The Drift is pleased to announce Rivers, a newly commissioned project by New York and Virginia based artist Michael Jones McKean beginning August 1st, 2016, and concluding August 9th, 2016. 

The culmination of over two years of research and development, Rivers is a durational sculpture composed of nine precisely determined actions engaging specific locations, objects and people in defined temporal and spatial proximity within Pittsburgh’s three river system. In the work, ‘river’ exists both as a literal manifestation, but also as a spectre, framing each action inside a set of cascading mythological, archeology, historical and geological circumstances. Here, ‘river’ exists expansively as both a subject weighted with associations, use-values and politics, but also an object wholly unknowable to us - a form of alien complexity vastly superseding our limits of understanding.

All actions of Rivers will be in public, some without notice and others with invitation to the public. Each action will be preceded by a brief announcement, some containing precise details of when and where the actions will take place.

More expansive details of each action of Rivers will be forthcoming - the summary is as follows:

001  a human bone inserted inside a boulder on the banks of the Allegheny

002  an arrangement of cut flowers delivered to the PA Bureau of Topographic and Geological Survey

003  a human hand making contact with the 30” Thaw Refractor telescope at the Allegheny Observatory of the University of Pittsburgh

004  a human hand making contact with the JEOL JEM 1400 Transmission Electron Microscope at the Center for Biologic Imaging

005  a small bonfire on the banks of the Allegheny with driftwood compiled from around the world

006   the 1818 book The Navigator, gifted and entered into the collection of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh - Mt. Washington Branch

007  a rainbow produced over the Allegheny River for 500 seconds

008  a piece of lead recovered from a sunken 17th century sailing vessel, melted and cast into a handrail on an abandoned speedboat on the Monongahela

009  a text message sent from a remote location to a satellite phone at the confluence of the Ohio River

McKean, speaking of the process:

“Rivers imagines a set of parallel worlds where all matter-energy is flowing at different velocities, fidelities and intensities toward a more complex registration: sub atomic particles, molecules, substances, materials, earth-bound objects and celestial bodies can freely combine, graft, decay, transmute, but ultimately optimize into a new, more complex morphological orders. Working on the project, I began conceiving of the river-form as a sentient body, an intelligence, actively reorienting itself toward its most complex state – an omega point compressing countless lived and unlived realties. The project actualizes a small subset of these outlying realities - actions that exist simultaneously inside the internal safety-logic of the artwork, but also troll within our lived-in-world as wholly unrepresented, unperformed realities. However small and incomprehensible to us in the moment, these nine interlocking actions have catalytic intensity capable of charting stranger realities that cannot be reversed, only built upon...”

Spaced over consecutive days, McKean’s choreographed actions are concerned not only with the outward optics produced by an event, but in their hidden from view, realist and materialist ramifications: the hyperbolic release of energy and carbon into the atmosphere produced from burning a chunk of wood, or sunlight racing toward the earth in precise syncopation with an individual’s gaze toward water droplets momentarily dissolving into pure prismatic color, or a book added to a public library’s collection displacing a small but real amount of space from the building’s internal volume.

Rivers is devised as an artwork, but more broadly as an ‘ethic’ or ‘technology’ for developing more sensitized interactions with objects, in the process endowing them with newfound capacities and agency. The form of Rivers builds a dense, at times kaleidoscopic meshwork of contact points with people, places, things and events, honing a set of brief encounters where time-space distances can swirl, stagger, collapse within the fortified space of the artwork. For McKean, the work encourages a process with emancipatory ambitions through which a more empathic approach to bodies in the fullest, most diverse and most speculative sense of the term can be explored.

MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN (b. 1976, Micronesia, lives / works New York City) is the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Nancy Graves Foundation Award and an Artadia Award. McKean has been awarded fellowships and residencies at The Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The MacDowell Colony, The International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York City, The Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program in New York City.

McKean’s work has been exhibited extensively nationally and internationally. Recent exhibitions include the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston: Parc Saint Leger Centre d’art Contemporain, Nevers, France: Horton Gallery, New York, NY: The Quebec Biennale, Quebec City, Canada: Gentili Apri, Berlin, Germany: The Art Foundation, Athens, Greece: Inman Gallery, Houston, TX: Parisian Laundry, Montreal, Canada: Project Gentili, Prato, Italy: Shenkar University, Tel Aviv, Israel: The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX among many others.

McKean is currently an Associate Professor in the Sculpture + Extended Media Department at Virginia Commonwealth University where he has taught since 2006 and is Co-Director of ASMBLY based in New York City.


Rivers is a project commissioned by The Drift through a residency and fellowship at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. The project was made possible by the generous support of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and produced with the support and goodwill of many individuals and institutions including the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Topographic and Geological Survey, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biologic Imaging, The Allegheny Observatory of the University of Pittsburgh, Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh - Mt. Washington Branch, Hepatica, Christine Davis Consultants, Carly Smittle, Reggie Wilkins, Laila Archuleta, Dr. Donna Beer Stoltz, Jonathan Franks, Louis Coban and many more.

Process images courtesy Laila Archuleta and Steve Gurysh

black and white image set courtesy Michael Jones McKean