're all comics-centered."
It was McGovern's love of those small conventions — their opportunities for face-to-face artist contact and sans-middleman sales — that fueled the design for his expo. Of all the things Hurricane Katrina ruined in his waterlogged Mid-City apartment, he says he misses his comics collection (15 years and 50,000 books worth) the most. It was a dream come true, then, to get the call from Neufeld. In fact, A.D. isn't the only comic strip in which he currently has a credit. Re-Dwelling, a pictorial profile of a Katrina-damaged home conceptualized by McGovern and drawn by artist Jason Reeves, appears in the new Constance. The 12-panel sequence starts on Sept. 16, 2005, and follows the home over the course of two years, from devastation to renovation to renewed inhabitation.
'Everyone has their fingers — and toes — in every pot," McGovern says of his involvement in Kiesewetter's project. "So many people in this city know all of the same people. It could literally be six degrees."
Perhaps fewer than that. Vance's label has been featured in a magazine published by McGovern, who contributed to a book designed by Kiesewetter, who created a Web site for the photographer/musician Smith, who has performed with bands on Vance's label and has shot covers for McGovern. And so it goes.
'We're all helping each other out," Smith says. "We're all characters in each other's stories."