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Can Art Change the World?

The Art for Water team discusses how public participation art can change the world. Innate has been supporting Art for Water in a modest way since 2008 with their 13699 installation. We invited their team to write a guest piece on how the act of creating art about water makes people more likely to be catalysts for social change.

Christine Destrempes, Founder and Director, Art for Water

Christine Badalamenti, Assistant Director, Art for Water

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with the harsh realities of the innumerable environmental and human rights crises that pervade the world. Helplessness stifles even well meaning people with a blanket of leaden security. We rationalize that nothing an individual does is going to have any impact on such monumental problems as climate change, water scarcity, or poverty. While it’s true that multinational corporations are doing major damage by spilling millions of gallons of oil into our oceans, spewing carbon into the atmosphere and dumping industrial chemicals into our water, each one of us in this culture has the privilege and power to make choices.

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Living in a land of abundance conditions us to a level of effortlessness in our daily lives that we take for granted. We have control over the temperature of our homes and workplaces. We can turn on the tap for potable hot and cold water, shower or bathe and use private indoor flushing toilets. We shop in markets bursting with fresh food and cleaning products and travel anywhere we want by car or reliable public transportation. It’s easy to forget that there are billions of people living on the planet right this minute who are struggling just to procure uncontaminated water and a safe place to relieve themselves.

So, what can we do? Before we can accomplish anything, the first step is to become aware – and not just “oh-yeah-I–read-about-that-in-the-paper” aware – but a realization that cracks open our hearts enough to make us willing to feel our own discomfort. It’s so simple and so difficult. Environmental degradation and human rights violations are tough topics. We’re all so busy and too inundated with information to take the time to experience this discomfort. It could get messy. Yet, the only way that change happens is through the heart.

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Public-participation art opens hearts. Of course, I can’t prove this, but I’ve watched it happen over and over again. So, what is public-participation art? It’s the experience of a group having a conversation, learning about a topic and then contributing personally to an art installation. When individuals come together to engage in a dialogue and then are invited to express themselves, something shifts in the room – a collective focus sets the stage for sincerity, generosity, creativity and gratitude. We experience our individuality and our interconnectedness. Our hearts are cracked open.

Art making puts the brakes on all that motion in our minds and spirits. It requires that we be still and consider what is inside and around us.  It takes us out of the context of a routine that only propels forward and empowers us to slow down enough to think about where we are headed and how we will get there.  When a person creates art, he or she is expressing ideas and feelings that are often neglected, using areas of the brain that exercise problem solving skills, making thoughtful, intentional choices about how to represent perceptions in a new way.  In other words, chances are taken.

Public-participation art is basic training for social change because it requires action – emotional, intellectual and physical – as well as creativity. It wakes us up and reminds us that we have power of choice and the privilege of self-expression, which are not insignificant. Making art collectively in response to unsettling information, rather than retreating into a personal comfort zone of helplessness, is a step on the path to a better world. Power and privilege are obligations to act.

Making art helps us adults to remember what children have not forgotten.

Art for Water raises awareness of the shrinking availability of clean water through the creation of public-participation art installations created by people of all ages. We work frequently with students in elementary, middle and high schools on our Stream of Conscience project – a site-specific travelling installation that incorporates multi-media, experiential learning and creative writing to produce a monumental river made of torn pieces of cover-weight paper. During a presentation on global water issues, students see images of young girls carrying 5-gallon jerry cans of water, women doing laundry in brown rivers, piles of garbage falling into ponds and people in flip-flops walking through raw sewage flowing in the street. We invite students to carry our 40+ pound jerry can of water and imagine hauling it four to eight miles every day. After they’ve felt the weight of that water, we ask them to guess how much water an average North American family uses every day (200 gallons) and compare that with the amount of water families in developing countries must live on (5 gallons). We ask them to guess who must fetch water for the family (young girls) and discuss what kind of impact that has on her future. We talk about all aspects of the bottled water industry, from privatization to the gallons of oil required to make plastic bottles, the amount of plastic waste generated and where it ends up. We engage students in a conversation about what water means to us personally.  Just as we do with adults, we remind them that we are all made of water.

We talk about water as a metaphor for life; how each of us is like a wave that rises, crests, roars to the shore and then slips back to join all the other waves that have been or are about to be. For a brief moment in time we are distinct, but we are never separate. We discuss the different states of water, how the earth uses water to communicate and how our words can also be fluid, icy, or insubstantial. We point out that each contribution to the Stream of Conscience installation is like a drop that, when combined, makes a powerful river of words. Just like all of the pieces of paper in the installation and all of the water on the planet, we are interconnected.

Schools teach the science of water  – the hydrologic cycle, watersheds, boiling points, etc. – and that is essential. But Art for Water makes the topic of water personal because we take care of the things to which we feel connected. Most students are not aware of the magnitude of the global water crisis, but they are willing to feel the discomfort of environmental and human rights violations spontaneously because their hearts are still open. The Stream of Conscience provides them with an outlet to express themselves and the model of taking action. Here are some examples of contributions to the Stream of Conscience written by elementary school students. Be prepared to feel optimistic.

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“H2O: 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom.

Some places it also has 1 million atoms of gunk.

We are lucky in America to have just plain H2O with some chlorine.

We are willing to go in it. We use it in baths, meals, sports, and swimming.

We use it without thinking. We take it for granted. We share it.

We don’t have to carry it 4 miles in 5 gallon tanks.

We are lucky. We fear it. We use it for energy.

It envelopes our lives. It gives us food.

It’s our first memory, maybe our last.

We cry it. It’s used in religion. We embrace it.

We never tire of drinking it. It is the most abundant element

In the universe. It’s in everything: people, plants, buildings.

People fight, kill, but the problem is in front of them.

We must work together, that’s the only way to preserve

Us and our planet.”


“You wash my secrets and my FEARS and carry them to the ocean.
My secrets and my FEARS reach the ocean and soon they are washed away.
My mind is PURE, my heart renewed. Oh, rushing river.”

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