One Community and its River: An Artist Roundtable
This past spring, four artists converged in the small town of Chestertown, Maryland. Their goal was to unearth connections between the community and their river, exploring the changes that have reshaped each. Both their art and their artistic processes revealed new ways to explore connections between people and the world around them. What emerged was an installation called WaterLines: RiverBank, composed of light, sound, science, moving bodies, and architectural design. Brought together by the SANDBOX initiative at Washington College, artistic director Ronit Eisenbach, choreographer Cassie Meador (whose Dance Exchange interview appeared in this publication), environmental scientist and artist Jenifer Wightman, and composer Aleksandra Vrebalov transformed an empty bank into an ethereal watery landscape and community event.
The artists remade a space originally designed to reassure investors with its rigid formality into a place for visitors that questioned the future of natural systems. In place of the valuables that had once been secured in the bank’s abandoned vault, participants encountered small bowls of river water gathered by children accompanied by video interviews with residents describing their connections to their river and what they would put in the vault today. The walls were flooded with images of the river and its sediments, brought to life by projections of Wightman’s mud paintings. Vrebalov’s compositions echoed off the walls as Meador’s dancers drew fluid movements across the floor, leading the audience out of the bank to the river’s edge. Eisenbach produced the ephemeral objects and light projections with videographer Shane Meador that shaped the WaterLines experience.Chestertown is quite literally off the beaten path, located an hour and a half from Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Likewise, compared to the nearby Potomac and Delaware rivers, the Chester River is little known beyond Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the colonial era, Chestertown prospered as a site where tobacco and wheat (and enslaved people) moved between water and land. Like many smaller port towns, its fortunes faded with the emergence of new commercial corridors and railroad lines in the nineteenth century. A modest working waterfront later developed to support the area’s once thriving oyster and crab industry—a waterfront which has now been largely replaced with the leisure vessels of weekenders and retirees.
After experiencing the installation as a community member, I interviewed the artists via email. I asked them to reflect on the WaterLines project and process. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Andrew Case: None of you are from Chestertown. How did you learn about the area’s human and natural histories and incorporate that into your artwork for WaterLines?
Aleksandra Vrebalov: I made a total of six visits over a year, and was fortunate to experience the place through a number of long walks, visits to several distinctly different places of worship for Sunday services, and contacts and visits with faculty and students at Washington College. While I was not familiar with Chestertown initially, I experienced it as fresh, new, and inspiring, and also evocative of sounds and smells of the river on which I grew up, the Danube (Novi Sad, Serbia). That commonality of experience (related to life in towns on rivers) was a very useful realization—it helped me feel instantly comfortable in Chestertown and showed me that both local and universal themes were necessary to explore in our project.
Jenifer Wightman: I think history is important, but it is a vulnerable truth and necessarily human-centric. In contrast, I am interested in mass balance and its insatiable re-iteration of form. My project “started” a cultural history of microbial life around Chestertown. Microbes were here before the Native Americans or the Americans-to-be. In fact, these single-cell organisms were the first climate-changers and are profoundly adept at living in a range of ecosystems from boiling deep-sea sulfur vents to arctic ice. Could we learn from their mechanisms of adaptation to changing conditions? After hearing from community researchers, I decided to select freshwater, brackish, and saltwater mud sites along the Chester River to show the range of microbes that make their livelihood along the changing salt conditions of the same river.
Cassie Meador: The age of the river and the exercise of imagining its experience over time provided a point of departure. We invited everyone from the RiverKeeper to students to share their knowledge about the river’s past, present, and potential future. We began our early conversations by asking: how has the river experienced change? What might it want us to know about people of Chestertown then and now?
It took a leap for some individuals to begin thinking from the perspective of the river. But once individuals settled into their bodies and imaginations, the stories flooded out, and our own knowledge about the place and its people deepened. These conversations led us to other questions that became central to the project: What do you value most about this place? What do you hold onto and let go of in the face of both consistency and change along river? What do you wish to protect for future generations here in Chestertown?
Ronit Eisenbach: I visited Chestertown sixteen times between June 2014 and April 2015. Each time I returned, I noted seasonal shifts of color, texture, and form in the landscape and river more keenly. It was as if I was visiting a young child or older relative every few months, noting the changes that perhaps others there all the time did not. From these interactions, I understood we would be entering into what I call a “site-in-flux,” a fertile situation where the anticipation of change sparks movement towards a critical point. I was drawn to the waterline, the edge between city and water, city and farmland, the stories of the people who made the town, and to their plans and concerns for the future. I thought about the landscape as a standing reserve converted through labor and invention into the wealth that built the city, miniaturized into items that would fit into the vault. I wondered about the values and labor that shaped this natural and built landscape and what people valued now.
AC: A common phrase in the environmental humanities is “bridge-building,” the need for bringing scholarly, artistic, and residential communities together. What bridges were you most interested in building through WaterLines?
AV: My interest was primarily to connect people with the environment through sound. I thought that bringing the sounds of the river and the natural environment of Chestertown into a performance space would help show how we relate to everyday sonic experiences around us. They connect us to our environment, but often pass unnoticed because of their regularity and commonness. Sounds are identity and memory markers, aural signatures of a place. By removing the “bank” sounds from the bank (soundscape of previous business transactions, tellers, and deposit safes still ringing in the ears of residents/clients), and inducing a different aural experience, we hoped to symbolically show the transition that the town has been going through. By playing with these two aural worlds, my hope was to affirm a sense of belonging and stability amidst the change.
JW: I’m interested in acculturating anyone to microbes in a positive way, in an era of poorly managed antimicrobials. Microbes are the best! We must not be afraid of them! Bacteria outnumber us in number, mass, and diversity. Our American perspective is missing 99% of the incredible story of microbes as one of the most important players on earth—yet we continue to disregard their essential role in our daily life. We must learn to recognize and honor their profound role in moving the material currency of this world. They are movers and shakers that also happen to photosynthesize pretty pigments. They are essential to the cycles of life at all scales. They are resilient and their patterns might inform our own patterning. As the microbes in my mud paintings acquire and release the elemental building blocks of life it becomes very difficult to know which is the figure (bacteria) or field (mud) of the painting—as the matter moves relentlessly between foreground and background.
CM: One of the greatest impacts of collaborating with scientists over the years on my work has been an expanded sense of what community means. Working with scientists to better understand and communicate about our changing planet and our connection to other life on earth has made my own view of community less human-centric. These collaborations have influenced me to think more in terms of making space for existing and emerging relationships to be made visible. In this project, the work across campus, community, generations of residents, and disciplines opened pathways to a deepened awareness of relationships along the river. The creative outcomes of the project became a way to make human and environmental connections visible and felt in one’s own life and body.
RE: Different pasts and possible futures flickered into and out of my awareness during my conversations and walks through the town and along its river edge. I sought to build bridges from the everyday to other histories, other existences, other ways of knowing and being in this particular place. We tried to welcome people to places and ideas they may never have entered before. For example, we invited people to place whatever they valued in the vault. By creating an opportunity for shared experience in which anyone could be a contributor, we tried to bridge people who are officially “makers” and people who don’t view themselves in that way.
AC: WaterLines struck me as profoundly local: made of Chester River muds, local sounds and the moving bodies area residents, not to mention the historic bank. Yet clearly the work sought to transcend the local, so what were the broader themes and ideas you were hoping to illuminate?
AV: I remember that the word subliminal kept coming back in our description of how the sound and image in the installation might work together. We played with archetypes that were sampled from the everyday, local setting (both in sound and image), like water, birds, boats, soil, earth jars, hands. So the range of possible ways to interpret them was very wide—from specifically local, to universal, to mythical. All of those interpretations and experiences are equally valid. In my case, a broader theme to illuminate in the piece was a sense of place, and that is a universal theme. If we truly hear the sounds that surround us, they define us in relationship to the environment and anchor us in time and space, making us present and aware of our place in the moment. They make us feel integrated and alive.
JW: The “local” mud illustrates the phenomenon that bacteria are both figure and field. On our time and space scales, there is no “separation” between figure and field in these “micro-landscape paintings.” I think there is room to infer from these micro-patterns to different time- and space-scales (ours). For our final piece, we projected mud onto the dancers—as a new way of “seeing” the background landscape as animated in the foreground of human activity. The landscape of Chestertown is not static material behind the animated action of the dance, but embodied within the form of the dancers themselves. By blurring foreground and background, the “figure” and “field” is unified as one continuously flowing entity. Dance was merely moving earth and water. Local is less a location than a moment of time and space in human perception and experience, of the same basic thing happening everywhere. To me local as a common denominator is very comforting— and the basis of empathy.
CM: Our hope for the performance was that it would create new ways we relate to our local environment and how we shape the places we live and work. Live performance can expand and compress time, embrace factual, emotive, and abstract ways of understanding, and put our own bodies and perceptions into a larger context. This allows us to embrace both the similarity of what is happening everywhere, in our bodies, the mud, and all of life, and the beautiful diversity and particularity of each place and person. One of the oldest members of the community shared with me that the performance and experience of dancing with her town provided a deepened connection to people and place, and that this newfound connection created a greater sense of responsibility to the future of the Chester River.
RE: A good story uses local material to pose universal questions. By engaging a series of critical thresholds and spaces—the lobby and vault of the Chestertown bank, the Chester river/town edge and High Street, the urban link connecting the two—WaterLines referenced water and the river in multiple ways and explored the relationships, exchanges and tensions between the natural and built environments and the values that shape them. Mary McCoy’s article did a beautiful job of conveying both the specificity of the piece and larger themes: the inevitability of change; the questioning of value; the different forms and meanings of exchange and the potential to shift understanding by surfacing new relationship and meanings; and a space of heightened experience in which the familiar and everyday become strange enough to spark reflection, dialogue, and perhaps redirect our sense of self, actions, and beliefs.
AC: Collaboration is central to interdisciplinary explorations of the environment, and yet the process of collaboration—as in literally working together—can be easily over-idealized. In what ways did this project challenge each of you as collaborators?
AV: I was stimulated by a group of artists who had such strong directions in their own individual creative process. The timing of gestation, production, and presentation of our work greatly varies for each of us, and we needed to coordinate that. It seemed that having all four of us involved until the very end of the creative process might not be even possible, but then we did it. Having different stages of completion of individual contributions was initially a challenge, as we needed to weave the individual segments into a coherent whole, but it was also inspiring to see how those individual parts merged in ways that we could not predict.
JW: It was so hard! It required a profound amount of trust and communication. At times, I felt like I was failing as a “collaborative” artist because I had such a defined objective and budget in the proposal. I think, as individually actualized artists, we were all strong-willed, effective, and independent while also idealistically aspiring to the power of integration. This opportunity afforded us to individually and collectively engage the community in meaningful ways.
CM: One of the greatest challenges in any collaboration is how one navigates the competing needs and hopes of the creative team, the partners supporting the work, and the participants and audiences engaged throughout the project. WaterLines offered an opportunity for the creative team to work towards a final installation and performance, and to explore the process of getting there. I think about my ability to “make” as a choreographer in terms of relationships. In each encounter on this project, I asked myself how I could make the most of the assets I brought to the table as a choreographer, whether in a science class, a workshop at the local senior residency, a devised theater course, or a meeting with a city planner. I also think about my contributions as a facilitator, working with others to help them make work that can create space for positive change in their lives and community.
RE: I learned a great deal from the other artists. We challenged one another and shared the gifts of new material and ideas (some of which are cataloged in our WaterLines Journal). We created a synergy and tension that was critical to the development of our collective work. On a personal note, these overlapping moments helped weave the threads of my contributions into a cohesive vision. In the end, the final works surfaced, framed, juxtaposed, and transformed our individual contributions and discoveries so that their existence could be felt and acknowledged by others. Perhaps that was our way of emulating and acknowledging that the environments we build and shape are the result of an ever-evolving creative negotiation between many people and natural forces over time.
The WaterLines: RiverBank project involved many hands (and voices). The collaboration expanded beyond the initial creative team and Alex Castro and Sean Meade of SANDBOX to include other talented makers, including dancers Matthew Cumbie and Dante Brown; filmmaker Shane Meador; designer Austin Raimond; local arts leader Leslie Prince Raimond; urban planner Kees deMoy; Washington College faculty and students; gospel singer Irene Moore; local elders and children; and the audience.
Featured image: community members carrying a bowl of water as part of the WaterLines: RiverBank installation. Photo by Zachary Z. Handler.
Ronit Eisenbach is an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. Through teaching, curating, and exhibition design, she explores how the perception of subjective, invisible, and ephemeral objects affects understanding and experience of place. Website. Contact.
Aleksandra Vrebalov is a Serbian-born composer who moved to the United States in 1995. Her works have been performed by Kronos Quartet, David Krakauer, ETHEL, Jorge Caballero, National Opera of Serbian National Theater, and Belgrade Philharmonic among others. Website.
Jenifer Wightman is a scientist who specializes in greenhouse gas mitigation strategies at Cornell University and teaches Sustainable Systems at Parsons. Her art is in the collections of the Gutenberg Museum, Bodmer Museum, Bodleian Library, and Library of Congress. Website. Contact.