New Orleans Airlift: It Ain’t Just One Thing

Airlift Sculpture

The Music Box, New Orleans, LA, 2012

New Orleans Airlift is an artist-driven initiative whose mission is to collaborate to inspire wonder, connect communities and foster opportunities through the creation of experimental public art.

From the New Orleans Airlift Website

“I knew it was gonna be nice because they’re puttin’ their heart and soul into it.” —Anthony D.J. Paul, Neighbor Of Airlift’s Music Box

Here’s what New Orleans Airlift is not:

They’re not sculptors.

They’re not visual artists.

They’re not public artists.

They’re not musicians.

They’re not recording artists.

They’re not performers.

They’re not composers.

They’re not architects.

They’re not puppeteers.

They’re not cultural ambassadors.

They’re not community activists.

They’re not playground designers.

They’re not arts educators.

They’re not project managers.

They’re not impresarios.

They’re not entertainers.

They’re not party hosts.

Okay, scratch all that. They’re all of those things.

New Orleans Airlift is a hybrid collective making socially engaged work. Rather than art making per se, they informally gather community members together to experience participatory music and sound production, visual art and guerilla architecture. Airlift doesn’t seem to be limited to any particular media, but there is an overall DIY aesthetic that’s much more steampunk grit than techno-pop light show.

Airlift Sculpture

Theris Valvery, a Flag Boy with the Black Feathers Mardi Gras Indian Tribe during a Music Box performance.


After Hurricane Katrina, musician Jay Pennington, (aka DJ Rusty Lazer), and installation artist Delaney Martin sensed that if New Orleans artists were to survive, they needed new audiences. Calling themselves New Orleans Airlift (after the WW II Berlin Airlift), they took 32 artists to Germany to perform. Since that time, they’ve traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, Atlanta and Shreveport.

Using what they learned from their early Berlin adventure, they’ve launched many subsequent projects. One of the most well known is The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Library, which is best described as a set of nine shacks that were embedded with invented instruments to be played collaboratively by the community at large and invited guests.

According to the Airlift website, when Pennington was looking for something to do with a building that had collapsed in his yard, Martin, sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd and Brooklyn street artist Swoon, (aka Caledonia Dance Curry), came up with the idea of musical architecture.

Sources of inspiration for the houses include labyrinthine Italian archways, the Luoyang Bridge in Japan, the Ice Village in Harbin, China and architecture in Warri, Nigeria. One of the shacks was designed by Eliza Zeitlin, director of the movie Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which gives some idea of the kitchen-sink aesthetic.

The wildly popular Music Box existed in New Orleans for eight months in 2011-2012. Thousands of people participated. The house existed as a template for the creative work of others, as guest conductors would be invited to lead a revolving cast of musicians. Among their many collaborators were Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Bounce artist Nicky Da B and Cash Money producer Manny Fresh.

Airlift Sculpture

The 504 Boyz With Their Horses, from Airlift’s Rally Under The Bridge, New Orleans, LA, 2014


When the Music Box ended, Airlift declared it a test for a much larger version, which now seems to have splintered off in two different, yet related, directions. The first is the Music Box Village Project, modular music houses that are built to move around New Orleans in 2015.

The second is Dithyrambalina, a ‘permanent sonic playground’ that Airlift hopes to construct for the city. The root of the word Dithyrambalina is dithyramb, an ancient Greek choral hymn sung and danced in honor of the wine god, Dionysius. Money is being raised to bring the project to fruition.

Airlift Sculpture

Poster for Rally Under The Bridge, New Orleans, LA, 2014

In the meantime, all of the artists in Airlift are also busy with their own careers. Taylor Lee Shepherd’s Space Rites, a visual and sound installation at St. Maurice Church in New Orleans is up through January 2015. In May 2014, Delaney Martin was the lead artist on Rally Under The Bridge and Airlift produced Public Practice, an anti-violence performance piece in October.

A recent iteration of the group’s ongoing explorations took place during the International Sculpture Conference in the 9th Ward on October 2, 2014. Visual artist Andrew Schrock and sound artist Klaas Huebner created a “musical fan tower” that generated sound through moving air. Musicians who played along with the rotating fan blades of the house included Aurora Nealand, (accordion), Brad Walker, (saxophone), and Paul Thibodeaux, (drums).

Maybe it was the night, maybe it was the mood, maybe it was being seated in a dark hot warehouse underneath a highway overpass, but the performance was echo-y, ethereal, magical.

Could this project exist in a place that wasn’t so steeped in a rich musical history? I think we would all love to find out. As Delaney Martin said, “One thing I really like about Music Box is that it doesn’t end. It’s a renewable source of creativity”. Let’s hope to see their work around the world for many years to come.

By Elizabeth Keithline

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