Art of Interference
Season 1: Water | Episode 5: Rivers
[ML: Maren Loveland | TH: Tori Hoover | CC: Carolina Caycedo | CAY: Carla Acededo-Yates | LB: Lisa Blackmore | FM: Frank McGilligan | JG: Jennifer Gutman | ER: Emma Reimers | LK: Lutz Koepnick]
ML: We often think of rivers as the lifeblood of our world—long-admired, written about, and mythologized, rivers are just as essential to human cultures as they are to the world’s ecosystems. From the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Amazon and Mississippi, mankind has for millennia built our world around water.
TH: In Hinduism, the goddess Ganga represents the personification of the river Ganges, the goddess of purification and forgiveness. That personification is actually reflected in an entire tradition of art in which the river is itself a speaker, a singer, a character.
ML: And yet, rivers’ voices have become increasingly silenced and disfigured by the rampant practice of damming—a violent process which is devastating not only to river ecologies, but also to the people who reside alongside them.
TH: From Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this is Art of Interference: a podcast about creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we talk with artists and experts who work at the intersection of nature, technology, and science today. This episode is hosted by Maren Loveland.
ML: Arundhati Roy’s 1999 essay “The Greater Common Good” examines the staggering effects of mega-dams on rivers and the communities who live closest to them. In the course of her writing, Roy learns that the damming of India’s Narmada River will forcibly displace 50 million people. “I feel like someone who’s just stumbled on a mass grave,” she writes.
TH: So, what does happen when we interfere with rivers? And what happens when we use art as a means of understanding that intervention?
CC: My name is Carolina Caycedo. I’m a multidisciplinary artist living in Los Angeles.
ML: Carolina Caycedo’s art interrogates human relationships to the environment.
CC: A lot of my work deals with environmental issues, social justice issues. I look to contribute to the construction of environmental historical memory.
ML: — Paying close attention to the impact of climate change on indigenous communities of South America and to activists fighting to make change there.
CC: I have two parallel practices. One that entails a lot of fieldwork, visiting and working closely with communities. And then I have a studio practice where I come back with all the material collected during field work and process that in the studio.
ML: The art piece—or rather, collection of art pieces—we will be thinking about in depth today is Caycedo’s ongoing project Be Dammed, which combines many mediums to visually capture the impact of hydroelectric damming and other major infrastructure projects on rivers and the people who call them home.
CC: I have been collaborating with communities along the Magdalena River, affected by El Kimbo Dam, the first dam to be built by a transnational company in Columbia. …More than 250 large hydroelectric dams are projected or under construction by transnational corporations in Latino America, signifying the transition of public bodies of water into privatized resources.
TH: Dams are inextricably connected to contemporary understandings of nationalism and development around the world.
ML: They are cemented in our cultures as well as physically in our landscapes
TH: Caycedo’s work attempts to bring to light these too-often ignored or disregarded structures.
CC: Dams are embedded in the nervous system of modern nations and of nations. That traffic with the illusion of modern. Nation states have monopolized dams as symbols and landmarks of progress and development.
ML: On October 2nd, 2012, President Obama visited the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. He was in the midst of his reelection campaign. Carolina told me that the photo op connected Obama to the economic legacy of the New Deal and its promise of resilience, progress, and prosperity.
CC: The image showed a proud and historically conscious candidate and reinforced the strength of America as a developed nation. The United States is the second country in the world after China with more dams, but is also the leading country in dam removal. 72 of them were torn down in 2014.
ML: A central aspect of Caycedo’s work acknowledges the role of individual and collective bodies to make political change, especially in relationship to decolonizing water and rivers.
CC: I’m inspired by people who are in the front lines of these struggles.
TH: In her filmed group performances, which she appropriately calls “geochoreographies,” she features local people who use their bodies politically.
CC: They use their bodies as political tools in marches, mobilization, civil disobedience, and road locates. But everyday gestures such as remaining at home and fishing have b ecome politicized. These communities are struggling to remain closely knit as a collective body resistant, the dismembering strategies that the building of a dam supposes.
ML: And as such, they are connected to social bodies and bodies of water as well.
TH: Each of which have their own movements, bodies, and practices.
CC: The Be Dammed constellation of works comprise satellite images, workshops, video installations, photo collages and geo choreographies that intersect social bodies with bodies of water, exploring public space in rural and hydrographic context, and conjuring water as a common good.
ML: What does it mean to think of water as a commons? Of rivers as entities that resist dominant ideas of private property and use?
ML: In the fall of 2022, I had the chance to talk to geomorphologist Frank Macgilligan, from Dartmouth University, about his research, which focuses on the relationship between rivers, damming, and flooding around the world.
FM: So I’m interested in geomorphic response and recovery to human or climatic induced impacts. My specialty is called fluvial geomorphology, right? And so, “geo,” earth, “morphos,” shape of, study of: the shape of the earth by rivers. What I’m interested in is understanding how do river systems respond to acute disturbances like a flood or to chronic disturbances like land use change?
ML: Carolina Caycedo takes an artistic approach to the worldwide spread of damming. But how should we understand this practice from a scientific perspective?
FM: When I think about rivers, and especially when I think about dam removal, for example, I’m trying to think about things operating in a watershed scale, right?
ER: Okay, hold up — let’s pause here for a second.
TH: Sure thing — what’s up, Emma?
ER: We’re talking about watersheds, right? But what is a watershed, anyway?
TH: Well, we often use this term when talking about “watershed moments,” moments when everything changes. Watersheds are turning points — dramatic events in time when history changes its course.
ER: But in terms of environment though — what actually is it?
TH: It’s a good question. A watershed is all of the land that drains into the same location or body of water. Water is collected in soil, the groundwater, in creeks and streams, until it drains into a river, and finally, into the ocean.
ER: Okay, thank you, Tori. I got that. But the idea of a watershed moment is still really interesting, especially if we consider it alongside the true ecological definition of a watershed.
TH: You know, maybe climate change itself is a kind of watershed moment.
ER: Maybe—but even though many scholars and historians have tried to pinpoint when human-centered climate change began to occur, there are still hundreds of theories about when this moment exactly is.
TH: Yeah, to some extent, that depends on your personal academic perspective. So maybe it’s better to think of climate change as an eventual watershed. And even in that sense, it’s a consequence that has accumulated from a bunch of different, smaller watershed moments—from the birth of capitalism to the atomic bomb—as human impact on the environment has continued to evolve and develop.
ER: Really, though, this is a question of scale. If we look at it from a human perspective, there are a lot of different watersheds. But if we look at it from a planetary perspective, if we zoom out temporally and geographically, climate change actually is the ultimate watershed moment after all.
TH: I love this conclusion. I mean, in a planetary perspective, when we’re working with a period of millions of years, the last couple hundred years—
ER: —AKA the period of time in which different scholars locate different origins of the Anthropocene—
TH: —It’s a tiny, tiny sliver of time. So then, yeah, I guess that takes us back to my initial point, right? In the grand scheme of things, this climate moment we’re in sort of is a single watershed.
ER: Yup. And also: yikes.
ML: Fittingly, the study of rivers has been steadily shifting to better understand rivers not as individual units, but rather as important pieces within the vast and deeply interconnected systems of watersheds. When we affect one river–when we dam one river–it not only has tangible impacts upstream and downstream from the dam, but dams will affect the entire watershed.
TH: In our first episode, we talked about the effects of damming on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.
ML: But what exactly is the extent of damming in the United States?
FM: There’s a great line in John McPhee’s book Encounters with the Archdruid. He’s a great nature writer and he goes out on these various trips and he’s with David Brauer, the former head of the Sierra Club, and they go hiking and David Brauer says the one thing he’s learned is when you go hiking in nature, leave nothing behind, especially a dam
ML: The National Inventory of Dams currently reports 90,000 dams in the United States, but there are many more—perhaps even thousands more—that are unaccounted for in this inventory. Frank did some quick math on this for us.
FM: So 300, 300 days per year. 200 day, 200 years of the Declaration of Independence. That’s already at 60,000. So if you do 240 years times 365, it’s 90,000 dams. So we’ve been building on average one dam per day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
ML: Yeah. It’s important to note, though, that the dams Frank mentions here are mostly created for hydroelectric energy production, but historically, dams were built for a variety of reasons—from redirecting water flow to drinking water reservoirs.
TH: But on the whole, dams are tied to visions of industrial progress and modernization. Since the 1930s, megadams have been on the rise, and it’s difficult to comprehend how many there are throughout the world’s rivers.
ML: As rivers warm and waters rise, it’s more important than ever for river species to find cooler water temperatures, but dam building makes this impossible because it blocks all access to cool water refuges.
TH: Are there any foreseeable solutions to damming? What does the future of rivers look like?
ML: Frank has opinions on that as well.
FM: Models predict more frequent, larger floods. And how do we diminish the impact of those floods? If we can store water on the flood plain, we can change the shape of the hydrograph that we don’t have as large a peak flow downstream. So a lot of this is about not just dams or dam removal, but trying to minimize the amount of infrastructure that’s in these flood plains.
What we’re also seeing a lot with these dams is you can’t build a dam everywhere, although people have tried. And there’s still, when you build a dam, it doesn’t provide a hundred percent risk free environment. And people end up thinking that because there’s a dam there that they’re not gonna get flooded, or that because there’s a levy there, they’re not gonna get flooded, right? And what that ends up doing is creating a false sense of security that they’re living in a risk-free environment.
ML: As climate change makes the world more precarious to live in, humans try to find ways of mitigating risk—but oftentimes, these measures only work to heighten it. We’re living, in other words, in an increasingly risky world that requires resilience.
TH: So is there any hope here? I mean, does Frank see anything positive in the midst of climate change and the increased flooding of rivers?
ML: I asked him about this, and Frank really sees something hopeful in the removal of dams.
FM:Trying to think holistically about river systems is a way to think to think more resilience, to add more resilience to these river systems. One could think of dam removal as being one element of restorative justice, right? And so for the tribes, taking dams out is a fundamental element of environmental justice to them. The dams that have come out in Elwha, were very much driven by the tribes amongst the endangered species act, the removal of the Klamath dams, which I, if you had asked me 10 years ago that I think that would happen, I would say, No, but they’re coming out, okay?
ML: Frank is talking about the United States’ largest dam removal project in Elwha, Washington, an unprecedented project which was led by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to restore the Elwha River, particularly its salmon population. Dam removals are happening all across the United States, though, and are driven many times by indigenous tribes working to return to river to its former state.
FM: And so this is the spiritual, community value of the river is diminished by these dams, right? Dam removal is not just building resilience but it’s building communities, and so there’s a lot of effort and dam removal and other elements of river restoration. That’s a, about these various elements of environmental justice.
TH: So, then, how do we bring this back to Carolina Caycedo’s work?
ML: Like Frank explained, there is something inherently spiritual about rivers which fosters community and connection. Carolina’s work specifically seeks an understanding of how dams affect these communities and relationships.
Some of the most provocative art pieces in her Be Dammed exhibition are her Cosmotarrayas, or Cosmonets series. In a retrospective of her work exhibited at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2021, several of these nets were displayed, along with many other of Caycedo’s Be Dammed pieces. The curator of this exhibit, Carla Acevedo-Yates, describes one of the first Cosmonets Caycedo ever created, what it represents, and the process behind its creation.
Carla Acevedo-Yates: Through a research process that Carolina calls “spiritual field work,” she builds ongoing caring relationships with people, places, and other living things, gathering materials and stories to make her work. An example of this are the Cosmotarrayas, a series of hanging net sculptures that Carolina makes with handmade fishing line or atarraya, which means cast net in Spanish.
ML: The cosmonets are especially evocative because they so viscerally represent the interconnected relationship between humans and rivers.
CAY: For Carolina and also for these communities, the artisanal fishing net is not just a practical tool. It’s a symbol of the fight for land and water rights by indigenous and rural communities.
ML: The nets are some of my favorite artworks created by Caycedo. They appear spectral and ethereal as they hang motionless in the gallery, seeming to be suspended by nothing.
CAY: Unlike the impenetrable concrete construction of dams, the ancestral technology of the net is porous, flexible, and interconnected. The knots that comprise the net symbolize the universe of interdependent relations that exist within ecosystems.
ML: The nets are simple in their construction, but intricately designed and mesmerizing.
CAY: Through these works, Carolina affirms that the everyday gesture of casting a net is a political act that affirms the river as a common good.
ML: In some cases, Caycedo’s Commonest have been used in participatory art events, with people gathering around to hold and outstretch the nets in a unique act of solidarity. Many of Caycedo’s cosmonets are portraits, and her piece entitled “Elwha” is a portrait of the river Elwha in Washington State, which Frank mentioned earlier in our conversation. The cosmonet becomes a meeting point for different geographies and belief systems. The color of this net is a deep pink, almost red, along with a bright blue, and these colors are inspired by the salmon masks created by the Lower Elwha Kalam tribe, who fought for the river’s dam removal and restoration.
CAY: For Carolina, the body is very important. It’s both a point of departure, subject matter. And space, and in this sculpture it’s made to resemble a body.
ML: Caycedo’s portraits offer a unique perspective into the intimacy of rivers and their inhabitants, which is explored through her attention to bodies, as Carla explains here in her description of the Elwha cosmonet.
CAY: And you can see different details that are really interesting. You can see a garment called the Uruana that is from the Nawa Peoples in Alka in Colombia that is hanging over a wooden staff that was used in the performance, one body of water. You can also see, um, two sandals that are inscribed with Kalam, referring to the Kalam tribe in the Pacific Northwest, as well as with the phrase “el salmon del tamaño de una niña pequeña. ”And it’s holding everything together with this wooden shelf where dry sage sits on top. And this dried sage was sourced locally here in Chicago.
ML: As the name Cosmonets suggests, Caycedo’s nets not only connect people across space and time, but they are also connected to a genealogy of other immersive artists contemplating connectivity. The Cosmonets, for example, invoke Venezualan artist Gertrud Goldschmidt, also known as Gego, and her intricately knotted metal sculpture, Reticulárea. This sculpture, similar to the Cosmonets, provides an immersive experience for the viewer, symbolizing the politics of space and connection in the world.
ML: A key feature of Caycedo’s cosmonets are how they mediate between disaster and relief. In another cosmonet, and as with many of her other works, Caycedo invites artists and creators to contribute to her own artworks, further symbolizing the connective possibilities of art and rivers, as in this cosmonet titled “Vero Peso.”
CAY: It takes its name from the Vero Peso Market in Belém, Brazil, where a tailings dam broke in 2015 and the toxic mud from the reservoir destroyed the local town of Baralona. Carolina had the opportunity to visit the area one year after the dam burst, and they were still trying to clean up the mess that was provoked by the bursti ng of the dam.
And there she met a woman named Iri or Iris and Carolina asked her to embroider,
um, some textiles to express the way she felt about the bursting of this dam. And here in the sculpture you can see these beautiful embroideries. And this one in particular says in Portuguese, “My eyes are crying tears of mud,” which is really like a visual poem that expressed all of the sadness and the devastation, um, both physical but also emotional cost on the population of this town.
ML: Caycedo’s work on damming is a way to explore feminist environmentalism and forge connections across the world with women and women-identifying people, especially considering that infrastructure and dams have come to represent traits commonly associated with hypermasculinity, such as strength, security, and protection. Here’s how Caycedo frames it.
CC: Women tend to be the first and foremost affected people when an extractive industry comes into your territory, you have the indigenous woman, the black woman, the feminized body, the fems, the trans woman. Those are the subjects who are most affected by any extractive industry. So there’s no surprise for me that actually these are the persons who are in the forefront of these struggles. (CARE REPORT)
ML: Caycedo’s other works feature the artistry of indigenous women, they trace her artistic indebtedness to the women in her life and throughout history, and they often depict female forms. The Be Dammed project, therefore, is synonymous with the liberation of women throughout the world, but especially by way of environmental justice, and connecting women back to rivers and waters.
ML: Carla further explains how the artwork entitled, My Feminine Lineage of Environmental Struggle, acknowledges networks and histories of women fighting for environmental justice.
CAY: It features portraits of more than 150 female environmental defenders around the world, many of whom have been criminalized and murdered for speaking up. Here, we can see the portrait of Berta Cáceres, who was a Honduran activist who was murdered. We can also see a portrait of Soyla Ninco, an activist and fisher woman who has been very influential to Carolina life and practice and whose throwing of the net into the river inspired a series of works in Be Dammed. For Carolina and these women as well as many other women around the world, the fight for land and water rights is intimately linked to the fight against patriarchy.
ML: In a similar vein, the cosmonet entitled Desbloqueada, or Undammed, demonstrates how by exploring the politics of bodies of water, Caycedo simultaneously examines the politics of women’s bodies—including her own. Although bodies, as we have explained, are integral to Caycedo’s work, in many of her pieces, the feminized body, specifically, is her subject.
CAY: The sculpture is made with a conical, handmade fishing net that is held together by a which is a pan that is used by communities to harvest gold in the river. On top of the bateya, you can see a Navajo sandstone
ML: And if you look closely at the sculpture, you can see that there’s a small object hanging from the top.
CAY: This object is actually an IUD, a birth control device that Carolina removed from her body when she realized that it was also acting as a dam blocking her menstrual flow. Through this work, Carolina is encouraging us to look inside ourselves and to identify all of the different types of obstructions that we impose on ourselves, both physically and mentally.
ML: Our episode on Waves explored how, even though interferences are often depicted as destructive or disturbing, interfering can be an extremely productive and liberating act. This idea remains especially true with Carolina Caycedo’s artwork, which intervenes into the lives of people and rivers, encourages us to approach the world with greater empathy, and helps us to better understand how humans are only one small fragment in a vast ecology.
ML: Caycedo’s work asks tough questions about relationality, gender, and the environment. Rivers play a critical role in her work to better explore how humans can peacefully coexist with these dynamic bodies of water. In order to dig deeper into these issues, I had a conversation with Lisa Blackmore, an expert on contemporary art based at the University of Essex. Lisa is an art historian of Latin American art and culture, and water is an extremely important element in her research.
LB: I studied languages and then Latin American cultural studies. And I spent a long time living in Venezuela where I work and I researched and taught there.
ML: When we met, I asked Lisa how she became interested in studying the cultural significance of water.
LB: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about space and dictatorship and politics and the meeting points with aesthetics. And that led me to then start to look away from urban environments and towards places that were more out of sight but enabled urban modernity to be powered and to have the infrastructure and that inevitably led to, to rivers. So I work in South America where hydropower is a major source of electricity. And where there was a very obvious link from architectural modernity under dictatorship to forms of mega infrastructure and dams. And I was really inspired by the work of Brian Larkin, the cultural anthropologist who asks us to think about the semiotics and the symbolism and the aesthetics of infrastructure.
TH: So the intersection between the environment and politics is at the heart of Lisa’s work. But why, specifically, are rivers so important to her work? Why choose that aspect to focus on?
ML: Well, I actually talked to Lisa about that, too.
LB: Rivers are really important to me because of the specific ways in which they’ve been tapped for industrialization and for energy generation. South America has some of the major watersheds of the world. And these are really iconic places for cultural production as well and the production of national narratives. They also enable us to move backwards in time and to retrace processes of colonization as well as indigenous cosmologies of understanding water and rivers in a really interconnected way that I think poses real challenges to the idea of the nation state to the idea of borders between and enclosures of human and non-human forms of life.
ML: I love these ideas so much: rivers create narratives, help us move differently through time, and transcend geographies—they really help us to think in so many different ways.
LB: from very small kind of economic activities through to the hugest, transnational infrastructural interventions as well and so they’re deeply problematic places. And then of course, coming from also thinking with visual culture, they’re so fundamental in cultural production and our imaginaries that there’s a richness there as well to considering the way in which it’s possible to figure and refigure or defigure and think with different ways that rivers can appear in art making and what that can tell us about human relationships to them because they’re such a trope.
ML: In an earlier episode we talked to Vietnamese video artist Thao Nguyen Phan. The Mekong River played a crucial role in her work, both in political and in personal terms. With that in mind, I also wanted to know about Lisa’s personal connection to rivers.
LB: They’re special places. I consider them personally, to be deeply inspiring and unfatho mable as well. And so trying to build or trying to generate that, that open that channel of communication is something that I’m really interested in as well.
ML: I particularly love Lisa’s theorization of an idea she’s coined “river time.“ It’s the subject of her recent book chapter, titled “Turbulent River Times.” So, what exactly is this idea of river time and what is its relationship to art?
LB: So I think River Time is its own temporal regime. There are, all sorts of ways of thinking about the rhythms and the pulsations of rivers from, flow patterns, which can be tracked and are quite apprehensible through to, really considering the way in which river basins are produced over
, hundreds of thousands of years. I’ve been interested in thinking about hydropower, particularly because of the way that it enacts a form of. Anthropogenic choreography of waters by damning, by releasing them on demand.
ML: Ultimately, despite the slightly heady ideas here, river time is actually pretty simple:
LB: It invites us to think about the memory that rivers also have as bodies that move and have a will to move in particular ways and have a memory of where they’ve been and where they might go.
ML: River time directly defies the temporality of the human. The practice of “hydropeaking,” for example, where water flow is controlled by dams according to the most profitable electricity demands, abides by capitalism’s time.
ML: Hey there, just wanted to interfere really quickly and explain what Lisa is alluding to right here. This “choreography” of water release is a process called hydropeaking, where water flow is controlled by dams according to the most profitable electricity demands. So dams quite literally change the rhythm of the river to meet the schedules of human-centered time and markets, thereby making dams as profitable as possible. Rivers are millions of years old—so when dams come in and disrupt their flows, hydropeaking can cause huge problems. As it turns out, maybe it’s not the best idea to mess with ancient geology in order to make a quick buck.
ML: Toni Morrison once said: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” Rivers, as Lisa suggests, have specific ways of remembering and thinking that we can learn from.
LB: And that’s a scientific hard fact. But it’s also a really interesting philosophical proposition. So there are those kind of multilayered temporalities where if we start to think about industrial modernity and its relationship to water, it’s thinking about the use value also of waters as communication highways that enable the speeding up of our experience of the world
So think that thinking through time and the way that it affects through rivers is helpful to understanding like the bigger processes that are at play and also what’s at stake. In terms of the on epistemologies that find room to coexist in the world or that get sacrificed to epistemicide. So thinking about the relationship between rivers in South America and processes of extraction that bring into a collision course ways of understanding human progress and those temporal ideologies that have been sedimented very slowly over time and then become ruptured by these processes of mineral extraction and other forms of extractive economies.
ML: In this episode, we’ve discussed the effects of damming on rivers and the environment as a whole with scientist Frank Macgilligan. But why should we care, from a humanistic perspective, about the rampant damming of the world’s rivers?
LB: So the imposition of major infrastructure projects like dams and rivers affect the river itself, but they also clearly affect the communities that have coexisted alongside these rivers, for centuries. To render visible lives, both the life of a river, the life of a river community, in ways that counteracts some of that form of what Rob Nixon calls the kind of making invisible of communities who become, developmental refugees. It’s really important the way in which those discourses of progress and development are constructed visually and the way in which art as a visual medium can short circuit some of those dominant imaginaries and show other realities of what’s happening beyond, these very kind of packaged and highly controlled corporate or national
ML: That’s exactly right. There’s an extensive history of international superpowers creating dam propaganda as a means of convincing the public that damming will actively improve their lives.
In the United States, many people were skeptical of dams and public power, often suspecting it to be a communist project of some sort. In response, the government created propaganda materials, especially short, educational films, to win their support and visually represent the benefits of dams to the community.
LB: It does in parallel and often in close collaboration with anti-dam activism. And there are some, wonderful examples from the states as well of the kind of fuzzy intersections between aesthetic work and activism. That tradition continues with artists today.
ML: That activist-artist tradition is deeply embodied by an artist Lisa has written and thought about extensively—the featured artist of our show today. So I asked Lisa about her first experience with Caycedo’s work.
LB: So I first encountered her work at the being de Sapo in Brazil in 2016, this was part of her project Be Damned. And the whole context of the exhibition was called Live Uncertainty, exploring relationships between humans and the environment. And I’d already started doing work on the Gorde Hydroelectric Dam in Venezuela, in the Oronoco n the 1970s, and was looking at situations not of infrastructure collapse, but certainly how climate change was affecting that hydroelectric infrastructure and that dam facility.
ML: When Lisa saw Caycedo’s work, she says,
LB: I was really just blown away by it. The pavilion where the biennial is held is this huge concrete shell, and you walk up the center and right at the top of the stairs was a huge digital collage of affected river basins in Brazil that Carolina had produced after doing a significant amount of field work in the country.
So it was also a really incredible mini showcase of a lot of the strategies that she continues to use today.
ML: But there is one specific piece of Carolina’s that Lisa cited as being particularly powerful for her.
LB: So Serpent River Book is a series of 250 artist books that were produced in 2017, and it’s an unfolding accordion, which is printed onto both sides. A lot of the research in the Be Dammed, project which is compiled through texts by Carolina but also by people that she’s worked with, so Langston Hughes is included and other people are included to give testimony to ways of living with rivers and places where she’s worked. So it’s a real kind of polyphonic text as well that draws on these voices of rivers and of river communities and weaves them through these pages, which also include archival documents from her research, looking at dam projects satellite imagery records of the geochoreography works that she’s developed in collaboration with activist communities.
ML: As the book unfolds, it has triangular folds which enable you to assemble it and create meeting points between distinct geographies and times and voices.
LB: And I think that folding and unfolding enables the way in which rivers are constantly flowing forward, but at the same time they’re constantly well pulling and flowing back on themselves too. This book, a sculptural object, resembles in itself a river that is taking a kind of a course through, through a landscape.
ML: Carolina uses her work to turn attention towards the places and people most affected by damming. She actively involves these people as creators and collaborators alongside her—they are not just her subjects, but they actively affect, change, and contribute to her artmaking process.
LB: It’s a way of also weaving community, which I think is really powerful to understand how artists align to and stand with people who are resisting
ML: In the spring of 2021, I took a road trip to visit the Bonneville Dam, located in Oregon, on the Columbia River. Since 2020, I had been doing a lot of research on the dam, specifically about the films and photographs of it produced by the Bureau of Reclamation. Since its creation in the 1930s, the Bonneville Dam has been a symbol of the United States’ national security, economic success, and even the state’s effort to improve the natural landscape. As I drove along the river, it was difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly compete with it: the deep green of the pine trees and turbulent water create a sense of restlessness, a feeling of vibrant life and richness that is exhilarating but calming at the same time. In the midst of this, however, the Bonneville Dam commanded my attention—its vastness was a visual obstacle, and a physical one as well, seeing as it unquestionably and significantly alters the river’s ecology. But, as Richard White observes in his landmark book, The Organic Machine, and as Carolina Caycedo’s work underscores, rivers are not isolated objects—they are inextricably connected to the people, places, and histories which collectively create them, both in the past and in the present moment.
LK (as White): “The past, like it or not, is always with us. Americans are impatient with history. But human actions on the Columbia have produced a long history, and history has consequences. Human history and the history of the river have merged to create the modern Columbia, which is at once a natural space and a social space. It is an organic machine and has to be dealt with as such.”
ML: We often like to think of rivers as idyllic, natural spaces. But they are, in reality, complicated systems that fuse cultural, environmental, and technological influences together into complex organic machines. And damming is arguably the most significant and destructive interference to rivers across the world. However, by helping us to understand the interconnected temporalities and networks of rivers, Carolina Caycedo’s artwork reveals that we, as humans, have the power to productively impact our local river systems and communities, and that interference can sometimes be for the better.