Managing the Mississippi: From Magma to Mud

Banvard Gallery / Knowlton Hall
November 16, 2016 - 5:00pm to December 9, 2016 - 5:00pm

About the Exhibit

Starting with the first Swamp Lands Act (legislative precursor to the Flood Control Acts), the American landscape was subjected to a century of geomorphologic imperialism. The Corps gradually and systematically assumed the role of land manager in the Mississippi River Basin, simultaneously speeding up and slowing down the effects of seasonal change across one-third of the United States. In pursuit of environmental stability, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unwittingly became the most influential landscape designer in U.S. history. This period of escalation gave rise to some of the country’s most spectacular constructions, configuring spaces and materials at a scale and speed only achievable with federal support for what was essentially an environmental arms race with the Mississippi River. But the details of this story and even its resulting spaces are largely inaccessible to the public. What we know of the Corps’ designed restructuring of the American landscape remains primarily confined to abbreviated and highly curated narratives supplied by Army Corps public relations.

The first section of this exhibition delves into exactly this: what we know by way of that which has been written, mapped and experienced in the landscape of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. This section consists of two principal components: a large-scale topographic model and animated motion graphics exploring the environment before, during and after the Great Flood of 1927. As a collection, these landscape narratives render an image of an extraordinarily dynamic territory confronted by the Corps’ equally extraordinary mission to control it. Raising questions about the role infrastructure plays in our perceptions of place, this section exposes the social, political and ecological climates in which the Army Corps entered this unprecedented era of decision-making.

The Corps’ consistent public message bred broad acceptance of these narratives but internally circulated documents found in the archives reveal an institution divided over how best to manage floods and the national anxieties that accompany them. Highly charged and incomplete, these documents (e.g. dissenting opinions, memos, transcripts and drawing sets for unrealized or abandoned projects) create historical footholds within the tacit history of a place, spinning off radically different spatial possibilities. In the second part of this exhibition, we aim to revisit—and to recover—sparsely documented phases of Army Corps history. Using design to surface speculative scenarios where archival evidence ends or splits, what emerges are temporary or unfulfilled geographies of the lost worlds of the Lower Mississippi Basin.

Positioned at the slippage between documented truths, unfinished business and mythic tales, these materials dissolve obvious markers of past and present, fact and fiction, and expose our quixotic desire for permanence in the face of constant change. The exhibition calls on viewers to suspend disbelief by simulating the spatial possibilities of those inaccessible and fantastic architectures of the Army Corps; to ask new questions of otherwise opaque, unilateral demonstrations of technological dominance by visualizing a different reading of landscape, memory and time; to imagine an alternative approach to managing natural systems, one that reconciles stability with the inevitability of change. 

About the Team

MATTHEW SEIBERT, principal and creative director of Landscape Metrics and lecturer in landscape architecture
KRISTI CHERAMIE, associate professor of landscape architecture

Brad Steinmetz, assistant professor of theater

The following students from the LARCH Advanced Media Seminar: Radical Cartography (LARCH 2780/7890) contributed to the design and construction of the topographic model and the animated motion graphics.

Andrew Barringer
Kate Granlund
Emily Knox
Jonathan Staker
Desiree Angelotta
Alex Arseneau
Oscar Camacho-Cabrera
Sally Doyle
Amanda Knight
Alexandra Lemke
Daniel Lenk
Leah Mancabelli
Emily Weber
Clara Young

About Landscape Metrics

Landscape Metrics is a visualization studio that transforms spatial information into interactive web applications, video animations, and cartographic visualizations. Drawing on the studio members' diverse backgrounds in geographic information systems, architectural design, and systems ecology, Landscape Metrics synthesizes complex geospatial data into compelling visual narratives.

Sponsorship and Support

This project was made possible through support from The Ohio State University's Knowlton School and the Landscape Architecture Section.  Additional support comes from the Independent Projects category of the Architecture + Design Program at the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Van Alen Institute served as primary fiscal sponsor.

About the Gallery

The Banvard Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Gallery is located on the first floor of Knowlton Hall on the campus of The Ohio State University.