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Watershed: Art, Activism, and Community Engagement

Water is the most critical resource on earth. Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and author, writes, “Although two-thirds of our planet is water, we face an acute water shortage. The water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth.”

Water sustains us. We need water. The human body is 55% to 78% water depending on ones body size. The health of fresh water is directly linked to our own health and that of the planet. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “About 20% of the world’s population lives in countries where water is scarce, or where they have not been able to access the natural sources available. At present, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe water, and 2.6 billion people lack access to proper sanitation. Climate change is affecting water resources in both developed and developing countries…It has been estimated that, by 2025…two-thirds of the world populations could be under stress conditions.”

Water, traditionally a public resource, is being privatized by multinational corporations at a frightening pace. Water has become big business and the struggle over who controls it – corporations or communities – will likely define many of the social justice movements, political decisions, and wars of the 21st Century.

Watershed: Art, Activism, and Community Engagement addresses the shifting ecological and political dimensions of water. This project, organized by Raoul Deal and Nicolas Lampert, uses art as a form of activism to comment on water issues in Milwaukee and the Great Lakes Basin, and their impact on the world at large.  It tackles issues such as water shortages, notions of abundance, water privatization, invasive species, industrial pollution, and water as a human right. There are three components to Watershed:

  • Community Outreach: Fall 2009- Summer 2010: silkscreen workshops with students at the Bruce Guadalupe Middle School and the Walnut Way Conservation Corp in Milwaukee to create images that address water issues.
  • Public Interventions: July 2010, local and national artists work on art actions along in the banks of  Milwaukee’s three main rivers,  and the shores of Lake Michigan.
  • Gallery Exhibit: January 28 – Feb. 25, 2011, UWM Union Art Gallery, opens, Friday, January 28th, 5:00-8:00. New installations by Sweet Water Organics, Colleen Ludwig, Jarod Charzewski, Lane Hall and Lisa Moline, Raoul Deal and Nicolas Lampert; prints by students at the Bruce Gaudalupe Middle School and the Walnut Way Conservation Corp in Milwaukee; films by Laura Klein that document all 12 public intervention projects.

All three projects are meant to raise public awareness through creative actions that tackle the critical watershed issues threatening the well being of Milwaukee, the Great Lakes Basin, and people and nature around the world.

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Introduction text from forthcoming Watershed catalog:

Water is a human right. All people should have access to clean, affordable water. This declaration, recently made by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, runs counter to the goals of global capitalism, corporate power, and consumerism that prioritizes financial gain over the needs of people, communities, and the environment. World Bank-driven privatization programs have turned water, a scarce and precious resource, into a business opportunity for corporations around the globe, and a life-and-death issue for those who cannot afford the rising costs of water. This privatization model is not limited to India, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, and other nations at the epicenter of the “water wars.”

In 2010, the Milwaukee Common Council entertained an ordinance that would have sold Milwaukee’s water rights to a private investor for 100 years.  While the bill was tabled due to a growing contingent of public activists, it is expected to surface again as a quick fix to the city’s financial woes.  Similar motions are taking place behind closed doors in Chicago. The city of Highland Park, just outside of Detroit, privatized its municipal water source with disastrous results for city residents; some received $10,000 water bills as documented in the film The Water Front. Clearly, more work is sorely needed to inform the public about water issues, help combat the threat posed by privatization schemes, challenge unsound industrial practices, and foster stewardship of the land in ways that take into account the urgency of water conservation across the world.

Should it surprise us that the four most impoverished US cities, with 250,000 residents or more according to the 2009 US Census, are situated on the Great Lakes? (Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Milwaukee) Should it also surprise us that the Midwest has some of the worst examples of environmental stewardship, but also some of the most innovative and inspiring models of urban sustainability?

The Midwest is home to the Chicago River, a river whose flow was reversed by the Army Corp of Engineers in the early 1900s and now sends an average of one billion gallons each day out of Lake Michigan and south. The water, combined with raw sewage, eventually heads down the Mississippi River. The Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio has the dubious distinction of being known as a “burning river” for it has caught fire thirteen times since 1868. Other offenders include the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee, now a superfund site after decades of industrial waste was dumped into it, primarily by the Mitchell lnternational Airport. There is a growing awareness that we can no longer afford such rampant carelessness regarding our hydrosphere.

Positive news and signs of change emerge from the numerous community organizations and institutions that pair environmental concerns with employment opportunities and creative thinking: empty warehouses converted to urban aquaponics farms (Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee); high-intensity urban farming and vermiculture (Growing Power in Milwaukee); re-envisioning the city through urban farming and community building (Detroit Summer and the Boggs Center in Detroit, and Walnut Way Conservation Corp in Milwaukee); an art space paired with a community bicycle shop, café, garden, and farmers market (the Experimental Station in Chicago); a fresh water academic research center (Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee), among others.

Watershed was conceived in the spirit of activism and community engagement.   This project does not view art simply as a commodity or an isolated event in a gallery. Nor does it view art as corporate speak: “the new MBA is the MFA.” Instead, this three-year project of public interventions, community workshops, exhibitions, screenings, and discussions views art as a form of collaboration–a chance for artists, scientists, urban farmers, rural farmers, scientists, community activists, teachers, students, citizens, and friends to work together. Watershed presents art as an interdisciplinary form of activism where visual art, media, film, conversation, lectures, and writing all inform one another and play a key role in creating a more just and sustainable future.

-Nicolas Lampert and Raoul Deal, project organizers / curators

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Watershed is co-Sponsored by The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund and the UWM Cultures & Communities Program.

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