Drawing as Imagining Absence: Sometime prior to 1963 a person sat down at a table to draw a map. This person could effectively communicate with lines across a page, possessing the technical skills of rendering exact scale ratios of a three-dimensional space on a sheet of paper. The task of this artist was to draw a blueprint that would be used to harness a river for industrial use.
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In January 2018, residents of the Quad Cities (Moline and Rock Island, Illinois; Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa) attended an open house exploring possibilities for “new” riverfront land left vacant by the realignment of the I-74 bridge over the Mississippi. Bridge replacements happen all the time, of course, but this meeting signaled two things: first, the continued significance of this particular stretch of the Mississippi as a transportation crossroads, and second, the ongoing vitality of the regional riverfront redevelopment programs, begun out of industrial economic crises over three decades ago.
Imagine pouring out a glass of water. Where does the water go?
After soaking your computer or floor, it would eventually flow to join a greater body of water and become part of a larger drainage system. Where I grew up, outside of Milwaukee, my water would join with Lake Michigan. In the Twin Cities, where I went to university, it would flow into the Mississippi River. From Jackson, Wyoming, where I’m writing now, it would combine with the Snake River and flow into the Pacific Ocean. But Glacier National Park, where I worked in the summer of 2017, has a unique little point called Triple Divide Peak.
For millennia, Native American people traveled and traded on the Mississippi River. When colonial powers moved into North America, they quickly saw the importance of controlling transportation and the movement of goods on the river. In 1820, The United States government established Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers to protect American fur trade interests in the region and to gain a foothold in the western territory that would become Minnesota.
When I’m asked to speak about the work I do as an artist, a cultural organizer, and Collaborative Director of Water Bar & Public Studio, I often struggle with two important points of departure: How do I introduce myself when I have so many different roles in my artistic and organizing life? And where do I begin telling the story of this complex, evolving project—which I did not imagine or develop on my own, and which is more of ecosystem that I tend with others than it is a definable creative project?
The Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” has become a new national protest anthem. It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. on March 10, and during hundreds of protests across the United States in the last year. “Mní wičhóni” became the anthem of the almost year-long struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.