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Daniel Dean, John Kim, Adam Marcus, Molly Reichert © 2015
Cast concrete, cast glass, programmable LED lighting
Funded through the City of Saint Paul Public Art Ordinance

“The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable… It is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five.”

-Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

Meander consists of 15 sculptural pillars that creatively re-imagine over two hundred years of historical information about the Mississippi River. The artwork’s form is a three-dimensional interpretation of layered historical maps of a section of the Upper Mississippi River, from those created by Zebulon Pike and Joseph Nicollet in the early 1800s to contemporary satellite imagery. The curvature of the pillars references the river’s meandering path, and the changing heights of the pillars evoke elevation changes at each of the river’s locks. In addition, ecological data remotely collected from the river programmatically controls both the pattern and color of the light projected through the glass lanterns. Meander illustrates how data spatialization processes merge with a commitment to ecology, reimagining public spaces, and fostering new kinds of interactive engagement with public audiences.

Meander’s origins lay partly in the artists’ shared fascination with the beauty and colorful richness of Howard Fisk’s famous meander maps of the Mississippi River (see figure 1 and 2). During the 1930s-1940s, Dr. Howard Fisk researched some 750 square miles of the Mississippi Valley, looking at historical records to determine how the river has changed over the last 1,000 years.

Working under contract with the Army Corps of Engineers, Fisk painstakingly documented where the river had flowed and color coded the channels. Each band of color represents a historical route that the Mississippi once took. Fisk took a great deal of artistic license in constructing these maps, and it is this creative spirit that also inspires our own work.


Figure 1 – The full title of Howard Fisk’s meander maps:



Figure 2 – A Howard Fisk map key detail.

Principally, Fisk’s maps illustrate how much the Mississippi has moved over time. Referencing Mark Twain’s quotation above, the Mississippi is famously crooked; it snakes back and forth along its course as Fisk’s maps colorfully document. His maps also highlights the fact that rivers “meander,” that is, their course can change in a few seasons, and that a river’s path can change quite dramatically over a longer duration.

Figure 3. Animation of the Ucayali River in the El Sira Bioreserve (Peru) meandering over 28 years. Though not the Mississippi, the animation illustrates how dramatically a river can “meander” over a period of time.

Figure 4. Detail of glass used for lanterns.

Figure 5. Glass lanterns lit by programmable LED lights.

You’ll see a resemblance between Fisk’s maps and the design of the glass lanterns that comprise Meander. Look closely at the glass tops (figure 4), and you’ll see the undulating patterns that Fisk recorded in his maps. Indeed, we collaborated with the glass artist, David Ruth,[1] in part because his glass work calls to mind Fisk’s meander maps. The colors of the lights (figure 5) also reference  the color scheme of Fisk’s maps.

Our fascination with meander maps inspired the design of Meander’s sculptural form as well. Howard Fisk’s research included the Lower stretch of the Mississippi River from southern Missouri to the New Orleans. Sadly, he never documented the Upper Mississippi’s meander, the stretch from Lake Itasca to Cairo, Illinois. In our research for this project, however, we realized that there are many historical maps of the Upper Mississippi River that go back as far as the eighteenth century. We were able construct our own meander map of this stretch of the river using the available historical record. We relied on three historical maps of the Mississippi River: Joseph Nicollet (1840s). Army Corps of Engineers (1963). Google Maps (2014). From oldest (below), to youngest (above), the concrete pillars depict the river’s movement; they are a sculptural meander map of the Upper Mississippi River. See the table below for more detailed information about each of the three maps.

Joseph Nicollet (1840s)

Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River Map (1843)

Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (July 24, 1786 – September 11, 1843) was a French geographer, astronomer, and mathematician known for mapping the Upper Mississippi River basin during the 1830s. Nicollet led three expeditions in the region between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, primarily in Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Nicollet’s maps were among the most accurate of the time, correcting errors made by Zebulon Pike, and they provided the basis for all subsequent maps of the American interior. They were also among the first to depict elevation by hachuring and the only maps to use regional Native American placenames. [source: Wikipedia]

Army Corps of Engineers (1963)

United States Army Corps of Engineers is a U.S. federal agency under the Department of Defense and a major Army command made up of some 36,500 civilian and military personnel, making it one of the world’s largest public engineering, design, and construction management agencies. The Corps’ mission is to “Deliver vital public and military engineering services; partnering in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy and reduce risks from disasters.” They have been instrumental in the mapping and topographical study of rivers for generations.


Google Maps (2014)

Launched in 2005, Google Maps is today perhaps the most widely recognizable mapping and satellite imagery service available. Google Maps provides high-resolution aerial or satellite images for most urban areas of the world. This satellite imagery is updated on a regular basis, and much of the available photography is not more than 3 years old. Futures North traced the contours of the Mississippi River as shown in Google Maps satellite imagery in 2014.

These three sets of historical Mississippi River data became the basic structure for Meander’s form. As figure 6 illustrates, the maps are positioned vertically to create a spatial geometry: Joseph Nicollet’s map from the 1840s forms the bottom of the the sculpture, the Google Maps outline from 2014 forms the top, and finally, the Army Corps of Engineers map from 1963 is used for the middle. By connecting the three maps vertically (in the z-direction), you have Meander’s basic shape. In other words, at any given point along Meander’s length, you have a historical record of the representation of the Mississippi River (a timeline, if you will) going back more than 150 years!


Figure 6 – the spatial orientation of the historical maps of the Mississippi River used in the Meander sculpture.

This sweeping curvilinear form was divided in fifteen places, resulting in Meander’s fifteen pillars. The spots where we divided Meander correspond to the locations of locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi.[2] At each of these locations, there is a significant change in elevation of the Mississippi River. This change in elevation corresponds to the diminishing height of Meander along its course. The thickness of the glass tops represents the depth of the Mississippi at that location.

As a data visualization, a cartographic sculpture, a meditation on historical representations, and a digital form, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Meander is an art work.  As such, we drew inspiration from realms of art and aesthetics as well. There are many reference points here, but some salient ones include Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes. We were drawn to the simplicity of Lin’s sculptures with their re-presenting of landscape as art.  We thought a lot about the public art work of groups like the Living, such as their interactive media piece, Amphibious Architecture that used New York’s East River as a canvas for the visualization of water quality and the waterway’s ecosystem.  More locally, we also kept in mind Ned Kahn’s stunning wall-mounted piece for Target Field, The Wave, because his work is a real-time illustration of the wind’s movement across the surface of the ballpark.


Maya Lin, Systematic Landscapes (2006)
San Francisco, CA

The cubes forming the sculpture are made from vertical sheets of particle board with the top edges cut to match a topographic line. Pulled apart into a grid, the topographic image is disjointed and the spaces between the cubes become narrow paths, or cuts, through the geography of the sculpture, exposing strata much like a highway carved through a mountain pass. For more info.


The Living, Amphibious Architecture (2010)
New York, NY

Amphibious Architecture uses water as a surface, since it is so ubiquitous in the world, yet under-explored in art and design. The project consists of two networks of floating interactive tubes that feature light beacons on top and a range of sensors below. these sensors monitor water quality, presence of fish, and human interest in the river ecosystem, while the lights respond and create feedback loops between humans, fish, and their shared environment. For more info.


Ned Kahn, The Wave (2010)
Minneapolis, MN

Ned’s statement about his art: I create artworks that enable viewers to observe and interact with natural processes. I am interested in the mysteriousness of the world around us. Many of my works can be seen as “observatories” in that they frame and enhance our perception of natural phenomena. I am intrigued with the way patterns can emerge when things flow. These patterns are not static objects, they are patterns of behavior – recurring themes in nature. For a video of the work.

As an art work, Meander’s meaning isn’t fully contained by the description we’ve provided here. What we’ve described are only some of the points of reference and sources of inspiration that informed our design of the work. We have taken numerous artistic liberties throughout the creation of the project. The Mississippi isn’t literally and precisely represented in the work (indeed, even the source material consisted of three very different interpretations of the river’s geometry). Meander originates from the minds of Adam, Daniel, John, and Molly, the members of Futures North, who let inspiration arise through collaborative, creative reflection on the Upper Mississippi. We hope you enjoy the work as much as we enjoyed creating it.

[1]: David Ruth has had an ongoing fascination with casting the various forms of water in glass. In a project entitled, “Studying Ice Textures and Forms,” David made casts of ice samples he collected in Antarctica.
[2]: There are actually 22 locks and dams along the course of the Upper Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to Genoa, Wisconsin. We decided to create just 15 pillars, however, so every single lock and dam isn’t represented in Meander.