One of the Great Crises we face in today’s world is the stability and security of the water supply. In America, most people don’t have any problems getting water, to the extent that we tend to waste it, and few people even know where there water comes from. Every now and then there emerges a startling and troubling problem with water. A river catches fire, a plume of visible pollution observable from space spreads across a lake, or an entire city worth of children are poisoned with the contents of the city water supply.
Works Progress Studio has been engaged for a while in a project called the Water Bar, and they intend to ramp this project up in the near future if they get enough help.
The original water bar is “a collaborative public art project … simply, a bar that serves local tap water.” It consists of a pop up bar that can be easily deployed, serving a wide range of local vintages, and staffed with scientists or other experts on the water supply. That project started in 2014, and has served over 30,000 people in four states.
This video gives you a flavor (or, should I say, a flavorless…).
I asked Works Progress Studio co-founder Shanai Matteson how this all started. She told me that it “… started out as an experiment – what would happen if we opened a bar that only served regular tap water, and asked our community of environmental science researchers, educators, and advocates to be bartenders – not pushing a message, but just casually engaging in conversation.”
“The second iteration of the project,” she continued, “was an installation at an art museum in Arkansas. We built a Water Bar in the museum’s cafe area, and I think a lot of people didn’t even realize it was an artist project – which is fine with us! We hired college students with backgrounds in research, natural resource management, landscape architecture, business… They kept the bar open every day for 5 months, and all of them said that they learned valuable engagement skills, including new ways of talking to people about complicated science topics”
Now, Water Bar has a GoFundMe page to help them to set up a permanent taproom in Minneapolis. Partnering with several neighborhood and environmental organizations, research scientists, and artists, the idea is to create the Water Bar & Public Studio in Northeast Minneapolis, which is a thriving, and growing, art-oriented community. The location will be a hub for neighborhood events addressing art and sustainability, educational programs, and so on.
The water will be free.
Donations will fund the “taproom,” a creative community space, and a public art and sustainability incubator.
When I saw the video, my first thought was to avoid doing this in Flint Michigan. I asked Shanai Matteson about that. She told me, “We’ve actually had a bunch of people suggest we SHOULD do this in Flint, or Detroit. We wouldn’t attempt that unless we were invited there by residents, but even considering the implications really makes the disparity between those communities and others, like Minneapolis, so plain.”
Matteson also pointed out one of the main problems with the culture of water use in the US. “Most of the stories about Flint have focused on the problem – what went wrong, who was responsible – as well as the work of researchers, residents, and activists to finally get people to pay attention. Few of the stories I’ve read mention that almost none of us know where our drinking water comes from. We probably wouldn’t know if our water had high levels of lead, and most of us wouldn’t know who to call or what to do if we suspected a problem. One of our goals with the Water Bar project is to start getting people to see and understand their connection to these life-sustaining systems, and to the political systems involved with maintaining them – or in the case of Flint, gross negligence and a desire to see public infrastructure privatized.”
Matteson is looking forward to developing this project further. “Our dream is for a space that is approachable and welcoming, but also presents really urgent and serious content. We want to work with our community of artists and designers to find creative ways to engage people in water and environment issues, and we want to be a learning laboratory for future science and environment leaders — or for current researchers and advocacy orgs to share their work with new audiences.”