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Water Bar and Creating Community-centered Spaces for Convergence Research

Published onDec 24, 2019
Water Bar and Creating Community-centered Spaces for Convergence Research

As an artist, I am excited to be part of this project.

At the workshop, it was interesting to be on a panel talking about the macro scale, when I started with a story that was very much about the micro scale.

This story is specific to a place and time, and to myself within this work. It was also a way to talk a little bit about where I'm coming from before I tell you about Water Bar. As an artist, I work primarily in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, upriver on the Mississippi. More and more I work across Minnesota.

<p class="">Dowsing for water with my grandmother, Violet, near the headwaters of the upper Mississippi River in 2018.</p>

Dowsing for water with my grandmother, Violet, near the headwaters of the upper Mississippi River in 2018.

Last summer, I learned how to dowse for water.

In the photograph above, I am on the right and the woman in the center is my grandmother, Violet. She has lived her entire life—all eighty-five years of it—on the upper Mississippi River, near the headwaters, on illegally occupied Ojibwe land.

We are settlers/visitors to this place. Our relationship with the land and the water have been shaped by the roles many of us have played in industries of extraction.

My grandfather, who passed away in 2016, was an immigrant from Croatia. He worked in both the lumber industry—that cut back so much white pine, which completely transformed the landscape—and in iron ore mining, which had its own impacts on land, water, and economic development.

My grandmother, on the other hand, is someone who has always had a close relationship with land and water, and she wanted to show me what she knows. She calls herself a ‘water witch,’ and in this photograph we are witching together.

I started with this story and this photograph to both place myself as someone who comes from a rural community—a particular kind of rural community—one that was and is, in the words of one workshop presenter, “vulnerable but persevering.” And also to talk about the importance of acknowledging our different ways of knowing and being together—with one another, and with water—as a critical part of our research, those practices of investigating and understanding the future, the past, and how those interlink.

Dowsing with my grandmother was not so much about finding a water source, it was about finding a story that lives between us. Her story of living with water in a particular place and time, and where her story meets my own, as a woman who also grew up there, but left—and is very much concerned about the future of this place.

It is an important piece of context for me as we talk about living with water in a changing climate, and a changing social and cultural landscape.

<p class="">The Mississippi River where I grew up.</p><p class=""><br><br></p>

The Mississippi River where I grew up.



I grew up near this place on the Mississippi River. This is where I learned how to swim.

We talked at the workshop about flooding, and the river here does flood, but it is generally a more narrow and meandering course. We had a rope swing and did a lot of climbing and jumping. We respected the river’s power to take life, but were not really aware of how important the river was and is for sustaining lives. It looks very different in this photograph than in many of the images that we saw over the two days of the workshop.


<p class="">Northeast Minneapolis flooded by the Mississippi River.<br><br></p>

Northeast Minneapolis flooded by the Mississippi River.

This is also the Mississippi River, but in Minneapolis. Specifically, this is northeast Minneapolis, the neighborhood where I currently live, and where Water Bar and Public Studio is located. Local flooding happens whenever we have heavy rainfall. It’s a fact of life that I think many of us have come to accept.

This, of course, has everything to do with the infrastructure of the city being outdated and overwhelmed, and this is one of the climate change issues we are addressing (or not directly addressing, as the case may be) in political, social, and cultural ways.

<p class="">City Art Collaboratory, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.</p>

City Art Collaboratory, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

And this is another view of the river, through some of the people who are living and working with it.

This is an image from a project that I helped to curate about five years ago called the City Art Collaboratory (CAC). It was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. My friend Aaron Dysart, who also spoke on a panel at the workshop, was part of the CAC cohort.

CAC was an effort to bring public artists, scientists, and indigenous people who live in our community—which in the Twin Cities is Dakota homeland—together with people who work for the city and for other government agencies, academic research groups, and those working on urban systems including planners, designers, and engineers.

But it’s the way we decided to structure the program that I want to be sure to mention here. We did not start with a conference, or by making presentations about our work in different disciplines.

We began, and then continued, by spending time together outside. And by visiting with public works employees and other people who work in these systems, so we might see what kinds of questions we could ask together. That’s really what a lot of this socially-engaged art and design work is about.

It is not just about what disciplinary knowledge we can bring to cross-disciplinary teams, but what we bring by creating a space or a process that is undisciplined—with goals of personal and collective transformation.

How does that open up the possibilities for new kinds of questions and collaborations? How might that inform a Convergence Research Agenda, the projects or teams we create, or the ways that a grant-making organization supports such work?

<p class="">Water Bar and Public Studio.</p>

Water Bar and Public Studio.

This is an image of Water Bar, or one iteration of Water Bar—the project that has become Water Bar and Public Studio. Water Bar really started as a pop-up public art project, much like artist Amanda Lovelee’s ‘Pop-up Meeting’ that Aaron talked about earlier.

This particular iteration was installed at an art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, where we worked with students from nearby colleges. They became our first “water bartenders.” We had them bring drinking water from rural, urban, and suburban communities in the region, to serve on a tasting flights as they spoke with visitors about all of the things water connects.

The goal of that project—and our goal now—is to open up space for conversation among people, with water at the center.

It was that project in Bentonville that helped us realize there is something magical about slowing down, about putting water physically at the center of what we are doing, and taking the time to be together and to visit without a pre-planned agenda or talking points.

All kinds of things can spin out from there.

<p class="">Water Bar and Public Studio in Minneapolis.</p>

Water Bar and Public Studio in Minneapolis.

We decided to make that a permanent project and worked together to incorporate Water Bar and Public Studio as an artist-led benefit corporation.

We are actually a business, but we work for social benefit not financial profit, and we do that by collaborating with nonprofits, governments, researchers, other artists, our own neighbors… To do public projects in an “open studio” format, inviting co-learning and reciprocal collaboration at every step along the way.

This work has brought us across the state of Minnesota and the country. Sometimes it looks like this.

I love this image taken at a party we had at Water Bar. If you are local to the Twin Cities and especially our neighborhood of Northeast Minneapolis, you might recognize some of the people in this picture.

Our Mayor is in this picture. This was before he was the Mayor, when he represented a large part of our neighborhood on City Council. You would also see local activists who are working on displacement issues around riverfront development and farmers who brought water from their rural communities to talk about the connections between urban and rural food system work, land use, and water pollution. There were people from our Department of Natural Resources, academics, artists, neighbors, and we were all here just to have a party.

But while we were having that party and we were celebrating all the good work that was happening in our community, we were also building authentic relationships that are going to make it possible for us to work together on some really difficult stuff down the line, and on which we don't always agree.

In some ways, this is practice for the kinds of spaces we want to create inside of other organizations and the political sphere.

<p class="">Water Bar at the Minnesota State Fair.</p>

Water Bar at the Minnesota State Fair.

And we do this every year for twelve days at the Minnesota State Fair.

Every summer we serve water to about 25,000 people during the State Fair, working in close collaboration with that network of artists and community folks.

We also work with our Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, State Public Health Department, our Metropolitan Council, which is our regional government authority, as well as local utilities and watershed organizations.

Like that party I mentioned, everyone is behind the bar together, serving tasting flights of water from different places, and helping to teach one another what we know and how we relate to water.

<p class="">Mniowe (Water Bar) at the Dakota Language Society.</p>

Mniowe (Water Bar) at the Dakota Language Society.

There are also spin-off versions of Water Bar that have come from this collaborative work.

This is an image from Mniowe, which is the Dakota-language Water Bar that was developed with our partners at the Dakota Language Society. When they do Mniowe, the menu is in Dakota and they are serving water or Mni as a way to also talk about the important connections between language preservation, cultural revitalization, and the resilience of our waterways.

<p class="">Water Bar, led by Amoke Kubat.</p>

Water Bar, led by Amoke Kubat.

This is a version of water bar led by the artist in the center, Amoke Kubat.

It's called Yo Mama's Watering (W)hole and this is a Water Bar where all of the bartenders are women of color, primarily African-American women. And importantly, many of the tenders at Yo Mama’s Watering (W)hole are also mothers who live in north Minneapolis, and who can talk about the ways that water and climate change are impacting them, and the things that they care about and want to see prioritized in their communities.

So we've created this platform of the Water Bar, but we hold it loosely, and want to see it become a platform that lots of other people can take up.

Which is why I was on the Macro Scale panel, even though this work is very much about the micro—one-to-one relationships, hyper-local issues and impacts—because the way we do this is something we can share.

<p class="">A pilot program for the “Water Bartender School.”</p>

A pilot program for the “Water Bartender School.”

We have been working with our local watershed district (Mississippi Watershed Management Organization) and a non-profit called Freshwater to pilot the first “Water Bartender School.”

This is an image from our pilot program, which is in actuality, a school for building empathy and relationships between all of these different people and ways of knowing and caring for water. And storytelling is a really important part of becoming a Water Tender. Holding space for other people to tell their stories is important too.

Once you've gone through this water bartending school, you get a membership card and you are invited to checkout a Water Bar kit. You can take the Water Bar kit back to your community and develop new ways of using it.

An online hub we are creating will connect Water Tenders so they can share curricula, questions, and creative ideas.

“We cannot recognize the environmental problems created by our way of life, nor can we develop solutions to address them, without first facing and changing the beliefs and values that have led to those problems.” — Andrew J. Hoffman, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate

The theory behind all of this really comes from this idea that culture is “upstream” of behavior and policy changes.

We cannot really even recognize the problems, let alone change things, if we do not understand the relationship between our culture, ethics, values, identity—all these soft things, that are so hard to to parse.

Just to put some ideas into the conversation that we might consider as we think about what Convergence Research might mean… One thing that we’ve found is important, is always beginning with the indigenous.

<p class="">Ways of Knowing Water Research Collaborative</p>

Ways of Knowing Water Research Collaborative

As a person who is not indigenous to the place that I live and work, as a settler, it is important that I always try to start with the people who are still living and in place and who have the deepest and longest ancestral knowledge of that place, especially as that place is changing with the climate. That knowledge is really important.

This is an image from the Ways of Knowing Water Research Collaborative that I mentioned, which really spins out of the City Art Collaboratory—where we are trying to understand the relationship between water and Psin or Manoomin, wild rice, which has a lot of implications for policy and development in particular in Northern Minnesota.

<p class="">Monitoring water using DIY technologies at a sacred site for the Dakota people.</p>

Monitoring water using DIY technologies at a sacred site for the Dakota people.

In the Ways of Knowing Water collaborative, we get together to learn different kinds of research.

Here we were using DIY water monitoring technologies, but at a place that is a sacred site for the Dakota people, and also being redeveloped as an interpretive center for culture and for the science of resilience.

<p class="">Amoke Kubat leading community conversations about water.</p>

Amoke Kubat leading community conversations about water.

And another example I want to share. As the artist who developed Yo Mama's Watering (W)hole, Amoke Kubat, started to work with the City of Minneapolis on climate preparedness, she said, “You can't just bring a pre-packaged emergency preparedness kit and say, ‘Here’s how to be prepared for climate change.’ Here, we’re already in a social emergency. You need us at the table to tell you what belongs in that kit, and you also need us to be able to help educate our neighbors.”

What that looks like to me is the beginnings of a Community-Centered Water Policy.

As this project moves forward, can we extend that thinking to our Convergence Research Agenda, bringing in arts and cultural frameworks and strategies?

Finally, one last thing I will mention is that what I have shared here is just a slice of the work we have been doing as Water Bar and Public Studio, with probably fifty partnering organizations across Minnesota.

We are a couple of artists leading the work collaboratively, but what we really want to do is establish this as a long term hub. We put together a proposal for a ‘One Water Hub’ for culture and climate resilience where this work will continue. And we are in conversation with partners like the U.S. Water Alliance, which is a national organization that is looking at arts and culture connections to One Water frameworks.

In closing, I think it is really important that art is not just thought of as an add-on to our other work, that we start to think about culture as what shapes all of our relationships, whether we recognize it as that or not.

In terms of a Convergence Research Agenda, with a little bit of rigor, could we understand better how to do that? And, how to create those spaces?


Shanai Matteson, Lead Artist
Water Bar and Public Studio

This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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