If I Take A Line For A Walk

Archives, Gardens And The Everyday Gesture

A Line

If I take a line for a walk, will I scratch the surface of the present? If I scratch the surface of the present, will I leave a trace? If I leave a trace, will I unearth sediment from the past? And then, will this (imaginary) palimpsest finally be made visible?

L’Etourdy, a ship found amidst the 3,343 trans-Atlantic voyages documented by Jean Mettas in Répertoire des expéditions négrières françaises au xviiième siècle, is also listed as L’Étourdie, a name that might also describe the voyage itself (Mettas 1984, 136-137).

Étourdi, étourdie, adjectif

[En parlant d’une personne] Qui agit de façon irréfléchie, irraisonnée. Synonymes : distrait, dans la lune (familière), inattentif, oublieux.

[En parlant d’un trait de comportement d’une personne] Qui est effectué sans réfléchir.

[En parlant d’une partie du corps] Qui garde une légère trace de la douleur passée.

[En parlant d’une personne] Qui est ébranlé par un choc physique ou moral au point, parfois, de perdre conscience momentanément.
(Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales 2021)

L’Etourdy or L’Étourdie is the 1,834th voyage in Mettas’ inventory of expeditions from 1707 to 1793, one of seven that departed from Brest, one of thirteen that sailed from the French royal fleet (flute du roi, frégate du roi, aviso du roi, senault du roi, vaisseau du roi), and one of forty-three that carried persons labeled as pacotille.

Pacotille, étymologie et histoire

1711: petite quantité de marchandises que les officiers, matelots ou passagers d’un navire avaient le droit d’emporter avec eux pour en faire commerce.

1759: marchandises destinées à l’échange ou à la vente en pays lointains.

1767: désigne un ensemble d’objets quelconques qu’on emporte avec soi.

1827: au fig. de pacotille, de qualité médiocre.

(Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales 2021)

“To take a line for a walk” is an expression borrowed from a travel experiment developed by Rachael Antony and Joel Henry, who borrowed it from the oft-repeated mistranslation of Paul Klee’s observation that to draw is to take a line for a walk (Antony and Henry 2005, 218-219). The travel experiment, whereby the traveler creates an itinerary by superimposing a drawing onto a map, understands perfectly that it is the line that guides the voyage, and it is the line that interacts with other surfaces, past, present and future. The more accurate expression, then, is the one rendered by Klee himself: “An active line, moving freely, goes for a stroll on its own, without destination” (1964, 105).1 A voyage plotted in advance as a series of lines on a map gives way to these very lines. Even in their predetermined mapping, the lines are “transitional or uncertain” (Hewish 2015, 3), leaving traces of still other lines and still other histories. For example, a trans-Atlantic voyage plotted as a series of triangular lines might bend to the weight of the voyages that preceded it, perhaps even to the lines traced by L’Achille and L’Ami-de-la-Loi, La Belle-Esclave and Le Bienfaisant, Le Chercheur and Le Curieux.2

In Mettas’ inventory, botanical references are common: La Jeune-Flore, La Grande-Flore, L’Aimable Flore, Le Fleurissant, La Fleur-Amériquaine, Le Fleury. Twenty-two voyages are listed for vessels named La Flore. The second of these sailed from Lorient to three different ports on the western coast of Africa (“Cap Sainte-Anne, 13 avr. – 6 mai 1728; Sénégal, 10 mai – 13 juin; Gorée, 18 juin; départ, 13 juill. 1728, avec 400 Noirs”), before arriving off the coast of Louisiana, (“La Balise, 6 sept. 1728, avec 356 Noirs”) and finally New Orleans (“Nouvelle-Orléans, 12 oct. 1728 – 6 avr. 1729”) (Mettas 1984, 578). If I take a line for a walk, which is to say, if the line, activated at the moment of its appearance, is both always leaving a trace and is the trace itself, the (palimpsest) possibilities multiply. In this case, the line traced in 1768 by L’Etourdy/L’Étourdie from Brest to Mesurade to Mine to Juda to Île de Prince to Cap-Français to Nantes, or the line traced in 1728 by La Flore from Lorient to Cap Saint-Anne to Sénégal to Gorée to La Balise to New Orleans to Lorient, contain the very “unease around agency and object; around improvised and determined form; around embodiment and subjectivity” that is necessary to destabilize the colonial logic of an archive taking a historical line for a walk (Hewish 2015, 3).

This essay is an effort to trace the lines uncovered and etched during the staging of two site-specific performances that use the colonial garden as a creative disruption to the eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic slave archive. Erratum was presented in 2019 in Brest, and An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans was presented in 2021 in New Orleans. Pursuing Thomas Holt’s claim that “power can only be realized at the level of everyday practice”, the performances asked participants to respond to unnoticed remnants of French colonial slave practices with their own gestures (Holt 1994, 10). The possibility of reimagining the archive in contemporary time and everyday space suggests an interruption that might open other fissures in the historical record and expose the everyday gesture to the “macro-level phenomena” of “politics, economics, ideologies” (Ibid.). The essay proceeds as an assemblage of archival, fieldwork and performance documentation, following the various paths left by the lines found in the archive itself.3

A Bookmark

Certain digitized traces of a voyage captained by Chevalier de Fayard from May 15, 1768 to September 5, 1769 are found by searching for “Cote: B 4594” within the Loire-Atlantique departmental archives. Assembled in the document Rapport des capitaines au long cours, 1766-1771, these traces were followed by historian Jean Mettas, who organized them into a two-column, twelve-category format (Mettas 1974, xiii):

1. Tonnage du navire. 7. Escales hors d’Afrique et en Afrique avant les sites de traite, et dates.

2. Nombre d’hommes d’équipage, suivi du nombre de morts. 8. Sites de traite, dates de la traite, nombre de Noirs traités; escales après la traite avant l’arrivée en Amérique.

3. Nom du capitaine, puis nom du remplaçant en cas de mort ou d’empêchement. 9. Nombre de morts parmi les Noirs, pendant la traite, le voyage, la vente, ou dans toute l’opération.

4. Nom de l’armateur. 10. Escales en Amérique, lieux de vente des Noirs et dates, nombre de Noirs vendus.

5. Date de l’armement du navire. 11. Port et date de retour en France, ou port de désarmement, ou nature du sinistre et date.

6. Port et date de départ. 12. Durée de l’expédition en mois et semaines.

Mettas’ two-volume inventory of every traceable eighteenth-century French voyage that participated in the transport and trade of enslaved people is, in fact, a meta-treatment of carefully selected portions of archival documents.4 It is a thoroughly researched, but inherently fragmentary, répertoire of the “archival record”, which is itself the result of a process “shaped fundamentally by the act of recording” (Harris 2002, 65). Or, perhaps more simply, the Mettas répertoire is a series of lines: a series of lines intentionally drawn, but activated freely. These lines expose the “dynamic open-ended process” of the archive itself (Ketelaar 2012, 29). These lines reveal an action-oriented, archival palimpsest, a dispositif that contains “too much evidence, too much memory, too much identity”, and thus invites interventions that remain open to what was never recorded (Cook 2013, 113).

Chevalier de Fayard, L’Etourdy, 1769.
Jean Mettas, Répertoire des expéditions négrières françaises au xviiième siècle, 1984.

Erratum is a participatory performance that considers the layers of meaning to be uncovered if the voyages of eighteenth-century French explorers are read in conversation with the voyages of eighteenth-century French enslavers. The performance creates a site-specific dialogue between digitized archival documents, contemporary libraries and the Jardin des Explorateurs, a garden dedicated to French explorers whose voyages departed from Brest5. When used in the context of publishing, “erratum” refers to a publisher’s error and is often used in conjunction with corrigendum, which denotes an author’s error. The latter derives from the Latin verb corrigō: “to direct in a straight line; to amend, reform; to put right a fault by removing it or substituting something else” (Oxford Latin Dictionary 1968, 449). The Latin term errātum denotes an error in thought or action, a mistake, a moral error or a lapse (Ibid., 618). The performance Erratum employs these terms to mark a subtle shift to the colonial slave archive. By opening the archive to revision, it serves as public notice both to an original error and to a corrective action. The performance accepts Saidiya Hartman’s description of the slave archive as “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property” (Hartman 2008, 2), and it searches for the imaginative, corrective possibilities that might remain. If the slave archive is seemingly fixed in its documentation of violence, is it “possible to generate a different set of descriptions” or “to exceed or negotiate [its] constitutive limits” (Ibid., 7, 11)?

Jean Mettas, Répertoire des expéditions négrières françaises au xviiième siècle, 1984.

After editing the first volume of Jean Mettas’ Répertoire, Serge Daget acknowledged an error that altered the archival source attributed to twenty-one different voyages. He mistakenly interpreted the initials “G.D.”, which Mettas used to designate archival data found in the Gazette de Saint-Domingue, as Gabriel Debien, a historian who published a large body of research about the slave trade in Saint-Domingue. While the mistake is rather mundane, it also suggests a strategy for subjecting the archive to critical experimentation. Daget begins the errata for the first volume with a section titled “Erreur commune à plusieurs records”, and he invites “les lecteurs à corriger la mention erronée aux notices 739, 740, 741, 743, 745, 747, 749 …”, naming each of the twenty-one voyages whose information was attributed to an incorrect source (Mettas 1984, 815). The underlining of an editorial error and its subsequent correction expose the fragility of the archival record itself. The Erratum performance attempts to exploit this fragility by inviting another sort of discourse about the archive, one that talks freely “of ‘might’ and ‘if’, of mess and what is missing, of tensions and contradictions, of gaps and bridges between different worlds, of stories lost and stories retold, of slippage and fluidity” (Sachs Olsen 2016, 514).

Erratum takes the form of a bookmark that re-thinks eighteenth-century texts by creating a triangular transposition of corrigenda. The accordion-folded bookmark is printed in two-color risograph, and because the soy-based, non-archival ink smudges when handled, the advice offered by a risograph printer is also useful in describing the archival record itself: “Likelihood of smudges will decrease as the print ages, but will never go away” (Oddities Prints 2021)6. The bookmark leaves literal traces, a reminder of the openings always present at the site of the archive. It can be found in municipal and university libraries throughout Brest (Médiathèque de Saint-Martin, Médiathèque François Mitterrand – Les Capucins, Bibliothèque universitaire de Lettres, Bibliothèque universitaire Bougen-Technopôle, Bibliothèque La Perouse) and a boîte à dons at Place Saint-Guerin. Hidden within a series of books selected based on their title, author or content, the bookmarks situate the performance in conversation with historical events, colonial gardens or places linked to the present-day site of the Jardin des Explorateurs. Performance participants either find the bookmarks by coincidence or consult the bibliography distributed with the project summary. Fourteen bookmarks are located, for example, in books that discuss Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s 1768 voyage around the world that departed from Brest. Another two are located in Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, Denis Diderot’s critique of Bougainville’s colonization efforts in Tahiti. Ten are placed in works that address France’s role in the eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved peoples. Fifteen are found in volumes related to the colonial voyage of plants, the establishment of botanical gardens in France or the collection of plant specimens. Eleven others are discovered in books that refer to a creative method employed, a performance theory read or an artist consulted in constructing the project.

Erratum, 2019.
Erratum, 2019.
Erratum, 2019.
Erratum, 2019.

The performance begins when a participant visits a library, selects a book and finds the bookmark hidden inside. It continues at the Jardin des Explorateurs, which memorializes French explorers and the plants they collected and transported back to royal gardens. Located at 3 Rue de la Pointe along Brest’s industrial and military harbour, the garden also serves as the site of the participants’ re-reading of the archival texts. Following the instructions found in the bookmark, participants arrive at the garden to “perform” an erratum, replacing lines from one colonial archival document with that of another. For example, a guide for the transport “by sea of trees, living plants, seeds and other diverse curiosities of natural history” is transposed onto Bougainville’s autobiographical account of his voyage:

Au lieu de: Pendant les premiers jours, nous eûmes assez constamment les vents d’ouest-nord-ouest au ouest-sud-ouest et sud-ouest, grand frais. (Bougainville, 1771: 22)

Lire: Quant aux arbres ou plantes vivaces, on y peut attacher avec du fil de laiton, et non de fer, des étiquettes faites avec des ardoises, sur lesquelles on écrit avec une pointe ; il faut écrire lisiblement, et graver profondément. (Monceau and Galisonnière 1752, 4)

The Jean Mettas entry for the slave voyage L’Etourdy is then transposed onto the plant transportation guide:

Au lieu de: Quant aux arbres ou plantes vivaces, on y peut attacher avec du fil de laiton, et non de fer, des étiquettes faites avec des ardoises, sur lesquelles on écrit avec une pointe ; il faut écrire lisiblement, et graver profondément. (Monceau and Galisonnière 1752, 4)

Lire: Arrivée à Ouidah : 27 août 1768 ; 390 esclaves, dont 264 de “cargaison”. (Mettas 1984, 136)

Jardin des Explorateurs, 2019.
Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Voyage autour du monde, 1771.
Henri Duhamel du Monceau and Rolant-Michel de la Galisonnière, Avis pour le transport par mer des arbres, des plantes vivaces, des semences et diverses autres curiosités d’Histoire naturelle, 1752.

The bookmark then invites participants to engage the lines of other eighteenth-century explorers, who were obliged by royal mandate to claim territories, people, and plants for France. Presented with a series of tasks that seek to expose and unsettle the colonial archive, participants may choose to leave their own traces:

Rendez-vous au jardin des explorateurs, rue de la Pointe, Brest. Entrez dans le jardin, fermez le portail. Montez les escaliers jusqu’à passerelle, en regardant constamment la flore à votre droite (en ignorant le château, le fleuve, la mer).

Faites une trace sur le sol qui suivra votre visite du jardin.

Prenez une fleur fanée ou une graine d’une plante; gardez-la.

Pensez à un synonyme du mot étourdi et tracez-le avec votre doigt sur une des planches.

En face du banc de Bougainville, poser quelque chose à la place de l’étiquette perdue.

Faites une mesure de la hauteur, la largeur et la longueur de l’un des carrés de plantes.

Cachez la fleur ou la graine récoltée au jardin dans l’une des aspérités de la passerelle.

Suivez la passerelle jusqu’au chemin menant à la rade de Brest en regardant constamment la mer. Sortez rue de Toulon.

Erratum thus presumes the invisibility of what Samir Boumediene calls the “colonisation du savoir”, particularly as it refers to the contemporary transmission of plant colonialism, and the further possibility that “l’invisible peut ainsi désigner … une dimension de la réalité à rendre visible par une manipulation, une expérience” (Boumediene 2019, 323).

Standing on the elevated path above the Jardin des Explorateurs with one’s back to the ocean, colonized plants are visible in fourteen different garden boxes, arranged by continent, each with a small label that depicts an eighteenth-century expedition alongside the plant’s common and Latin names. The label does not indicate the type of voyage that delivered the plant: normal or scientific. These are the two categories offered in Yannick Romieux’s synopsis of eighteenth-century techniques used in transporting plants to France. Scientific voyages are an obvious reference to explorers such as Bougainville, but normal voyages are left unexplained. If we consider, however, the royal ordinance instigated in 1726 by the mayor of Nantes “[p]our assujettir les capitaines des navires de Nantes d’apporter des graines et des plantes des colonies des pays étrangers pour le jardin des plantes médicales établi à Nantes”, alongside the fourteen slave voyages that departed from Nantes that same year and the 1,230 slave voyages that departed from Nantes in the seven decades that followed, the definition of a normal voyage is rather clear (Romieux 2004, 406). Less clear is the presence of the persons who were made to occupy the so-called “normal” ships en route to the French colonies, those whose forced disembarkation in the Americas permitted the plants to return to France and whose voyages were also made from what Romieux calls the crucial indicators for the health of traveling plants: “les conditions météorologiques […], les performances du navire […], la compétence de l’équipage; les connaissances nautiques du capitaine; les dates de départ et de retour” (Ibid., 407).

Jardin des Explorateurs, 2019.

Erratum seeks to decenter the colonizing act, particularly the violence of enslavement, through a site-specific intervention that upends the reading of the garden itself. It begins with an effort to remember “l’oubli de l’esclavage”, which Myriam Cottias finds deeply entrenched within the French metanarrative of universalism (Cottias 2006, 178). It continues by engaging the colonial archive, that fragmented, material object that never escapes its “traces immatérielles”, in hopes of upending the colonial timeline and introducing what Françoise Vergès calls “temporalités hybrides” (Vergès 2013, 6, 10). The performance’s efforts are contingent and uncertain, perhaps allowing that which unfolds when a line takes a stroll of its own: “a free, investigative, indeterminate space of play focused on a singularity of presence” (Hewish 2015, 4).

An Inventory

Contested lines are everywhere in the post-colonial place now called New Orleans. In 2018, to celebrate the three hundred-year anniversary of its founding as a French colony, the city formed ten different committees with 261 total members to organize a full year of artistic, cultural and social events (New Orleans Tricentennial 2018a)7. The city’s tricentennial website announced: “For the past 300 years, this port city has received people from around the world seeking new lives and prospects”, before citing a list of its cultural influences: French, Spanish, African-American, Irish, Italian, German, Greek, Vietnamese, Native American, Cajun and Creole (New Orleans Tricentennial 2018b). This is a peculiar version of New Orleans history, one that acknowledges its French colonial creation without describing precisely the actions it required or the bodies it purchased, sold or controlled. As a member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, Jeffrey U. Darensbourg read the city’s efforts as a reminder that “some ways of marking time and events are colonial ideas, and not part of how we have lived and thought about our ancestral lands and the time we have spent in them” (Darensbourg 2018, 3). In response, he launched a zine, Bulbancha Is Still a Place, which takes its title from the Choctaw name for the pre-colonial crossroads where nearly forty different Native groups traded with each other8. Darensbourg introduced the publication by suggesting that the tricentennial celebration adopt an expression from the Atakapan language, “Nakit kiwilš yil hiwew tolš hakokino!”, which translates as “Happy Big French Day!” and is used as an Atakapa-Ishak New Year’s Day greeting (Ibid.).

An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans is a participatory performance that invites the public to use a small, printed inventory as a guide for creating personal responses to everyday, unnoticed remnants of French colonial history9. It is guided by Georges Perec’s concept of the infra-ordinaire, which seeks out the seemingly insignificant details in everyday life in order to permit a general perspective to emerge. Interrogating the extraordinary actions inherent to colonization, the performance wonders how the forced transformation of a place, its natural environment and its inhabitants was made ordinary through its repetition and absorption into quotidian New Orleans. If historical celebrations function as the archive does in their obsessive collecting and fixing of particular fragments of history, the infra-ordinaire offers another option for examining the relationship between what is visible and invisible. The performance adapts Perec’s instruction for re-considering that which is present but not seen (“Ce qu’il s’agit d’interroger, c’est la brique, le béton, le verre, […]”) by inviting participants to make their own observations of contemporary sites in New Orleans and then construct a critical dialogue between their site-specific experiences and documentation related to each site (Perec 1989, 12).

The performance unfolds within the collection of images and texts found in the inventory itself, as well as in their manipulation by participants during visits to selected sites10. Its format assumes that the documentary impulse common to the archive is futile. If an inventory is a list of all the things presumably present in a particular place, then it is inherently incomplete. It asks its user to trust that what has been recorded is all that exists, or all that could be seen on a particular day, at a particular time, by a particular person. To trust that what we find in any given inventory is all that exists (or existed) is already an act of imagination. It is possible, then, maybe even preferable, to imagine another list of things presumably present in a particular place, or even to re-imagine that which we find written in a given inventory. The performance operates as an invitation to interrupt a particular documentation of selected colonizing gestures in the place now called New Orleans, focusing specifically on the presence and absence of gardens and those who were enslaved to work them.

An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans, 2021.
An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans, 2021.

An (imaginary) inventory continues the line traced in Erratum by considering the fraught relationship between the voyages of plants and those of enslaved people brought by the French to the Americas. In particular, the performance follows a single vessel, la Flore, one of six slave voyages documented by Mettas to sail from France to west Africa to New Orleans, and uses its name as an imagined counter-botanical line that opens new readings of archival documents and contemporary sites in the three-hundred-year-old city. The inventory announced in the title of the performance is thus both real and imagined. Constructed from a series of archival searches at The Historic New Orleans Collection 11 and fieldwork observations at contemporary sites named in the archive, it rethinks the three-hundred-year history of French colonization as a collection of tangled lines, each capable of taking its own walk. It is an inventory of plants, of gardens, of the people who were made to work them, of their transport, of the records that make visible their names, of the records that say nothing at all about them, of the spaces where the plants, the gardens and the people who were made to work them may have once been, but are now covered in so much concrete. It is an inventory that necessarily falls victim to “the loss of stories” and seeks desperately to “fill in the gaps and provide closure where there is none” (Hartman 2008, 8). It is an inventory that listens attentively for “ghostly authors, voices, narratives, texts, contexts, places and spaces” (Harris 2013, 21). It is an inventory that requires imagination and intervention.

The performance begins in Algiers, an area of New Orleans located directly across the Mississippi River from the original French colonial site. More precisely, it begins when participants arrive in Algiers to receive an inventory, which is distributed with the following instructions at a picnic table atop the river levee next to the ferry dock12:

This inventory of plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans asks for your participation, here in Algiers, along the levee facing downtown and the French Quarter.

This inventory is a sort of performance to be navigated alone using a series of possible paths that are suggested here.

This inventory is organized around a collection of sites and archives, but may be re-organized as you wish.

This inventory invites you to observe, collect, and rewrite.

Participants use the inventory as a guide for identifying sites to visit, each marked with a visual icon that indicates a possible interaction with an image, text or performance instruction. The first few pages offer glimpses of the directions participants might follow and the discourses they might use: “How to perform an (imaginary) inventory”, “Instructions for the observation of flora while aboard a river ferry”, “A typology of eighteenth-century French-style gardens as they might have appeared in French colonial New Orleans” and “Glossary of things useful in imagining an inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans”. A bibliography appears at the end of the inventory, organized as a table to suggest links between specific archives or references cited and sites to visit.

Algiers Point levee, 2020.
Enslaved Africans Marker Enslaved Africans Marker, 2018.
An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans, 2021.

Participants begin performing while crossing the Mississippi river on the Algiers ferry, where they are instructed to make several panoramic scans of the approaching New Orleans riverfront before selecting a visible grouping of plants or trees and marking it on a 1755 map of the city. The inventory is organized around three principal sites, each selected based on a garden visible on early eighteenth-century French colonial maps: Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville’s plantation, Madeline Mandeville’s garden and the colony’s hospital garden. These sites form the structure of the performance: their particular histories and real or imagined gardens serve as the sources for the texts, images and instructions that participants use. Introduced with an image of something visible at its present-day location and an adapted citation from Italo Calvino, the principal sites are also identified by address and current use: Bienville’s plantation, 4 Canal Street, Harrah’s Jazz Casino13; Mandeville’s garden, 410 Chartres Street, The Historic New Orleans Collection; hospital garden, 1040 Chartres Street, La Residence des Ursulines Condominium Association. Over a series of pages, each site is then explored through performance instructions, archival texts and archival images that peel back layers of its particular colonial histories, including a full-page image from Mettas’ Répertoire des expéditions négrières françaises au xviiième siècle. At the bottom of each principal site page, an essay titled “If I take a line for a walk” is printed, continuing throughout the inventory and asking participants to engage the discourses used to construct the project: colonial gardens, the archive as a site of power and intervention and the palpable traces of the French trans-Atlantic slave trade.

An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans, 2021.
An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans, 2021.

The last page of the inventory is a foldout map of the original French colony in 1755, attributed to a cartographer named Thierry and used by participants to mark the plants or trees they observe in crossing the river ferry. It is perhaps an imagined or imaginary map. For example, it is the only French colonial map to include a Jardin des Plantes du Roi, though no other evidence exists of a royal garden in New Orleans. It also depicts more gardens than houses: on each of the seventy city blocks shown, there are nearly two gardens for every house. Examined closely, the gardens themselves are also repeated, always twelve for a full block and eight for a half-block, with designs alternating between simple parterre, parterre à l’anglaise and potager. Occasionally the garden depicted on one block is simply rotated forty-five degrees and reappears at the next, or the order of parterre and potager gardens are alternated, so that among the more than seven hundred gardens shown on the map, there are fewer than ten unique garden designs. In Garden Legacy, Mary Louise Christovich and Roulhac Bunkley Toledano argue that French colonists in New Orleans designed and planted these spaces intentionally, “with aesthetics enhanced by geometrics, as beautiful as tiny pleasure gardens” (Christovich and Toledano 2016, 13). Yet William Lake Douglas doubts whether these gardens really existed as shown on maps such as Thierry’s and proposes that their depiction was intended only “to suggest a level of civilization and urban ambience to the potential resident, investor or landowner” (Douglas 1996, 88).

It is possible, then, that An (imaginary) inventory is organized around three principal sites whose French colonial gardens did not exist as they are depicted on the map printed in the inventory. An intricate parterre garden at Bienville’s plantation, a large, ornate garden behind Madeline Mandeville’s house, a diagonally designed parterre hospital garden: these gardens are perhaps all imagined or imaginary. And if they did exist in 1721 or 1731 when they were drawn onto the earliest colonial maps, their stories, and the stories of the bodies that were made to dig, plant, maintain and harvest them, have been surely effaced. The archive says little about these bodies, nor about the “very real plant ghosts that haunt our present and remind us of unfinished business from the past, creating a botanico-temporal arc that outlasts human generations” (Orlow and Sheikh 2018, 23). In present-day New Orleans, gardens are both nowhere and everywhere. An (imaginary) inventory thus represents an effort to (re)member that which was already imagined – plants, gardens, garden designs – by constructing “a sort of herbarium” that documents encounters with power, especially with the archive (Foucault 1979, 79). It asks its participants to name the pretexts they encounter while moving through the performance: a pretext for real and imaginary gardens, a pretext for maps that depict the city at its founding, a pretext for the archives that house these maps, or a pretext for an inventory of plants and gardens in colonial New Orleans. The inventory and its performance engage the “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary” palimpsest that these gardens and their archives represent, pointing here and there to the “field of entangled and confused parchments” where they reside (Foucault 1971, 139).

An (imaginary) inventory is finally a fragmentary archival record. Or, as Verne Harris suggests, it is a sliver of an archival record that provides a sliver of social memory: “a fragile thing, an enchanted thing, defined not by its connections to ‘reality,’ but by its open-ended layerings of construction and reconstruction. Far from constituting the solid structure around which imagination can play, it is itself the stuff of imagination” (Harris 2002, 84-85). An (imaginary) inventory is also incomplete, both as inventory and archive, and because it is incomplete, it asks participants to re-work the “houses of memory” that have been charted on centuries-old maps, the alleged “repositories, spaces, and containers that hold the records, manuscripts, and memorabilia of our collective pasts” (Bastian 2003, 9). Like Achille Mbembe, it is suspicious of the Western archive, doubtful of its proprietary claims and its monolithic status, presuming that “it contains within itself the resources of its own refutation” (Mbembe 2015, 24). It suggests that participants co-construct the archive themselves through a series of paths, encounters and surprises, that they make their own additions, subtractions or modifications, or that they imagine the archival “house of memory” as a garden site, likely planted and tended to by someone other than its owner.

A Gesture

The everyday gesture is the thing not quite sufficient to be noticed and, therefore, goes undocumented. It is the thing that “arrives each day and returns each day, the banal, the quotidian, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual” (Perec 1989, 11). It is also the thing that exposes “lived contradictions and contingencies”, and thus becomes an “essential resource for living” (Holt 1995, 11). If it is identified and studied, then revised and reconstructed, what new possibilities might the everyday gesture suggest for a present-day encounter with a place and its troubled history? For example, eighteenth-century French colonization in the Americas, noticeable and thus documented because of its extraordinarily violent and costly efforts, required thousands of repetitions, each following a more or less similar line from the western coast of Europe (occasionally Brest) to the western coast of Africa to a port in Sainte-Domingue (and occasionally New Orleans). Within these repetitions, there were hundreds of thousands of gestures repeated each day to sustain the lines traced on maps and etched in royal ordinances. These everyday gestures are hidden in the transport of those whose names are rarely recorded but whose voyages are: l’Achille and L’Ami-de-la-Loi, La Belle-Esclave and Le Bienfaisant, Le Chercheur and Le Curieux. If everydayness is “that part of human activity and consciousness left over after politics, wars, and the other big subjects and events have been addressed” or even “the unexceptional, day-to-day arrangements and ordeals of individual existence” (Ibid., 8), the everyday gesture might be recovered and then reimagined through alternative readings of the archive.

The performances Erratum and An (imaginary) inventory of (palimpsest) plants, gardens and other related objects in French colonial New Orleans both invite participants to perform alongside them. Suspicious of the insistence that (colonial) space might be fixed in (colonial) time, they invite other words and other images. While historical and contemporary lines take strolls of their own, participants are asked to react to the agency of these lines, the “living stream of the decisions made in the path travelled” (Hewish 2015, 12). Their paths are best encountered as a wayfarer might: through, around, to and from one place to another, leaving a trace of a path followed, following the trace left by another, crossing paths, crossing traces, crossing lives (Ingold 2011, 220). And so, insisting that the colonial logic that supports the archive of the trans-Atlantic French slave trade can also be found in the documentation of eighteenth-century plants, plant voyages and gardens, the performances invite movement and re-imagined everyday gestures. The performances walk, stroll, meander and finally echo the observation of Uriel Orlow and Shela Sheikh: “In a place where the politics of land and race are so central, plants were and are of course never simply neutral and passive botanical objects but have always been actors on the stage of history and politics itself” (Orlow and Sheikh 2018, 22-23).

  1. 1Andrew Hewish investigates the theoretical and aesthetic potential of Klee’s statement by re-considering his original German phrase: “Eine aktive Linie, die sich frei ergeht, ein Spaziergang um seiner selbst willen, ohne Ziel.” (Hewish 2015, 3).
  2. 2L’Achille: voyages 214, 265, 363, 422, 557, 597 and 648, all from Nantes. L’Ami-de-la-Loi: voyage 2,841 from Le Havre. La Belle-Esclave: voyage 3,042 from Marseilles. Le Bienfaisant: voyage 1,052 from Nantes, which ended abruptly at 9:30 a.m. on January 21, 1777 after a revolt of 116 enslaved persons at the port of Malinde, and voyage 1,651 from Bordeaux. Le Chercheur: voyages 534, 585, 606, 650 and 706, all from Nantes. Le Curieux: the same vessel as Le Chercheur listed in voyage 534. (Mettas 1978, 1984)
  3. 3This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 892721.
  4. 4Mettas’ selection of archives warrants further consideration, particularly because it represents the impossible task of tracking the documentation of a subject that was itself selectively documented. Mettas accessed the following sources in the 1970s: Archives Nationales, Paris (Section ancienne, Section moderne, Fonds particuliers, Fonds ministériels, Section Outre-Mer); Archives départementales et municipales (Bordeaux, Brest, Caen, Dunkerque, Évreux, Le Havre, Honfleur, Lorient, Marseilles, Nantes, Paris, Quimper, Rennes, Rochefort, La Rochelle, Rouen, Saint-Malo, Vannes, Vincennes); Archivo historico ultramarino, Lisbon; and Public Record Office, London.
  5. 5The performance was created during a research residency at the Université Occidentale de Bretagne through a Fulbright fellowship.
  6. 6Suggested by Julie Morel, designed by Nathalie Bihan and printed by Super Banco in Brest, the bookmark format also cites the 1980s text-based work of Rodney Graham.
  7. 7Among the largest were the Finance committee (33 members), the Media and Branding committee (36 members), the Cultural and Historical committee (40 members), the Signature Events and Hospitality committee (44 members) and the Community Engagement committee (44 members). The smallest was the Racial Reconciliation committee with only four members (“2018 Tricentennial Committees” 2018).
  8. 8Bulbancha means “the place of many languages” or “the place of many tongues” (Darensbourg 2018, 2).
  9. 9The performance was supported by a writing residency at A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans.
  10. 10The 48-page inventory was designed by Erik Kieswetter with the assistance of Katya Vaz. It was printed in two-color risograph by constance in New Orleans.
  11. 11The Historic New Orleans Collection was founded in the 1960s and serves as a museum, research center and publisher. It houses the city’s largest collection of French colonial archives.
  12. 12Algiers is the location where enslaved Africans first disembarked after arriving in New Orleans. A historical marker is embedded in the sidewalk at the entrance to the ferry. It reads: “In the 1720s, at a spot of land now eroded by the river, stood the barracks where enslaved Africans from the Senegal-Gambia region, were held before being ferried across the river to the slave auctions.”
  13. 13The casino sits on land that emerged after the slow development of the Mississippi River batture over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but represents the approximate distance from the river that Bienville’s plantation would have occupied in 1719. A historical marker can be found at 200 Magazine Street, one block northwest of the casino.