What you’re looking at is an 8,000-pound circus-style wagon with a propane-heated steam calliope, through which Jason Moran (seated, with headphones) is playing songs from Marvin Gaye and Prince, as well as “We Shall Overcome,” at maximum volume. On its front, back, and sides, in cut-steel silhouette, are some of the enigmatic, ominous figures that embody artist Kara Walker’s vision of the American past—a past forever darkened by slavery. As in all of Walker’s work, though, the darkness is shot through with strange whimsy and irony.

On one side, what is probably a slave family is marched through a field by a bizarre overseer made of three grotesque piggyback figures; on the opposite side, two enslaved figures carry a third, which may be a corpse, while a smaller figure squats overhead in vines.

Add to all this the high-decibel tootling of black-consciousness anthems, soul classics, African-American pop, and jazz in the style of the vanished riverboat culture of the Old South, and you have a vintage Walker mix: anger, humor, faux-nostalgia, genuine historical awareness, and an unsettling unwillingness to settle for any easy understanding of America.

THE COLLABORATORS

To make Karavan a reality, Walker enlisted what she called, in her Times interview, “American manufacturing at its fringi-est”—firms run by idiosyncratic artisans dedicated to re-creating an earlier America—and a fellow MacArthur “genius” grantee.

Wagon: To make the wagon, Walker chose an art-world firm, Workshop Art Fabrication in Kingston, New York, which is currently working on Anthony Goicolea’s New York City monument to victims of anti-LGBT violence.

Wheels: The wagon’s wheels were fashioned in Letcher, South Dakota, by Hansen Wheel and Wagon, which bills itself as “the premier builder of authentic, horse-drawn vehicles,” including replica stagecoaches, chuck wagons, and buckboards.

Calliope: The calliope itself was custom-made by Kenneth Griffard, whose company, Kenny G’s Calliopes in Three Rivers, Michigan, has created steam-powered organs played with keyboards—and others played with smartphones via Wi-Fi. “The more I talked to him, the bigger it got,” Walker told Ted Loos in the New York Times. “A 10-note calliope? I was like, ‘Ehh, that doesn’t sound like enough notes.’” With 38 notes, Karavan is now one of the biggest calliopes out there.

Music: As a musical consultant, Walker called upon jazz pianist/installation artist Jason Moran, like her a MacArthur grantee. While most of the calliope’s performances were controlled by MIDI software, Moran played it via keyboard for two improvised performances.

“[IMPROVISING ON THE CALLIOPE, JASON] MORAN JOLTED THE MELODY WITH FREESTYLE BLARES AND MOANS, BRINGING TO MIND THE SHRIEKS AND CALLS OF THE AVANT-GARDE SAXOPHONISTS ALBERT AYLER, ARCHIE SHEPP, OR MARION BROWN, ABSTRACT YET UNCANNILY SOULFUL.”

—The Village Voice

THE ARTIST’S INSPIRATION

Kara Walker is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship award and an internationally renowned artist. Walker tells the Village Voice that the idea to create a calliope was partly inspired by hearing the music of the Natchez, a steamboat that’s become a mainstay of the New Orleans tourist trail. Several times daily, the Natchez’s calliope plays innocuous Big Easy–associated favorites like “Ol’ Man River” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” along with Stephen Foster tunes, “God Bless America,” and, of course, “Dixie.” Walker thought of her steam music as a direct response to this familiar, whitewashing, Old South kitsch; her handout at The Katastwóf Karavan’s performances pointedly calls the Natchez’s “the OTHER calliope.”

“I was thinking a lot about music as the bearer of our emotional history, and about the way Jazz and gospel and African American Music are testaments to survival of our culture in the face of unrelenting, nihilistic ‘Progress’ and how it’s regarded as a monument in American History etc. But also thinking about how the Industrial Revolution, the Steam Engine and Cotton Gin were pivotal in usurping and grinding up the bodies of laborers and how much of that action, John Henry style, occurs today, with Humans fighting uphill battles to prove themselves against the latest technology. Steam engines are quaint things of the past, but industry presses on without us. The Machines have changed, but the action stays the same. How would it be if the old steam engines that ate us, swallowed too, our songs and pain, and what if, when its time was done, and slated for the scrapheap, the Steam Engine sang out in solidarity?”

—Kara Walker explains the thinking behind
The Katastwóf Karavan in the performance handout

THE COMMISSION   

The Katastwóf Karavan was commissioned for the fourth installment of New Orleans’s art triennial, Prospect, which ran from November 18, 2017, to February 5, 2018. It was sited in one of the most grimly significant locations in the city, Algiers Point on the Mississippi, where slave ships quarantined, then offloaded their human cargo for sale in the slave market right across the river in the (legendary, picturesque) French Quarter. The title is in part an homage to the African diaspora of which New Orleans is so significant a part: katastwóf is Haitian Creole for “catastrophe,” a synonym for the Middle Passage and the whole slave system.

On a site visit with Prospect.4 artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker in 2016, Walker noted that there was an historical marker at Algiers Point, but it referred to slavery only indirectly. In a handout at the site, Walker called it “a cheap bronze plaque constitut[ing] a paltry memorial to the Catastrophe called slavery and Algiers Point’s nearly forgotten, but pivotal role in its perpetuation.”

THE CHALLENGES

A row over transport costs nearly derailed the Karavan project. Walker, who had agreed in early 2017 to self-fund the costly fabrication of the work to the tune of $250,000, became angry when an email from the Prospect.4 office—the organization declines to name the sender—objected to the estimated $34,000 price tag for conveying the work from New York to New Orleans. The original estimate had been $5,000, writes Doug MacCash in an article for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The rift was eventually smoothed over, and Prospect.4 agreed to carry the full transport cost, but the argument and construction issues delayed the arrival of the work until the last weekend of the triennial.

“There were headaches and heartaches going through it all,” Prospect.4 artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker told New York Times reporter Ted Loos. “But having a great presentation at the end is magnificent.”

Jon Spayde is the senior editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “A Steam-Powered Statement.”
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