Melina Nicolaides


Each of the preceding essays, centered around curator Hyewon Lee’s far-reaching Waterscapes exhibition, has foreseen the multiple ways in which water will be the defining crisis of our century. Undeniably, our discussion has shown that our collective abuse of this resource has already had its impact on our changing climate and environment; and reversely, the changes in our climate have had deep impacts on the water systems of our planet. The reality of the world’s finite amount of water resources will be even more intensely felt in the future.

In the increasingly water-stressed areas of the earth, water availability or shortage imbalances will play a huge role in geopolitical stability, global security and within the peace and conflict of our futures. With the growing problems of providing safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all, and the expanding prospect of water as an instrument of war, the appreciation of the right to water has become all the more urgently relevant.

Just as we saw in the long road towards the acceptance of climate change, the water debates also require the rewiring of the public’s focus and the reconditioning of our habits. The repeated presence of the artist’s voice in these issues, through new ways and means of delivery and forms of communication, means that this difficult information can be better understood, and also processed by people through their own value systems and judgments. Changes must come on many levels: within behaviors, as value and priority re-evaluation, and finally as laws. We are in need of more artists and people working in support of the universal right to water, activated individuals who can both inspire and provoke the world to vigorously seek social, political and environmental reform - and these changes must be envisioned and tackled both individually and collectively.

I would like to thank everyone who has participated in the WATER PROJECTS for their contributions that have helped build this ongoing series of presentations, and will continue to do so in the future. Taking water as a subject from an environmental, political, and social perspective as well as the aesthetic, they have both verbalized and made visible the extent and complexity of the world’s water crises, and done so not only through the political lens, but also by placing the ethical intentions of the activated artist and the practical footprint of their work, into our discussion.

Through this investigation of water, we have also touched on the possibilities revealed by the intersections between art, activism, the sciences and civic engagement. We have seen that the practice of artists with concerns about the environment and the issues of water around the world are being presented from within, but also from without, the established institutions of the art world; as the voice of the artist continues to expand and diversify, our shared water issues are a zone in which the encounter of the art with non-art world drivers can meet perfectly.

Within the world water politics sphere, the artistic impulse - driven by the existing intense political implications plus the desire to explain the complexities and to inform the world of the urgencies - prove that the alliance between art, activism, and protest, can only create a louder voice. Indeed, in recent years there have been many art initiatives and projects around the subjects of water, weather, pollution, tides, waste, threats to waterways, islands and oceans, indicating just how essential a role art can play in consciousness-raising around the vital importance of water in the world today.

As contemporary art responds to the elements of contemporary life, the work of activist-inspired artists distill information to its essence and make the bridge to understanding, for those who think that a water crisis is still very far away from their own neighborhood. In whatever form artists communicate, the amplification value for water awareness through artists’ initiatives and collaborative public projects is evident in so many water proposals. From Waterscapes in its Korean presentation seen by 27,000 visitors, to the Gaza Mural Brigade Project of 2011 which brought artists and activists from around the world hoping to shed light on Palestine's critical water crisis that affects everything from health to agriculture, to the last summer’s NYC Water Tank Project, where the city’s iconic water towers were covered with artwork to raise awareness of global water problems and bore the slogan “put water above all”, most water-awareness projects upholding the importance of water availability globally are also geared by the hope of creating new generations of water stewards who will bring meaningful transformation for years to come.

In recent years, many citizens have come to understand water-related issues by supporting climate change and environmental actions; there is already a growing stance within the general public to voice concern, protest and disagreement, and become part of a broader movement for change. After having been for so long left out of the larger perspective of corporate, economic, political pressures that are still driving our water governance, it is important to not forget that every day crucial decisions about the future of our water are being made: about access to it, what is in this water, how much of it you will get, and how much you will pay for it.

The key is to learn the issues, to appreciate why everyone must inform themselves about water at home, and everywhere in the world, as the proximate result of not knowing something about these issues, is that these decisions will be made for you, often by those with enormous invested interest, or the easily diverted components of our political systems who are influenced by private water operators against the benefit of the general public. In the very worst case, rather than finding collective propositions for constructive change, the issues will remain unresolved due to the resistors, contrarians or obstructionists at the very least, and in some cases confrontation or conflict.

2014 was called the ‘year of activism’ and it embodied a strong showing of how it is possible to mobilize public opinion and support around issues requiring social, political and environmental reform; technology enabled people to become activists and part of movements through both online campaigns, and in-person and public-sphere efforts. Even water issues reached a peak of online inter-connectivity and communication of digital activism, which included hashtags that touched on topics from water scarcity to locations of watersheds. While 2015 has been hailed as the year for change on the road to the Paris Summit this coming December, success for overcoming the immense challenges posed to our environment can only begin to be resolved if we remember that what drives decision-makers is political will, and what drives political will are what people insist openly to be relevant and imminent ‘voting’ issues.

Certainly let us hope that more artists who possess a critical vision of the world become ‘activated’ to use the voice and platform they have in order to make water activism a shared practice of artists and citizens alike. Only a collective exertion will take its effect on the personal level and then also motivate people who can help make governmental strategy accountable for water actions and lawmaking decisions within the water policy agenda.

We inhabit a water planet. Both clean water and proper sanitation are the most basic building blocks to leading a healthy life. Water issues are a tangible way for us to understand the bigger picture of how our environment, our politics, our social relationships impact our access to this resource in the world at large just as much as in our daily lives. Solidarity and support is a good beginning. When we see gestures such as that of Oscar Olivera who in an act of solidarity went from Bolivia to protest in Detroit City last year, or the Detroit-resident delegation that went to support the Dubliners in Ireland, we see resourcefulness and the extent of the efforts are made by those who truly commit.

Pohang Girl with Bunny.JPG

At this critical moment on our planet, the basic right to water for all humans is a compelling motivation for people and groups to engage in each other’s local struggles. Awakening one another’s conscience should be a collaborative job, as the existent human capacity for solidarity can indeed bring change -  just because in the long run, it’s what’s best thing for all of us.


I will leave you now with my favorite image of the visitors that came to see Waterscapes, it is from the Pohang City Museum leg of the exhibition.

She is the Little Girl with Bunny, who sat with her rabbit friend and watched the 110-minute Israeli-Palestinian cinematic project Water. Just imagine what she learned.

And with this image in mind, let your conscience, at the very least, occupy your right to Water.

She certainly did.

Pohang, March 2015