Chorus and Refrain: Observations Around Two Green Rivers

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve decided to post an excerpt from an essay I wrote for Brian Rotman’s excellent “Introduction to Affect” course in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. It concerns two superficially-similar instances of green-dyed rivers:

Photo: Ken Ilio, via: trekearth

Photo: Ken Ilio, via: trekearth

The gesture has two histories: Chicago’s journeymen plumbers have been performing it annually since 1962 as part of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson enacted his Green River action at several locations between 1998 and 2000. Both produce the same visual effect and dissipate within hours, but their presences induce two very different types of behavior on the part of the spectator. Their affect varies due to context. The river’s greenness elicits a response, but the nature of said response depends on what Eliasson calls Your Engagement Sequence (YES), a sixth sense embodying affect, memory and temporal context. For Eliasson, YES must be included as a central element of perception, essential in understanding how one receives and interprets sensory data.

In turning the river green, Eliasson transforms it into a critical object, either laying bare the construction of perception, raising awareness of environmentalism or critiquing conditions of representation, depending whom you ask. But uncertainty of reading is part of Eliasson’s critique, and the covertness of Green River enables this uncertainty. If it were coded as a piece of art, for example, certain “proper” behaviors would be prioritized, and habits of reception and reflection would limit response. Uncertainty of origin broadens the range of potential responses. Institutions work to limit these possibilities. Following the first Green River in Stockholm, for example, Swedish authorities were quick to recognize this instability, and wrote off the coloration as resulting from a chemical plant upstream, simultaneously offsetting their own complicity and bracketing certain undesirable responses.

via: NewYorkology

Olafur Eliasson's Green River, via: NewYorkology

If Eliasson’s series is a critique, Chicago’s, by contrast, provides an atmosphere, a “visual soundtrack” for a celebration—a coloring of experience—specifically one conducive to the behavior of intoxicated revelers. All participants bob their head to this soundtrack, engaging in the same debauchery, and similar to synestheticism, a spectator’s experience may becomes associated with the river’s greenness. Certain habits develop in relation to the green river’s presence. It provides an artifice for a becoming-stereotypically-Irish, a visual cue for behaviors traditionally associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

This hints at a key difference between our two rivers. While Eliasson discourages the prescription of behaviors, Chicago announces that the party has begun, and certain prototypical responses to said announcement are expected. A temporary community emerges through common behavior and experience, defined by participation and reflexivity that verifies and further intensifies the green river experience. The dispersal of dye becomes an habitual performance, staged before an audience in the center of the city. Theatricality helps to achieve the desired affect.

These theatrics, and the greenness that results, delimit a temporal territory, a duration, within which illicit and repugnant behavior is condoned, even encouraged. Normal expectations are suspended, habits set aside, and a temporary condition of celebration is inaugurated. The gesture’s annual repetition constitutes a ritornello, a refrain. It provides a territory for event and difference. Importantly, this space is privileged and individuated. It is, after all, a holiday. Its distinctness from all other days of the year contributes to the sense of urgency communicated by the short duration of the river’s greenness.

Eliasson’s Green River constitutes a chorus: an outside commentary, a disclosure. It raises awareness of the spectator’s engagement through disruption of normalcy. A change in consciousness, however temporary, results from this disruption, and the possibility exists for what Brian Massumi refers to as bleed, a change in the ordinary world resulting from an exemplary event. The same cannot be said of Chicago’s tradition. Its intent is not to produce St. Patrick’s Day behavior on every day of the year, but to enact a temporary yet repetitive suspension, one with equally temporary effects. It is a change in atmosphere, but also a change in mood, and both are fleeting.

Both green rivers are spectacles, but Eliasson’s is a spectacle without repetition and without expectation. It produces a quantitative difference, a difference in intensity. Because Chicago’s green river announces a special condition, however repetitive, it constitutes a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. The day is simply different, so one can act differently. The fact that the river is green isn’t meant to alter the way its participants perceive their relation to one another or their surroundings. Individuation of temporal territories results in the inability of an exemplary event to bleed into normal practice. Chicago’s green river may seem to enable freedom, but it is in fact only a part of a system of control. The expectation is that one returns to normal practice after a release, with no change accrued.

Differences of intensity—like those of Eliasson’s Green River—permit bleed to occur. As exemplary events, they can effect change in normal perception. The refrain can delimit a territory and incite habit formation, but the chorus can transform already delimited territories and either reinforce or critique existing habits. The chorus or critical gesture may never produce the improvisation of the refrain, but its effects aim for a longer duration.


Eliasson, Olafur. “Vibrations,” in Your Engagement has Consequences on the Relativity of Your Reality (Baden: Lars Müller, 2006): 62-64.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 179.

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