Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Accidental History of the New Orleans Underground




What a difference a year and a half makes. In the winter of 2008-2009, the Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint facility was resplendently decked out with work by some of the international art world’s best- known luminaries. The event was the Prospect.1 New Orleans International Biennial, and the fortress-like Mint never looked so good. Today it houses a free and oddly retro Drug Enforcement Administration expo focusing the perils of illegal substance abuse. Featuring detailed recreations of jungle coke labs and crack houses, it even describes how easy it is to set up a meth lab in a hotel room. But what really makes it worth seeing is the local adjunct exhibition produced by the Louisiana State Museum.  Beyond exploring Louisiana’s long legacy of smuggling, this serendipitously doubles as a history of the New Orleans underground and the artistic and criminal subcultures that commingled therein. Exhibits range from traditional criminality —for instance, a boat used by rum runners to ferry booze from offshore schooners to docks in Vermillion Bay—to William Burrough’s New Orleans experiences writing his pseudonymous dope novel, JUNKIE, complete with a blowup of the original Ace paperback cover and the NOPD ledger recording his arrest. (Anyone who read Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD will recall the section set in Algiers, where Burroughs appears under a pseudonym.)
      Other romantic items include an ornate vintage opium pipe from the dens of our bygone local Chinatown that stretched from Rampart to the plaza where City Hall and the Public Library now stand, as well as an old 78 RPM record of the jazz classic, JUNKER BLUES, by Champion Jack Dupree. A related LP, JUNCO PARTNER, by my old friend, the late, great James Booker, tortured genius and piano virtuoso par excellence, is also on view. Jazz, blues and drugs shared a long local history and while many went down that road, some, like Booker, became martyrs along the way. ~Bookhardt
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TARGET AMERICA: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause
Through Nov. 24
Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., 568-6968; lsm.crt.state.la.us