Kat Murrell

Water, Art and Activism at UWM

By - Jan 27th, 2011 11:28 am
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Think about it. Photos courtesy of Watershed project.

Water moves in, around, and through us, and is the focus of an important exhibition opening in the UWM Union Art Gallery this Friday, January 28.

Watershed: Art, Activism, and Community Engagement is the result of a two-year project spearheaded by UWM professors Nicolas Lampert and Raoul Deal, and the culmination of community projects and public interventions undertaken last year.

As Milwaukeeans, our location on the Great Lakes puts us in a position of abundance when it comes to water as a natural resource. But we also face many questions in terms of water usage, water rights, and ownership. The power of art to address these issues is seen in Lampert’s art intervention which occurred last summer, and lives on through photographs and documentation. A small, very striking sign was placed on Bradford Beach for four hours.

The design and scale had the hallmarks of official notification, but instead of proclaiming rules, the stark black and white figures asked a question: “Who owns water?”

“Tower of (Water) Power” by Raoul Deal and Nicolas Lampert. Photo courtesy Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.

For Lampert and Deal, these interventions and questions get to the heart of what the exhibition is about. It acts as a catalyst to bring together people from all parts of the community, and it’s not restricted to Milwaukee.

Lampert says, “I think this show is interesting because we’re somewhat ahead of the curve in doing a show talking about global water issues, but its really an issue most of the world is already talking about. And here we are, sitting on the largest body of fresh water in the western hemisphere, and what does that mean? These are the massive discussions the city should be having.”

A collaborative approach has influenced the project from the very beginning. As noted by co-organizer Raoul Deal, “Nicolas came up with this idea of doing a large project about water. We worked together in the past on other things and always enjoyed it. He knew I was interested in community art and had a lot of contacts in that area. He invited me and in the course of conversations it developed in a real organic way.”

Lampert adds, “We worked on each other’s strengths. He’s rooted in community art. I’m rooted in street art. I’m really interested in doing work in the street that’s thought-provoking and atypical and both Raoul and I, our work is very much centered around social justice, art and activism. So when we did a show about water, it wasn’t going to necessarily be the aesthetics of water; it was going to be about the politics of it, issues of control. Who owns water? Who are the major players?”

These questions are writ large in a large installation dominating the center of the gallery space. A water tower, decorated with the symbol of the World Bank is festooned with tags. Many corporate logos are familiar, but some are not. Yet, these are controlling interests in the arena of water access.

Other ruminations on water issues have a more ethereal, corporeal nature. Colleen Ludwig’s installation features rivulets of water running down flat walls, in thin streams rather like the way water runs down a human body. Sensors are at work behind the scenes, and as viewers move closer and further away, their actions initiate change in the water. Our effects on water are overtly seen.

“The Future of Farming” by Sweet Water Organics. Photo courtesy Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.

A notable contributor to the exhibition is Sweet Water Organics, who have set up an aquaponic system. This self-contained ecosystem represents one sort of solution to some of the pressing questions raised.

It also expands the notion of what an art gallery exhibition is about, and as described by Lampert, “We very specifically try to break down boundaries between what is art and science and urban farming. In my mind they are all creative efforts and artists need to be working with these people.”

There will be talks on Thursdays throughout the month of February. The series starts February 3 with Betsy Damon, a prominent artist and water activist. Other Thursday evenings will feature artists, scientists, and community organizers, continuing the discussion.

The exhibition continues through February 25. The UWM Union Art Gallery is free and open to the public, and is located on the Campus Level of the Union in room W199. For hours, click here.

Categories: Art, Environment

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