We built a boat and traveled the Upper Mississippi River in a public art project, a floating, multimedia portrait of the river last summer and are returning to St. Louis to continue on.
We were awarded a grant from the Rhode Island School of Design, sponsored by ReVision Energy, and raised funds through a kickstarter campaign to build a boat to travel down the length of the Mississippi and become a floating, multimedia portrait of the river. We believe that to truly understand the narrative of a river and how it is connected to the communities along its banks you must travel it. The boat has acted as a storytelling tool as well as a story-gathering tool when people experienced it, walked through it, and saw it pass by on the river this past summer.
The watercraft (named Michi Zeebee), which is a combination of the shanty boat, the river raft, and the Mississippi showboat, was built by us at The Apprenticeshop the summer of 2016 and traveled down the Upper Mississippi River the summer of 2017, culminating in show held at Treo in New Orleans. This year we are going back to St. Louis to hold a series of workshops and continue down the river.
How do people along one of the world’s longest and most famous rivers actually relate to that river on a personal and daily level? What structures—dykes, levees, houses, locks, boats, barges—mediate that relationship? How has that relationship changed as the habitat of the river has changed? These are questions that we seek to explore and highlight on the ground level by taking a trip down the river in a traditional boat that we built from scratch. The boat is a cross between a show boat—with colonial-era details and a working water wheel—and a “shanty” boat, a make-do water-top home found in eddies and crooks all along the river.
As our understanding of the river and its people shifts over the course of the journey, our watercraft will also shift. We will respond to the history of the river, the places where we portage, and the data we gather, adding and changing pieces of the boat, creating detailing, gathering artifacts (including clay from certain areas of the river banks for making pottery, and shells from along the shores), sewing flags, painting and carving into the wood, so that by the time the boat arrives at New Orleans, it will be transformed into a multimedia, multifaceted portrait of the river that draws together diverse communities.
SUSTAINABILITY + COMMUNITY
There are two core ideas at the heart of this project: first, it’s about connecting communities—the coasts, where each of us grew up, the northeast, where we’ve built the boat, the heartland, and the south. These disparate socio-geographic communities will become connected through our journey. Second, the project is about sustainability. The history of the Mississippi is a history of attempts to control the environment of the river, forcing a naturally fluctuating, muddy habitat into a controlled and constrained one, where water and land are divided. Though these efforts initially seemed to expand the area around the river suitable for settlement, in the long run they are exacerbating flooding in the Mississippi River Delta. The river boat is a simple example of responsive, adaptable architecture: it moves and lives with the river.