Water Gold Soil: The American River

Susannah Sayler & Ed Morris
UC Berkeley

In 2018-2019, Sayler & Morris were artists in residence at the Art+Science in-residence Programme at UC Berkeley with the project Water Gold Soil: the American River. The project is both a form of historiography and a form of allegory – using this swath of geography to investigate our present Age of Extraction. With Water Gold Soil, the artists examine this less visible, technological reality of California rivers by following a single flow of water – the South Fork of the American River – from its origin near Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada mountains to its end use in the agricultural economy in California’s Central Valley. This is the flow of water where gold was first discovered in California, and the project explores how the state of California remains haunted by its violent and colonial beginnings of the state of California. The project consists of an ongoing assembly of original photographic and video works, archival images, writing, maps and other media. All of the elements are combined to produce installations that take the viewer through a series of conceptual frameworks. The diversity of form and materials in the project stems from an appreciation for the challenges of representing the nexus of relationships–ecological, political, and historical–that make up a river. A book of the project was published in spring 2019.

While at UCBerkeley, the artists investigated the way ideology informs the use of technology in water management and allocation. They researched technological innovations that help prepare California for future water shortages, particularly in light of climate change and increased demand. They researched what ways of seeing the world might lead to a more equitable and sustainable use of existing and emerging water technologies (e.g. the commons, indigenous philosophies, critiques of neo-liberalism, history of water law). They also prepared additional exhibitions of the work to follow the book, as well as a related made-for-TV documentary series that they produced along with Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) and director Stefan Schaefer.


In 2006, the artist duo Sayler and Morris created The Canary Project – a studio that produces visual media and artwork that deepen public understanding of climate change and other ecological issues. These artists’ research-intensive projects communicate the immediacy, the presence, and the reality of our current ecological climate. The initiative also brings together hundreds of artists, designers, scientists, writers and volunteers to engage and inspire public sentiment, which in turn can precipitate political change. 

Sayler and Morris have exhibited internationally at many venues, including both science and art museums. Some past exhibitions have featured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Nevada Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. They have been awarded the David Brower Center’s Art / Act Award (2016), the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency (2015), the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2014) the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (2009). They are currently teaching in the Transmedia Department at Syracuse University, where they co-founded The Canary Lab. Their archives are collected by the Nevada Museum of Art / Reno, Center for Art and Environment.