Colleen Lawrence, “Concrete Uncertainty”

Colleen Lawrence
Jacksonville, North Carolina

Concrete Uncertainty
Handmade paper, letterpress printing
50 x 8 x 10 inches open

Artist Statement

Concrete Uncertainty questions whether concrete can hold when the earth is shifting under our feet. The book, in its writing and structure, delves into our desire for control by considering structures built along the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River has meandered some 7000 years, and only for the past 200 years or so have attempts been made to fix its path. The desire to control its flow is largely monetarily driven, and yields long-term devastation to the coastal environment. In the early 1900s, it became clear that the Mississippi River was preparing to change its course. The Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with keeping it on its current course, which led to the construction of the Old River Control Structure. The structure is at war with the river, attempting to prevent it from taking its natural course.

On my first research trip, I visited the Mississippi River Basin Model in Jackson, Mississippi, an outdoor scale model built in the 1940s and long abandoned. There, I found concrete waterways and piles of steel mesh folded into accordions to mimic sediment when the river model was in use. The book is built to emulate those accordions and the shifting of stable ground, as erosion is a product of river control. The sewn accordion uses flaps to expand the landscape of the page, as well as to tuck writing away. The book is a place where the reader gets a little lost, where information can be seen but not immediately accessed, where the future is unknown, where everything feels a little unwieldy. The shaped, transparent pages lend a depth and deception to the process of moving through the book. In creating and assembling a book about control, the book became a living entity of its own.

In the 1980s, John McPhee researched and wrote about the project in The Control of Nature. Interviews with workers yielded comments about the inevitability of failure, and the pomposity of
human intervention. Instead of allowing the river to run its course and adapt to it, we choose to make defiant demands. This desire for control has a wide reach, from our interactions with the natural world to trying to plan our own futures. We must learn to bask in the unknown, to take a long view of time, and consider the impact of our actions.