Symposium “Ways of Water” organized by UMMA, UMich Art School
Artists, activists and scholars came together the weekend of October 7 for the two-day symposium “The Ways of Water” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and Stamps Gallery. The exhibits featured – UMMA’s “Watershed” and Stamps Gallery’s “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Flint Is Family in Three Acts” – addressed the past, present and future of environmental justice and access to drinking water.
Day 1: Friday, October 7
The symposium kicked off at the Stamps Gallery with opening remarks from Srimoyee Mitra, Director of the Stamps Gallery, and Jennifer Friess, Associate Curator of UMMA’s ‘Watershed’ exhibition. The two talked about the purpose of the symposium and the inherent relationship between the two exhibits involved.
“Both exhibits…provide an appropriate setting for a symposium of this type, as both highlight the deep cultural and personal ways in which water connects us all,” Friess said.
Moderated by history and environment professor Perrin Selcer, Friday morning’s event featured panelists Osman Khan, Kate Levy and Morgan P. Vickers. The first session of the symposium focused on contextualizing current understandings of water and highlighting history.
Khan, an award-winning Detroit-based artist and associate professor at the School of Art and Design, spoke about two of his past works that deal with the impact of global warming. Khan’s 2013 work “Come Hell or High Water” featured the flooding, draining, and re-flooding of a typical Midwestern suburban living room. Their 3D installation addressed broader concerns of global disasters and infrastructure failures that destroy the security of lives, narratives and histories.
Levy, a documentary filmmaker, photographer and activist, followed Khan’s presentation with a discussion of the historical tactics used to cover up reports of the impact of Canadian oil and gas pipeline company Enbridge Inc. and the dangers that the he Enbridge Line 5 pipeline lays to the communities living in the Region. Levy’s documentary project “The Roar on the Other Side of Silence (Along Line 5)” is currently on view at the Watershed exhibition. This multimedia installation focuses on Enbridge’s Line 5, which runs under the Strait of Mackinac, and its environmental threat to critical waterways.
Vickers, a creative writer, researcher, ethnographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about his current project, which focuses on the Drowned Cities of the Santee-Cooper Project in North Carolina. South and Community Displacement in the Name of American Progress. In their work, Vickers acknowledged the impact of man-made reservoir projects and federal dams while acknowledging the contributions of black activists to geographies and landscapes. Through this study, Vickers highlighted how historical knowledge can help prevent future dispossession.
“Water has become a simultaneous object of necessity, but also an entity to be feared,” Vickers said. “It is crucial to honour, mourn and learn from the floods of the past.”
Mitra also hosted a tour of the “Flint Is Family in Three Acts” exhibit, a multi-part project highlighting the threat of environmental racism in the United States and strengthening advocacy for access to clean water. According to the school of art and design’s website, the exhibit explores how individual and institutional agencies engage in advocacy for fairness, transparency, and environmental justice.
At the end of the morning session, Mitra said she hoped the symposium would function as a platform to convene University of Michigan research on water rights, justice, and conservation.
“Together, we can leverage and strengthen the depth of conversations and take action to build a more fair and equitable community at U of M and beyond,” Mitra said.
Day 2: Saturday October 8
Both sessions of Saturday’s symposium featured two groups of panelists at the Stamps Gallery.
“Breaking Waves — Research Around, Through and With Water” was the first session of the day. This session focused on how research and teaching on the University campus intersect with water and environmental justice, as well as how water is used in storytelling and education.
The final session of the symposium, ‘Water Futures’, focused on how communities and cities could move forward with innovative ways to provide equal access to clean water. The panelists were introduced by the moderator, María Arquero de Alarcón, Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism.
Panelists combined data and stories to show the audience how they are working locally and statewide on water issues. Flooding and lack of drinking water were at the center of the many water-related issues that were discussed at the symposium.
Engineering professor Branko Kerkez, one of the panelists, gave insight into what students can do to help the community be more aware of the issues happening around them.
“It’s really cool to be in the classroom and in the library learning a lot of stuff, but (it’s also important to) be aware that stuff is happening on campus and then beyond (stuff) are happening in the community,” Kerkez said. “A good thing if you’ve never done it is to go to a town council meeting and see what they’re discussing…they’ll give you an idea of what’s going on in the community.”
The session ended with the panelists answering questions from each other and the audience, moderated by architecture professor María Arquero de Alarcón. During questions from the audience, fellow panelist Shea Cobb, a former UM and one of the poets who collaborated on “Flint Is A Family In Three Acts,” discussed the mindset people should have when faced with crises caused by water.
“Early pushes for water activism, including water acts…these things were done collectively…Everyone takes responsibility to say it’s not just in Flint, you know, just because I don’t live there. I am part of humanity,” Cobb said. “Start there, just realize that it’s all of us and not just there.”
In 2014, tens of thousands of Flint residents experienced a public health crisis in which the municipal water supply system was exposed to dangerous levels of lead. The crisis was the result of the city’s decision to transfer its water supply from the Huron River and Detroit River system to the Flint River to save costs. By the time Flint returned to the Huron River in 2015, approximately 99,000 Flint residents had been exposed to lead.
LSA freshman Amber Estor attended the final session of the symposium and said she was moved by how Cobb and other panelists brought a human touch to the data-driven presentation.
“It was really nice to be introduced to these topics, all the panels and the panelists. I feel like my mindset has kind of changed because…I plan to go into biochemistry and we’re in that science perspective,” Estor said. “So it was really interesting to hear the human side and the personal experiences that come into it and how they can kind of connect (to) what I can TO DO.”
Rackham’s student, Sierra Mathias, attended the majority of the symposium and said she was interested in how the various events highlighted the intersection between art and the natural sciences. She said she felt the panelists cultivated a welcoming environment and enjoyed hearing each other’s questions.
“I was curious to know more and expose myself more,” Mathias said. “I found the intersection of research and art and…all these different intersections and approaches to water…really interesting. I also think (it’s) an essential way to approach the subject as we move forward as a society, simply because so many of our issues today – social justice, environmental justice, health care, access to exterior – all of these things…are so interconnected.
The symposium ended with closing remarks from a panel of speakers from both days. Artist Senghor Reid, a panelist who spoke at Friday’s session, said maintaining the focus on how water is intertwined with our daily lives is crucial to protecting this resource.
“Water is life. Water is your human right… We spent two full days sharing our journey and how we each protect water in our spaces and communities. We showed that the solutions for protecting our water, our only water, is in our hands,” Reid said. “Stay local…support your local water organizations, activists, creatives and individuals working to protect water by being an agent of change (in their) communities.”