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Mississippi Megalops

1 Jun

The Northern Spark Festival is a grand, sprawling affair; a dusk-til-dawn, cross-town, caffeine-and-adrenaline-fueled art rush with more projects than we’re able to list or remember. The entire thing goes down from the evening of June 4 (sunset 8:55 pm) through to the morning of June 5, 2011 (sunrise 5:28 am) so check out the festival website for all the amazing artists and listings, then stock up on Red Bulls and cigarettes, ‘cuz it’ll be an all-nighter.

Instead of trying to catalog all the audacious events occurring, CakeIn15 caught up with some of the creators of one of the most action-packed offerings, the Mississippi Megalops: A Floating Chautauqua. Conceived by Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker of Works Progress (along with the omni-present and excellently-bearded Andy Sturdevant) this padelboat-based experience will take voyagers on a trip up and down the Mighty Mississip’ in the company of artists, storytellers and other creative folk. Matteson and Kloecker didn’t tip their hand too much, but did talk about big fish, elaborate recreational programs and the ecology of the arts landscape in our interview. If you want in, check their ticket link to see about coming aboard.

CakeIn15: When Staciaann heard we were doing an interview about the Mississippi Megalops project, her first reaction was to go “MEGALOOOOPPPSSS!!!!”

Shanai Matteson: [Laughs]

Colin Kloecker: [Laughs] That’s awesome.

C15: Which was terrific, but it begs the question- what is a Megalops?

SM: I have been working for the last six years at the Bell Museum of Natural History and the Bell has this photo archive that is a bunch of photos of science expeditions from the last hundred-plus years. In the early part of the last century there was a group of people who studied fish and they built a research boat that went up and down the Mississippi and the tributaries in Minnesota and it was called the Megalops. So Megalops is a kind of fish, It means two things; there is a species called Megalops-something-something and it can also just mean a big fish. So we were thinking “big fish” is kind of like a tall tale. I think we probably romanticized it a lot more than it really was [laughs] but that was the beginning of the idea, and why we called it Mississippi Megalops. We were at first thinking, “Let’s build a houseboat like the original Megalops!” But then of course, like a big fish, the idea just kept getting bigger and bigger until we needed a riverboat.

C15: And it’s subtitled “A Floating Chautauqua”, can you talk about the Chautauqua idea?

CK: So the boat started to morph and as it grew, the idea of a Chautauqua came up. The first time I had heard that word was in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and in that book, the author [Robert] Pirsig really talks about Chautauquas as this lost form of understanding the world, that things like TV and radio had kind of replaced this one-time format, and that book itself is sort of a Chautauqua, it’s this meditation on this idea of “What is value?” I hadn’t thought about it until we started working on this project and started doing some more research and found this book by Joseph E. Gould called The Chautauqua Movement. It has this interesting history, it started in the Presbyterian Sunday School, it was in the late 1800s, out on the East Coast. At this point in history it was before radio but at this time all of these people are moving west. You can think about communities starting and churches being what that community was formed around, and so they were thinking, “How can we help formalize what a Sunday School education looks like?” This guy just decided to bring all these theologians and pastors and Sunday School instructors together at this lake called Lake Chautauqua, and I’ll just read here:

“In addition to instructional classes, Dr. Vincent had planned an elaborate recreational program. Students whose energies flagged after intensive sessions devoted to the problems of Sunday School organization and management were refreshed in dozens of ways. Light-hearted games were skillfully mixed in by the famous platform personalities…The evenings were made enjoyable by concerts, illuminations and displays of fireworks.”

So just that idea of mixing all these ideas together and creating one night or one weekend of this crazy mix of “What are the topics of the day? What things being said about?” And in our case it was the river, we wanted to focus on river stories.

C15: With your other projects through Works Progress, like Give & Take, its all about sharing. Have you built a space into this project where attendees can share their own experiences with the river?

CK: So we’re going out on these four excursions as we’re calling them, each one of them will have this formal kind of program, lectures and things like that and then the rest of the time on the boat really is about creating this kind of effervescent mix of these re-enactments over here, and there’s musicians playing over here and they’re all meant to be participatory in a way. In fact, some of the artists have designed projects that do that exactly, try to draw out stories from the people on the boat and bring them into conversation.

SM: Everyone on the boat will really just be on the boat together, you have to be! [Laughs] Once we leave shore, you can’t get off for another hour and forty-five minutes, you have to be there. We think a lot about the way that work helps to build a sense of connectedness among people who live in a place. The Give & Take program that we do, we’re starting to think about that as a more neighborhood-based thing and what happens when you start t connect people so that they realize what kind of skills and ideas exist in their community, rather than always looking outside for those ideas, and then start to build more vibrant, creative societies just based on looking around. We found over 25 scientists, artists, creative, thinking people to come on our boat and present projects, but I’m sure anyone who comes on our boat could present a creative project, so hopefully it inspires a sense of possibility. I’m excited to see who comes on and what they bring, because I kind of hope that people come and bring some surprises. I don’t know what that would mean, but I would totally welcome someone coning on with a tuba! [Laughs]

A Give & Take presentation on chocolate truffles. Near and dear to CakeIn15’s buttery heart.

C15: Speaking of possibilities, what do you think we could be doing better here in the Twin Cities?

CK: I think that’s a question that a lot of people are always thinking about. Lately we’ve been thinking about trying to make a comparison between the ecological world and things like biodiversity and thinking about the arts landscape as one that is an ecology and thinking that an ecology can’t really thrive and have that resilience that it finds in biodiversity if all levels of that ecology aren’t allowed to flourish. And so wanting to think about how the foundations like Bush and Jerome and McKnight how they are important, but also how the fine-grain, artists, with a lower case “a”, you know, people who don’t consider themselves artists, what kind of value they bring to a really rich arts ecology.

SM: And then I think the role of, how can we create systems and structures that will support a more informal, grassroots arts culture and arts scene? I mean, we have a really thriving, great arts scene in the Twin Cities, we have great institutions that I’m personally very thankful to live in a town that has great art museums, music venues and grant support for artists at different levels of their career. But there’s also a lot going on, if you’re not tapped into it, that you’d never know that there’s basement shows happening in houses across the Twin Cites all the time where bands are forming and experimenting and doing really great things, there’s informal dance and music, there’s apartment galleries cropping up here and there. So I think finding ways to connect more people to that kind of energy, because that’s how you make a creative culture. It’s not necessarily always top down, it can also be from the bottom up. But then how do you get more people to see that and participate in it and then how can people support it? Because those kind of events can’t get a grant, you can’t apply for a grant for your apartment, I mean, you could, but you’d really have to think about formalizing something.

CK: Another thing we try and do with all of our programs is really think about what creativity means in a really, really broad sense. So thinking about science and design and people that are working in all these different sectors as a really important part of the cultural fabric of the Twin Cities and trying to bring them in. What we find time and again is that these people consider themselves artists too and the silos that existed in all these professions, in a lot of ways, they’re breaking down and it’s as people realize that connections are the most important thing that we have.

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