Mississippi. An Anthropocene River

July 26th, 2019

Mississippi. An Anthropocene River aims to make the Mississippi River Basin legible as a zone of ecological, historical, and social interaction between humans and the environment using novel forms of exchange, research, collaboration, and pedagogy.

The Mississippi region presents a remarkable landscape for understanding the rapid shift into what scientists and humanists are calling the Anthropocene—the geological epoch of humankind. Over the course of a year, Mississippi. An Anthropocene River (2018–19) explored how the river—as ecology and human habitat—has been reshaped over time, understanding its present as a product of a history of human-environmental interaction, but also violent intervention.

 

The project brought together artists, activists, and scholars from numerous disciplines and backgrounds to form five regional Field Stations. A group of travel fellows went on a three-month long journey down the length of the river and conducted River School formats both online and on-site and the project culminated in a weeklong Anthropocene Campus event in New Orleans. Taken all together, Mississippi. An Anthropocene River attempted to rethink how knowledge about the contemporary conditions of the Anthropocene are studied locally and shared and understood at various scales with multiple stakeholders.

The Mississippi River’s meandering path has carved out an iconic landscape in US mythology and has become a symbol for human impact. Barely a river but more of a floodplain before, it was massively dredged in the 20th century. Its ecology has evolved as a constantly shifting ecosystem, a catchment of cultures, a dividing line, a water highway for resources and goods, and a sink for pollutants. From the logging and mining zones in the Upper River area to the high technology and petrochemical centers in the Delta; from the industrial agricultural landscapes of the Midwest to the “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico; from the historic transportation network enabling the egregious trade of human forced labor to the social injustices of poverty and deindustrialization today—the Mississippi is a symptom and object of investigation for the radical impact humans inflict on the Earth.

Mississippi. An Anthropocene River manifested itself in a variety of field-research activities, public forums, workshops, and travels on and along the Mississippi River. Five Anthropocene River Field Stations, distributed along the watershed from North to South, investigated, highlighted, and shared historical and contemporary issues of their respective region using both scientific and artistic research methods over the course of one year. Sediment, Settlement, Sentiment: The Machinic River (Field Station 1) addressed the uppermost part of the Mississippi River as a sight of river engineering, experimentation and speculation. Anthropocene Drift (Field Station 2) centered on the process of biome change, contrasting the monocrop landscapes of the Corn Belt with the Driftless Area stretching across southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Iowa. Anthropocene Vernacular. Industry, Indigeneity, and Empire (Field Station 3) explored the long and conflicted histories of settlement and domestication in the St. Louis area and the American Bottom. Confluences Ecologies (Field Station 4) engaged with the ecologic-economic-technological infrastructures in the “Confluence Area” between Southern Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. Place, Space & Relations of Belongings (Field Station 5) explored identity and commerce in the in the Lower Mississippi River stretching from Memphis to Natchez. During the fall of 2019, an Anthropocene River Journeymade on canoes and vans travelling down and along the Mississippi—gathered the explorations of the various Field Stations and synthesized them into a common framework. Travelling participants carried out their own research and provided extensive documentation, bringing the findings downstream and tying the different narratives together. Finally, the Anthropocene River Campus: The Human Delta in New Orleans marked a conceptual contraction of the specifically local approaches of the project, informed and leveraged by the research works of the Field Stations, and the planetary-scale framework of economic, ecological, and social teleconnections of the Anthropocene River. An Anthropocene River School featured several linked activities, working as an exemplary platform for research practice and activism, transforming field site data into an ongoing, collaborative teaching enterprise—both on site and online.