Artists and Designers on the Mississippi River: Notes from the ‘River at our Doorstep’ symposium

Last Friday the University of Minnesota’s River Life program convened a cross-sector, cross-disciplinary group to talk about the Mississippi River as a site for research, education and public programming. While art and design were not explicitly mentioned in the invitation, I was thrilled to see so many other artists and designers in the room, an indication of how eager we are to engage with people outside of our field. The fact that we had an open space to do so is a testament to the important role of connectors like River Life, who did a remarkable job bringing together a diverse group and making sure everyone felt valued.

The question of how to enable artists, designers and cultural creatives to work in collaboration with scientific researchers, educators, advocacy organizations and the public became a recurring theme. As an artist and organizer who works across disciplines to create public art and engagement projects, I know it can be an ongoing challenge to keep things in perspective, finding a foothold among complex and sometimes competing priorities. But it’s a foothold we have to find—or alternatively, a precarity we need to get comfortable with.

As artists, most of us need a certain amount of autonomy to create artistic work, unbounded by the expectation that we fill the same role as educators, advocates and community organizers. For one thing, these are not jobs most of us were prepared for, so if we do choose to work in these ways, it could take some time to develop our skills and strategies. That’s time that’s often unpaid and undervalued. As one artist colleague put it, the only difference some people see between her and her colleagues in the fields of design or development is that she’s expected to solve big problems on a year-long grant, for very little money, while simultaneously pursuing an artistic vision that looks good in an annual report.

This is something we should be paying attention to: the expectations we’re placing upon artists to solve problems—or to give the appearance that they are—and to do it quickly, with big ideas and a little cash. Artists and designers can solve problems, and we’re incredibly resourceful. We can make work and survive in what is still an undervalued profession, which says something about our skills in this department. And we find new ways of thinking, making and doing things, which is one reason we’re sought after in the push to bring more voices to the table. But problem-solving is not all we can do, and sometimes, it’s not what we want to be doing. Sometimes we’re more valuable when we make problems, or when we help to make visible the underlying systems and values that are at work in our world. As citizens who live in relationship to the river—and who chose to attend a symposium about it—we want to play a role that’s meaningful. We also want the freedom to experiment. These desires don’t always conflict, but sometimes they do.

One thing that I realized at this gathering was the power of self-defining a community of practice. When you work at the periphery of established fields—or in those in-between spaces—it’s easy to feel isolated, like you don’t belong anywhere. This workshop was one instance where it seemed that we’d found—or were building—our own river engagement cohort.

After lunch we split into several small groups to discuss the loosely framed questions: What are we doing on the river? What would we like to do? How do we make ideas come to fruition?

The notes below are my first attempt to reflect on the conversation that developed at our table, and what we might do to encourage a broader range of artists, designers and others to work on public projects that embrace complexity, enable creativity and encourage resilience in river places, as well as river people.


First, what are we doing on the river?

Our group talked about the range of public programs and projects we’re working on at the moment. I was surprised by how many of these projects directly involve artists and designers in leadership roles, and not just as token illustrators of an established idea or concept. It’s great that across the room people spoke of artists as valued and valuable contributors to a complex and dynamic system.

Some project examples that were shared included the art program at the Institute on the Environment, and their media and storytelling platform ensia; River Life’s ongoing river stories project, and their work to connect river citizens of all kinds with University expertise and each other; Mississippi River Fund and the National Park Service, who have been great collaborators with Works Progress (the public art and design studio I co-founded), developing public programs that get people outside, experiencing art on the water; the Institute for Advanced Study and their work to bring art and other academic disciplines together on campus; Northern and their artistic collaboration with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, as well as their yearly Northern Spark Festival; Public Art Saint Paul and their efforts to put artists in residence in Watershed Districts and Public Works; PASP’s R & D program City Art Collaboratory (a program I organize); the work of the Riverfront Corporation’s St. Paul Design Center; the Minneapolis Park Board’s RiverFirst initiative; and countless other projects led by artists, design professionals or creative community organizations. And that’s just who was at the table.

The takeaway message here was clear: there are people and organizations doing lots of creative and engaging work on and around the river, in water systems, or related environmental issues. What we’re not doing so well is telling the stories of this work, what we’re learning in the process, or the resources we have to share, financial or otherwise.


what would we like to do?

Our group shared lots of ideas for small and large projects we’re just beginning to research and develop. These included everything from large-scale thematic events on the riverfront, to playful installations like a giant zip-line over the river, to new media storytelling projects about river life, to temporary sculpture parks and permanent art and interpretive centers.

As with any time a group of passionate people get together to talk about a shared concern, big ideas were abundant. Once we got going, we were rattling off ideas left and right, until we ran out of time and post-it notes.


So… what’s holding us back?

The facilitator of our group asked the question, “How do we make our ideas come to fruition?” At first our answers were the obvious ones: time, money, connections or commitment.

But as we talked, we began to parse an issue that I think might hold some answers to the bigger question of how to enable artists—and other people who live and work on the river—to collaborate on truly innovative programs and projects.


We have to get beyond our big ideas.

I love big ideas. We all have them, our world needs really thoughtful ones, and I get a jolt of inspiration from people who are able to communicate their ideas with enthusiasm. But something happens when we focus our energy on ideas, without equal consideration of context and process. We start to reward big ideas that are simple and appropriate to our current problems, because those tend to be the most popular—at the exclusion of the slow, messy, complex and challenging ideas that might not have an immediate application, but could lead to the next breakthrough when we need it most.

In science, this is the difference between experimental research and research that is applied. Ideally, we’re doing some of both. But in the field of art and public engagement, funding for more experimental and iterative work is rare. To complicate things even further, the organizations doing the experimental work tend to be structured in ways that make it difficult for them to compete for traditional funding resources.

As a group of people from widely different professional disciplines, we might be in a unique position to get beyond this impulse to solve already identified problems with our own big ideas. As a collective, we might start to advocate for more opportunities to research and develop ideas and relationships in collaboration. What would this look like? There are no doubt lots of examples out there, and one immediate task might be to try to bring them together for a learning conversation.


Art and Engagement Under Conditions of Complexity

Just as we were starting to talk about the need for more R & D spaces for artists and others to experiment, iterate and learn together—space for testing assumptions and strategies, and not just the popularity of an idea—the gathering was over.

Lewis Gilbert, Managing Director of the Institute on the Environment, closed the day by summarizing what he heard from the group, and sharing his own reflections. In the process he name-dropped a philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions changed my perspective many years ago, as a college student with a foot in both cultural studies and history of science.

Kuhn was the one to introduce the concept of paradigm shift—and related to this—of normal science, or science that exists within an established set of rules and theories. In normal science, researchers work to articulate the paradigm, and to solve puzzles or problems contained within the prevailing world view. Most science is normal science. This is not a bad thing, but it’s something to consider. Because in some cases, at certain points in time, the paradigm and its rules and theories are no longer sufficient. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means that the world and how we see it is too complex for the established framework. We have too many questions that existing theories and methods can’t answer, and so, the messy work of exploring new paradigms is needed.

Rivers, the environment, environmental policy—these are all extremely complex systems. Scientific research, as well as art, constantly exposes us to new ways of seeing ourselves, our world and our role within it. These are realms in which all kinds of people must work in order to prepare for some truly serious changes and choices on the horizon.

Lewis closed by suggesting that what he heard out of our group was perhaps the beginning of a kind of paradigm shift. We might be in what has been called post-normal science, a time when whole value systems are being questioned and the stakes are high. It’s a time when embracing complexity and paradox, rather than our impulse to simplify and solve, might actually lead to the transformations we need.

To that point, I challenge my friends at River Life, my artist and designer peers and the community of organizations that enable our work to pause for a moment to think about that big idea, and what it might mean for how we move forward.

Originally posted on Medium.

Shanai Matteson

Works Progress, 1901 5th Street NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418, USA

Shanai Matteson is an artist, writer and co-founder/collaborative director of Works Progress, an art and design studio that produces multi-disciplinary events, programs and exhibits. She served as Community Program Specialist for the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History for 6 years, creating a “Café Scientifique” science outreach program and an “Art-Science Residency Program” for contemporary artists, among other initiatives. She was a participant in PASP’s Hunting and Gathering Walks between artists and scientists and has worked with PASP over the past year to develop City Art Collaboratory.