Recording the Mississippi Soundscape: A Conversation with Monica Haller

A satellite image of the Mississippi River

Minnesota-based artist and educator Monica Haller visited Madison, Wisconsin, in early April 2019 to discuss her work in Mississippi. An Anthropocene River, an interdisciplinary research project in affiliation with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. While Mark Twain once asserted that “the Mississippi is well worth reading about,” Monica’s work asks us to listen to the waters as they traverse the wetlands and deltas of Louisiana. In recording the underwater sounds and vibrations of this historical waterway, Monica traces connections between the river and legacies of slavery, land ownership, and dynamic environmental realities.

I spoke with her in person in Madison, Wisconsin.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Thomas: Let’s begin with the current project that you’re working on, Mississippi. An Anthropocene River, in affiliation with a couple of different institutes in Berlin. Can you talk to us about the impetus behind this project and how you see it relating to the present political and environmental moment?

Monica Haller: The work that I’ve been doing on the Mississippi River has been going on in an iterative way since 2012 and 2013. Far from an individual artist project, many artists, scientists and individuals have been involved. Adriana Knouf, Molly Reichert, Jonathan Zorn, Sara Pajunen, and Paul Smith made the first iteration in St. Paul in 2013. Sebastian Muellauer and I spent two months traveling down the Mississippi River recording sounds, which I’ll talk about more later. Currently Michi Wianko is working on a sound composition that will come out in September as part of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s events. A contingent of University of Minnesota students, Prerna, Erika Terwilliger, and Harriet Matzdorf, and Michael Winikoff at the Science Communication Lab, and I are all working towards the same efforts in the fall.

Over the last year, the German institutes that you mentioned—the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Max Planck Institute—approached many groups and people in the U.S. who had already been doing work along the Mississippi watershed, because of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s interest in exploring the river as an Anthropocene site.

Louisiana swamp with trees bending over water

A Louisiana swampscape. Photo by Lionel Parria, May 2017.

Some of my motivation to work along the river is that part of my family was from coastal Louisiana on the east bank of the Mississippi River, thirty miles downriver from New Orleans. This parcel of land is still in my family, and has been for six generations. During the Great Migration, my great-grandparents immigrated to Minneapolis after their general store had been burned down multiple times, most likely because of racial persecution.

Living in Minneapolis, they sent my grandfather down to Louisiana in the summer to farm on the family land, a rice plantation and a vegetable farm. He brought his own family down in the summers, so my mom grew up going there, and later I did too. This has created multiple generations moving up and down the river; some of my experience of the river is related to this particular kind of travel and spatial understanding.

When you put a microphone in the water, you can hear something far away as if right next to you. Sound is a medium to enter historic, political, social, and material realms.

Initially, I wanted to invite people to simply be next to the water, but to think about it in an expanded way. Sound travels through the medium of water differently than through the medium of air. When you put a microphone in the water, you can hear something far away as if right next to you. For me, that technical detail enabled me to think about ways to expand and collapse space and time. Then in 2015, artist and designer Sebastian Muellauer and I spent two months traveling the Mississippi River to more thoroughly gather underwater sounds. Sebastian designed an environmental water robot that we used with other data collection devices to amass sounds on the river, from the sound of alligator gar to radio interference in New Orleans. In some ways, sound is also a medium to enter other historic, political, social, and material realms, and the sound itself is often a signifier—or a window—into something else.

AT: You’re also involved in the Veterans Book Project. When people think of photographers in war they probably think of somebody embedded with combat units, yet your work with veterans is very different—you’re more of a collaborator. Could you talk a bit about that project?

MH: I become most engaged in photography when I feel like I have something to push up against. With the Veterans Book Project I was engaging critically with the tradition of documentary photography and the tradition of photojournalism. Who gets to represent whom, who gets to speak? At this moment, it seemed like an important time to put down my camera and to talk to and work with people who already had massive amounts of materials and images that they had made themselves.

Today, it makes me think about something that Ariella Azoulay talks about, in detail and much more nuance than I can give it here, in her book The Civil Contract of Photography. She says our job as a viewer is to try to imagine what’s around the frame, to try to imagine the particular power structures at play. I think this is an important and exciting way to think about photography.

AT: Do you see any connection between the work that you’ve done with veterans and your interest in environmental systems?

MH: I think about both in terms of the way that the country is militarized. Mike Jackson is one of the authors in the Veterans Book Project, and I think one of the underlying points of his book is that when a government goes to war they are making a philosophical choice about who and what is expendable, who and what is worth grieving. I think that a similar decision-making process has been played out throughout this country’s history around what is expendable in terms of people and land. What I’m trying to do now is draw those together.

Louisiana wetlands photographed from above

The eroding wetlands of coastal Louisiana. Photo by Jill Mastrototaro, May 2010.

AT: What’s next for you now once the Mississippi project finishes? What do you want to see more of in your field?

MH: In our particular political climate, I think many things get flattened, reduced to very specific sound bites or very particular terms. For example,  for many people it doesn’t make sense to have one kind of fixed identity, but we’re asked to all the time and it really reduces both our own experiences and histories in the United States. In my work I try to tease that out and pull apart all those painful and contradictory histories. I’m excited when people are digging into the histories that are right under us that have been compacted and need to be aerated.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect corrections and additions requested by Monica Haller.

Featured Image: “Meandering Mississippi.” A satellite view from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, May 2003.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Monica Haller is an Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota. She has an M.F.A in Visual Studies and a B.A. in studying Philosophy of Violence and Non-Violence. She is a practicing artist and educator. Her creative work and research span photography, video, design, installation, and writing. Her collaborative work includes “Riley and his story” and the “Veterans Book Project,” both offering multi-layered narratives of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haller’s most recent work brings her to the eroding wetlands of the Louisiana coast, land that has been in her family for six generations. This new work explores philosophies of ownership, the social construction of race, environmental racism, and productive possibilities of this wetland’s terrain. Her work is exhibited in the U.S. and internationally. Contact.

Andrew Thomas is a doctoral student in the English department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He studies 20th and 21st century American literature and culture with an emphasis on U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, trauma and memory, militarism and gender, and war and the environment. His dissertation is attempting to theorize civil war as a primary way of understanding the “American Century” (1898-2001) both domestically and internationally. Contact