The Penske truck is loaded and parked on St. Claude Avenue, the cargo in back inventoried and packed. The only thing left for Quintron to do is sign.
The document, explains New Orleans Museum of Art curator Miranda Lash as she hands over a pen, absolves the museum of any legal responsibility for the contents of the moving truck — which now includes a good portion of the Spellcaster Lodge, the iconic Bywater nightclub that's also the home of Quintron and partner Miss Pussycat. The Spellcaster is no stranger to crowds lingering after daybreak, but the one assembled on this morning is atypical by any measure: a contemporary art curator (Lash), a film crew (led by longtime Q&P collaborator Daryn DeLuco), and gallery hands carrying loads of instruments and recording equipment out of the club's basement and into the frigid January air.
"I'm moving my life out of my house," Quintron noted warily. "It's like the walls are going to fall down."
Today's move is the first step in preparations for the upcoming exhibition "Parallel Universe: Quintron and Miss Pussycat Live at City Park." Organized by Lash and conceptualized by Q&P, the three-month show is both a celebration and an encapsulation of the musicians and performers' paranormal universe that includes: a dozen albums of dirty, funky, organ-based electronic dance rock, the latest of which will be recorded inside the museum; a spirit world, tapped into by Pussycat and inhabited wholly by puppets; and the evolution of a light-activated contraption called the Drum Buddy, created by Quintron a decade ago to speak a musical language only he could hear.
Buttoned-up NOMA, brace yourself for the naked 9th Ward.
Earlier, as Quintron directed traffic, Lash crossed items off a list. Amplifiers, check. Karaoke machine and pedal timpani, check. Interactive Drum Buddy — no, that stays for now, Quintron told a mover sitting at the machine with headphones on, furiously twisting knobs and punching buttons like a kid at an arcade.
The device, encased in glass and modeled after an old-school video game, has consumed Quintron's life lately. "I would work on it for almost 20 hours straight, take a day off, do another," he said. "I want it to have a backing soundtrack with my voice. You know how arcade games talk to you: 'Aw, too bad.' 'Doing great!' 'You looose.'"
And what of the tiny chimney? "Yeah, we're not going to talk about that," he muttered under his breath. "Occasionally it'll fill with smoke. I don't think they know."
With the heavy lifting finished, it's time to make the transfer official. Someone fluent in legalese points out the contract's implied small print: Everything Quintron and Pussycat hold dear is now the property of the New Orleans Museum of Art. When he looks up after putting pen to paper, Quintron is grinning.
"That," he says, "is why I signed 'Mickey Mouse.'"
Picture, if you will, the entrance to NOMA's Frederick Weisman Galleries for Louisiana Contemporary Art doubling as a portal to Miss Pussycat's spirit world. The walls, which have been painted Honolulu Blue to match the puppeteer's eyeshadow, bear large-scale photos of her creations in action, dramatic fabrications resembling Planet of the Apes writ small with fabric miniatures. The floor is festooned with puppets at play in dioramas and on pedestals, and monitor stations display loops of Pussycat's short films, 2001's North Pole Nutrias and 2005's Electric Swamp, as well as "Spirit Hair," the latest installment in her episodic Web soap opera for Vice magazine, Trixie and the Tree Trunks.
Moving beyond the spirit world, you press your nose against a Plexiglas door and see Quintron at work in a makeshift recording studio, surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling audience of 19th century oil portraits, personally selected from the museum's archive. To your left is a shrine to the Drum Buddy, including an interactive machine (which may or may not occasionally fill with smoke), creaky developmental prototypes and the gleaming, mirrored NOMA series, six new instruments forged out of heart pine sourced from the Spellcaster walls. Decorating this room are five trippy, swampy paintings by New Orleans artist Michael Frolich, on loan from the Saturn Bar.
Now picture, in the 13th and final week of the exhibition, Quintron ceasing to be a mere employee at NOMA. Instead, he's a resident: moving into the museum's grounds, breaking out of the confines of the Weisman Galleries after nightfall and roaming the wilds of City Park, collecting found sounds and camping out in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Picture his tent, an art object itself equipped with a receiver, which emits a live feed of the audio he creates by day in the Weisman Galleries studio, aural bait for those who may visit the sculpture garden but not make it into the museum.
This is not fantasy. It's all happening — not just with the blessing of NOMA and City Park, but under their direction. "I can see people being concerned," Lash acknowledges, "like, is something going to be lost from what they do, if they're in a museum? And similarly, I can see museum patrons being like, what are we doing? What's going on? But I think that's good. I've always presented it as an experiment, and I think that's what makes it fun."
The fun begins Jan. 29.
It's the Friday before Christmas, three weeks before truck day and six weeks before opening night, and Miss Pussycat is introducing Gambit to some of her friends.
"This is Cinnamon. This is Dr. Bug. He has on a mask. This is Captain Dreamweaver. And this is Lolly. These are the termites. This is Mr. Fiddle. And this is Dusty and Treasure."
The characters — stars of traveling stage shows, the serialized Trixie and the Tree Trunks and the films Electric Swamp and North Pole Nutrias, where they are given voice by local celebrities such as writer Chris Rose and the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee — line the walls of her Spellcaster studio like the rapt audience of a puppet-populated Roman Coliseum. Soon they will be removed from their stands and transplanted to the museum. Pussycat admits this depresses her a little.
"You go into my room and see about 300 wine bottles sitting there if the puppets are all gone — creepy! I'll have to find something to do. I've been saying I'll become a drug addict," she jokes. "Just for three months."
Mostly composed of animals and fictional creatures, the cast also contains a few human models. "Ernie and Antoinette [K-Doe], they're hanging out somewhere," she says, searching.
Her K-Doe miniatures were the inspiration for Electric Swamp, she explains, which leads to an amusing story about taking the puppets to K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge for her friend Antoinette's approval: "(Music producer) Ben Sandmel came in and he had a few guys with him. I didn't recognize them. [Antoinette] was playing with the puppet, and she had it on her hand and was making them kiss it. I was talking to the guys, and they were from out of town — they looked like cops or bikers or something. One of them said, 'Yeah, we've got a gig. We're playing a show this weekend.' I was like, 'OK, where are you playing?' And he was like, 'At the Saenger.' 'Oh, what's your band?'
"It was the Allman Brothers," she says, laughing. "And they were just hanging out with Antoinette."
The K-Does and the Mother-in-Law Lounge are entwined in Quintron and Pussycat's past and present experience with NOMA. Quintron relocated here from Chicago in 1994, joining forces with Pussycat, who then operated the Spellcaster ancestor Pussycat Caverns puppet theater on Piety Street. On one of the couple's first outings in the city, they rode bicycles to the museum to see Pussycat's favorite painting, "Guardian Angels" by Dorothea Tanning. (The work is still on display; it hangs, fittingly, in a gallery adjacent to "Parallel Universe.")
"We were running around the museum, and we went up to the floor with a lot of the more primitive art," she recalls. "We were riding our bikes down Claiborne Avenue after that date, and we saw this crazy building that was pink with music notes and stars. Like, 'Ooh, let's stop in there.' It was the Mother-in-Law, and it had just opened. We were their first customers. It was just the most special, weird place."
In February 2009, the pair were simultaneously planning their annual Maritime Ball at the Spellcaster, a March tour of Australia and the pitch for "Parallel Universe," which Lash was to deliver to NOMA director E. John Bullard for a green light. In the middle of it all, on Mardi Gras morning, Antoinette K-Doe died of a heart attack.
"We never wrote the proposal," Pussycat says. "I was just like, 'I can't.' We pushed it back and pushed it back. We were emailing Lash from Australia in a cafe. She figured it all out, and then it got accepted. I don't know what she did."
The last time Quintron and Miss Pussycat embarked on a project in City Park — parts of North Pole Nutrias and Electric Swamp were filmed there — they ended up being chased by rangers. ("They were really upset," Pussycat says, frowning.) So this time, Lash made sure they had permission.
"The initial proposal went out to John (Bullard) on March 18," Lash says, reading from her email pitch: "'In brief, Miss Pussycat would like to install a collection of her puppets, whereas Quintron, who is also a musical artist, would like to come into the gallery on days when the museum is open and record a record, dressed in a uniform as if he was a museum employee.'
"With a badge!" she adds, giggling at her own concept. "I'm trying to remember the exact title we're giving him: musical coordinator? We decided on a good title for him, complete with a NOMA logo. I just said, 'I think this has the potential to be a fun and interesting show.' ... I have to give John Bullard a lot of credit. For every show I've proposed, it has not been a hard sell. And that's been wonderful as a curator. We had approval back in March, and pretty soon thereafter Quintron started visiting the art storage."
So much of "Parallel Universe" breaks new ground for the museum that it's difficult to isolate the most innovative aspect of the exhibition. But two things stand out, Lash says: the long-term recording of an album as a live art display, something she's not aware has ever been done before, anywhere; and the meta-curatorial angle of allowing a subject to raid the museum's vault, selecting the works that will surround and inspire him.
"I've seen performance art being done in a museum, but it's usually a finished product," Lash says. "This is different. This is really the creative process being exposed and laid bare in the museum. It's not a finished product. Quintron is not performing something that is pre-prepared, that he knows how it's going to work. It's really about that very vulnerable creative process being put out there.
"There's definitely precedent for having a happening in a museum, but to take it on for three months, that's pretty unique," she adds. "And I definitely don't have any curatorial colleagues that had to build a sound studio in a gallery."
Interestingly, Lash's first exposure to Quintron and Pussycat came in a museum: the Dallas Museum of Art, where she worked in 2003 after graduating with a master's degree from Williams College in Massachusetts. A friend in charge of after-hours programming booked the duo to perform. Pussycat describes the gig as "horrible." Lash remembers it differently.
"It was definitely unlike anything I'd ever seen," she says, laughing. "It's funny, I remember vaguely at the time someone mentioned they were from New Orleans, and of course at that time I had no connection to New Orleans, so I remember thinking, wow, that must be an interesting place."
She rediscovered them soon after moving to New Orleans two years ago. "I was really interested in the fact that he had invented his own machine, the Drum Buddy, and that to me there were some very strong aesthetic components to the Drum Buddy machine. I thought it was interesting that it was being presented as this kind of entity unto itself, with a specific look. And Miss Pussycat interested me because she definitely has her own aesthetic and her own look."
Lash's first endeavor at NOMA was landing the traveling exhibition "The Baroque World of Fernando Botero" in February 2008. "Parallel Universe" follows "Youth Manifesto," a collection of punk-inspired sculptures and Pop Art prints by Skylar Fein. Times-Picayune art critic Doug MacCash, who crowned Fein "the most important New Orleans artist of the post-K era," ranked the Lash-curated show as the No. 2 art exhibition of 2009. Others criticized it for being unoriginal. ("I think appropriation and graphic design are acknowledged as vital and interesting parts of the worldwide contemporary arts scene," Lash responds.)
This much is certain: Originality will not be an issue with "Parallel Universe." Nor was any criticism from the Fein show an influence while planning it, Lash says. "I think it would be a mistake as a curator to allow negative feedback to influence what you believe in, in your practice. And I think the same is true for artists. You should just do what you believe in.
"I really believe that one of the major trends in contemporary art is actually an ability to look past the boundaries of music and visual art, and sound and visual art. We have a lot of legacy to thank for that: Performance art in the '60s and sound art coming out of the '70s did so much to convince people that sound and visual can be considered as one, and there's really no more point in having these strict categories divide the two.
"Conceptually, that's what made it seem like an obvious fit for me," she says of "Parallel Universe." "I never questioned whether it has a role in a visual art museum."
"Check this out," Quintron says, clearly excited. A few button presses on what looks like a row of bookcases pushed together, two affirmative beeps, and the 8-foot-tall wall slowly parts, revealing a long aisle with racks of unlit paintings hanging on both sides.
We're lurking in the bowels of NOMA and, if not for the presence of Lash, would seem from security-camera vantage to be attempting the greatest art heist in New Orleans history. Dozens more collapsible rows hold a thousand priceless works. But our guide is looking for something specific: Maria Carlotta de Yia, an unattributed, early-19th century portrait from the Lima School in Peru. Maria Carlotta is on Quintron's shortlist for his studio audience, and when Lash locates her, it will be obvious why.
Nearly every week since summer, Quintron and Miss Pussycat have accompanied Lash into art storage to walk the racks. "A lot of just looking into the eyes of portraits," Quintron says. "I'm trying to pick people who are friendly. There are some that are cool because they're creepy. Like, do I really want to hang out with that guy? I want to do it salon-style, paintings all the way to the ceiling."
"We're embarking on a very important experiment at the museum as far as how a musical artist responds to visual art," Lash had explained earlier. "People take inspiration from art all the time. It inspires poems, and it inspires feelings, and it inspires dreams and emotions. In this case, it's inspiring music."
We pass Gilbert Stuart's George Washington, a replica of the Athenaeum Portrait that adorns the $1 bill. ("He's most likely coming," Quintron says.) Finally, Lash finds her target. "We thought this was a good representative piece," she says.
Maria Carlotta de Yia: a child with the face of an ancient, a puppet and a guitar in either hand.