FROM WATER-ILLITERACY TO WATER ACTIVISM: SEOUL-CHENNAI-SEOUL
The Politics of Water began with an email that was casually forwarded to me by a friend in early 2013. The journey from this email to Waterscapes, through Water Bodies, my two exhibitions on water, brought me out of what I call my water-illiteracy and into water activism. That pivotal email referred to an open call from the Korean Arts Council for a ‘Nomadic Residency’ to Chennai, India, to be held under the proposed theme of ‘Water Bodies: Water as an Object of Life and Danger’. The call caught my mind not only because of the oxymoronic pairing of two of the latest buzz words in the Korean art world, nomad and residency, but also because of the more intellectually-flavored combination of water and body. While the first pair fleeted away quickly, ‘water bodies’ fired my curiosity and imagination.
What is this ‘water bodies’ thing?
Googling inevitably followed. Soon enough I got a rough idea about what it is, even though I realized, much later, that water body is a term of everyday usage in India. But still, “why on earth did the InKo Centre (Indo-Korean Cultural Center), the hosting institution of the residency in India, propose Water Bodies as a theme of an art project?” As a person from a country where the media does not inform the public about the water crisis that the entire world has been struggling with, and where many people do not regard water as an urgent issue, I could not think of an easy answer. So, the googling went on.
Along my investigation many things came up - the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, organ trades among the Tsunami victims, farmers’ protests against Coca-Cola, sea routes between the two countries, myths and stories about the marriage between an Indian princess and the King of Gaya, an ancient dynasty in Korea, and striking similarities between Tamil and the Korean language, and I ended up writing a rather ‘grand’ proposal. Purely based on my research and imaginations, I wrote that the project would approach water through important key words in contemporary art and culture such as: archiving, everydayness, interactivity and site-specificity. I also wanted to connect water with more fluid art forms - such as sound pieces, music performance, film and photography. Most of all as I thought art and water share a number of characteristics, as both are public assets that are shared by humanity, and contribute to the shaping of the cultural characteristics of societies. Art and water also serve as catalysts for exchanges between people, cities and countries.
Artists did their jobs, probably their own internet explorations, and came up with ideas for the residency.
Jung-ki Beak, whose previous works include using electricity generated by several hundred bottles of water to incubate eggs, and using water from Seoul's Han River to print images on homemade litmus paper, came up with a project about water antennae which pick up short-wave radio signals from neighboring countries, by shooting sea water from a Chennai beach up into the air. Suyeon Yun, who had been travelling through Korea, the United States and Arab countries using photography to record the traces of disasters in people's everyday lives, planned to search for post-tsunami life in Chennai.
Musician Chang-Won Park planned to make his way around various places in Seoul and Chennai using equipment such as cups, microphones and hydrophones to collect the sounds made by water, and then synthesize these samples with sounds related to water pollution, to create a sound-scape linking the two cities. Youngin Hong and Jiyoung Chae proposed performance pieces, “Water Comes Together With Other Water” and “Water Vessel”.
Hong’s was a music performance in which she collaborates with a local musician to write a song based on quotes about water written by people from various cultures, regions and generations, while Chae planned a collective performance which mixed the memorial ceremony in which Indian women pour milk from urns into the sea to commemorate the tsunami with a traditional Korean ritual in which women sprinkle salt into the sea on the first full moon of the lunar calendar to pray for a year without floods.
All of the projects looked good and I actually got the proposal. I knew it. I knew it. The euphoria, however, didn’t last long. The prospect that I would actually go to India and spend a few weeks there made me realize what I had actually proposed, and not only made me see more clearly the drawbacks of my original plan, but also made worry about the safety of the team, as I too had become affected by the latest news about crimes against women in India that the world media had just been feeding into our minds since the Delhi bus rape incident. In addition, most of my friends and acquaintances, who had been to India, brought up possible health risks. On the other hand, sort of guilty feeling started building up in my mind. “Is this the right thing to do for a city where the Tsunami took so many people’s lives and livelihoods?” For the first time in my career as a curator, I was evaluating my project purely on moral and ethical grounds, and I felt as if it just wasn’t quite enough yet.
Over the next seven months in preparation for the trip to India, I tried to define what was missing in my plan. More readings of water-related issues and more contacts with water specialists and NGO members led me to see the previously blurry missing links between my project and the everyday lives of people living under water scarcity in India and elsewhere. Most of all, my artists and I were approaching water primarily as concept and substance rather than reality, and we regarded water as a medium for communications, cultural exchanges, or communal healing and sharing. None of us looked at water as an object of disputes between communities, cities and countries, nor as devastating results of human intervention, not to mention issues related to water privatization which has been wide spreading around the world.
In an urge to expand awareness about the water crisis which would reach the broader public in Korea and elsewhere, I commissioned two documentary film projects on water problems in India; one by EBS, the Korean national education channel, for TV broadcast; and a web-based interactive documentary by a team of three international filmmakers from the US, Switzerland and Korea. Meanwhile, I worked with Rathi Jafer, the director of the InKo Centre, to include four Indian artists Gigi Scaria, Surekha, Subodh Kelhar and Sujay Mukerjee in the exhibition to be held at the end of the residency, while inviting Sharan Apparao, a curator based in Chennai to co-curate the show. In addition, there would be collateral events such as screening sessions for films on the theme of water and a series of talks on water from artistic, scientific, social, historical and civic perspectives.
The actual, rather than virtual journey to Chennai further deepened my interest in water as a political subject. Once in Chennai, I didn’t have to study or read books and articles to understand water problems in India. Those colorful water jars that I had seen through images only were everywhere, but those images had never given me any idea of how long those ladies have to wait under the sizzling heat to get a jar of water from a water lorry, nor how far they have to walk to bring a this jar to their families; not to mention how much they have to pay for the water.
Water scarcity was part of every day realities there and I was surprised at the fact that the mainstream media in India brings up water issues almost every day - such as degrading water quality in various water bodies around India, concerns about decreasing ground water, water rights for Dalits, disputes over water within communities, cities and regions, as well as conflicts between fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. I had never seen such media coverage about issues related to water in Korea, even when a number of the regional governments privatized their public water system and water prices had increased by 20 times in those areas over a period of several years. Yes, India does have water problems but its citizens talk about them and have been struggling to find solutions and alternatives to these problems.
Both the artists and I ended up adjusting, changing or giving up the ideas and plans that we had previously prepared, and we scheduled the Water Bodies exhibition for the end of the residency in January 2014 at space called Spaces, a beautiful estate on Elliot’s Beach where the legendary dancer and choreographer Chandralekha had used to live and work. Nine Korean and Indian artists presented videos, installations, photographs, performances and sound pieces on water and most of them were great pieces of art. I was satisfied with the show, but I had already begun to envision another project which did not differentiate art from activism, and I had a more or less clear vision for another water project: Waterscapes: The Politics of Water.
My first step was to expand the geographical scope of the project beyond India and Korea, and to this effect I wanted to invite artists and filmmakers from across the world. During the summer of 2014, I went to New York to meet Alfredo Jaar, the renowned activist artist, with the hope of recreating his 1991 installation “Geography=War” of Koko, Nigeria, once one of the dumpsites for toxic industrial waste from the so-called developed countries. This piece, like all of Jaar’s work, invites viewers to become aware of his or her own position as a citizen of the world.
I also met Eve Mosher at a café in Brooklyn to discuss the possibility about her “HighWaterLIne” being realized in Korea. In the project that she has also created in Manhattan, Miami, Bristol, Philadelphia, involves the artist and a group of volunteers who walk around the coastal area of these cities to draw chalk lines that follow particular elevations that will be submerged under water when climate change accelerates, and documenting dialogues with residents that occur in the process.
In the same summer, I made a trip to the Middle East not only to meet artists and curators but also people working in other disciplines from Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. Although the plan was dramatically dwarfed by the outbreak of the war between Israel and Palestine, I was able to get hold of the Lebanese artist Khaled Ramadan who was one of the curators of Maldives Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, which presented the archipelago under the theme of Portable Nation, bringing attention to the crisis of this nation’s anticipated disappearance as a result of the rise in sea levels. Khaled and Melina Nicolaides joined Waterscapes as co-curators by recasting the pavilion under the title of Outflow: The Remix. Their presentation consisted of videos and films that addressed a variety of current water debates including: environmental politics, climate change regulations, the notion of nation-state as defined by international sea laws, the process of preservation, and environmental events related to culture and social structures, and also to the fundamental essence of water as a metaphor of the human spirit. The works presented in this special presentation were from Ursula Biemann, Stefano Cagol, Hanna Husberg, Hanna Ljungh, Laura McLean, Melina Nicolaides, Khaled Ramadan and Oliver Ressler.
An interesting correlation between two artists’ projects occurred while I was on my trip: a young Israeli artist, Tsahi Hacmon, had proposed to me a new piece about a village called Ghajar located at the bank of the Snir river - known by the name of Wazzani in Lebanon - the same river and village that was referred to in Khaled’s collaborative documentary with Lina Khatib from 2006, which they had had to document from a distance, as this land which had once been Lebanese territory, was now annexed by Israel.
I thought it would be interesting to put these two pieces side by side in the exhibition, as a symbolic gesture for the artists, who had never met each other, and who were also not allowed to visit each other’s country due to the ongoing political tensions between Israel and Lebanon. Despite the ongoing water conflicts in the Middle East, they might meet at least in the third country, Korea, not face to face, but through their works at least.
Back at home, I commissioned Wonyoung So, a graphic designer and activist, to create a digital world map that indicates the location of all the water disputes that have transpired globally over the past 5000 years, casting light on the fact that water wars, which occurred only sporadically up until the late 20th century, have been exponentially increasing since the start of the new millennium. In addition, Jaeyoung Park and Kihyun Kim were invited to construct a platform for water protest by using various forms of protest signs - including pickets, sashes, banners and loudspeakers - that communicate messages and images related to the global water crisis, all of which had once been used in real water demonstrations.
Meanwhile, artists kept introducing me to more artists beyond their own regional, national boundaries who shared interest in water politics. I was able to get the work “Trans-border Migrant Tool” of the Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 collective, co-founded by Ricardo Dominguez and Bret Stalbaum which is a mobile application they invented to provide GPS information, along with the location of water, for Mexican immigrants who attempt to cross the border through the harsh desert.
The project “Tsunami Architecture” (2010-11) in which Christoph Draeger and Heidrun Holzfeind looked at what has been achieved, what went wrong and what challenges still remained six years after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the current state of architecture built after the disaster in the five countries most affected, Thailand, Aceh/Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India.
I also was able to present the Israeli-Palestinian cinematic project called “Water” in which filmmakers from Israel and Palestine collaborated to create nine short films, fiction or documentary, inspired by water.
In addition, InKo Centre helped me to get permission to screen films on water problems in India, including “Holy Water”, a documentary film by Lotta Ekelund about civil protests against the Coca-Cola Co. in India, which systematically uses and pollutes the limited groundwater supplies of the local farming communities in the area, and “The Whistle Blowers”, directed by Umesh Aggarwal, an investigation on pesticides in bottled water and soft drinks manufactured by reputable multi-nationals like Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola in India, as revealed in a report by their Centre for Science and Environment.
As may be very apparent in the list of works that I have mentioned so far, through all of this process, I had searched for works that tackled the water issue in its larger implications - global concerns over issues such as the intensification of water-generated disasters in the past decade, hydraulic fracturing and water quality deterioration, corporate control of public water system and unequal distribution of water, the so-called developed countries’ exploitation of water in the Third World, and ongoing conflicts between sectors and communities within nations, and between countries over access to water resources. At the 48-artist count, there just was no more room in the museum space in Seoul, the first location of the show, to add any more.
My concept with Waterscapes had also been to connect film, documentary, and New Media Art, a genre that can be as fluid and as political as water, to critical eco-political issues of today. The new media work incorporated such technologies as GPS, the Internet, data visualization programming and other interactive media. All of the works included in this show illustrated the extent to which diverse disciplines and fields of research have converged, and how new forms of contemporary artistic expression are evolving with emerging technological and media platforms.
As the title Waterscapes alludes to the work of cultural theorist Arjun Appadurai, who added ‘scape’ to people, capital, media, technologies, and political ideas to discuss the fluidity of the process of globalization, the participating artists recognize ‘waterscapes’ as a result of the intertwined dynamics of the five ‘scapes.’ However, resisting Appadurai’s rather optimistic vision of globalization and its consequences, these artists present global ‘waterscapes’ to harbor an immeasurable threat to humanity. Intended to be a collective voice, calling for an immediate action for water, Waterscapes expects to extend the public awareness about the water crisis in Korea and internationally by urging people to pay more attention not only to what is going on around them, but to such relevant events as the World Water Forum and the Climate Change Summits which affect the formulation of each nation’s water policies.
Seoul, February 2015
This essay was also published in the Pohang City Museum of Art ‘Waterscapes: The Politics of Water’ Catalogue (September 2015)
DR. HYEWON LEE is a curator, activist and art history professor at Daejin University in South Korea. She has written extensively on transcultural flows in art and politics, while curating such exhibitions as Waterscapes: The Politics of Water (2014-15) in Seoul and Pohang, Korea, Water Bodies in Chennai, India (2013-14); A Room of His Own: Masculinities in Korea and the Middle East (2014) in Seoul; Gohan-Sabuk Project (2009) for a former mining valley in the east coast of the Korean peninsula and An Online Public Art Project for Seoul (2007).
She also curated What They Have Carried: From Yeoido to Incheon (2011), an award-winning exhibition of various objects and artifacts that South Koreans brought home from their overseas travels from the time of Vietnam War to the first decade of the 21st century. She believes in art as social practice and her projects have mostly been inspired by her own lived experience of everyday.
Hyewon Lee’s publications include: "The Dilemma of Representation: Appropriation of Gender Dichotomy by Women Artists from the Middle East", Journal of Korean Art and Theory (2013); "Return of the Narrative: Media Art after the 1990s and Cinematic Re-enactment as a Social Practice", Journal of Contemporary Art (2012); "Agrippa, Giuliano de Medici and Venus de Milo: L'Atelier de Moulage du Musée Louvre and Korean Art Education" (2012), The Journal of Art History; “Politics of Game and Play: New Media Art and Its Community" (2010), The Journal of Art Theory and Practice; "Story of Deception: Francis Alÿs at Tate Modern", Sculpture Quarterly (2010), etc.