Melina Nicolaides

Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar early in his career made this truth-filled statement:

My dilemma as an artist
is how to make art out of information that most of us would rather ignore.

Alfredo Jaar,  Geography = War , 1991

Alfredo Jaar, Geography = War, 1991

The intersection of aesthetics and the ethics of activism is a position that has come to define a hugely significant section of 21st century art practices. The aesthetic activities of contemporary artists addressing humanity’s pressing issues and injustices employ the methodology of exposing unpleasant realities and truths of the world - both daily problems and those of times of crisis - whilst treading the fine line of balance by combining art with challenging and often taxing information. For artists engaged with environmental topics, this material is rooted in scientific explanation; and while always salient, it can at the same time often be overwhelming, or even insidious - and more often than not, it is information to which most people, as Jaar presciently appreciated, would prefer to close their eyes, or simply not understand.

Today we see the increasing role of human agency in shaping discussions on the environment and on the adverse results of human intervention in Nature. The activists and socially-engaged artists at the forefront of these debates over the past few decades have successfully leveraged a much wider operative platform for this objective today. Environmentally-aware artists, for more than forty years, have conveyed ideas using means and information once only available to activists. By taking on each other’s role and dispositions, and fully sharing channels of communication and production, artworks and projects with this duality are initiated and also further informed by the contact points and overlaps with additional specialized disciplines.

The issue of water is a political and often polarizing debate, but like the environment, it is not just a question of science or politics; nor should it be a partisan debate, as it is connected with human existence. Hence, as a most urgent of messages, the global water crisis is a focus for concern and is a magnet for activist art practices, for diverse artistic initiatives, and for critical reflections on the essence and severity of the emergency. By examining the complex details of climate change and the related topic of water, the work of activist artists explores the relation between art and environmental science’s analysis, with the aim of stationing the public’s understanding in a place where aesthetics and scientific testimony work together.

Environmentally-active and nature photographer James Balog, (whose ‘Extreme Ice Survey’ project is presented in National Geographic’s 2012 film Chasing Ice, an exposition on the impact of climate change on the world’s glaciers), explained in very simple terms to his audience at a 2009 TED Talk, the benefit of these two worlds joining forces: whereas Art looks at the world through the psyche, emotion, the unconscious, and the aesthetic, Science looks at the world through the rational, the quantitative, and that which can be measured; when one brings those two parts of human understanding together - that is, merging Art and Science - its result has the end of helping us all better understand Nature, and humanity’s relationship to it.

Moreover, while the factual information collected by scientists often remains within the science community, artist-generated projects (such as video, film or installation) help the viewer visualize and understand the issues. The benefit of this disciplinary crossover is that all of the information can be shaped into a new form that can transfer the message beyond the elite science community and art world, and tell the story to a much larger audience.

By exposing the functions of environmentally-engaged art to both scientific and cultural circuits, this model has consequently been redefined to reach a wider audience that is increasingly accepting and experiencing the reality of climate change and its effects. This growing audience wants to be informed not only by specialized eco-journalism, and by popular media and consumer culture’s casual flirtations with green politics - but also from the broadening watchfulness of the art world’s podium on these important issues. With the growing appreciation of the historic pressure of this moment, it is clear that terse parachute explanations from ecological circles are no longer enough, and that the aesthetic dimension which conflates insights from both the arts and science is more effective. The point is, to inform and touch an audience with the research and vision of a project, so that the urgency might be understood on a visceral and intuitive level: a factual message is direct, but with an emotional response, it is without doubt much more enduring.

Activist and environmentally-oriented work is increasingly manifesting itself today in venues from formal art institutions to large public collaborative interventions, indicating that the discussion of the Earth’s problems can be held as a condensed, intimate event, to the most international of public actions. Alongside the NYC People’s Climate March of September 2014 - the biggest civic demonstration for action on climate ever held - was the People’s Climate Arts - a collaborative ‘artists wing’ of the march that invited artists of all kinds to present creative resistance to the ‘exploitative injustices of Climate Change, and challenge those who profit from it’. For this, the art collaborative called upon colleagues in the spheres of environmental justice, labor, immigration, youth, faith, and the sciences. In this large collective-action space provided by the march, the global public observed not only that participatory aesthetic activity may be integrated into the environmentalist system as practice not theory - but equally visible was the vigilant undercurrent of the art world that is increasingly addressing habitual perceptions, and dispelling widespread misconceptions, of Nature.

Within the critical eco-political issues of today, the exhibition Waterscapes: The Politics of Water, approaches its theme precisely by exploring these intersections between aesthetics and activism. The participating artists contend with complex issues on far-ranging topics within the debate around Water. Their work, at the intersection of many disciplines and utilizing both techniques and intentions beyond the arts, explores new areas of co-operation between artistic-activist practices within the social and the inevitable political context of the subject. By reaching into new means and methodologies of science and technology, this work reveals not only how artistic and social systems converge in the investigative process, but also the serious and critical nature of the principle message within each of the works.

From such a perspective, this exhibition reveals its superseding aim of extending the public understanding of the global water issue - in Korea and beyond - and of the vital implication of the inherently deep-rooted politics seeded within this crisis. Despite the intrinsic complexities of activist art, these artists comprehend the critical nature of the assignment of ‘making art’ out of uncomfortable truths: unafraid of revealing, undaunted by the need to integrate scientific research and knowledge of other disciplines to portray an exposition of nature as a set of environmental ethics, of societies dealing with the results of human alteration of the environment, to improper or unethical ecological practices, or even of political or moral outrage. Such work does not require any conceptual decoding, the message is clear - often with scientific precision, on-site intervention, or through a documentarian approach - as the artists appreciate the web of inter-relationships that exist in our environment and often willingly offer alternatives or stratagems of how to amend.

By emphasizing the ethical dimension of artistic practice, the activist aesthetic serves to humanize the stories behind the available environmental science, exposing scenarios where often there are two visible factors: a victim and an exploiter, a flawed versus a sound action, a depletion with its preservational solution, an ecological infirmity with its possible cure. And when addressing any critical, complex challenge that requires inconvenient information, these discussions are not a place for soft statements - for within such issues, the relationship between the art’s subject and life is at its most intense. Such artists have investigated the idea of living without access to safe water and sanitation, they comprehend the struggle for this precious resource and the battle for its ownership, and how water is linked regionally and globally to social conflicts, economic crises, violence, catastrophes, and sometimes even war.

As the connection between water and conflict becomes an ever-growing international threat worldwide, the risk of future global instability due to increasing water shortage is becoming more evident everywhere on national and regional levels alike. According to the United Nations there have been an estimated thirty-seven cases of water-related violence between nations since the end of the Second World War. Within nations, protests against water privatization, inefficient water management or negligent pollution of rural water supply, have occurred in countries from Peru to Trinidad, India, and Tanzania to Poland, and more recently in the cities of Detroit, Rome, Sao Paulo.

Disputes and human struggles that are the result of hydro-politics are presently ongoing throughout the globe, and will without doubt increasingly shape our future. Indeed, water has come to the forefront of the 21st century as the most critical of crises facing humanity. In all of its forms - as vital for life, as a cleansing and spiritual energy, or as the vast blue spaces that make up such a large part of our world - water’s primal importance and its all-embracing presence in human cultures makes it the ideal motivator for employing human insight and determination to correct injustice and to bring about change.

In the politics of water, creative resistance is a strong and compelling instrument against the mechanisms of governmental, corporate, and political power and authority over world water policy. As affirmed by Bolivian ‘water-warrior’ activist and former shoemaker Oscar Olivera - who fought and won against the takeover of the water system from his government by a private US-based water company in what were called the Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000: “the only force capable of transforming the world, capable of transforming society, is (the) capacity of unity, organization, and mobilization of the people in front of any power”.

The contribution of people from all walks of life to water activism was most recently seen in Dublin following the introduction of national water charges in the Republic of Ireland. One of the many mass water protests that occurred across the nation was held on the 10th of December 2014, to coincide symbolically with Human Rights Day. It was attended by activists, politicians, singers and artists, and among these water campaigners was also the National Citizens Movement, formed to fight the Irish Water utility company in the courts and to get accountability from the government. The effectiveness of their collective efforts - which let local representatives know that the public was engaging with the nation’s politics and the representation of their local interests - became evident in early 2015. Compounded with a public boycott of the registration process, payment of Irish Water bills, and the disabling of water meters, governmental ‘backtracking’ on the issue included the retraction of the threat to cut off water supply for non-compliance. As the people of Ireland were denied the opportunity to vote on a referendum on water charges, this dispute re-exposed both the contentious debate around the issue of privatization of water services within European Union law, the evident lack of ‘direct democracy’, and the closed nature of the decision-making process of its institutions in regards to the European citizen.

The purpose of artists, even those who may not regard themselves as activists, who work in the spirit of challenging the world to listen, to understand, expand opinions, and be moved into action by information that they would have previously ignored, is to empower citizens’ participation in the solving of the water crisis and the enforcement of water as an inalienable human right. In order to admonish existing paradigms controlled by multinational corporations, political and vested interests, to de-legitimize exploitative economic policies, or to prevent territorial conflicts, people themselves must search for ways to exert some control over the water with which they are in direct contract: by learning about the water sources present in their own surroundings. Only then can they be in the position to take action themselves, or put leaders into office who are willing to take decisive decisions for all water-related issues - from protecting public commons from privatization, combating environmental injustice, to counteracting the effects of climate change.

The objective moving forward must for this reason include adjusting and revising our daily practices, informing ourselves about water concerns around the world, and the careful and responsible stewardship of our environment and natural resources for both the immediate and future benefit of our greater community. And naturally, the ever-heedful ‘biome’ of activated artists advocating for a world with the ability and desire to react, will undoubtedly encourage others to want to make the possibility of a better future more attainable for everyone. 


Athens, February 2015

This essay was also published in the Pohang City Museum of Art ‘Waterscapes: The Politics of Water Catalogue (September 2015)