Illuminate the Lock: Returning the River, an artist interview

Sarah Peters

The story begins with a woman who wonders if she wants to bring a baby into this time, the time of walls. She brings this question to the origin of the Mississippi where she connects with ancestors and an ancient fish. Together, they catch a child spirit whose life is inextricably linked to the river. All will play a role in removing walls so that future generations of people and fish have access to the freedom required to continue creation.   

Illuminate the Lock: Returning the River makes its world premiere Thursday, September 20 – Saturday, September 22, 2018 at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in downtown Minneapolis.

Three nights of poetry, projection, music and interactive elements will illuminate a future where both rivers and people are liberated, where we celebrate wildness, and where we practice reciprocal relationships between all bodies of water, including one another’s.  The program includes visual projections on the water by Mike Hoyt, a soundscape composed by Dameun Strange and a story written and narrated by Molly Van Avery from a boat in the lock chamber and sung by Ritika Ganguly from above. 

Mike Hoyt, Dameun Strange, and Molly Van Avery generously took a break from production to answer a few questions about their process and inspirations as project collaborators.


NL: tell us a little bit about your creative working process as a team.

Molly: One of the pleasures of working on projects that open up access to fairly obscure places is that there is so much to learn. We learned the history of when, why, and how the US Army Corps of Engineers, guided by Congress, altered rivers across the country to turn them into shipping channels. The creation of locks and dams had devastating impacts on Indigenous communities, fish, ecology, water quality, and the ability for people to access and form relationships with these rivers.

The altering of the rivers was driven by capitalism and, in the case of Minneapolis, by the need to power our growing city and for companies to efficiently transport their materials to maximize profits. We are at a crossroads where the St Anthony lock is no longer economically viable. So what values determine our decisions about the future of the lock, if not economics? Right now, the people who want to keep the river as is are the boaters and rowers who have an intimate relationship with the river because they are on it all the time. If we removed the lock and stopped dredging, the river would change dramatically. There would be rapids, it would be shallow enough to walk across at times, islands would emerge. You could be in it and on it without a boat, increasing access across class status. Rapids oxygenate water, native fish could have the chance to thrive.

Needless to say, this is a very charged debate. And if you have opinions about the future of the lock, contact Congress! We wanted to create an event that wasn’t polarizing where we could offer an experiment in a shared ritual space. It became clear that we needed to tell a story and we wanted people to participate in the telling of that story.

We are also all parents with full time jobs, so we gave each other a lot of artistic autonomy, letting each other be on simultaneous tracks where we were each developing our own content so we could do a lot in a short amount of time.  

Mike: The process has been illuminating (I know… bad pun) in that it has been a process that required us as collaborators to learn a lot from people on the front end of the project, to meet with as many knowledgeable people as possible and to listen and integrate really broad perspectives which Molly talked about.  We knew this would be the case going in, yet it can always be a challenge to take on creating something meaningful, and not lose what initially inspired us, when engaging people with varying social or political viewpoints in what is considered a contested space. I think in the end we incorporated as much learning and perspectives as possible, but also are trying to be true to our desires to speak from our worldviews as well. In the end the creative team wanted to push beyond something that would feel didactic, to encourage us and the audience to practice or embody a new and different relational or dialogical experience with the river.

Dameun: Mike and Molly have worked together in the past and I was honored to be invited to join the team in collaboration. I think I got into the process a little later but early enough that I definitely feel like an equal part of the team and bringing the vision to life. Molly and Mike are both such talented artists and have more experience with public art than I do. So, I have learned a lot through this process and look forward to creating more public art. I do love to observe how artist working in different disciplines, with different creative languages, communicate. How time is thought about. Narration. Rhythm. It’s also great to get to know artists you have admired and get to build something together.


NL: The metaphors about walls and liberation that resound throughout this work are so timely. There is so much talk of walls in our politics and media right now, often accompanied by difficult stories of separation or exclusion that are very real threats to a lot of people. What can we gain from talking about walls in metaphoric terms, and how does a lock and dam built in the 1960’s afford us this conversation?

Mike: We have been having conversations amongst our creative team about the current social and political climate, particularly around movement–and restriction of movement–of people, diaspora, and liberation.  Molly really helped evoke these discussions in her narrative framing, that we are in a “time of edges and endings” because our nation is sitting in a unique and intense moment of reckoning with its/our collective past, and many people believe we cannot return to, or sustain, systems that maintain supremacy for the few and continue to oppress historically marginalized people. The Locks and Dams were significant engineering feats that served to build our modern industries and economies of the past, while altering the course of the river, its overall health and natural ability to sustain, while also limiting access and narrowing the terms of use for generations that followed. The lock and dam represents an opportunity to come together as people to collectively practice imagining new possible futures, for the river and people.

Molly: Before colonization, people who lived in direct relationship with the land all over the world had river rituals, stories, river Gods and Goddesses. All over the world, people perceived river as intrinsic to life. For my people, the Irish, rivers were regarded as mothers fertilizing the fields and nurturing people. Many of the rivers are named after divine women who drowned in the river and then came to inhabit and protect the water. I applied this ancestral perspective directly to the writing. For this project, we all wanted to play a role in co-creating a modern, shared story that was based in the river as we see it now. It felt important to use the lock as a metaphor for who has been locked in and out of systems that privilege the few over the many. In this story, we come to see how a person can have a deep intimacy with a fish, but I hope that people are moved to see the fish in the story literally as a species we can let die or help to thrive. The fish can also be a metaphor for coming to understand how essential it is to tie all of our efforts towards liberation together. We need stories and action, we need to listen to the ancestors and the descendents, to do the vital work of crumbling the walls between and around us.  

Dameun: I feel that art is a perfect tool to bring down walls. Art has a magical way of giving people permission to be vulnerable. We build walls sometimes because we see vulnerability as a weakness. The is a powerful beauty in vulnerability. Walls prevent us from moving forward, from having necessary conversation. Walls prevent access, access to places and information. I think in the narrative you get the sense that this story belongs to all of us. It is universal demonstrating not only the connection we have with the river but with each other. With art we can share experiences without walls. We need more of that right now.


NL: Mike, your practice in drawing and painting has recently taken the pre-cinematic form of moving image through the long scroll drawings you did for the Mpls 2040 project.  What is it like to animate Returning the River’s story and literally the water of the river?

Mike: It is both a very invigorating and daunting experience to undertake as the story of the river is a layered and complex history spanning centuries. We have been in A LOT OF MEETINGS, and although they were critical to the development of the project and its content, I am super glad to be in the building/making phase.

Projecting images onto the water is also a difficult technical challenge given how the water and depth of the lock absorbs light. I am excited to play with how images might emerge from, and recede back into the water and how that can support the arc of the story.

I am trying to evoke key elements of Molly’s narrative using simplified, even gestural renderings, but I am aware that I need to incorporate different elements of archival material (maps, diagrams, historical footage) to connect the content to important eras.  I am really having fun hand drawing frames and animating sequences that still maintain my particular mark making. I probably could spend a year creating this one project if I had the time and resources as hand rendering 20-30 minutes of animation is no small task.


NL: Dameun, you’re currently working on a different project with references to water with Ananya Dance Theater. Can you talk about any thematic connections between the projects and the effect of working on a score for a traditional presentation space vs. the lock?

Dameun: The music for Returning the River is all original and completely inspired by Molly’s text and Mike’s visuals and our conversations throughout the process. I have been working on music for Ananya Dance Theatre’s show which is actually being performed the same weekend and there are strong themes regarding how women of color are connect to water and in particular indigo and the indigo trade. There are certain themes, justice and liberation, connection to and honoring our ancestors, that are present in both pieces. However for ADT, I am in a theater space and am writing music for that type of venue. I get to play with sound in a different way that may or may not makes sense at the Lock. There is a little more movement between speakers in the Ananya music. For Returning the River, the music is still dynamic but more loop oriented to allow for Ritika and I to freely improvise.


NL: Molly, what is the significance of the reference to the paddlefish in the story?

Molly: Originally I wrote the story about a bluegill because I loved the name and I was exploring the idea that loving something really small can inspire people to do something really big. In that version of the story, the mother and daughter caught and ate the bluegill. We had a meeting with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Education and Public Programs Director, Dan Dressler, who asked why I chose bluegill. He told me that the paddlefish are a better example of a fish whose community has been deeply impacted by the locks. As I learned more about the paddlefish, it was clear that the story needed the paddlefish. First of all, the female fish release their eggs and then a male fish comes along and releases the rest of what’s needed. As a queer single parent by choice, I immediately relate to the female paddlefish. Then I learned how ancient they are and how they have existed prior to dinosaurs. If we are able to threaten a species that old because we want to ship stuff, that is just unforgivable. They can wait to spawn for up to sixteen years which worked perfectly with the main character’s timeline and they need very specific conditions for their young to survive. Lastly, I learned that their eggs are a treasured form of local caviar. That sealed the deal and completely altered the direction of the ending. You’ll have to come see the show to find out how!


NL: Tell us about a moment of surprise learning you’ve experienced while working on Returning the River.

Dameun: When we did the first test at the site, there was a beautiful full moon out and people were walking along the Stone Arch Bridge trying to see what was happening. I got a real sense of how powerful this piece would be and how big of an audience we will have indirectly. I was again honored that Mike and Molly thought of me to do this work with them and that this would be one of my first public art pieces, with a team that is so talented and knows how to make things happen in a huge and unique way.

Mike: Hearing Dameun’s compositions in relationship to Molly’s story, and how the interplay between vocal narration, music, singing, and moving visuals is very exciting. We all jumped into this process knowing we wanted to collaborate, but not really knowing what each member would specifically contribute. I can say as it is coming together! I am super inspired and excited at each developmental stage of the process. I feel so compelled to partner with these incredibly talented and powerful artists to expand this idea/project, as now that we are in the mode of making together we recognize there is so much more we could develop together around these important and timely themes and issues.

Molly: Every time I have had the pleasure of hearing Dameun’s compositions, I am transported. Not only is his music strange, new, dynamic, and just plain awesome, the ideas that fuel his operas and projects are inspiring. He makes me want to be alive in this time to see how we continue to use art to imagine our way towards a more dynamic and fascinating world. When I got to hear the soundscape he is working on, I felt my soul lighting up. He is a local treasure. I feel so honored to hear simple lines of text I wrote be transformed by him into spellbinding songs brought to life by the gifts of Ritika’s gorgeous voice. It is really exciting to watch Mike experiment and gain new skills as an animator. We really hope we do the river proud.  


Illuminate the Lock uses the 49 foot tall chamber of Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock & Dam as a platform for artistic intervention. It is presented by Northern, Mississippi Park Connection, and the National Park Service with support from St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board and the US Army Corps of Engineers.