“From River as Image to River as Place” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium
Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.” Video coverage of the sessions is available here and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study as well.
The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week. The author of this post is Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, Postdoctoral Fellow of the Sawyer Seminar.
Art historians generally think about texts and objects much more than they do about place. We might analyze an artist’s process, the materials out of which something is made, and the meaning that is created by an artwork’s display and interpretation in various contexts. My work as the 2014-15 John E. Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota has made it clear that the Mississippi has always been more than a line on a historical map or the setting for some of the most canonical paintings in American art. It has made me reconsider the ways in which the questions that I ask about nineteenth-century maps, paintings, and prints depicting the Mississippi River might be brought to bear on contemporary issues and be made to function within public life beyond the classroom or museum.
As part of the recent symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” I chaired two panels: “River as Image” and “River as Place.” For the first, we screened Pare Lorentz’s 1938 New Deal film project, The River , an epic documentary about the deleterious effects of human agricultural and engineering efforts to shape the Mississippi. It was followed by five short videos curated by the Twin Cities-based art collaborative, Works Progress that are part of a project called Dear River. Unlike the grand, sweeping narrative presented by Lorentz, the short films of Dear River tell a diverse set of narratives that invite viewers to reflect on their own personal, and often intimate, relationship with the Mississippi.
The organizers of the yearlong Mellon Sawyer Seminar have argued that the stories we tell about the river must necessarily change in an era of climate change. Much of what I research helped to create a largely celebratory and nationalist identity for the Mississippi River, one that is arguably still the dominant one in American culture. However, the speakers in the panel “River as Place” offered alternatives for understanding the river. Dr. Richard Mizelle’s project identifies limitations in traditional historical archives, exposing structures of power that silenced African American voices and dictated their movements during and after the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Through the Bdote Memory Map and Healing Place projects, Mona Smith and her collaborators weave together many voices to assert the centrality of indigenous history and belief to understanding Minnesota and the river. Shanai Matteson’s place-based, collaborative practice with Works Progress cuts across disciplinary and bureaucratic boundaries, uniting the modernist divide between art and science in taking an ecological approach to artmaking and community building.
I hope you will take the time to watch the video of this panel if you weren’t able to make it to the symposium. These projects reflect on the politics and ethics of studying a place where people continue to live and work, on which environmental crises have unfolded and will happen again, and where race, class, and power dictate access. They bring an awareness and understanding of the past but also provide models for how expression and creativity might be harnessed to tell the river’s stories in an uncertain future.