on Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

Samantha Bez

Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide((The colophon for this book reads: “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide. This publication was prepared on the occasion of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A play in two acts, a project in three parts, by Paul Chan.” (New York: Creative Time, 2010), 337.)) arrives on my doorstep two months late, but any complaints over the byzantine process of online ordering fall to the wayside as I tear off the wrapping. The binding is beautiful and intimidating in its simplicity. I feel its weight in my hands like a stone dropping into my stomach. It is a confirmation of my expectations: the simpler a beauty is, the more formidable it becomes. The lack of ornamentation sets me off balance for another reason, however – one that deals primarily with my understanding of the nature of art. Looking at the stark blue covers, I can hear the challenge that would trouble me for weeks to come in a seminar on social practice: art isn’t at all what you think it is.


My view of art is a common one that has gone relatively unchallenged during my time as a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. When I hear the word “art,” I think of museums and galleries. I think of installations and performances. I think of very wealthy people spending millions at auctions. I think of an exclusive world with its own language and customs that I neither speak nor understand. When I hear the word “art,” I also think of animation, of advertising, of comic books, of visual effects. I think of Hollywood, and I think of people hunched over computers kerning lines of text. But all of this can be boiled down to an additive process based on skills and tradition: drawing well, making a nice sculpture, creating something that is beautiful and permanent.

I open the book, and my fingers notice the cut running down the spine, sharp and clean. The incision cracks and widens every time I turn the pages, and I find myself burdened with destructive power. By reading, by bearing witness to the documentation of the staging of this performance, I hasten the inexorable collapse of the book’s structural integrity. I alter the very thing I am trying to observe.

The difficulties inherent to observation are sources of conflict throughout the staging of Waiting for Godot. The book wastes no time in addressing this struggle, quoting Susan Sontag’s On Photography:

Although the camera is an observation
station, the act of photographing is more than

passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is
a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly,
encouraging whatever is going on to keep
on happening. To take a picture is to have an
interest in things as they are, in the status quo
remaining unchanged (at least for however
long it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in
complicity with whatever makes a subject
interesting, worth photographing – including,
when that is the interest, another person’s
pain or misfortune.((Susan Sontag, quoted in Waiting for Godot: A Field Guide, ed. Paul Chan (New York: Creative Time), 38.))

This phenomenon is not limited to photography, or even to art. The observer effect, the idea that observation changes the very thing being observed, is an integral obstacle in physics, and in particular quantum mechanics. I am fascinated by the parallels between the artistic observation of individuals and the scientific measurement of fundamental, subatomic particles. Measurement simply cannot be unaffected by observation – there is inevitably an impact, one that must be taken into account in order to understand that which one is observing and to inform the process of observation itself. There must be interaction to have any understanding, even if that understanding must necessarily be incomplete.

I confess that this was a point of concern in reading this book. I have seen and heard countless stories of artists who made no effort to connect with the places and people with which their work dealt, who could not see that the absence of care can have as great an impact as care itself. The consumers of art are complicit in this deception. “When the viewer views  The Documentary,” says  Cauleen  Smith, who filmed the documentary of the making of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, “she mistakes the experience of watching wretchedness for the experience of having done something to correct wretchedness.”((Cauleen Smith, “Constellations Around the Making of The Fullness of Time,” in Chan, Waiting, 249.)) Smith explains that through the consumption of a work that frames the experience of the Other, the totality of that experience is erased. In New Orleans, that frame becomes the dominant voice in the discourse at the expense of those who have gone through the experience. Chan agrees “All of those news images are true in the sense that they documented facts. But they may not add up to a truth. And I think a truth, then, is something much more full-bodied.”((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” in Chan, Waiting, 307.)) Art without care can very easily put distance between people, reinforce and perpetuate this narrative of “Otherness,” and make future-art-with-care less worthy of trust.

There is a reason why I see so little care in art: it is difficult. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans is an intriguing blend of documentation of art and art as documentation, and as I read the book I discover how much work goes into care. It is not just documentation of the play itself – it is documentation of the planning of the play, it is documentation of time, of location, of people. There are diagrams, schedules, essays, photos, photocopies of newspaper articles on Katrina, New Orleans, reviews of the play, and profound moments of self-reflection. We see that the conceptualization of the idea, the social interaction with the local community, and the reflexivity involved in understanding what such a production requires, is of paramount importance. The book that documents the art of process becomes part of the art itself, participates in the very thing that it describes. This creates an experience of a work that is distinct from the work itself, but at the same time nested inside it – a book about the making of a book, a matryoshka doll of art within art.

One of the first examples of documentation I encounter is in the first ten pages of the book – pages upon pages of scans of newspapers from the day hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the immediate aftermath, headlines describing the violence of the event and the desperation of the people. I see bold, capitalized words like “catastrophic,” “ravage,” “ruined,” “chaos,” and “despair.” On pages 11 and 12, the headlines shift to “glimmers of hope” and George W. Bush’s infamous belated promises to “fix” the situation. Photos feature heavily in these articles, and I move from images of flooding to images of destruction to images of despairing, displaced people in New Orleans, mostly black. The last photo delivers the final punch: it depicts a New York Post front page of Bush with a white man – not in New Orleans but in Biloxi, Mississippi – assuring the man that the federal government was sending relief.((Cf. Chan, Waiting, 12.)) This is one of the first things I see when I begin the book, and these articles from eight years ago still evoke anger and sadness. The destruction feels very present, and it is very present for many people.

Photos are a major form of documentation throughout the book. They show the full process of staging the play. In the first section we are introduced to brief snatches of images: graffiti, a crossroads, a man, a FEMA trailer.((Cf. Chan, Waiting, 17-19.)) In the “Organize” chapter (87-147), however, the photographic documentation becomes more comprehensive. The outreach to the community begins to be depicted through images of Paul Chan’s lectures on contemporary art given at the Unviersity of New Orleans and Xavier University, rows of seats filled with students, discussion circles, note-taking.((Cf. Chan,Waiting, 109-115.))Then the photos move to acting workshops with community theater groups, open rehearsals, members of the cast and crew working with high school students.((Cf. Chan, Waiting, 120-133.))  The last photos in this chapter are of potluck dinners.((Cf. Chan,Waiting, 134-137.))The pages fly by in a sea of faces, serious and laughing and varied, but with a constant sense of movement and interaction and exchange. The next section feels more still, particularly the photos of the “A country road, a tree, evening” signs next to the quiet roads.((Cf. Chan, Waiting, 152-160, 168-169, 174-177, 180-185.)) The photos on-site always seem heavy with emptiness. The photos of the nights of the actual production, however, are overwhelmingly filled with noise and action – people dancing, eating, moving, chatting in their seats, the actors moving through the stage.

The articles and written content, pulled from a variety of sources, provide a different sort of context and insight into the staging of the play. Kalamu Ya Salaam writes from the perspective of a resident of New Orleans, specifically the rich but self-contained subculture of the poor black residents that one cannot truly understand from reading newspapers or watching television.((Cf. Waiting, 13.)) There is an article, noticeably reprinted from New Left Review, by the distinguished literary critic Terry Eagleton providing biographical and historical context to Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot.((Cf. Terry Eagleton, “Political Beckett?” in Chan, Waiting, 55-62.)) This is followed by a photocopied article by Alain Badiou.((Alain Badiou, “What Happens,” in Chan, Waiting, 63-66.)) This in turn is immediately followed by a reprint of Susan Sontag’s famous essay about her own staging of Waiting for Godot in war-torn Sarajevo in 1993 – documenting (albeit on a much smaller scale) her experiences in much the same way that Paul Chan does in this book.((Cf. Susan Sontag, “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,” in Chan, Waiting, 66-106.)) Even reviews of the New Orleans staging are included – some glowing, some conflicted.((Cf. David Cuthbert, “Godot is Great (The Times-Pacayune, November 6, 2007),” in Chan, Waiting, 214-217; Anne Gisleson, “That Tree, that Levee,” in Chan, Waiting, 233-238; Andrea Boll, “Puking my Puke of a Like (NOLAFugees.com, November 20, 2007),” in Chan, Waiting, 239-241, and Jed Horne, “Is New Orleans Waiting for Godot? (The Huffington Post, November 14, 2007),” in Chan, Waiting, 242-244.)) The final chapter “Reflect” (273-321) contains four interviews and thus four different socially placed positions of reflections on the process of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans.

The most challenging kind of documentation for me to describe are the many, many pages devoted to organization. It is remarkable to look at, the sheer amount of paper that went into this play, but it also makes it incredibly personal. The photos are a more obvious choice for the most human kind of documentation, however, I am inclined to give that title to the to-do lists that are starred and scribbled out and doodled on.((Cf. Chan, Waiting, 90.)) The notes on loose-leaf littered with arrows and circles and question marks. Bureaucratic applications. Printed out schedules that are spilled on, written on, edited, amended. Many, many maps – photocopied road maps, aerial images of New Orleans, and, my favorite, roughly drawn staging plans by Gavin Kroeber.((Cf. “Drawing for staging Gentilly Godot by Gavin Kroeber, 2007,” in Chan, Waiting, 162.)) A massive six-page list of contacts, organized alphabetically by name, marking their phone number, organization, location, category (it leads me to wonder which named go with which of the photographed faces).((Cf. “New Orleans Contact Sheet,” in Chan, Waiting, 100-105.)) Chan includes his syllabi for his seminar at the University of New Orleans and the workshops at the Xavier University.((Cf. Chan, Waiting, 108, 112.)) We also see his schedule for “community and school work.”((Cf. Chan, “schedules,” Waiting, 117-119.)) Casting notices. Demoltion signs. Rehearsal schedules. Advertisements. It goes on. It is overwhelming to look at, and I cannot help but feel the weight of the challenge that Chan took on in doing this. That he even kept all of these loose sheets of paper is intimidating to a person as disorganized as me. The only major piece of documentation absent is, understandably, video of the play itself, though we await The Fullness of Time, Cauleen Smith’s documentary of the process.((Here, cf. “Film,” in Chan, Waiting, 245-272.)) The quantity of documentation and its connection to art is, to me, illustrated by Chan’s statement about the art and politics: “Art is whatever they looked at or read that gave them the courage to laugh or think or go on. And the art did not have to be directly connected to the political work they were doing.”((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 319.))  There is a layered, reflexive, and deeply thoughtful quality to Chan’s work that goes beyond the merely skill-based toiling that still passes for art in many art schools. Chan’s kind of art, the kind of art practice supported by Creative Time, sometimes called social practice, cannot be thought of in such simple-minded terms. It is art that acknowledges the interaction necessary to the production of something worthwhile. It is art that understands the great responsibility of being trusted with another’s story and experience. Responsibility is intrinsic to care, and Chan knows this well. When discussing what aspects of the process have lingered with him, he states,: “The relationships are the best of what remains with me. The people I met, became friends with, and who I’m beholden to. Now I’m responsible for them, as they are responsible for me. And I think that’s a good thing.”((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 311.)) This statement reminds me of Le Petit Prince, in which the fox tells the prince that it is “the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” The fox goes on to say, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”((Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit Prince (New York: Harcourt, 1943), 87-88.))

I would not apply the word “tamed” to the process of staging this play, as I dislike its connotations of dominance, but the message of taking time to cultivate relationships with the people around you (and the reciprocal responsibility inherent in such an act) has the ring of truth. A man told Paul Chan, “If you want to do this, you got to spend the dime, and you got to spend the time.”((Chan, “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: An Artist Statement,” Waiting, 27.))

As I read, I temporarily manage to keep the spine from falling apart, but I cannot seem to allay the discomfort of my crumbling certainty of what art is. The theme of destruction and impermanence is laced throughout Waiting for Godot. Instead of handling the book with greater care, the threat of ruin only hastens the speed and recklessness with which I read. The field guide only challenges me further: “It is fashionable today (still?) to claim that there is nothing new beyond our horizon of art, that everything worth doing has been done. But this seems to me an altogether specious claim, for it ingored the vast undiscovered country of things that ought to be undone.”((Chan, “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. An Artist Statement,” 28.)) “Undoing” is a word I encounter often as I read the book, but in an unfamiliar context, imbued with a strange creative potential.((In the seminar Care of the City: Detroit from Winter 2013 (taught by Michael Stone-Richards at CCS), one learned of Maurice Blanchot’s term désoeuvrement which can variously be translated as unworking, undoing. In recent architecture theory of the 1990s there was much talk of unbuilding or undoing as an architechtural activity. See Dan Hoffamn’s “Erasing Detroit” in this issue of Detroit Research. In emphasizing the work of the negative in un-doing, Chan’s work can be situated in these critical discourses.))

This art of social practice strikes a precarious balance between creation and destruction; both are necessary, but both are also dangerous. The stakes are high when work deals so intimately with one’s fellow man. The phrase “creative destruction” is used in economics to describe the emergence of new economic orders from the destruction of previous orders. Art is a tool with vast power, both to make and to undo, for better or for worse. The artist, then, must identify what must be dismantled, what must be built, and how to achieve it. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide certainly demonstrates the amount of planning, thought, people, time, and money that the staging of the play required. (And to think that the 300+ pages are just a sampling of the documentation! the body of which is now housed in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) Social practice requires investment, and success is not guaranteed. It is a daunting prospect.

My fellow students are divided on the importance of investing such non-technical resources – care, reciprocity, responsibility, representation – into their art. Time and money, in a superficial sense, are always present in the production of art, but is it enough? I think that it’s not. Art all too frequently flattens that which it is depiction into an easy-to-swallow pill, a one-dimensional narrative meant to please and entertain instead of challenge. Chan defines beauty’s sole purpose as allowing us “a glimpse of what is unbearable.”((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 315.)) Social practice addresses a uniquely unbearable notion: complexity.

People are naturally resistant to complexity. Simplification and categorization are a means of quickly processing our experiences of the world around us. All of the sensory input, all of the patterns of social interaction, all of the situations we encounter, are broken down and sorted into groups for ease of understanding. Artists (myself included) and consumers of art alike struggle ith complexity, particularly of complexity beyond the scope of our own familiarity. But humans are greater than the sum of their parts, as are cities. Chan explains, “The worst thing in the world is to reduce what it means to be a human being. To me it means being as complex as possible.”((Paul Chan, quoted in Lolis Eric Elie, “Bringing the Corner back to Life, The Times-Picayune (October 29, 2007),” in Chan, Waiting, 187.))  To face complexity is to challenge one’s perception of the world, and that is a difficult thing to do. It is an act of creative destruction that changes everybody involved. Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan discuss this:

Paul: I know I couldn’t be that Paul in
New York who spends fourteen hours in a

studio drawing or making things alone. I
had to be someone else.
Kathy: You had to undo yourself.
Paul: I had to find another road to
Damascus.((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 317.))

To make something worthwhile, something beautiful, Chan was forced to confront himself and remove himself from what was comfortable, from the studio. Long before the community outreach, long before the college lectures, long before the shadow fund, and long before the play was staged on the roads of New Orleans, this destructive artistic process was an internal one.

During the process of reading this book, I have dealt with a number of internal battles, the first being how I define art. The other major conflict is how I define myself as an artist. As a student studying the very commercial art of 3D animation, I have been hesitant to consider myself part of the “art world,”  a somewhat mythological place I’ve never been able to fathom. That which self-describes as “art” has always seemed very lofty, very distant from me. I liked the idea of studying animation because of the motional connection I was able to make with it early on in my life – but perhaps that reasoning was an act of conceit. When I look at the art of social practice, so deeply rooted in interpersonal relationships and the sharing of experiences, animation and other forms of commercial art become just as lofty and distant as the installations in galleries or performance-based pieces. It is possible that the difference between social practice and other forms of art is not the medium of the final product, but the process. Exchange the play with a mural, or a film, or a photograph, or a song, and the impact would remain more or less the same  – it is the conceptualization, the organization of resources, the outreach, which is the real art of social practice. It is firmly based in the involvement of the community, the location, and the people. It does not simply frame and package an experience for public consumption; it is participation in the experience itself. It is transcendence of the experience.

Transcendence is an idea that pops up frequently in Waiting for Godot. The landscape of New Orleans is repeatedly described in terms that evoke a sense of surreal science fiction, but Chan asserts that his work deals with this reality. Instead of “otherwordly,” he aims to make things that are “unwordly,” things with their “own innder shape.((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 312.)) This, in some ways, mirrors Michel Foucault’s concept of “heterotopia,” spaces of otherness that are both real and unreal.((Cf. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, 1984, accessed April 12, 2013, http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html.)) The sites of the play, where the audience came together to eat and watch the performances, were heterotopias. The stages where the play was performed were heterotopias within a heterotopia, as were the risers where the audience experienced the play. Chan created transient heterotopic spaces where art could take place. But it doesn’t simply deal with in-between spaces, it also deals with in-between times. Chan’s artist statement reads, “The longing for the new is a reminder of what is worth renewing.”((Chan, “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: An Artist Statement,” 26.)) This ambiguity in time is echoed as Chan effortlessly tosses out a Faulkner quote mid-interview: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”((“Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 317.)) When Kathy Halbreich describes his work as utopic, he quickly contradicts her: despite the “otherness” of the experience, it was firmly rooted in reality.((Cf. “Undoing: A Conversation between Kathy Halbreich and Paul Chan,” 313.)) There was no vision of a perfected society, which cannot exist in any real space.

After finishing this Field Guide and putting some distance between it and myself, I find that I’m less conflicted than when I began reading. Art is far more massive a topic than I had previously imagined, but I’m not as disturbed by this fact as I once was – it’s actually quite exciting. Stories about borders and in-between places have always been the ones I find most compelling, and social practice sits comfortably on the boundary between art and activism. As somebody who has always felt pulled in many directions (law school, journalism, art), it no longer overwhelms me to imagine art, as powerful as it is, as similarly multilayered. Embracing the complexity of humanity requires one to understand the art humanity creates as equally complex. I love how collaborative social practice is, how rooted it is in space and time, how introspective it is, how it makes care (of people, of places, etc.) a priority. But this is a kind of art than cannot be done alone – by nature it requires like-minded people who are willing to “spend the dime, spend the time.” In Detroit, I am beginning to see such people. But at school? Not yet. My cracked book in hand, like Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s great play, I wait.