Meet the co-founder behind New Orleans Airlift

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Delaney Martin of New Orleans Airlift

Established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Airlift is an arts organization that encourages exchange and collaboration between artists, communities, and cultures.

Co-founder Delaney Martin sat down with INVADE to talk about Airlift’s programming—and where it will fly next.

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INVADE: How did you find your way to New Orleans, and how did New Orleans Airlift begin?

DM: I went to university in Los Angeles, and it was while I was taking a road trip [during] what I thought would be a return home to New York that I showed up in New Orleans in the middle of the night. I fell in love with the city; it really changed my worldview a bit. I ended up moving to a house with all of my stuff and my friend who had been driving along with me. That turned into a two-year moment that I had in New Orleans in my early 20s. It meant that I kept a relationship to the city when I moved to London for about a year after my New Orleans moment. I always came back.

I was in London working on a giant installation when Katrina hit. My heart was broken, and I felt very far away. Time went on, and in late summer 2007, my friend Jay Pennington, who was just starting to become known as DJ Rusty Lazer, had this idea: helping our friends who had come back to New Orleans and still couldn’t make a living. Life hadn’t totally kicked back in at that time. Everybody was so curious [about the city after the storm]; there was this really receptive world audience. Jay had been spending a lot of time in Berlin when he called me up and said, “I’d really like to take a bunch of local artists there right now—why don’t you come with us?”

We wanted to support the “under the radar” culture that we thought was so magical about our city. Post-Katrina, we were terrified that we might be losing a lot of this culture. So, that’s how it all started: me going along for the ride, then starting to drive it, a little bit, with Jay. It would take us a while to get that project off the ground. [If those conversations happened] in 2007, it wouldn’t be until summer of 2009 that we’d actually get there, with about 25 artists. There was a lot of chaos [laughs].

New Orleans Airlift brings artists together in multimedia collaborations and “experimental public art”. As Airlift’s artistic director and an accomplished artist yourself, how would you characterize the projects created by the organization?

For a long time, Airlift was just me and Jay; it’s really only in the last year that we’ve been able to put together a staff and get the funding to be a bit bigger than ourselves. When I got to New Orleans [after being in London], I remember that the director of Barrister’s Gallery asked me if I wanted to curate something, which is something I hadn’t done up until that point. I started making an installation, as I always had, but it wasn’t just my work this time. [It included] the work of other people as well. That was the first time I said, “Okay, this is how I can do this thing I like to do, but work with other people.” I think we found a really beautiful way to make art in the world with our friends and people we admire. It’s a good feeling.

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Tell me about the Music Box, and musical architecture in general.

We always say the Music Box was such a New Orleans-driven project, in the sense that I don’t know if we—Swoon, Taylor Lee Shepherd, and myself—would have come upon that idea if we weren’t thinking about the city so much. When I go to second lines and I look at people dancing on houses, on rooftops, I think, “Oh yeah, this is where I got that idea to put a bunch of artists and musicians in houses”—because that’s what we do here. We perform on architecture, you know [laughs].

[We started out asking], “So, how can you play a house?” There are many ways to answer that question. The spaces have all been quite different; the approaches have been pretty different, but there are a couple of consistent things, like, we tend to like to work in salvage—but not exclusively. The Music Box ended up being my call-and-response to Swoon’s design of a musical house [Dithyrambalina]; then everyone loved the Music Box so much. We realized it was this amazing, collaborative tool. We found artists, musicians, and this year, a variety of community partners, ranging from master blacksmiths to little kids in the Lower Ninth Ward. What we’re looking at now is trying to combine Swoon’s original Dithyrambalina design into a whole musical village that’s built by many hands. Because this is a difficult, long-term vision [laughs], what we’ve decided to do is start building houses one at a time, and not rush it.

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You hosted an event for Prospect.3’s opening weekend called Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony. How did it go?

Before Public Practice, we brought together all sorts of different people, or ways of getting around, for the Rally Under the Bridge [the prequel to Public Practice]: horses, tall bikes, cars. It was an incredibly fun day with people we invited from across different worlds. In one of our more successful moments, we introduced the president of a car club, Twon of Louisiana Whipz, to a tall-bike maker. Twon in particular wanted a tall bike, and just yesterday, he sent me a photo where he had won an award at a bike competition for his amazing tall bike, which was pimped out like a car. He was so excited; he had just gone off on this whole trip to the bike world.

On this latest project, Public Practice, my collaborator Claire Tancons and I were trying to highlight nurturing people and passionate activities that go on in these communities in New Orleans, which are often maligned as being horrible places. Twon had reached the point where he had gotten into scraper bikes—a style of putting duct tape on your wheels, from Oakland. When we started this project, we asked him if he wanted to do a workshop for the local kids in the St. Roch neighborhood. They now have a bike club called the St. Roch Scrapers, and they all look up to Twon. [This work] comes from admiring people and wanting to collaborate creatively. It’s not a movement; it’s not a charity, just a collaborative artistic moment.

It seems like you’ve done a couple of events involving horses, tall bikes, souped-up rides of all sorts, and baton-twirling. Is this what Delaney Martin’s dream state looks like? Also, do you know where I can score one of those majorette uniforms?

To some degree, yeah [laughs]. We were just working with some of the McDonogh 35 flag-twirlers and majorettes on a class project. There’s so much of New Orleans culture that’s really gotten invested in this way, like these young girls who are spending tons of resources, money, time, and energy on making this amazing statement as they walk down the streets; Mardi Gras Indians are investing thousands of dollars, so many man-hours, labor, spirit, and love into their suits. We’re in a city of people who are really into that investment, you know—people who give back to the world in that way. So, where can you get one of those outfits? [Laughs] I’m always searching out old Mardi Gras costumes and majorette uniforms at thrift stores. New Orleans is an amazing place. I just want to celebrate it.

What’s next for Airlift? How can we get involved?

We’re establishing strategic, standing collaborations with people besides us, like Taylor Shepherd. We had an amazing concert with Taylor in a church in the Lower Ninth Ward: [a project called] Space Rites. Taylor’s installation reacts [visually] to the sounds of music, so we brought together Murmurations Choir and the Lower Ninth Ward Senior Center Choir for the opening event. Going forward, we’re working with a reverend who’s preaching there every Sunday through Taylor’s installation, and we’re going to be announcing another great concert there shortly. Then next year, we’ll reveal five new musical houses in sites around the city, so, yeah…we’re crazy, I’m crazy, but…we’re gonna try it.