It was a crunchy breakfast experience this morning when I woke up to read Ariella Cohen’s interview with “St. Roch art impresario” Kirsha Kaechele. It certainly sounds as if Kaechele got into this with the best intentions but didn’t seem committed to the projects long term and, like a girl that dumps her firends the first time a cute boy comes around, ran off to Tasmania with a fella who made his money betting horses. I’m guessing he hated New Orleans.

Full disclosure: I too make art from old houses. But my houses have already been torn down by the time I come to them and I have no lofty dreams that they will ever do anything other than hang on someone’s wall, decorating their home and gaining in value as I age and eventually die. I mean, I owe that to my patrons right?

Full disclosure: I am probably two degrees of separation many times over with Kaechele as I have talked to and am friends with several fellow artists who worked on her projects or were doing shows in the St. Roch area around that time. I never heard anything bad about her personally from these people so, benefit of the doubt, she’s probably a very nice person. A few of those artists are tried-and-true residents of New Orleans and have done well adorning the city with their art, giving to it and getting some in return. A few others come and go and, while they are certainly ambassadors for the city around the world, aren’t all in, and, these days, I admire more and more those who are “all in,” the “feet first” folks.

And speaking of “all in,” let’s get in to this interview…

The intention has always been for the houses to transition into green space. They’ve spent the last decades well beyond restoration, so I always knew it was their inevitable end.

Whoa! Hey! We didn’t get past the first line! I don’t know much about restoration but if a house isn’t structurally sound, people shouldn’t have been doing art projects in there. And if they were structurally sound then they certainly could have been restored. It also seems weird that so much money would have been sunk into an utterly temporary art piece rather than preserving New Orleans’ precious housing stock (composed of some of the richest and most resplendent cypress and heartpine anyone has ever fucking seen.) I have seen homes with termite-eaten floor joists and ceiling rafters brought back. What were the conditions of the structures of these houses? What were the wall studs like? Could the foundations have been shored? Why was it viable to stage art shows in them but not to restore them? Was it an inspector who deemed them to be “beyond restoration”? Is this merely a way to revise history to fit peace of mind regarding their eventual demolition by neglect?

Also, I need some definition of “green space” and its difference from “empty lot.” I think of this as green space and these as an empty lots. Green space is parks and playgrounds and such maintained by the city or an organization or trust. Empty lots are privatley owned parcels of land that can be bought and sold. In New Orleans, many of these lots had houses on them that were destroyed in a fire or hurricane or were allowed to fall into neglect by their owners and torn down by the city. What happens after that is also dependent on the owner. They need to make sure the area is landscaped several times a year. If the owner is not there to oversee the property (because they are in another hemisphere perhaps) then what often occurs is people park derelict cars there, do illegal dumping, simple neighborhood trash blows in there, hazardous chemicals like oils and paints are put there. A bad empty lot can really screw up a block, make people’s living conditions worse.

In fact, it was my intention that the demolition itself would be an art piece, a series of performances.

I am pleased this never came to pass as I couldn’t conceive of anything more wretched than the concept it was based on.

Still, we have saved all the salvageable material and there is a piece Tom Beale has planned for it. His piece is about transformation and purification, so the poetry of the rotten house and all the bureaucracy surrounding it, reassembling into a beautiful object, remains intact.

His art looks pretty amazing so I wish him the best of luck. It’s a little too abstract for this folk artist but it’s organic and wood so, right on. But the word “planned” makes me worry that it may be a while before we see that.

The Lens: What is your plan for the site?
KK: Public green space.

Oh, public green space? So she will donate it to the city? Or an organization? With the guarantee that they will use it in this way? And by public do we mean kids from the neighborhood can go on it with permission? Because I think she’ll need some sort of insurance for that and probably a bunch of other permits and what not. again, I am sensing that she is thinking empty lots as being the same thing as green space and I’m just not so sure about that.

They are the epitome of decay, which on certain days, before I owned them and had to deal with their reality, I found beautiful.

Ah yes. The fascination with the destruction of New Orleans! Among the most common themes of artists who visit/move here! The beauty of its entropy! Some of us find its restored creole cottages and shotguns beautiful. Not all of us are third world and loving it. Some realize i’ts nothing like the third world, don’t love the conditions here, and actively spend a little part of each day trying to make it better rather than glamorizing its destruction. Dear creators out there, the artistic depiction of demolished thing like New Orleans houses and old amusement parks and flooded stuff, by all means, do it if you have to. But there is nothing original in it.

I was inspired by the contrast that could happen between their state and the art that lived in them.

Of course she could have just fixed them up and then put the inspired art in them. Or at least got them to a point where they wouldn’t fall apart and not invest in the finishing. See you can get a house to a certain stage in the renovation and not spend all that much money. Alot of money in a renovation comes from stuff like fixtures and plumbing and electrical and such. Getting a house structurally sound doesn’t cost nearly as much because it’s straight building, no experts and such.

Despite the costliness and difficulty of transitioning the properties, I am excited about their new life as public green space.

Well, business-wise, I could have advised her that’s it’s always poor practice to sink a lot of money into destroying your assets. See, what I’m doing is, I’m putting money into my own house to make it more valuable, saving up cash for a new bathroom and kitchen and stuff, adding bushes and trees and decks and so forth. That way, I can live in and enjoy the house, contribute financially, artistically and civically to the neighborhood and still have a viable asset to sell when I’m ready to move to a bigger place or the old folks home.

I might miss the controversy, as I’m sure everyone will now love it.

Ahhhhh. I recognize the spirit of this. Some would rather be notorious than anonymous. Some people realize that they can be the center of attention if they stir up a bunch of shit. People loathe them but at least they are talking about them. This reminds of this dude Ralph out at the Square, he’s always up in people’s shit, spreading rumors and what not. It gives him a reason to be out there and be talked about. Then he passes out in the park.

I see myself as a life artist. I work with the intersection of art, architecture and ecology. But I am most interested in the act of living. Life is the medium I most often work in. I understand this kind of statement is exactly what irritates my detractors, but I am not going to lie just to pacify them. There is no point because it is absolutely true.

Never really thought to give it a name but I might feel her on this. An artist sees art everywhere they look. What that means is everything influences their art. Unfortunately “life artist” makes it sound like their life is something grandiose to be held up AS art and that’s pretentious. If one is living their life as an art piece it isn’t life but a figment of one, it can’t be dualism. Also, the reality of this is one can never paint over the bad parts, the mistakes. So they should be careful and calculated and make as few of them as possible in the commission of their “piece.” And no, the mistakes aren’t part of it, not talking about rough edges and paint splotches, talking about neon paint in the middle of Earth tones, wobbling benches and ugly sounds of jackhammers in the middle of nocturnes. If one is envisioning there life as a piece of art, they should be a master craftsmen at it before doing so.

I liked living in St. Roch because it is more vibrant and alive than most suburbs, especially wealthy ones (with the exception of Audubon Place which is a wild place) and therefore more interesting.

St. Roch is right in the middle of New Orleans proper. It isn’t a suburb. A suburb is Metaire, Covington, Marrero, Gretna, Harahan. Wait, what happened at Audubon Place? … Anyway, ask Lord David if the crime spree that went down in his neighborhood last year could be described by residents as “interesting.”

Despite the dysfunction, I love St. Roch because it is a vital place with an infinitely strong community. So, I don’t share the agenda of many positive social entrepreneurs because, minus the drugs and litter and theft and violence, I like things the way they are.

It’s like here are these good people, these strong community minded people, and all up in between them you got these drug pushers and litterers and killers and rapists. If we could just get rid of these people, these other people could have happy lives without their cousins and brothers in-laws.

I lived in New Orleans well before the flood and had to rebuild just like everyone else. I am someone who lived in a place I loved and did what I do — make art and hold events for the sake of it. (Nothing was ever for profit.) I also ended up holding neighborhood classes in my home three times a week, taking kids on field trips and starting an organic farm in which kids sold vegetables to New Orleans restaurants. I did what I love doing.

That’s awesome. More and more people should do this. Could have just kept doing this But then, other stuff started to happen right?

After I left home I lived primarily in the third world, so in many ways, St. Roch was the most natural choice.

This bears repeating: St. Roch is not the Third World. See Mac McClelland.

It was where I felt at home. I know it is unlikely, given my simultaneous taste for the finer things (David calls me Gucci Gutter), but it is entirely true.

But Kirsha, having seen so much poverty, doesn’t it ever sicken you to see the ugly disparity in living conditions around the world? Do you understand that your own, private experience in St. Roch is nothing near the conditions of the people living there because you can up and leave when you so choose? That while you have conjured up this notion of feeling “at home” there, you are so very fundamentally different than your neighbors because you have so many more choices? Do you grasp that the fundamental condition of poverty is that there are no options? That when your friends are killed or the shots go off at night the ability to make a decision to get out isn’t as easy as buying a plane ticket and leaving? That’s the genuine, ugly essence of being poor. Do you ever think that?

There is of course the other obvious change, which is that when I moved here, there was not a single white person living in the immediate blocks, and now there is a considerable group which, judging by momentum, will likely not be the minority for long.

Were they drawn there by art projects perhaps?

I fear it is an impossible dream but I wish St. Roch could maintain its black residents, that the community could stay intact. The only thing I would like to see change is better resources: education, jobs and infrastructure. That would likely eliminate the only real problems as far as I am concerned: drugs and violence.

Yes, yes, I certainly agree. The neighborhood needs education, jobs and, what was that last one? Infrastructure?

I told Doug, post-Sonoma farm and post-Tasmania, that I was back to set things moving again and even informed him of my new funding model, sex. (Which I told him was proving even more lucrative than drugs.) But he was only interested in creating his version of a controversy. A very boring, puritanical one.

I’d love to hear more about this. Wait, there is a Sonoma farm too? Is she the only white person on the farm? Because I know they have lots of Mexicans working up there. Some of the Vargas clan I’m sure. My grandparents were pickers.

Of the five, I have demolished three rotten ones, all in the area across the street that is now becoming green space. As for the Bakery, I painstakingly restored it twice (once before and once after the flood). So, although demolishing it would be good zen practice and would likely uncomplicate my life, this is the space I hope artists will use to create work and continue neighborhood classes. The last property is partially demolished as a garden for the Bakery, with the structure given over to a neighborhood friend and architect who is planning to use it for a project.

Okay, it must be stated again, what she calls “green space” is an empty lot where a house once was. What she calls “good zen practice” is realizing she abandoned a project and wants to clear her conscious of it via loud bulldozer in a neighborhood half a world away. I hope no one near there is planning to get a few moments rest between shifts during that process. “Planning to use it for a project” could be something great. But it could be something screwed up or, more likely it seems, could be nothing at all.

(Luckily, all my haters are white or really act like it and therefore are primarily not in St. Roch, where I’d be healed by the love of the originals).

I was about to end this on a notion of “best intentions” and everything but then what she said really sunk in.

Okay, okay, all her haters are white or really act like it…

So I am guessing she means these haters are black people who are “acting white.” That’s how it reads right? Why would white people act white?

Now, every time I have heard this phrase it has been between two black people, one of whom is doing something conceived as being uppity. It could be straightening her hair or it could be planting trees or going to college or whatever. And I have sometimes heard it said by one black person to another as a means of demeaning them for trying make improvements in their life out of jealousy or shame for them not doing the same. I have always understood this as a fucked-up social sabotage that sometimes occurs in the black community against other blacks. My black friends have told me this. It’s a twisted issue in that some blacks identify themselves with poverty and bad neighborhoods as a means of self and when anyone tries to improve themselves that it makes them less black. It’s some serious self-fulfilling prophecy type stuff that many black people try and do overcome. If it perpetuates, it adds to sad conditions already present in black communities and shown poignantly in this clip.

It’s infuriating that Kirsha Kaechele would use a phrase like that to justify her sense of belonging in St. Roch while in Tanzania for most of the year and only coming to New Orleans to check in or for Mardi Gras. That’s a very serious issue and it shows more than almost anything else in that interview how tritely she has dealt with this entire endeavor of hers.

9 Responses to “Kira “Gutter Gucci” Kaechele’s Life Art Has a Few Awkward Strokes in St. Roch”
  1. jeffrey says:

    So she will donate it to the city? Or an organization? With the guarantee that they will use it in this way? And by public do we mean kids from the neighborhood can go on it with permission?

    Maybe she should just hand it off to Mr. Peanut.

  2. Dambala says:

    I commend your sense of manners, this commentary could have been much more contentious and I must admit I kind of wish it would have been. She is so fucking full of herself it’s nauseating. I like how she calls out drugs being a problem in the neighborhood…that’s funny…she always seemed to have an ample supply herself. I guess that type of drug use is socially acceptable or perhaps she feels it’s an exception in her case. In fact, I think she feels just about everything should be taken as an exception in her case.

    You could have been a lot nastier….good for you for not going there….bad for me for not getting to read it. :)

  3. mardiclaw says:

    well, as a resident of st roch, and what went down on that particular block, before and after the storm, I offer this argument. green space huh? whats green? leaving it for others to clean up? leaving it there? the killings go on, the memorials, and the blight? how bout those kids who camped out in these homes, after they were abandoned…? friends of mine live next door to all this. they’re tired of looking at it.

    what would’ve been proper? would be to demolish, plant, and cultivate a garden, then present it to the people of the st roch neighborhood to maintain, and grow vegetables. that would be something green. fleeing new orleans for tasmania? thats not green.

    as a person, she seemed a very nice person, as an artist? started out well. in the end, divorcing this neighborhood, and fleeing? was unprofessional, and garners the “karpetbagger” tag. if ya cared, you would’ve followed it through. Instead, we’re left with more blight, and your flight.

    this neighborhood is plagued by carpetbaggers, every since prospect one dubbed us on the map, “the new recovery area”. for two years I’ve been woke up by construction crews fixing the street around me. no one is in a hurry. houses are cracking under the duress of the constant pounding of pavement. months go by, and nothing, then suddenly they begin again. now there’s talk of tearing up the neutral ground for another “outside artist” to decide what we should be looking at. with a two year clean up contract attached. after two years? then what? someone please finish what you’ve started.

    I’d like to see park benches, a drinking fountain, and maybe some swings for kids… I don’t want to see concrete walls, and berms with “concrete designs”. I want to see the mosaic’s they promised the kids of this neighborhood, who designed them. I’d like to see them before these kids become adults.

    I’m glad KK is gone. I’m saddened by what she left us. Anything with as much hype as she garnered? was also the alarm, that this was a pretentious bunch of grant money being spent …. in the name of art…. in the name of blight…. and only benefits her wallet. not our charming neighborhood, fighting to come back.

  4. Varg says:

    @ Ashe: I was admonished by a friend for being “too mean” recently. It was about art critique too.
    @ Claw: That’s a pretty palpable indictment from an artist right there in the neighborhood.

  5. mardiclaw says:

    I pray to GOD that she doesn’t donate it to st roch project. the “green space” they gave us? is a lot, that has no source for water… nor the “community garden” they put there. more like weeds… and a dilapidated sign. there was supposed to be a community center put there, as they demolished someones home after the storm. empty blighted lot is whats left, as they turn their eyes upon the neutral ground. the artist jefre, had installed some art exhibits, showing us the water line, (where it was actually dry) and then an interactive set up, to ask residents what they wanted. more like a board of idea’s, that most of us? say no to. currently, the most expensive sidewalk in this city …. aka the neutral ground on st roch… has some benches that we put there from recycling concrete from the market. other benches came from folks who arrived after the storm, and installed them for free. these are things we who live here did, FOR FREE. now we’re hearing all kinds of idea’s are about to happen. I shall dub thee KK neutral .

    in the meantime? I’m going to ride my bike past the current dead zone of villere… where whats left is memorials to kids killed, and dead houses.

  6. judyb says:

    I read her post during lunch today and lost my appetite. Great post, Varg. Mardiclaw my prayers are with your neighborhood. May KK stay in Tasmania, may good things finally happen to St. Roch.

  7. Charlotte says:

    Varg, you’ve hit the nail on the head. More posts like this, please. New Orleanians (and those who think they are) need your voice.

  8. Janiebt says:

    Loved this post!

  9. Romy Kaye says:

    “Life is the medium I most often work in.” Bleh! Life is the medium we all work in while on this planet, although some of us do it with a bit less self-indulgence. Varg I can see why this stuck in your craw. I do not know this person or much about her “work” (and/ or demolition business,) but from what I gather from your blog and other comments is that she is someone caught up in their own self-importance – all at the cost of others. What a stinker!

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