A small army of dogs of all shapes roam the yard and inspect visitors outside a semi-retired metal fabrication warehouse on the edge of the Industrial Canal. The building at the end of Rampart Street is filled with disassembled parts of houses and works in progress — all alumni of the New Orleans Airlift's Music Box, an ambitious musical architecture and art and music project that has found its permanent home and workshop in a spacious Bywater lot, set to open this fall.
In 2011, Airlift organizers invited artists to piece together a musical city in a lot on Piety Street in Bywater, eventually growing into the acclaimed Shantytown Sound Laboratory, both a literal playground for new sounds and an inventive concert venue
, hosting musicians from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Andrew W.K. and Wilco's Nils Cline to New Orleans artists like Quintron and Rob Cambre, among many others. (A few boys from the neighborhood even formed their own band, The Bywater Boys, at the village.)
Its next iteration as the Roving Village welcomed new structures and artists and performers in a spacious, seemingly secret section of City Park
. It hosted performances during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2015, bringing together musicians like Solange, Animal Collective's Deakin, William Parker, Leyla McCalla, Arto Lindsay and Meschiya Lake, performing among singing bullfrogs and insects in a partially wooded, grassy sliver of the park near Bayou St. John.
The Music Box also appeared as "Outposts" in Shreveport and Tampa Bay. But the group's citywide search for a permanent village circled back to the neighborhood where it started.
"It felt really right," says Airlift director Delaney Martin. "We're back on our home turf in a romantic, beautiful and secluded yet accessible location with what we really needed: a beautiful plot of land and an adjoining warehouse to service our maintenance-heavy project."
The warehouse is a not-so-former metal fabrication business (named, appropriately, MetFab), and it came virtually as-is. It's filled with massive cranes, welding tools, a truck, piles of leftover steel, and hole punchers that can punch a hole through several inches of steel like it's a few sheets of paper. When owner Frank Johnson sold the property to the group, "we basically bought Frank's business," says Airlift co-founder and programmer Jay Pennington — including hiring the foreman as a driver.
A neighboring "forest" will house the Village, "an interactive art installation by day, and a music venue by night," Martin says. "And what we really hope will become this landmark cultural destination, where tourists go, locals bring family members who are into town, everyone wants to see a concert — that it becomes a really important educational tool, not just New Orleans but the whole Gulf Coast."
The Village eventually will expand to include Swoon's Dithyrambalina, the full-scale musical house that had inspired the first Music Box village and its many smaller houses and structures. "We not only grew too big for that block, but we no longer wanted to be a single house," Martin says. "The sonic-spatial development we discovered doing it this way as a village was really more interesting than as a house, which returns us to a single stage. The collaborative tool, this juggernaut it can become as a village, and allowing so many voices, is really a beautiful thing."
The Village will have artist residencies, public viewing hours, concerts, performances and other ticketed events. Its programming will include a broad range of genre-bending artists and performances. "We have the freedom to work out more extensive performance — things that are performative and not so musical," Pennington says. "There's all kinds of directions we can go with it."
The group launched a Kickstarter
to fund the rest of the site's construction — site plans include extensive arborist work, lighting, drainage, pathways, a parking lot and a rampart-like village fence, with a built-in ticket booth with a "somewhat-fortress-like feeling" with peepholes and openings where "a kid who can't get into the concert can put his eye into the eyehole," Martin says. The Music Box programming also will include opportunities for school field trips, summer camps and student apprenticeships, expanding the Music Box's education programming that has seen more than 1,500 students visit its spaces.
But perhaps more importantly, for the first time, the Music Box will have a permanent plot of land — no "roaming," no intended demolition, no site-specific installments. It's "having somewhere to knock," Pennington says. "Kids will grow up knowing it's there through their lives."
"People from all over the world can come visit now," Martin says. "It's not just for people who happen to be in town. It's something that will be open for years."
"We'll modify as we go — come up with new ideas, figure things out," Pennington says. "Also, get used to our neighbors and our community, start to find out what people enjoy and what we can do better. It's going to be a longer experimental process than what we did in the past. I don't think any of us sees what we do as finite. ... We want to grow here naturally, slowly, comfortably. Just being a neighbor."