American River Archive | Edward Morris & Susannah Sayler

The American River Archive tells the story of a single flow of water in present-day California from origin to end-use. The project is a form of historiography and a form of allegory in which this one strand of California’s vast waterworks becomes the means of a broader exploration into an Age of Extraction that appears near its culmination. As a whole, the project will consist of original photography, writing, historical images, analysis and images of speculative futures, audio and maps compiled into a book and exhibitions. As with other water flows in the West, the “American River” is no longer a river at all, but an elongated site of capture and distribution, with a definite beginning but diffuse end.  The water is apportioned and owned the moment it comes out of the ground.


The following is an interim report on findings, quandaries and possible directions:

In November 2014, we came to California with the expectation of documenting drought conditions as part of our ongoing A History of the Future project. A History of the Future consists of landscape photographs in places impacted by or vulnerable to climate change that are then combined with archival images, video or installation elements to examine various aspects of the climate change crisis.

However, a number of factors led us to the creation of a more involved, stand-alone project called the American River Archive. As we dug into our research we discovered that climate change is only part of the complex water story in California. That story includes a massive terraforming project that rivals the currently proposed colonization of Mars, the promotion of the West by railroads and other vested interests, the questionable labor and farming practices of large-scale industrial agriculture, blind faith in technology vs. a neo-primitivism, and the contemporary mythologization of California as paradise such that populations have exploded beyond the carrying capacity of the land. In short, a microcosm of the Age of Extraction.

To address these complex themes and to move the project outside of an exclusive focus on climate change, we decided to explore a single flow of water in California. The idea was to follow the water from its origins in the mountains to its technological containment in dams, canals and pumping stations, and ultimately to its end use in agriculture, homes, businesses, etc. After some deliberation we decided to start our story with the headwaters of the South Fork of the American River near Echo Summit. After emerging from the high mountains, the river flows through Coloma, where gold was first “discovered,” to Folsom Dam, through land formerly populated by the Nisenan Maidu, through the city of Sacramento where it meets the Sacramento River and then into the Delta. From there the water is extracted by the Tracy Pumping Plant and siphoned into the Delta Mendota Canal from whence it makes its way to the San Luis Reservoir. From San Luis the water goes every which way – to Silicon Valley, to big Agriculture in the Westlands Water District, to the San Luis Wildlife Refuge, etc. We decided to focus, at least for the time being, exclusively on agriculture. Here is a sample of images showing that transition, see below at the end of this article for a fuller slide show with a voiceover.

We chose the American River as a starting point over rivers such as the Merced (which would incorporate the iconic Yosemite Valley) the Sacramento (which begins in the supremely picturesque Mt. Shasta region), or the Owens (which is the site of the quintessential California water story) for a variety of reasons. The American offers a relatively compact run through a great diversity of landscapes, including urban. It has a great name for a title that allows the project to function allegorically.   It is relatively free from the mythologies of previous treatments (the principal problem with the Owens or the Merced). However, the most significant factor in choosing the American is the fact that gold was discovered on it, which led to the hysterical stampede to mine this fetishized metal, to real estate speculation, to the initial wave of mass human migration to California and to the formation of a bubble economy, which we have seen many times since. In important ways, the nascent economic structures erected to capitalize on gold evolved to capitalize on land suitable for agriculture. This historical data has become a pivot point for the project.

Our interest in California’s water management coincided with a growing interest in the notion of the artist as historian, in particular a materialist historian as outlined by Benjamin. “For the materialist historian, every epoch with which he occupies himself is only prehistory for the epoch he himself must live in.”[1] A documentation of the river leads to an examination of the gold rush and the examination of the gold rush in turn leads back to an examination of our present water management which in turns leads to an examination of speculative economies, labor, and the ideology of extraction. It is not so much that the past is interpreted in light of the present as the past is remade in a dialectic conversation with the present with a view towards transformative futures. As Matthew Buckingham, who is another central inspiration to the direction of this project, puts it:

“Benjamin describes the vanishing point of history as always being the present moment. This formulation of history—thinking about the present moment as the point where history vanishes—is a way of reversing the received notion of history as vanishing somewhere behind us, vanishing into a nonexistent time, a time that no longer exists. [Benjamin’s notion] forces us to confront history as a construction. It implies that when we reconsider past events, we’re not so much returning to another time and retrieving material or events. We are restaging those events here and now in order to think about what’s happening here and now, to think about the present.[2]

Why is this mode of historiography particularly open to artistic methods and what are these methods? First, considering historical inquiry as a contingent narrative, allows for the collapse of binding distinctions between fact and fiction. We believe, like Walid Raad, that history is best told not through “crude facticity but through the complicated mediations by which facts acquire their immediacy.”[3] This calls for some negative capability and the discipline of “art” within the humanities is nothing if not for that mode of inquiry that allows for the “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Accuracy is a tone not a precision point. Second, the materialist mode of historiography finds its method in the gathering together of images, particularly constellations of images or “dialectical images” that “flash up” like memories in a moment of danger. Here again is Benjamin:

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.  In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.  For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal one, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.”[4]

“To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject.”[5]

In short, we find our project, which began in a documentary mode, turning into a sort of economic materialist history based in image constellations that reflect on the present moment of ecological crisis and the apparent end of extractive ideologies. We hope the reflection on the past is also thinking forward into the future. It is a risky proposition. Among the questions we face now are: is such a project obscurantist and culturally irrelevant? how do we retain complexity but also speak to a broad audience? how do we regard the core of the project, which is a set of landscape images in the present moment? how do we incorporate the history of labor, which is at the heart of the matter? if the relationship between past and present is dialectically complicated, what of the future?

Below is a slide show in the voice of a historian 200 years from now speaking about the American River and this archive of images as her own society begins to colonize Mars. In this work, which is really a sketch, we begin to feel for what these core landscape photographs really do. There are situated in an uncertain temporal place. They are mostly of ruins or Smithson’s “ruins in reverse” in which “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into before they are built.”)[6]  They depict landscapes that are mostly out of time, somehow apart from the hurly burly of our current world and yet also somehow bolstering that world, holding it up.

American River Archive from The Canary Project on Vimeo.


Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris (Sayler/Morris) work with photography, video, writing and installation. Of primary concern are contemporary efforts to develop ecological consciousness and the possibilities for art within a social activist practice. In 2006 they co-founded The Canary Project – a collaborative that produces visual media and artworks that deepen public understanding of the Anthropocene. Works from The Canary Project have been exhibited broadly in venues including: MASS MoCA, The Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, IL). Sayler Morris are currently Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows and Artist Fellows at The Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment. In 2008-2009 Sayler and Morris were Loeb Fellows at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. They currently teach in the Transmedia Department at Syracuse University.


[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) 474.

[2] From a lecture at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, November Buckingham takes the idea of the “vanishing point” from Susan Buck-Morss’s reading of Walter Benjamin. She has written that Benjamin “understood historical ‘perspective’ as a focus on the past that made the present, as revolutionary ‘now-time,’ its vanishing point.” See Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 339. Quoted in Mark Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” October 120 (Spring 2007): 143.

[3] Walid Raad in conversation with Alan Gilbert,

[4] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) 462.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

[6] Robert Smithson “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Flam, J. (ed.) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) 72.

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