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Portmanteaux Overflow

Patricia A. Suchy (Louisiana State University)
Lisa Flanagan (Xavier University of Louisiana)
Sarah Jackson (Southern University of New Orleans)
Ross Louis (Xavier University of Louisiana), with Lexus Dawn Jordan (Louisiana State University)
Tracy Stephenson Shaffer (Louisiana State University), with Kd Amond (Independent Artist)
David P. Terry (Louisiana State University), with additional photographs by Paige O’Hale

Click suitcases to watch videos.

Introduction

Patricia A. Suchy

Louisiana State University

This project began as a live performance we made for PSi 23 in Hamburg, hailed by the conference theme of “OverFlow.” When the call for this conference arrived, some of us were still mopping up (literally and figuratively) from the catastrophic flood that hit Baton Rouge in 2016 — the kind of flooding that, most who study climate agree, is likely to become more common, more disastrous, and more difficult to control or avoid as sea levels rise and temperatures increase, creating more powerful engines for storms. We live in a region where coastal wetlands are disappearing and where many of us live below sea level, protected by levees that may or may not hold next time a hurricane sweeps in from the Gulf of Mexico. Here, petrochemical plants inhabit the land once the domain of plantations, and the human geography of slavery is re-inscribed on bodies of color in the concentration of industry in “cancer alley” that amounts to environmental racism. Deepwater oil platforms dot the same waters fished for our regional cuisine and the livelihoods of the folks who fish there. In the same region, we are known for our cultural excesses of carnival (Mardi Gras) and the carnivalesque (regional politics); the vibrant and rich performances of jazz and blue musicians in the city, delta, and bayous where these musical forms first flourished; the colorful intersectional rituals of the Mardi Gras Indians; the rich foodways of Cajun and Creole cuisine — in sum the gumbo of circum-Atlantic culture that landed and transformed here, as Joseph Roach describes in Cities of the Dead (see Roach 1996). So, when we saw the call for a conference around the theme of “overflow,” we thought we had quite a lot to say on that subject.

Moreover, we had material and personal experience of overflows, and we wanted to bring those to the conference. We also thought about containment — the ways the levees contain (or sometimes fail at containing) our region’s waterways, the way a slave rebellion of 1811 is violently “put down” and then re-performed through strange surrogation when protests for environmental justice are shut down or disregarded. Even events like carnival, as Bakhtin reminds us, function as pressure valves; we dress up like flamingoes or sharks or in surreal combinations of gender performances during Mardi Gras so we can then go back to our “normal” lives as orderly citizens, having gotten all the topsy-turviness out of our systems until next year.

How on earth were we to bring all of these ideas, to express this overflow of overflows and its accompanying containment phenomena? We had to be efficient, we knew; TSA and the international airlines don’t permit much in the way of overflow in our carry-on and checked luggage. So we limited each section of our performance to what its primary creator could contain in one vintage suitcase and focused on metonyms for our overflows. These suitcases featured centrally in the performance, expelling sheaves of southern Louisiana flood maps, Mardi Gras beads and feather boas, second-line dance parasols (doubling as umbrellas for the rain), hammers (for rebuilding after the flood), bags of sugar, et al. The suitcases were transformed into projection surfaces (aided by three pico projectors), small architectural structures, and, in one case, a miniature theatre.

To transform this performance onto another stage, a website, we adapted or remixed each section of the performance into a video. We recycled some of the video bits we had projected onto the suitcases, but all of the videos have been made new or considerably remade to play in the absence of the bodies of the performers. The “DIY” bricolage aesthetic present throughout is, we believe, indicative of the motley and contradictory, make-do zeitgeist of our region as well as of the overflow of associations and experiences informing the entire work.

As is appropriate in a work that takes “overflow” as its theme, in “Portmanteaux Overflow” the boundaries between scholarship, artwork, and activism are fluid. Moreover, we understand that works staged in cyberspace may, as Michael LeVan has written, “point to a potential site of confluence for research, scholarly expression, and aesthetic work in the Performance Studies field” (LeVan 209).

Extended Video Descriptions

“Bienvenue à la (dé)tournée”

Patricia A. Suchy

Louisiana State University

“Bienvenue à la (dé)tournée” remixes found footage from videos sourced from Archive.org and YouTube.  Within the mix are four main sets of images:  1) mid-twentieth century industrial films related to petrochemical industries, mostly explaining refining processes and touting the benefits of petroleum products to American citizens; 2) mid- to late-twentieth century travelogue and newsreel films about southern Louisiana and regional culture used to promote tourism, or, in a few cases, amateur film shot by actual tourists; 3) educational films (that may also have an inndustrial sponsor) dealing with the history of the region, especially that of the sugar plantation economy; 4) imagery, both vintage and contemporary, evoking environmental disasters in the region. The voiceover invites spectators (imagined as virtual tourists) to the region and to the website itself in an exaggerated, playfully ironic, kitsch display of the gap between touristic, industrial, and educational discourses that narrate our region to the world and in doing so flatten out or overlook the problems in our climate and everyday lives.

“If/ever”

Tracy Stephenson Shaffer

Louisiana State University

Edited by Kd Amond

Independent Artist

I wrote “If/ever” as a way to reconcile my emotions as my family worked to gut, clean up, and build back the ground floor of my childhood home after the great flood of 2016. Built by my father, who passed away in 2015, the home is located just down the street from the Exxon Chemical Plant, where my father worked for over thirty years. Once I linked the historic flooding to increased ground level ozone, I was troubled that I could trace the creation and destruction of our home to the same source: Exxon. Inspired by Gregory Ulmer’s “mystory” approach (see Ulmer 1989), the script offers personal, public, and professional discourses to tell a complex tale of loss and resilience. While the story is mine, it represents so many other stories in south Louisiana. Along with commercial fishing, agriculture, and tourism, oil, natural gas, and chemicals are Louisiana’s top commodities. I wrote the script to include a chorus of voices, to represent the community of south Louisiana, to represent the communities that lifted each other up after the storm.

Toxic Whimper

David P. Terry

Louisiana State University

With additional photographs by Paige O’Hale

“Toxic Whimper” uses poetry and a montage of the author’s personal photographs taken before, during, and after the unnamed weather event that caused dramatic flooding in southern Louisiana is the summer of 2016. The piece reflects and enacts some of the multi-layered textures of belonging in one of the most vulnerable places in the U.S. to the persistent waves — literal and figurative — of catastrophic, human-caused climate change. Performance poetry allows the author to enact what he pretends to describe and, consequently, to reach toward some of the generative social possibilities present in the crisis. The piece also argues, implicitly, that some of the folks most vulnerable to physically cataclysmic events may well have some of the cultural skills we all need to consider as we adapt to our changing climate.

River Flares, River Psalms

Ross Louis

Xavier University of Louisiana

Lexus Jordan

Louisiana State University

In the 1700s, African slaves were brought to Louisiana to transform the river’s adjoining bayous and floodplains into sugar, indigo, and cotton plantations. In 1811, Charles Deslondes led a revolt of several hundred slaves along the river toward New Orleans. When a militia captured him, they cut off his hands, shot him in the legs and torso, threw him into a bundle of hay, and then burned him. Today, over 125 oil refinery and petrochemical plants line the banks of the Mississippi River for eighty-five miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, occupying the same territory as the former plantations and relying on the river as a route for their products. Most nights, residents see colorful flames erupting from these sites, as the plants burn off excess chemicals at levels beneath and above the limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More flares occur each Christmas Eve, when residents build and light massive wooden bonfires along the river levees. Featuring voices from the 1811 slave revolt and the contemporary environmental justice struggle, this project considers the bonfire as a metonym for the overflow of labor, production, captivity, and resistance: plantation to plant, sugar to polyvinyl chloride, bonfire to flare.

Keepers of the Flame

Lisa Flanagan

Xavier University of Louisiana

From within the interwoven historical legacy of the political, economic, and socio-cultural structures that have informed life in South Louisiana have emerged practices that co-opt, usurp, and reinvent the symbols comprising the dominant narratives of the region’s history. The systemic and intertwined nexus of excesses from rampant neighborhood gentrification, unprecedented incarceration rates, continued environmental racism and classism, and extreme poverty and income inequality is exposed and unraveled by repeated adaptation and re-appropriation of the concepts, artifacts, and practices once designed to contain and restrain those outside the purview of the powerful. Tactics flare up in the play of significance in cultural artifacts and practices like the flambeaux and fleur de lis, masking and marching, touring and telling tales. “Keepers of the Flame” uses cut paper animation, live footage, and primary source documentation to juxtapose how symbols and practices meant to isolate and limit certain members of the culture become the devices of revelry and resistance.

Home/Place(less)

Sarah Jackson

Southern University of New Orleans

This miniature theatre assemblage centers on Glenn Albrecht’s term, solastalgia, used to refer to the emotional and psychological distress that occurs when one’s home becomes unrecognizable due to environmental change (see Albrecht 2005). Home/Place(less) concerns the effects of solastalgia in relation to two populations in Southeast Louisiana, the Brown Pelicans of Cat Island and the Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw Tribe of Isle de Jean Charles. The assemblage intertwines the similar emotional and psychological distress both humans and animals experience as their homes disappear attributable to a destructive combination of forces that put Southeast Louisiana at the forefront of land loss: the construction of the levee system to protect communities within the levee walls, dredging canals to service oil rigs, and global warming.

Works Cited

Albrecht, Glenn. “Solastalgia: A New Concept in Health and Identity.” PAN. 3 (2005), 41-55

LeVan, Michael.  “The Digital Shoals: On Becoming and Sensation in Performance.” Text and Performance Quarterly. 32:3 (2012), 209-219

Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead.  Columbia University Press, 1996.

Ulmer, Gregory.  Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video.  Routledge, 1989.

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