“There Must Be Other Names for the River” greets visitors of the virtual exhibit with this sentence: “The river is the reason we can live in this part of the arid high desert. It’s why there are animals and plants, villages and cities. And it’s drying up.”
The exhibition consists of a “22 minute sound performance,” with recordings of six different singers, each embodying streamflow data, numerical data collected to analyze the flow of the Rio Grande, collected from the 1970s to now and into “possible futures.”
The audience is given the choice to listen to these recordings simultaneously or individually. The tracks consist only of the one singer interpreting the streamflow data using their voice as well as different audio effects, like distortion or reverb.
Marisa Demarco, who worked alongside Jessica Zeglin and Dylan McLaughlin to create the project, described it as “a web-based sound installation” that includes “contextual and historical information about the river.”
The project was originally intended to be an in-person exhibit at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, according to the museum’s director Arif Khan. However, the project had to be transferred to a virtual setting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did some research and found a web developer who has experience working with arts organizations and artists and it evolved into what this current iteration is, which is a purely web-based art exhibition,” Khan said.
The audio tracks are accompanied by an interactive map for visitors to scroll through as they listen to the recordings. The map traverses the Rio Grande, starting at the “Headwaters” and finishing at the “Mouth of the River.” These different locations along the Rio Grande coincide with the labels of the audio tracks: “Headwaters,” “Albuquerque,” “Below Elephant Butte,” “Juárez/ El Paso,” “Big Bend” and “Mouth of the River.”
“That outline of the river that you scroll through, when they performed it live, that was projected onto a wall and slowly cycled through the years,” Khan said. “It wasn’t exactly the same as the website, but that movement through the river was happening even during the live performance.”
As the map unravels, different environmental and historical facts and events about the Rio Grande appear. Reporter Laura Paskus, in a video on the project’s website, said there’s a difference between the mismanagement of the river’s water then and the effect global warming is having on the river now.
“It didn’t dry all the time because there wasn’t enough water, it dried all the time because of how it was managed,” Paskus said.
According to Demarco, Paskus’ writing served an important role in the formation of the exhibit.
“It motivated me,” Demarco said. “It’s where I found this piece.”
After exploring the main exhibition, visitors are encouraged to view the “Tributaries” section of the website where they can submit their own music, recount a memory or story about the river, or even perform a piece of music composed for the project. This section also includes a few different audio tracks from those who have already submitted to the project.
“That makes the online installation kind of an evolving album, right?” Demarco said. “It’s something that, over the course of this year, is going to change and be a different collection of music from people who live all up and down the river.”
Demarco hopes that this sense of community and memory will motivate people to care about the issues the river faces.
“(The Rio Grande has) always been a place I’ve hung out. Most recently, I am grieving the loss of a friend and colleague, Hannah Colton, who also sang a part of the river piece when we did a big Albuquerque choir,” Demarco said. “So I’ve been at the river a lot. I’ve walked it almost every single day since she passed in November. It’s just a place that I go to walk and to reflect and to try to feel better.”
John Scott is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JScott050901