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The water crisis: action or wet dreams?

Ben Hale, Felicity Clark: Waterwheel 3WDS14 Symposium

Kim Pörksen & Sven Meyer, Sonic Water Kim Pörksen & Sven Meyer, Sonic Water
photo Kim Pörksen
A waterwheel can convert the energy of falling or free-flowing water into expedient forms of power. The limitation on its functionality however is its dependence on flow, which effects where it can be located. Igneous, Inkahoots and Suzon Fuks’ ambitious online project, Waterwheel, now in its third year, offers a global platform to share ideas, perspectives, performances and artistic interpretations with water as its theme, designed to build awareness for conservation and other issues. In a virtual platform the project assumes every location and is thus ripe with potentiality.

The Waterwheel website is free to use and designed to be participatory. It calls on everyone—artists, scientists and environmentalists, students and academics, anyone anywhere—to make a splash and start a wave. It’s a forum for exchange, expression and experimentation. This year Waterwheel hosted its annual week-long symposium in line with the UN’s World Water Day on 22 March. Performance artist Ulay opened proceedings with his listing of the words for water in 100 languages. Within just a few minutes, our need for interdisciplinary co-operation and compromise was clear.

Workshops, real-time discussion and live, networked performances are presented on the Tap section of the site. For easy access The Wheel has featured works and artists. But the hub of Waterwheel is its Media Centre where more than 3,000 artistic items are stored and tagged. You can search, comment and share your own content by uploading video, audio, photography, animation, slideshows, performance, music, text and other media. The Fountains section list events all over the world on a flashing map. The website claims, “There are no boundaries. Waterwheel flows along its natural course.” This it does, if you have access to high-speed internet, with Flash updated, on a non-Apple product. For Aussies, various symposium events were inclusive, if you’re not too fussed about circadian rhythms.

The artist and the water engineer

It’s widely accepted that there are major problems surrounding the world’s water and societies’ views on the rights to its exploitation. These problems are not well understood, particularly with international, inter-actional specificity. Many will have heard of the human rights issues of the Three Gorges Dam or pollution of the Mediterranean. But how many are aware of Bangladeshi arsenicosis or Punjab’s ever-decreasing water table? Technically, our engineers and innovators are providing solutions, from billboards that collect water from night air in arid areas to unglazed ceramic pots used to dramatically reduce evaporation in irrigation. Politically, the Mexican-American experimental pulse recharge of the Colorado River demonstrates progress, as does the EU’s oft lauded if flawed Water Framework Directive. While we didn’t come across the specifics of any such projects on Waterwheel, the website is not designed solely to inform on water policy and politics, but rather to build awareness and show art that provokes thought, and in this way it has been successful.

Waterwheel triggered florid debate between the two of us about the purpose and function of art in communicating big issues. Ben, a water engineer, argued that catchy, shareable images and infotainment-style videos are more effective in communicating to a broad audience the severity of water issues we face globally. He suggested we watch SABMiller’s Energy Food Nexus video instead. To humour Ben’s lumping together of art with advertising, Felicity, a musician, recalled the meme of an African kid with raised eyebrows beside a woman who appears to be an aid worker or tourist. The meme has a re-fillable speech-bubble, a favourite of which says, “You mean to tell me you poop in perfectly clean water?”

We agreed that decision-making and practical action should be based on informed opinions and not nebulous ideologies but Ben found little in the content of Waterwheel’s discussions that demonstrated this sort of information. Scientific ideas were present, but almost as an aside. Artworks were “pretty, amusing and interesting,” but few educated with directness. In Art and Ecology, a panel discussed for 40 minutes the idea of floating off messages in bottles. Ben saw this endeavour as little more than “justified pollution,” and, angered, suggested we look up a story about a load of rubber ducks that fell into the sea and were later found on far-away coastlines, to learn about ocean currents. Dropping hundreds of bottles, or even one, into a water course for the purpose of demonstrating that water moves, is redundant. In obliquely saying that this method of education is acceptable, it validates both waste and mindlessness. Yes, even when the pollution is ‘accidental’ or the by-product of didactic art.

Many artworks in Waterwheel were to Ben’s mind dreamy, sensualist expressions of artistic autonomy that did not deliver facts about the shittiness of the creek we find ourselves up. He wondered where the discussions about agricultural processes were, particularly because 70% of world water is consumed in this way. Smart decisions in choosing between spray, drip, gate or sluice gate irrigation can make the difference in sustaining cultures. Economic incentives need implementation to ensure methods for irrigation address local environmental circumstances. When Ben tried to throw these ideas into discussion at the symposium, nobody engaged. What was wrong with his mode of communication then?

As fonts of knowledge, our scientists and technicians are productive, but at times the implications of their studies get lost in data: their communication fails them. Dry data, even when concerning water, is still dry and indigestible. If artists’ aim is to explore the beauty and power of water, Waterwheel provides some wonderful pieces, but if it’s promotion of environmental stewardship, the audience must be engaged with the nature of the crisis we face.

Art at work with water

Felicity approached Waterwheel’s 2014 Water Week Symposium with an aesthetic eye and was excited by several contributions. Submissions and discussion investigated our collective relationship with this constant but volatile resource as an environmental issue, political dilemma, universal theme and symbol of life. There were several videos of pilgrims carrying containers on their heads and plenty of folks splashing by the seaside. Some artists shared work that only tangentially referenced wetness.

A short video of the Sonic Water project by Kim Pörksen & Sven Meyer posted by Esteban Yepes Montoya calls water “the blood of the Earth” but counters this natural and embodied metaphor with geometric designs produced in a bottle-cap of liquid that is manipulated by morphing sonic frequencies. These Cymatics make sound visible and play upon pseudo-scientific mysticism for the unveiling of natural truth (

Ian Clothier posted a view of the South Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand, taken from space which hints at the scale of our fragility ( Ana Laura Cantera’s work No Eres Perenne (We won’t live forever) looks at how we pervert and contaminate water resources through over-exploitation. Her Flows in Return explores sustenance and decay in the natural world. (,

Silke Bauer documents kids running around with buckets trying to catch paper cut-outs of invasive species released into a pond in Bio Invaders 2. Environmental pest risks are communicated here simply and effectively to kids through play. The video’s appeal is in children’s laughter but its beauty is in its educative function for subjects and audience. When we still hear anecdotes of inner city school children being unable to link hamburgers with cattle or tap water with rivers, this sort of interaction is crucial.

Action from inspiration?

One of Waterwheel’s aims is to inspire involvement and activism. Effective change requires the community’s involvement on a number of levels. These run from community’s passive reception of political or organisational imposition through to consultation to feedback and re-design, joint planning and finally to self-determination. Water projects worldwide fail regularly due to a lack of integrated involvement. When a population is not involved and engaged, it’s easier to manipulate through persuasive imposition.

The engineer in the room reckons we won’t solve problems by drawing pictures of them. The artist asks, how else can we help? You need to tell us. Waterwheel as platform has highlighted the very different ways we approach addressing and solving these problems. The discourses of the parties clash, but their intents do not. We need flow. We need engagement. We need empathy and action. Waterwheel sparked conversation and argument over vital topics that pass under our noses as we check out hot pictures of friends in swimwear on social media.

In the end, we talked not so much about the works as about our work in interpreting them. The power of Waterwheel is in its invitation for participation. But has it reached an optimal audience and participant scope: a critical mass of involvement ready to turn its wheel after the week’s discussions have ended? The project continues.

Waterwheel 3WDS14 Symposium: 17-22 March,

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 10

© Ben Hale & Felicity Clark; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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