Monday, March 30, 2009


(Written for the forthcoming e-catalogue of Christopher Cozier’s Available at All Leading Stores, published for the 2009 Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan.)

nicholas jouvert 09 closeup

J'Ouvert morning, 23 February, 2009. Photo by Brian Kinzie

Some say that we lost Paradise
Some say that we living Paradise
Some say well if this is Paradise
Good God where the hell is Paradise?

Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh, to Paradise....

— 3Canal, “Paradise?”

It is the drizzly Friday morning before Carnival, and I am slumped in my chair, staring at the chaos of my desk, trying to invent a costume for J’Ouvert. This year I am playing with 3Canal. The theme of the band is Paradise?, complete with sardonic question mark, after one of the songs on their new album. Nowadays, most people don’t bother with costumes for J’Ouvert, beyond the obligatory layer of paint or mud. But I like the challenge, in all senses, of a costume. Last year it was devil wings, a bow tie, and a placard. This year, I’m stumped.

I stare at the chaos of my desk. Piles of paper, an empty teacup, my dusty laptop screen. A bowl of paperclips. A small brown cardboard box, not much bigger than a stack of Post-It notes, with plain black text on one side:


It is one of the original hand-stamped boxes from Christopher Cozier’s installation Available At All Leading Stores, shipped down from the gallery in Canada. It has sat on my desk for months, a mordant reminder of my time and place. I summon up iTunes and listen to the 3Canal song.

Buildings filling the skies
And people dying for another to rise
Black gold and crimson tides
Is this Paradise?

I pick up the phone and dial a number. “Chris? It’s Nicholas. What you think of this….”


I find a plain cardboard box lying around the house, 16 x 12 x 10 inches--not a cube, but close enough. I spend a couple of days figuring out how I’ll carry it through the streets. Should I strap it to my back? Attach it to a stick so I can hoist it into the air? I don’t want it to get crushed in the intoxicated J’Ouvert throng, and I want to carry it high enough that people can read the words from a distance.

“Put your head inside it and wear it like a mask,” one friend suggests. No, I won’t be able to see where I’m going, and I’ll stifle. Instead I imagine an old-time Fancy Sailor with some papier-mâché extravaganza perched on his head, and two cords dangling in front to help balance the weight.

In the end, the design is simple. I cut an oval into the underside of the box, just slightly smaller than the circumference of my head, and line it with strips of plastic foam. I try it on: the box sits firmly just above my brow, even if I jump around. Next I punch two holes in the underside. I thread in lengths of strong yarn and knot them on the inside. I can grab onto the dangling cords to shift the weight of the box as I move.

Now the text: Chris suggests I blow up a version of his original design, make a colour print, and paste it to the box. I decide on a more low-tech method, hand-lettering the box with a black permanent marker. I haven’t told Chris yet, but I’ve taken liberties with his text. The box now reads:


And in smaller letters:



The history of the Caribbean is a catalogue of trade wars, pillagings, predatory exchanges, bank heists on the scale of whole countries, and bills of sale enforced at gunpoint. Glass beads for gold, blood for sugar, self-respect for tourist dollars, oil for salvation. It sometimes seems there’s nothing we can’t or won’t offer for sale. In what Derek Walcott called “this chain store of islands,” independence only changed the faces of the salesmen, not their tactics.

Cozier conceived Available At All Leading Stores at a particularly anxious moment in recent history. As the wider world worried over the Bush doctrine, Iraq, Guantanamo, and the Axis of Evil, Trinidadians grew obsessed with a spiraling murder rate, garbage-can bombs deposited in downtown Port of Spain, and the latest popular business scheme: kidnappings for ransom. Fear was the hot global commodity, often packaged together with Security in buy-one-get-one-free deals; manufactured in Washington, DC, advertised on CNN and Fox News, traded in capital cities around the world, with special discounts available at the nearest airport metal scanner. Trinidad, always ready to adopt and adapt trendy imports, didn’t lag behind.

Three years later, the market has shifted. Global capitalism as we knew it took a tumble in 2008. American voters replaced Bush 2.0 with a brighter, shinier, and better-designed model. Now the world wants to buy an Obama t-shirt, the one with the new brand name: Hope.

Meanwhile, here in Trinidad, the populace has finally got the invoice for the PNM government’s Potemkin nation project, better known as Vision 2020. The costs are stated in trillions, the fine print seems to be in Cantonese, and the product was broken before it came out of the package. Port of Spain floods and traffic gridlocks in the shadow of half-finished skyscrapers built by imported Chinese labour with imported Chinese materials. They said we were buying Paradise. Well, if this is Paradise, where the hell is Paradise?


For three or so hours on J’Ouvert morning, Paradise is an empty space, an absence, in a cardboard box I balance on my head. Watch me, turning into a metaphor for a nation bearing the burden of false advertising and false hopes. If anything and everything is for sale, if art is just another product with varying profit margins, if Cozier can taunt us with the joke of commodified Fear, then I can re-commodify, re-sell, re-brand.

Down Ariapita Avenue and up Carlos Street. Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh. Hundreds writhing and rubbing up and gyrating, bareback and torn t-shirts and busted-up sneakers, rum and paint and around our necks the little plastic tags that prove we paid our $200 to play with 3Canal. Oh-oh. Down Tragarete as the sun rises, up Edward and across Gordon, and eventually we reach the Savannah. Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh, to Paradise....

But Paradise is heavier than I expected. At half past eight, by Memorial Park, I slip out of the band and stride off with my cardboard box, now spattered with pretty pink and purple paint. It’s early, but the sun is already too hot.

nicholas jouvert 09

Photo by Brian Kinzie


Anonymous said...

Do you remembered a piece by Adele Todd and Lisa Brice called "Paradise'. It has a background of a beautiful beach scene, but the foreground had two custom made boxes, which had been described in the papers when someone had been kidnapped many years ago and placed in them. What is paradise anyway?

theoneRAH! said...

Oh my! I recognised the piece as soon as I saw it: Well done! I don't think Chris minded one bit though!

Camila Prada said...

hey there,

just discovered your blog and i find your stream of consciousness quite gripping. lol!

i am not trini born but grew up there. i love your pics of the houses around the savanna. so many memories.