Guest blogger Jessica Zeglin is an artist, gardener, and educator from the rural Midwest who’s now based in the middle Rio Grande valley. As you’ll see from her piece below, she’s “fascinated with the ability of sound to create shared transformative experiences and with the ability of a drawn line to become a record of gesture and movement.” See more of her place-based textiles, installations, drawing and other artwork at her website.
In There Must Be Other Names For The River we ask ourselves about our personal and structural relationships with the drying river that today we call the Rio Grande. In this sound performance, listeners hear the voices of six singers channeling the river. Each singer represents a point where streamflow data have been collected from the 1970s to now and into possible futures. In its current iteration on othernamesfortheriver.com, we present this piece as a web-based performance space paired with a community space, Tributaries, where anyone can sing or play along with the visual score for the piece, contribute their own songs or messages, or listen to the stories, poetry, and voices of community members all along the river.
I have worked with collaborators Marisa Demarco and Dylan McLaughlin on building several versions of this piece over the past few years. Marisa grew up with the river and wound up standing in a dry riverbed in 2018, feeling the wrongness of the empty sand. That was one of the sparks for starting this piece. I am very new to the river, having moved alongside it to attend school 4 years back. My spark for participating was wanting to better understand this place, the brown, silvery, slate colored water that draws me to its banks for solace and animates my body as I drink from it daily.
But how do I get to know a river? Although I have visited it many times for this project—to record video, to draw, to meet with choirs, to listen, to collect water to paint our visual scores, or just to be there—I still find it hard to grasp the immensity of this entity. Even my simplistic idea that it is one entity shows my inability to understand the river’s complexity. Instead, the river is a network of snows and rains, mountains, acequias, ditches and arroyos, tributaries that enter and disappear, a body created of many bodies.
The piece we created from and about the river draws from this multiplicity and emphasizes collaboration and improvisation. Our formation as a collaborative was impromptu, based on common interests in sound, threatened ecologies, and political systems combined with the opportunity to present a piece inside artist Nina Elder’s Deep Time Lab at the UNM Art Museum. After its first performance there, the museum approached us to ask if we would want to create the piece as an installation, and we’ve continued to work on the project ever since until its evolution into the current digital format.
To build the piece in collaborative, we each worked from different areas of expertise. I added the nerdiness, sifting through water flow data for us to build the visual score. When we all sat down together to consider how the singers would interpret the score, it was clear that mapping specific notes or melodies onto the score would be too constricting. Instead, the score is intended as a framework for improvisation, with each musician responding to the score combined with their own experience to vocalize the river. Each time the piece is performed or recorded it is differently profound. Now, when I visit the river, I also hear these songs in my head. The voices singing from the headwaters all the way downriver to where it sometimes meets the sea combine, allowing me to feel connected more deeply to the many spaces and people united by these waters.
The foundational themes of collaboration and improvisation in the project have been important all along, but their importance became even more personal to me over the past year.
Pre-pandemic, we had plans to travel and meet with informal choirs at each of the six points along the river, recording voices from each location. We were even able to gather a choir of singers from in and around Albuquerque, who sang the piece along the riverbank on a chilly day in February, 2020. Then the pandemic arrived, and our plans to gather choirs and share song and breath were now dangerous, even deadly. We had to start over. We began revamping the piece into a digital format, considering how we could keep the spirit of collaboration and connection that were vital to the work while also keeping people safe.
But more than that, the collaborative effort of co-creating this piece became a huge learning experience for me. It turned out that working with artistic partners really helped me through the turmoil of the past year. Through worry and grief, assessing my complicity in systemic racism, and everyday weirdness, I owed it not only to myself but also to my partners to keep being engaged and creative. I got better at checking in with myself about what I could take on and what I needed to ask for help with. We all got better at understanding when someone was having a rough day and the others should jump in to help. Having fellow artists who I cared about, respected, and was accountable to kept me in motion during a time when I was in danger of losing my sense of self as an artist and a person. I’m so grateful for that, and I know now that in tough times, I will always look for collaborators to keep moving forward with.
Reflecting on this project, it makes sense to me now why this piece had to be collaborative through and through. Any one of us, or even just the three of us, could not tell the story of this river alone. What we call the river reveals our relationship with it. For me, this piece holds the idea that we can choose our relationships with this ribbon of life in arid lands. We might call the river drying or threatened by climate change. We might call it border. But we can change those names and definitions, revise and abolish them. There is no one story of the river, no one song of the river, and no one future for the river. We are all responsible for this entity that sustains and connects us. Collaboratively. Together.