Thinking with a River


“We are so fortunate to be living now because the challenges are so many and we need to use our imaginations in new ways.” Grace Lee Boggs

In June this year, torrential rains at Iguazú led to the closing of tourist sites, and the platform for viewing the waterfalls was all but destroyed. The upper Paraná was said to be carrying 33 times its usual flow and near Ascuncion, and farther west again in Paraguay, at least 300,000 people were flooded out of their homes. This was a month before we flew from Chicago to Buenos Aires, and when our group arrived at Rosario in late July, the still expanding floodwaters were speeding flotsam and freshwater weeds along its swollen surface. Rosario is quite distant from where the Rio Pilcomayo flows into the Paraguay and then joins the Paraná, but people in that city know it takes 25 days for upriver floods to bring the river up along their own shores. The flooding becomes more frequent as land upstream is deforested, mined and paved for roads and cities. Do the people know this too? And I wonder whether the people in St. Louis, near where I live by the Mississippi, know how many days it takes for upstream floodwaters to reach their banks. Those intervals between floods here and floods there might open a window in the skew of time between this place and that, north and south, that illuminates the interdependencies of our fortunes. This meeting is then a question of how to interrogate our temporal and causal connections to locate the time of a river. And to learn how the patterns that emerge from a river and its basin might address the daunting problem of how restorative ecological engagement is so outscaled by global financial ambitions. As Graciela Carnevale points out, there is no more need for growth. How then can humans move toward reinhabiting the basins and rivers as partners, rather than as exploiters?

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Years of Struggle with a Side Effect: Critical Art



This text was originally commissioned for inclusion in a volume of the Chicago Social Practice History series. Judged to be inadequately convincing in its thesis by series editors, it was axed. Being more of an exercise in genre evasion than in genre definition, the text is certainly fuzzy in applied terminologies.  But the action that took place during the period covered was never about defining a kind of art, at least not from the ground level. It was about struggling to make the city livable. That is what forced so many art workers in Chicago to think outside of conventional forms, and, ironically, what brought consequent outside attention to the many forms of politically engaged work happening in the city. Consider this a contribution to the social history of “social practice” in Chicago rather than to an art history.

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From political economy to political ecology

After the stark utopia

talk by Brian Holmes at The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Utopia is an imaginary figure, an absent place, a vision or a model that can gather all the force of reality. It’s widely believed there are no more utopias, but that’s not the case. “No place” abounds in the twenty-first century. Its towers rise over Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Its freeways, airports and data centers proliferate. Its markets move into ever more complex virtual spaces. Its citizens, credit cards in hand, sustain an economy of continuous capital circulation. All this claims to be an absolute invention – a brave new world.

The contemporary utopia has its birthdates and its ghostly afterlives. Sometimes they coincide. In 1949, Friedrich von Hayek published an article in a University of Chicago journal calling for the rebirth of nineteenth-century liberalism. The past would become the future:

What we lack is a liberal utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.

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Region from Below: Southern Illinois Drift

strip mine entrance

Eagle River Coal LLC. Harrisburg IL

The Region from below is a concept we used earlier to expose and map a concealed landscape of energy extraction. Last March we explored this idea materially with a drift to Southern Illinois. The metaphor of a territory buried underneath, with perhaps insurgent potential, is fitting for how Southern Illinois is like Chicago’s back 40, not only at the ‘bottom’ of the state, but also layered in time, for much of the physical power and materials, particularly coal, that helped build Chicago into an economic powerhouse were pulled out of this ground. Southern Illinois has been serially plundered since the early 1800s, starting with salt, then oil, coal, oil and more oil and now gas through high pressure deep well hydrofracking.
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Decolonizing So ILL


Stripmine entrance. Karber’s Ridge; Saline border with Pope County. North of the Shawnee forest

Eagle River Coal LLC. Early on Sunday, to the not unreasonable consternation of the student hired to drive our van, we pull into the parking lot of the Eagle River surface coal mine & sneak around the locked gates, past the empty guard shack, our rag-tag team following the road up to the muddy edge of the mine. An enormous alley dug into the earth, with 50-foot mountains of mud heaped up in piles here and there. A quarter mile away there are a few trucks parked next to an office, but no one seems to notice us as we wade about, up to our ankles in red clay on this cold, gray early spring morning. Continue reading

A rural industrial drift

The reporters are Matthias (nomad)  and Sarah (resident (in dark blue)

At the farmer’s market.  A three-piece band in the basketball gym of a school, Saturday morning. Booths suggesting the cheerful side of barely getting by. This is what neoliberalism looks like on a cold, sunny spring morning. People producing marginal objects – coffee, jam, knitted hats & shawls. The atmosphere is almost downright exuberant. Organizer of market describes how easy it was to get the space ‘donated’ by the school. Principal was into it. farmersmkt1sm Continue reading

Mapping from below workshop

"Where you at?" workshop

“Where you at?” workshop

Where you at? was a workshop on making and thinking with maps that was held on Friday March 22, 2014 in the Morris library at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The walls were covered with a collection of maps resourced from the library GIS area and a text written by Nick Smaligo and I that offered observations on the instrumental power of cartography.
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Between the Bottomlands and the World

Between the Bottomlands and the World is a video trilogy and book project that explores a rural mid-western town of 6000 people—a place of global exchange and international mobility, inscribed by post-NAFTA realities. Recent scholarship shows that immigrants are moving to rural communities in the Midwest at the same rate that they are moving to cities. Historically, Midwestern cities were home to industries that attracted immigrant workers, becoming hubs for those seeking work. Today, many remaining industries lie outside the city, in rural towns unencumbered by urban regulations. In the case of Beardstown, the major industry—a slaughterhouse—recruited new immigrants from the Texas border, Mexico, and later from Congo, Togo, Senegal, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean locales, to what was an all-white, “sundown” town.

As social struggles have been fought and won in this small town, its existence has consistently relied on one multinational corporate giant, which is currently Cargill. Hence, workers come and go, hogs are slaughtered and shipped out at the rate of 18,000 a day, grain travels from the fields to the Cargill loading docks on the Illinois River where they enter national and international markets. Between the Bottomlands… tells this story of global mobility in a rural, Heartland town, through looking at the trades of meat and grain as well as the stories of newcomers. One chapter (Submerging Land) looks at the engineering of contemporary agricultural land from a network of rivers and marshes that once surrounded the town, while a second (Granular Space)explores the vast transportation network connecting Beardstown to ports across the globe. A final, forthcoming, video (Moving Flesh) uses interviews with long-time residents and new-comers, from such disparate locales as Detroit, Mexico and Togo, and re-stages them through fictionalized and composite characters, relating the current effects of globalization on individuals and communities. This final video is subtitled in French and Spanish.

The first two videos are included in their entirety below, along a short introduction to Moving Flesh.

A book will accompany the videos, with an experimental glossary and an essay by Faranak Miraftab, an urban planner and principle researcher on this project. Between the Bottomlands and the World is a project by Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross.

Cartography with your feet

Screenprint poster for Cartography with Your Feet at the US Social ForumHow can the scattered communities of the Rust Belt and the Corn Belt recognize each other, connect, share resources and build cultures of transformation? The Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor is a sign, a vision, an invitation to meet people in cities, towns and rural areas on the roads to Detroit, to learn about local situations and find common issues. Our group of artists and writers, The Compass, is dedicated to exploring the radical roots of better futures for the region. This workshop offers a convergence for caravanistas, bicyclists and walkers to say how they are linking their home environments, projects and struggles to other localities and initiatives. Participants can tell stories of their travels, show images with a projector and trace out routes on a large map of North America, locating the places they found most meaningful. Key themes are environmental and social justice campaigns, alternative food production, cultures of resistance and grassroots institutions. Follow-ups during the Forum will include a walking tour in Detroit in collaboration with local inhabitants. We will also carry out video interviews with participants about the life path that has led them to Detroit, to create a lasting document distributed for free. Everyone paying special attention to the territory they cross on their road to the Forum is invited to share. This workshop can be merged with any similar proposal: the point is to meet people and make the dream of the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor into a reality. Map it with your feet!

Continental Drift through the MRCC

cdmrccFrom June 4 to 14, 2008, a group of people traveled through Illinois and Wisconsin in search of a Radical Midwest. Starting in Urbana, Illinois and winding our way through Chicago, Milwaukee, rural Wisconsin, and Madison, we visited places where alternate pasts and futures sprout up and grow roots in the stress-fractures of a society built on violence, exploitation, and environmental destruction. We visited community groups fighting power companies for decades of environmental racism; learned about preserving Underground Railroad sites in Chicago; watched a 35-year old film about revolutionary black street gangs with the man who wrote it; cleaned a flood-damaged bookstore; and passed the time on many, many farms.

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The trip was called Continental Drift and extended the seminars of that name organized by Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost, and the people at 16 Beaver Group. The name proposes a radical geography that thinks place, culture, and economics simultaneously and contends that neoliberal capitalism and American militarism—as well as the international social movements that counter them — are radically reshaping the world on scales from the interpersonal to the geopolitical. The Midwest gathering doubled this sense of the word “drift.” Through the mobile exploration of the geographies of capital and resistance in a particular place, the seminar also became a derive, favored as an affective, embodied research tool by the Situationists of fifty years ago. In contrast to earlier seminars, this Drift unfolded over ten days, 725 miles, and several rainy nights spent in tents, fostering a level of familiarity, even intimacy among the travelers and those we visited.

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(excerpted from the introduction to A Call to Farms)