The Project

Wes Modes' homemade shantyboat, 2014

Wes Modes’ homemade shantyboat, 2014

Secret History is an archive of stories delivered on a variety of platforms. It is a web-based new media work, connecting viewers to the river and its people. It is a publically-accessible archive that will be hosted in a public and permanent online home. Finally, it is an installation piece in the form of a recreated shantyboat that can be temporarily sited in galleries, museums, and other cultural centers.

Research Journey

In this phase of the project, I plan to launch above Minneapolis, Minnesota just above the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River. I’ll be stopping in small and large towns along the way to interview strangers and people with whom I’ve made connections prior to the trip. I’ll also be taking the opportunity to research local resources and meet knowledgeable people along the way. I plan to take out near St. Louis before the confluence with the Missouri.

I’ll be camping in the shantyboat, moored along the banks, on islands within the river, and at local marinas. I can resupply as necessary at towns along the route.

The crew is expected to include the Lead Artist who doubles as a film and documentary artist, and a student research ecologist. Guest artists, ecologists, researchers and historians are expected to be invited to join the crew for limited periods.

In subsequent years, I expect to take research expeditions on other rivers or additional segments of the Mississippi collecting the lost history of these river people and river communities.


Documentation is key to this research expedition. I plan to record my journey, interviews and research with photos, audio and/or video, posting regular updates via blog and Twitter. I will be inviting a film and documentary artist on as crew.

The plan is to compile a substantial oral history of the lost stories of the river and its communities by recording every interview, with strangers and with known contacts, in either audio or video format or both.

Facebook image from Sacramento River Trip

Facebook image from Sacramento River Trip

Digital and Social Media

During the journey, I seek to connect a geographically dispersed audience to the stories, the individuals, and communities along the river through social and digital media. Short-term products of this project include blog and Twitter updates in realtime along the journey. This includes short video and audio excerpts of interviews, photographs of places and interviewees, updates about the trip’s progress, and links to historical, social, and ecological resources.

Longer-term digital products of the project may include a short video documentary, audio documentary, comprehensive website, academic papers, or if the material is very fruitful, a book detailing the results of the research and the stories that emerged.

instagram river

Library and Archive

Between journeys, the recreated shantyboat serves as a central piece around which the project is focused, a sculptural form, an installation, and a library, which can be sited outside or inside of a gallery or museum space. People are invited aboard to explore the shantyboat and the archive.  I was prototyped this at UCSC’s Open Studios in Spring 2014.

Interactive displays in the shantyboat allow people to browse and view the digital archive, while a physical archive of photographs and books allows visitors to touch and examine. A substantial non-fiction library of houseboat and river history has already been compiled for the library.

Shantyboat and river history library

Shantyboat and river history library


There are many great organizations and institutions along the Mississippi River doing work to preserve the cultural and ecological resources of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. I am in contact with various cross-disciplinary organizations, such at the National Park Service and the Institute on the Environment’s River Life program at the University of Minnesota, making introductions, sharing contacts, and getting pointers to interesting resources and people.

While research on the cultural and ecological resources of the river informs my journey, I am principally interested in personal narrative. Therefore, rather than serving as a source of suggested bibliographic material, these contacts themselves potentially serve as a source of personal reflections on lost and existing river communities, experiences on the river, anecdotes and second hand stories, and the health of the river.

2 comments for “The Project

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: