Artist Marcus Brown’s “Slavery Trails” sculptures don’t exist in the real world. But if you stand beneath the oaks on Esplanade Avenue on the edge of the French Quarter and activate your iPhone with a special QR code, a dozen eerie, digital ghosts will appear on your screen, hovering a few feet above the dusty neutral ground.
Brown’s ghosts mark the spot of a former market where men, women and children were bought and sold. Like the ghosts, the long-ago slave market is invisible now. But Brown wants people to know that, sociologically anyway, it’s still there.
What makes Brown’s digital ghosts especially weird is that they’re a startling pink color, like radioactive azalea blossoms. Brown uses mostly glowing fluorescent paint in his artworks. DayGlo pink is the closest thing to blood red, he said.
“There’s a dual meaning,” he said, of the audacious color. The pink could be “something very celebratory.” But, he said, “it could also be something that signifies all the people who bled to make this place. The whole city was essentially built by enslaved people.”
The technology Brown employed is called augmented reality. On the steamy afternoon of June 20, passersby studied the instructional marker that Brown has placed on the ground beneath an official historic marker describing the slave trade, and coaxed their phones to summon the ghosts. They discovered you can see them from all directions, and –disconcertingly — you can walk right through them. More disconcerting still is the fact that, from certain angles, the pink figures seem to be hanging from the trees, with the unintentional but unavoidable suggestion of lynching.
Brown’s digital installation marks a horrible period of American history that has repercussions that can be felt to this day. But technically, it’s a lot like Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game based on “pocket monster” playing cards, that was beyond-popular back in 2016.
Brown said that his “Slavery Trails” installation isn’t a light-hearted game, of course, but he welcomes the comparison with Pokémon Go. As he pointed out, when we play Pokémon Go, we find out that invisible cartoon monsters are scattered everywhere across the landscape. Same could be said about the legacy of slavery.
“Slave hands touched everything, everywhere,” he said, “especially in New Orleans.”
If those Esplanade Avenue ghosts look a little familiar, it’s because they are self-portraits of Brown. He hopes to sell three-dimensional versions of the ghosts on his website in order to fund further ghostly “Slavery Trails” locations in the city and maybe even across the country.
He said he’ll sell the self-portrait sculptures at the same price that would have been paid to purchase him in the 1840s. Considering that he is skilled, he said, he would have gone for between $14,000 and $180,000 in today’s dollars.
Brown, an instructor at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, is, indeed, skilled. On Juneteenth evening he presented a performance titled “Machine Noire” at the Marigny Opera House.
In the course of the show, which was dedicated to the holiday that marks the end of slavery in the United States, he created a glowing, abstract, blacklight painting with digital paintbrushes that translate his strokes into sound. One of his brushes was anchored to an iron collar that he wore around his neck. Bravo, Mr. Brown.
“Slavery Trails” is located at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Chartres Street. It will remain in place for three months.
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