Artists Maxime Berthou and Mark Požlep have just returned from their 50-day journey down the Mississippi river on a refurbished steamboat—crossing 10 states, collecting corn and distilling whisky. Makery met Maxime at his restaurant in Paris.
Maxime Berthou and Mark Požlep love alcohol and adventure. In 2015 they sailed from Paimpol in Brittany to the island of Islay in Scotland (famous for its peated whiskies) on an old sailboat that they later recycled into whisky barrels. The ad hoc Hogshead 733 project aimed to reconnect with the ancestral craft of distilling whisky and re-enact in images this human adventure reviving the age-old transportation of foodstuffs by sailboat.
Following that odyssey, the two adventurers sought out a new challenge: Southwind, traveling down the Mississippi in the footsteps of Mark Twain aboard a traditional steamboat, which they refurbished themselves. This time, the goal was to collect corn along the 3,700km route to New Orleans in order to distill Moonshine, liquor that was famously pirated in the United States from the Prohibition period up until its legalization in 2012.
First “Southwind” video:
Art, slow travel and gastronomy
We met Maxime Berthou in the cellar of L’ébéniste du vin, a wine bar that he co-manages with his wife to complement his restaurant L’écailler de l’ébéniste in the Batignolles neighborhood of Paris. His passion for gastronomy goes hand-in-hand with his artistic ambitions. After studying at Ecole Supérieure d’Art in Aix-en-Provence, as well as Le Fresnoy and Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, he focused on film projects that valorize research-action and cultural history. During a break from his studies in France, he met Mark Požlep in Slovenia. This rich friendship led to four years of collaboration as a duo and later an art residency program to foster exchanges between Slovenia and France that lasted more than 10 years, hosted by the organization Otto Prod (which we covered here).
Then on September 1st, 2018, Maxime and Mark embarked on their latest transmedia cultural project along the Mississippi, with the objective of distilling the long-prohibited corn whisky known as Moonshine. Since 2012, this legendary liquor is now an integral part of U.S. history. As a nod to that bygone era, the seafaring duo decided to make the journey by steamboat. They also wanted their project to follow the natural flow of time, composing with the elements.
Renovating and launching the boat in Trois Rivières, Michigan:
On the Mississippi
The Southwind project began with the restoration of a traditional 21-foot long paddle steamer, on which they would navigate the river all the way from its source in Minnesota down to its mouth in Louisiana. The artists planned to shoot a film focused on the social and geopolitical structure of the Mississippi river, with an emphasis on the production and consumption of corn, a major commodity of the U.S. economy but also a cause of the watershed’s ecological deterioration.
As they write: “The United States is the world’s largest corn producer but only 13% of its production is exported and nearly 30% of the production is used for the manufacture of ethanol. Some farms / factories share the gigantic lands adjacent to the Mississippi to exploit the soils and have exhausted all of its resources. To escape this inevitability, farmers body-build their farms with the help of depuratives, synthetic nutrients and other pesticides. All these treatments are inevitably found in the river as soon as the first rains and this makes the Mississippi an extremely toxic ecosystem saturated with agricultural chemistry.”
It took them 50 days to travel 3,700km downstream through the states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Along the way, they made daily stops to collect different types of corn from local farmers and restock the boat.
They shot footage of their encounters and documented knowledge and techniques in a database, in order to disseminate their journey in the form of films, cine-concerts… According to Maxime, their journey was punctuated by unforgettable encounters (like Cowboy Jim) and legendary music: jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, country, cajun, Prince… Reaching out to others, going from village to village, the adventurers collected raw data on the history of colonization, slavery and racism (unfortunately still very present), as well as problems related to modern farming in the U.S., crisis situations in some states, and the surprising digital deserts in certain areas, where information is lacking.
Batch of 2,000 bottles
With respect to the circular economy and waste reduction, once the seafarers arrived in New Orleans, they converted their boat into a small distillery to produce the Moonshine, with help from a local coppersmith they hired along the way. It took them 15 days to distill two tons of collected corn to fill 2,000 bottles!
Such an ambitious project left no room for improvisation: two years of planning and fully funded support before departure—in exchange for a complete documentary film, several exhibitions with partners, and the pre-sale of bottles to French and U.S. distributors of spirits. Their transmedia project was recently presented at Centre Pompidou and the American Center for Art & Culture in Paris, conquering liquor lovers.
More than just a whisky, this Moonshine is “the genie in the bottle”, says Maxime, beaming over their a one-of-a-kind product. More than just bottled alcohol, it’s the successful alchemy of an extraordinary human experience, blended with the legendary savors of the Mississippi.
Stay tuned in autumn 2020 for the complete documentary film of their adventures!
More about the Southwind Project
Mark Požlep is presenting the first stage of the project in Ghent, Belgium for the HISK Laureates 2019 exhibition: “An Island of Multiple Bridges”, through December 15.