For three months every other year, Columbus, Indiana, welcomes a series of installations by renowned and emerging architects and designers created in response to its built environment. The initiative is part of Exhibit Columbus, a program of Landmark Columbus Foundation that makes Columbus’ design legacy relevant by producing projects and events that celebrate and inspire investments in architecture, art, and design. For their 2020–2021 symposium and exhibition cycle, co-curators Iker Gil and Mimi Zeiger, along with the invited participants, explored the future of the center of the United States and the regions connected by the Mississippi Watershed. Titled New Middles: From Main Street to Megalopolis, What is the Future of the Middle City?, the cycle speculated on the heartland, an ecology stretching beyond political borders—from North to South—from the Canadian Border to the Gulf, and from East to West—from Appalachia to the plains.
To visualize this vast territory and to place Columbus in context of the Mississippi Watershed, Iker and Mimi established the role of the Photography Fellows, inviting New Orleans-based Virginia Hanusik and Minneapolis-based David Schalliol to document parts of Columbus and the Mississippi Watershed from social, economic, and environmental perspectives. The result of that exploration was presented this past fall along with the work of the recipients of the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize and University Design Research Fellowship, as well as the High School Design Team, with environmental design and wayfinding by Jeremiah Chiu of Some All None.
Now that the 2020–2021 cycle is complete, Iker Gil talked to David Schalliol about the work he produced during his fellowship, how he approached the watershed, and his takeaways.
IG: How did you approach the fellowship?
DS: The fellowship provided me the opportunity to link new work with more than twenty years of my photographic and sociological projects made throughout the Mississippi Watershed. One of the many remarkable attributes of the watershed is that it is unimaginably vast and varied. As we think about the watershed in relationship to New Middles, we are talking about everything from agricultural centers turned innovation hubs to desert ghost towns to industrial powerhouses. The issues that created and affect these places are so heterogeneous that trying to address them all seems impossible except to say something uselessly broad, like “they all need water,” or “they are in North America.” But as a photographer and a sociologist, I wanted to work towards a larger conceptual framework.
IG: How does it connect to your previous work?
DS: Over the years, I have made all manner of seemingly discrete projects in the region, from those about differential development patterns in the greater Knoxville, Tennessee area, to not-for-profit led mural installation projects in St. Louis, Missouri, to the closure and consolidation of Catholic Churches in a former coal mining city in Pennsylvania. I also have a wide body of work in Chicago—itself an interesting place for discussing the watershed since it drains into the Great Lakes, but the reversed Chicago River also connects it to the Mississippi River—where I have made projects like Isolated Building Studies, which look at the common effect of class- and race-based divergent investment practices in the city. All of these projects have been focused on people’s relationships with the built environment.
The projects are also stories of the watershed, and they are part of the minutia that link the places in it—faith and depopulation, the strength of communities, structural inequalities, and more—but I have wanted to think more about how the watershed is interconnected, and how it is embedded in systems that are unfathomably larger than it. A big part of this new work has been looking at the systems that connect these places and how those systems created the theme of the 2020-21 cycle, New Middles.
IG: You grew up in Indiana and have lived in several places connected to the Mississippi Watershed. How has the watershed been part of your life?
DS: I was born an hour from Columbus and have lived in the watershed for all but a few years of my life, in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota. Over the years I have visited nearly every state in the watershed: the ones close by, like Kentucky, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, but also ones we don’t usually put in the same sentence with these states (or, really, with each other), like Georgia, Montana, and New Mexico. Some of my experiences seem intertwined with stories of the watershed and, at least, the popular imagination of the Midwest, like canoeing through Minnesota’s lakes or watching a movie on the side of an Indiana barn. But I know that other, seemingly unrelated activities like eating breakfast or teaching a class are just as much a part of it—we just don’t usually imagine them that way.
Foregrounding Columbus in my thinking about New Middles makes those personal experiences even more potent. After all, when I was photographing in Columbus, I wasn’t just thinking about these big systems. I remembered visiting with friends who were excited to start college in the city or passing through on the way to visit family. All of this is a reminder that there is so much detail, so much weight, so much life everywhere. It is important to explore how all these elements intersect.
IG: Your project for New Middles focused on two themes revealed in the landscape: systems of interconnection and representation. Can you explain how you approached interconnection?
DS: Sure. I started with the interconnections created by water. Water is a direct visual theme in this work with a dual role. On one hand, it is there to remind us of how water and the watershed are the anchor this project, but it is also there because water, itself, is one of the systems that produce experiences, some discordant, others uniting, across the region. Represented through water are play in many forms, domestic labor and environmental relationships, and the history and present of the challenges of that emerge because of longstanding approaches to living and building near water.
IG: Can you highlight a few photographs that are exploring interconnection project?
DS: We have this image in Minneapolis, where the degree of human control of the Mississippi River is particularly clear. In the heart of downtown Minneapolis in 2020, the flow of the Mississippi River was dramatically restricted to allow engineers to inspect the underside of the city’s iconic Stone Arch Bridge. Those few days produced quite the spectacle and a reminder of how humans organize the river, or at least attempt to. And in comparison, I also like to think about the way that frozen lakes are transformed into small cities as people head out and create new neighborhoods on the ice in the middle of the winter.
Extending from these environmental systems are the production, consumption, and distribution systems that generate local and global connections, all of which are heavily dependent on the way water moves through the landscape. Here we see the intersection of agricultural and industrial systems. Whether in industrial agriculture operations embedded in small cities or pumpkin patches along state highways. Taking commercial agriculture as an example, the project puts small-scale community supported agriculture in southern Minnesota in dialogue with cattle feedlots in the Texas panhandle.
In juxtaposition, we see how their shared reliance on the watershed manifests in dramatically different forms, pointing to the different dynamics that define their respective markets. Or we can see other tensions manifesting in the conflicting uses of place in Oklahoma City, where hydraulic fracturing may be conducted side by side with homes in residential neighborhoods. And how they manifest in different ways through labor conflicts in riverside factories in South St. Paul, even when it is -11F (-24C) outside.
IG: How did you approach the theme of representation?
DS: I am interested in local, personal experiences. As a sociologist who studies the relationship between people and place, one of the most exciting elements is to look at how people publicly present their connections to where they live, work, and play. Much of this is done in architecture, whether vernacular or something so very different, but architecture is only part of the built environment.
With that in mind, it is exciting to see how the objects people display offer hints of who they are. We see this in the need to memorialize Buddy Holly and the other musicians killed on “The Day the Music Died” or the hacienda as mailbox, each of them special creations. Same goes with expressions of faith along the roadside or a kind of classic roadside attraction, like the largest ball of twine made by one person, in Darwin, Minnesota or the Texan cowboys of the myth of the West along the pre-interstate highways.
In this way, I am especially interested in sites like the side of this Mexican American market in rural Oklahoma, where paint peeling aside, there is such a clear merging of national and cultural symbols. In a sense, they are how the systems of interconnection and distinction are interpreted by individuals for the public. Or in the equally political but sculptural forms of bald eagles carved out of a tree trunk in the Minnesota snow or three giant former presidents in rural South Dakota, sitting outside an RV park. Or the collaborative memorial and gathering place of George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, where groups of activists and community members have collectively created a unique site for voicing and organizing for racial justice, again linking self-representation to potent national issues in place.
IG: How does that representation manifest in Columbus itself?
DS: We are used to thinking about how architectural history is publicly represented in Columbus through the works of important modern and postmodern architects like the Saarinens, Harry Weese, and Deborah Berke, but that is only one limited way to understand the city.
In a way, this is a whole other conversation, but maybe I can give an example. I like thinking about two of the Columbus-area photographs in relationship to each other: a wooden morel mushroom sculpture sprouting in a family’s front yard and Cummins’s engine proudly illuminated at the entrance to its corporate campus. In contrast to each other, we see the dramatically different resources, skills, and institutions required to produce each object, and their forested and plaza contexts say so much too. By presenting these photographs in juxtaposition, I am hoping people will reflect on what each represents and illustrates about the people who organize and inhabit Columbus. What is here and for what reasons? And then I hope they will think about their own lives in relationship to the systems each object represents. After all, these embodied self-expressions say so much about how people think of and present themselves, individually and collectively, and their publicness is a remarkable way that people connect with others, even if only momentarily. To go back to the narrative of Columbus in relationship to these two objects, we see—among other things—the interplay between representations of the environment and industry that create and challenge the architecture for which the city is famous.
IG: What do you want to convey with your approach to these two themes?
By combining interconnection and representation, I hope to express a dynamic present that is intertwined with power, struggles to maintain what is and was, and new possible futures. For this work on New Middles, Columbus and its location in the watershed is the kernel that grows into a way of thinking about the network of social, economic, and environmental systems that connect me to it all the way up in Minnesota. Addressing those system is essential to understanding what is, but also for figuring how we are going to address the broad consequences of climate change, environmental justice, and more.
IG: The work was presented both in a gallery setting as well as across several public spaces in the city such as pedestrian alleys and a garage. How was the work organized in response to the physical space? Do you think people react differently to your work in the different settings?
DS: One of the great things about the Exhibit Columbus project is that it was installed in four different sites in the city: two pedestrian alleys, the side of a parking garage, and in a more traditional gallery setting. We divided the work so that each of these sites was thematically distinct but still gestured to the whole. The gallery provided an overview of the project; the pedestrian alleys included more intimate images, like portraits of Columbus residents and communities from throughout the watershed; and the garage site included larger-scale representations of systems at work.
I was grateful to have the gallery space to provide the context for the work, but I especially appreciated how the public art could become integrated into people’s everyday experiences. While people intentionally visited the installations, so many more experienced the work while just passing by. I think about how so many people stopped in their tracks when they saw the photographs being installed. They were surprised to see photographs on typically blank walls and wanted to chat about what they were seeing. That kind of experience creates new meaning in familiar places, and it can provide opportunities to envision different ways of connecting to place.
IG: What would you hope people take away after seeing your work?
DS: My hope is that by encouraging people to reflect on these systems, this project can help orient us towards creating new representations and interconnections that are rooted in shared, community-based principals of action. Using one of my favorite places in Columbus as an example, we see how urban gardens reestablish “natural” systems hidden by city life, increase access to quality food, and build relationships around those actions. By recentering facets of our identities around community-based solutions, we may reach a greater understanding of how we’ve constructed our lives with the systems around us. With that knowledge, we can create better practices for our future, and our future with this watershed.