J. Parkos Arnall:Hi. My name is January Parkos Arnall and I'm interim senior curator in Performance and Public Practice at the MCA Chicago. We're delighted to be gathering virtually with all of you today—even in this time of social distancing. Today's event furthers our dialogue season, which this year is devoted to the idea of inheritance and what that might mean in the public sphere. When we hear the term "inheritance", often we think about generational wealth, but how else do we inherit specific intergenerational realities or treasures?
Before the closure, we hosted an open dialogue on historical trauma and a forum on the ways that migration stories are translated across generations. Today's conversation will focus on generational inequality and the environment and is related to the MCA exhibition Water After All, which I invite you to explore on our website at mcachicago.org. We have with us today several speakers coming to this topic from different vantage points, including artist and activist Jenny Kendler, whose work is included in the exhibition; scholar Rachel Havrelock; and artist Pope.L with his collaborators on his artwork Flint Water Project What Pipeline, which is represented today by Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry. Flint Water Project is also included in the exhibition, Water After All. I also want to point out—you've probably already seen her—Julikka LaChe, who will be providing ASL interpretation for us today. Thank you, Julikka.
In addition, my colleague Cameron McEwan is with us today acting as house manager and Matt Sharp is our virtual stage manager working with Paul Deuth and David Badesch to keep our technology up and running. So, thank you to all of my colleagues for helping make this possible so that we can gather together today. The Dialogue season is also made possible with major support provided by Julie and Larry Bernstein, the Zell Family Foundation, and Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund. Generous support is provided by Lois and Steve Eisen and The Eisen Family Foundation and Karen and King Harris. Thank you to these supporters for helping us to offer robust and free public programming and gathering spaces for our audiences, even in this virtual space. They allow us to bring our voices together in the creation of a stronger and hopefully more resilient world.
I'm gonna share just a little bit about the format for today's Dialogue and the topic before we get started. This is the first time we're attempting one of these Open Dialogue moments, which typically take place in the museum's Commons, which is our site for our artistic and civic exchange at the museum. This is the first time it's happening in the virtual realm so, do bear with us and share your feedback afterward. We'd love to hear from you. This format brings together scholars and practitioners to discuss a present topic with the final microphone always reserved for our participants.
On Zoom, this means that you are welcome and encouraged to participate at any time throughout the dialogue by opening up the Q&A box—which you'll see at the bottom of your Zoom screen. When we see that you've added an on-topic thought or question, we'll invite you to speak and Cameron will go ahead and turn on your microphone. So, there might be a little lag before I say, "So-and-so can speak," and then, Cameron will turn on the microphone and we'll hear from you. If you'd prefer not to speak but still have a comment to add, go ahead and add it with the "Anonymous" tag clicked, and I'll just share your thoughts with the group myself. I want to let you know that toward the end of our conversation, we'll be talking with more specificity about the tactics and actions that you can take today to benefit our community and world, and we'll be sharing resources on the MCA website afterward.
So, please help us by sharing the resources that you know about and the actions that you're taking so that we can add those to the website as well. So, finally, just a note on the term "generational inequality"—the term comes from economics, but generally refers to the privileges afforded to one generation more than another. Traditionally, each generation sees greater economic prosperity and stability than their predecessors, but economists and environmental activists alike have become urgently concerned about the ways in which our society continuously is borrowing from the future. For example, the economic realities of Generation Z or millennials are drastically different and more dire than those of previous generations within the environmental realm. This means that we are consuming resources at a far greater rate than they can replenish, leaving a severe ecological debt for the next generation.
So, with that, I'm going to let our speakers actually introduce themselves and their perspective on the topic, their relationship. So, we'll hear—first, we'll watch a video about the Flint Water Project—which is the project that Pope.L worked with What Pipeline to build. And so, we'll see that video and then, we'll hear from Pope.L.
[Start of Video]
Pope.L:Hi. My name is Pope.L. As many of you know, I've been making public interventionist art for the past 20 or so years. This is my newest project. It's called Flint Water. Flint water. In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan changed its water supply in order to save money. That decision, and a host of subsequent and related decisions on local and federal levels, created a crisis.
Male 1:I mean, this is gonna go down as one of the biggest, you know, mass poisoning events in our country's history.
Pope.L:Water quality was mismanaged, citizens were poisoned, and in the fallout, are criminal charges and lawsuits. Still today, many Flint residents do not have access to reliable, safe, water. My project, Flint Water, is an art installation, a performance, and an intervention. The money you donate will go directly to the building of the installation. This September, with the help of my studio and local folks, I will build an art installation in Detroit at artist-run gallery What Pipeline.
The installation will function as a performance site where, over the six weeks of the exhibition, we will publicly bottle contaminated water bought from the citizens of Flint. We will package it, market it, and sell it as art objects. Flint Water will call attention to the city's continued plight while raising funds to support Flint citizens in their struggle. Some facts about this water. It may contain lead, E. coli, Legionella, and Listeria—among other goodies.
Today, the EPA claims the water is safe. However, three years ago, the EPA claimed the same thing and tragedy ensued. People died, others were severely affected, and many remain affected today. The gallery will also serve as an informal information center providing folks with details about Flint's crisis and serious water issues happening in Detroit, the Midwest, and beyond. For more info—and to obtain Flint water—go to www.whatpipeline.com. In order to build the installation and run the exhibit, folks, we need your support. So, please, donate generously and often. Thank you.
[End of Video]
Pope.L:Hi. My name is Pope.L and myself and the team at What Pipeline—Daniel Sperry and Alivia Zivich—we got together and basically decided to do this project. It came out of a need of my own to create a work that belonged to not just myself, but a community of people and that could serve that community—where the art part, if you will, is not—or was not—as key as the service part. We were very successful, I believe, and we are still running the project ongoing. So, you guys who would like to purchase water for the sake of Flint, we still have a few bottles left—a few boxes of it left. We make deals so [Laughs] you know...
The issue of water—in a general sense; separate from Flint—does not just belong to Flint. I don't know if that's obvious to most folks, but it belongs to all of us. And there are many communities—for example, the city in which I was born, Newark, which has recently come out with issues regarding water in that place. So, I guess, you know, I didn't know at the time, when we began the project, whether—how do you say? I mean, you don't know, when you do a project, what its place in the community will be, but I think that—how do you say? It was something in the air.
Pun intended, in a certain way. And I think that where we are now definitely links to that. But I'd like to turn this over to get another point of view about the project from my other collaborators, starting with Alivia.
Alivia Zivich:Hi. Hello, everyone. I'm Alivia Zivich, one half of What Pipeline in Detroit. Yeah. We had initially invited Pope.L to come do something—anything, really—and we had applied for a grant from the Knight Foundation to be able to put together an exhibition of Pope.L's in Detroit.
And after discussion about what that exhibition might be, Pope.L came to us with the idea that, you know, Detroit is often painted as the victim of its own circumstances and it could be interesting and also different to put Detroit in the position to do something for another city. And Michigan is scattered with small cities that have suffered tremendous decline since the auto industry largely left—you know, moved its manufacturing out of the state. Flint was originally the home of GM. What was interesting, when we went to Flint, we started doing this project, people in Flint kept speaking of Detroit as it had kind of stolen GM away, which I had never really known about before. But initially, GM was—Flint was its home.
But anyway, that was a really interesting idea. That was a really great way to reposition Detroit. And I think a big part of what we do—besides exist as a physical space for people in Detroit to come experience art—is expand the narrative of Detroit in the world and specifically, via art. So, that really fit in well with our interest as an art space—as an artist-run space.
And yeah, I think I would agree, it was successful. The Kickstarter, too, that we used to match the funds from Knight was successful, number one, and I think people were very excited to do something, to be a part of this. The Flint water issue, you know, it persists. And the dialogue about that, I haven't noticed it waning. It's still a big topic of discussion. So, I think that that—our timing was good to get people involved.
And yeah, it does continue. Before the pandemic hit, we were going to be, I think, helping open a show at University of Michigan Art Museum where the water was gonna be placed, but it's now postponed till Fall '21. And there's other—it continues—it's in the MCA show right now, which sadly, we cannot see in person, but we can see online. And it's interesting to me that as these shows continue to be curated, it continues to come back up and I think that's a really important part of this exhibition—of this project, rather—that it continues this awareness. Yeah. So, get in touch if you want some water. Daniel?
Daniel Sperry:I guess maybe I could just add a little bit about—well, the Flint water crisis, at the time, was, of course, in the news and everything. It was a result of emergency managers that were more predominantly taking over in Michigan—cities of color, urban areas, distressed areas—where infrastructure was degraded. And simultaneously, the bankruptcy process in Detroit—which, of course, simultaneously led to mass water shutoffs in the city—which just now, due to the pandemic, have resulted in a moratorium. Maybe we'll talk about water shutoffs later, but I think it's—I think it just kind of is—it was a time where a lot of this posterity measures and generational neglect was leading up into a point of crumbling and degraded infrastructures. And, as Newark, New Jersey, it's not just Detroit.
And the Rust Belt is often seen as the canary in the cold mine. What the project kind of continually brought up was that these issues are happening all over America as a part of neglect, as a part of environmental racism, or aspect of all of that kind of discussion and that crisis in itself.
Alivia Zivich: I just wanted to add, to, that as we continue to sell this water, we continue to take 100 percent of those proceeds, donate them to United Way Genesee County, who continues to use them to buy water for people to drink because they are still lacking access to clean water and not trusting when they're being told that their water is safe to drink. So, that's—whether or not the water is fixed, there's going to be a level of trust that the citizens—it's gonna take something else besides just telling them the water's fixed to get that trust back.
Daniel Sperry:A generation, perhaps.
J. Parkos Arnall:From there, perhaps we could go to Jenny and hear a little bit more about the local and also your relationship as an artist and activist.
Jenny Kendler:Sure. Yeah. Firstly, I wanted to thank you, January, for helping to organize this and to the curators who created the Water After All exhibition at the MCA. I'm really grateful to see major cultural institutions focusing on this issue and I think that especially the idea of lensing environmental concerns—which are so pertinent today—through the concept of generational inequality is incredibly timely. I think, as you pointed out, this concept came from—generally, it's used in terms of thinking about debt specifically—like the debt in the United States and how that's passed on.
But I think that more and more people are thinking about that in an environmental sense—especially, you can see the tide really turning with contemporary issues like the Juliana versus the United States, which is a supreme court case which was brought by young environmental activists against the United States saying that when these young activists reach our age, perhaps, that they will have their constitutional rights impinged upon to actually be able to live a life of quality. And I think that what's important to think about in this is the way that capitalism operates as a system that extracts wealth from certain areas, right, and those tend to—they become sacrifice zones and externalized is the cost elsewhere, and that's a way that wealth can get a concentrated right. It's just about siphoning resources out from one place and putting it into other places. And I think that it's incredibly important to remember that the future is also a place that can become a sacrifice zone. And I do want to note that our—in our perspective, we're seeing like, the future as this possible site where our children may live lives living in environmental degradation, but that's—for many people around the globe, even in the United States, that reality is here today already.
So, in the city of Chicago there is environmental racism that is very, very real. So, part of the work that I do—I'm an artist and activist. I do everything from projects that are maybe sound projects that help human beings to get into greater attunement with the natural world and often talk about climate change, endangered species, but I also do work that kind of broaches the artist/activist scope and so, in my capacity, both in the exhibition with Water After All, I've worked with a front line activist whose name is Mara E. Robbins to create a project that supports front line communities that are doing anti-pipeline work, including active blockades which are still going on now. Those people have been doing social distancing up in the trees for quite some time. [Laughs] And then, here at home in Chicago, I work with Extinction Rebellion, which is a group that's demanding action now on climate change and demands a just transition to a system that does not extract wealth from especially the most vulnerable.
So, here, one of the things that we're doing that we can talk about at the end is trying to support Little Village where there's just been an absolute environmental catastrophe in the middle of a disease epidemic where we know that people that are breathing in particulate matter are 15 percent more likely to die from COVID-19. We have a former coal plant being demolished and creating a storm of particulate dust throughout a neighborhood filled with families and children. And so, our group is working with a large coalition of labor, environmental justice, and immigrant justice groups in the city to do what we can, which is, at this point, we're trying to do socially distanced blockades using car caravans and we're supporting in all manner of other ways. But I'll give the floor back to the group and I think we can talk about these issues a lot more in depth together. Thank you.
J. Parkos Arnall:Thanks, Jenny. Rachel, can you introduce your work on the topic?
Rachel Havrelock:Hi, everyone. It's really an honor to be here with Pope.L and Jenny Kendler and What Pipeline. I am a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago where I run The Freshwater Lab, an initiative focused on all the different ways that humans and water are interlinked and codependent and also, a lab to try to collectively imagine a different future in our part of the world, such that we might lose our Rust Belt image and become the Water Belt.
Should we show the video first?
J. Parkos Arnall:Yeah. We can show the video.
[Start of Video]
Male 2:Every Great Lakes community is suffering from folks in the community not having access to clean, safe, water as well as air and healthy land. And it's not because there's not enough of the resource to go around. It's not because we don't know how to do this. It's because of distribution.
Female 1:Definitely, in the Detroit area, we've got neighborhoods that are much older than mine—they've got lead service lines. They've got failing water mains. They've got leaks.
Male 3: Exposure to contamination is one of the biggest risks. You know, we have a history—especially on the Southeast side, the Calumet region of Chicago—we have a history of manufacturing and waste generation associated with that manufacturing.
Female 2:This fine powder that comes from refining oil for Air BP in Indiana is then stored on the banks of the Calumet river, which is feet away from people's houses.
Male 4:We have a pipeline going through our reservation and that's 64 years old.
Female 3: There are large players, behind the scenes, who really want to see water systems that are run and owned by the public, privatized.
Male 5:In east Chicago—we just basically have discovered that most of our water—or basically, all of our drinking water—is highly contaminated.
Male 7:Some of this information around our water ways and contamination is not as readily available. It's not translated.
Male 5:We're a community of color. We're low-income, industrial community and a lot of things occur there that aren't allowed to occur in much more privileged communities.
Male 2:There's a tremendous disconnect between how valuable and important the Great Lakes are and how much water is there and the role that's gonna play in the future and how impoverished and disenfranchised from the resource and from the wealth of the resource a lot of our communities are.
Male 6:You can be at that table and not be served correctly. What this next group of activists needs to make sure is that not only are they at the table, but they're getting A1 service—you know, they're getting access to everything that they should be provided with.
Male 2:Learning where you water comes from—where the water that comes out of your tap comes from—what systems are in place to protect it and govern it, who's in charge of it, and then, start to make your voice heard.
Female 4:We must educate as many people as possible to understand what the real issues are and to get in where they fit in. You know, to do nothing is unacceptable.
Male 7:Ask yourself a very simple question—how can I help out, but how can I help out in a way that's very sincere and in a way that one can bring their resources to bare, but with a respect for that community and understanding that people are already the experts on the issues impacting their neighborhoods.
Male 5:We have billions of dollars of damage done to the land and to the water. Those are projects ready for people to clean up. Those are jobs ready for communities like our community to clean up. We can put these people to work. We can clean up the shores of Lake Michigan. We can make this a healthy community. That's my hope.
Male 4:Water is a very important life blood of this earth—of Mother Earth, you know? And without that, this earth would die, along with us. So, we need to save that. We need to save that water.
[End of Video]
Rachel Havrelock:Thanks. So, I hope that in just a few moments, we can all do an activity together—both to figure out and claim our own expertise about the water among us, but also learn about some of those local experts on the front lines dealing with the most difficult environmental challenges. So, to begin with, we are interconnected by water and, from the point of view of an inheritance, this is something that we have inherited from the glaciers. And the glaciers are not going to give us this gift two times. This is the one shot in which we have.
So, that's our inheritance piece. The inequality which we are facing—before we even think about that in a kind of a historical or temporal point of view, we might want to start out by thinking about spatial inequality. Here we are in Chicago—and also, our friends in Detroit—in the water basin that holds over 20 percent of the world's fresh water. We have a possibility here to be a welcoming oasis and really, in spiritual terms, to turn to this water as a force of healing, of segregation, de-industrialization, and economic woes. But, of course, we don't experience this water in the same way as What Pipeline and Pope.L's work made so clear.
We experience it both in racial and class terms at the same time that we are all experiencing a period of such accelerated environmental deregulation that far before the pandemic, I was really wondering how we were going to come through with anyone having a safe glass of water to drink. There's a little bit of hope on the horizon. We've seen, in the past two weeks, these multi-state coalitions forming on the part of governors to work on these healthy interdependencies among people across states. I would like to suggest today that especially those of us in the Great Lakes basin, where our water is so precious and so imperiled at once, that we should build on that multi-state—that Midwest multi-state coalition initiated by Governor Pritzker, and it's time for us to start acting like inhabitants of a water shed. So, if you would, let's just go through an exercise together about how we might begin to think and act collectively in this way.
I'm going to take you through a few questions, a few exercises that review what the source of your water is, how it reaches you, and who is controlling its arrival, and then, thinking about our site of inhabitants and our neighborhood as something that is interconnected by the water that we share. So, I'll show you the questions. If everyone would, on FreshwaterStories.com—the freshwater lab's digital storytelling site—we can have a place where you can enter in that information. And, if you don't know, for example, something like whether or not your pipe is made of lead, I have some activities embedded here to help you figure that out. And I will—just taking another cue from Pope.L's work and his video—I am sorry to let you know that no city has lead service lines into homes than the city of Chicago.
And right now, amidst this pandemic, there are homes in Detroit, in Flint, in Illinois—in University Park—and in Chicago that do not have water supply. So, at the end, I'm going to ask everyone to let's join together and let's make sure that every single home in the Great Lakes basin and beyond, has water in a pandemic and afterwards. Okay. So, let's start out with our water source. So, first question is—what is the source of drinking water for your home?
If you're in the city of Chicago and its suburbs, I can you give the shorthand that it is coming from Lake Michigan so, enter that one in. And if you're elsewhere, I invite you to explore what that source is. Okay. Next slide. Okay.
Have you ever visited your water source? Well, I guess we are—again, in Chicago—united in not being able to visit it right now but it's a great time to nurture these memories if you can, in fact, access it. Next slide. Okay. And this is just an invitation to everyone to take a picture of that glass of water.
Keep rolling. Okay. Here's the whole question of path. How does water get to you? Because our relationship with that source of water is mediated by all kinds of governmental, economic, and private systems.
And just another nod before we start these slides—what I find so brilliant about the Flint water project is the way in which it points to the extraction of water and its marketing and commodification such that private beverage corporations like Nestle, Coke, and Pepsi made record profits from the Flint water crisis—as they are right now—although they're not as honest as Pope.L because they don't list the contaminants that are in that water. Whereas the art team that produced Flint water had to apply for a grant, beverage corporations are subsidized by our money as well as by our water. So, let's have a look at the pipes if we can go to the next slide. Okay. So, here is a map just to help you understand a complicated legal issue.
The pipes that you see there in blue are understood—legally, historically—to be the terrain of the municipality. That lead service line that comes into our homes—that has traditionally been understood as private property. There's a lot there, but let me just introduce you to this picture before moving on. Let's take it to the next slide if you would. Great.
Okay. Big question. Who runs the water pipes in your community? I would investigate this. In the state of Illinois, for example, two large infrastructure corporations—Aqua Illinois and Illinois American—are snatching up the water systems of struggling municipalities and some of the fallout of that we saw in the city of Flint, Michigan when the Veolia Corporation got hold of their pipes and completely dispensed with any transparency when it comes to public health.
Next slide. Okay. Here's the one to figure out what that pipe coming into your home is made of. When you've got a little time afterwards, use the tool. Go into your basement and—I think this is a very important individual act that can help us to understand how these pipes do tie us together and determine our public health—or lack thereof—and it's something that we do need to organize around.
Next slide. Okay. This is a little bit harder to figure out, but this is just really an invitation to start peering down beneath the ground because these are infrastructures of power and control. Because they are so often outside of our eyesight, many things go on here that can be quite deleterious to public health or, you know, potentially could help really improve supply distribution and pricing. Next slide.
Okay. And here's a challenge to all of you out there—especially the artists—to kind of create a map of this underground realm and start to understand who is controlling water and who is making decisions about it. Water—particularly surface water in rivers and lakes—is one of the last commons. According to public trust law, every one resident in a water shed, the future generations and all the other species in that ecosystem—the water belongs to us collectively. There are very few things that remain a common and this is one that I advise us to hang on to very, very tightly. There are many exceptions to the rule, as I said.
Corporations are extracting and bottling this, selling our water back to us by contaminating it with microplastics. There is extraction through pollution, which goes on from our factories, and there also is high pricing and restriction of access. So, there are exceptions to it, but if we are going to join together to protect something and a future, I would say water is it. Okay. I will not go a little more quickly through the slides. Getting carried away with the comments.
Okay. People. Let's look at how this water both joins and separates us. All right. Next slide.
Okay. Everyone could answer this on your own. How confident are you that your water is safe to drink? Next slide. Okay.
This is another thing I'm not going to answer but wondering whether there have been recent or historical health scares related to water in your area. You can keep scrolling. Okay. What are the greatest risks to your water system? Here, again, there are a range of risks that are posed and we supply here a little bit of initial information to aid you in your research.
Next slide. Okay. Here, we ask, "In what neighborhood or community are water risks most acute?" And this is, again, where it's such an honor to be part of this show because the risks are concentrated in low-income communities of color that deal with contamination, with high pricing, with commodification. And here, I just want to do a call out to get involved with a few organizations all relevant to what we're talking about today who are really the leaders in dealing with these risks and those organizations are We the People Detroit, the Flint Water Lab that was to be opening this week where young people in Flint are going to test their own water and be the experts, and they're supported by a group called Freshwater Future.
As Jenny mentioned, here in Chicago, Little Village—environmental justice organization—and they will have a big press conference tomorrow. And also, in this city of Chicago, Blacks and Green, which is leading the way to have the water reestablished in every single home in Chicago. And this slide takes you to the environmental justice story on FreshwaterStories.com to help you explore and connect and learn from those organizations I mentioned, as well as others. Okay. And I will be excited to see everybody's input into Freshwater Stories.
J. Parkos Arnall:Thanks so much, Rachel. I wanted to add—one of the attendees has added a call to everyone to find and sign the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter petition asking Michigan Governor Whitmer and EGLE to delay permit processing to stop Enbridge from exploiting the current health emergency to get the Line Five tunnel built that would run under the Straits of Mackinac. So, I just wanted to add that and that'll be visible to everyone in the Q&A. And please do everyone, continue to add your comments and questions and thoughts in that Q&A section. We'll either answer them live or give you an answer to them or invite you to speak.
Before we go into the next attendee's comment, I do just want to talk about why is it so urgent that we are having this conversation right now in the midst of a global health crisis pandemic that we're all dealing with, why is this so important. And this gets to some of the thoughts that you all have been expressing about the inequity in terms of the communities being greatest affected by the access to water. And, in particular, I wondered, Jenny, if you could talk a little bit about those sacrifice zones that you were alluding to earlier.
Jenny Kendler:Sure. Yeah. I think that it's incredibly timely that we're talking about this now. I think that—you know, some of us who do this work, especially around climate—and, of course, climate issues and water issues are deeply interlinked, whether, you know, climate is exacerbating flooding or droughts or will potentially lead to water wars across the globe—you know, those of who work around climate, we're sort of feeling like the clock was really ticking and we were running out of time. And I think that it's very difficult to try to find the silver lining in a situation where there's so much loss of life and so much suffering, but I think that we can also think about this as what I've heard people saying—the great pause.
So, all of our lives are so busy as we are sort of like, again, caught in this flow of consumer capitalism, but it becomes hard for us to take time to really stop and re-evaluate what is deeply important to us or like, try to see this larger picture sacrifice zones. Like, where is our energy coming from? Where is our water coming from? How do our choices play into that—whether they be political choices or consumer choices? And I also really dislike the idea that that's our identity as humans—that we've been [Break in audio] consumers.
Maybe we can just be human animals enmeshed in this greater biological experiment. [Laughs] But I do think that the important thing to remember is that with the COVID-19 crisis, what we're seeing is that we do have the political and social will to make massive change swiftly and systemically, and we do have the money. So, what I want people to remember when this crisis is over is that those excuses are not gonna fly anymore. We cannot go back to the new normal and have people tell us that we can't afford to have clean water, that we can't afford to take action on climate change, because frankly, the fact is that we can't afford to otherwise. When we decide to prioritize life above capital, it's really clear that we have to act really swiftly now.
And perhaps this crisis has given us a little bit of the social and political gumption to be able to do that in the truly transformative and swift way that we need to.
J. Parkos Arnall:Anyone else want to share any thinking on that sort of urgency around this now, around the ways that we, in different parts of this city or in different parts of the globe, are relating the questions about water in this time?
Daniel Sperry:I would just add maybe that with the pandemic sort of seemingly opening up very quick cataclysmic changes in mentality on how we think, how society is looking forward, the water shutoffs, to begin with, were, in themselves, a public health crisis for those communities, but also the cities and how public health crises expand. And then, with Covid, all of a sudden, quick, direct—"All right. We're gonna stop this action of water shutoffs for the greater good"—but I guess I don't know. Without each major crisis like—maybe I'm just expressing a lack of optimism towards what's on the other side of this, given that it seems like we're not capable, as a society, to force these changes or accept them as by and large without, I don't know, something ultra, you know, sensational—something that affects all of us more directly or people can see how they'll be affected.
Rachel Havrelock:Daniel, if I can jump in there, I would say that something that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore is our abandonment by the federal government. And so, if we are going to be abandoned by their funding or their care or their jurisdiction, then, I think, it's a good time for us to chase out things that the federal government has invited into our regions—such as oil and gas extraction, such as the bankrupting of major American cities, the privatization of water supply, the permitting of air pollution. So, I think the fact that the federal government has vacated, what my call really is right now as a bioregionalist, is like, "Okay. Then, if we are—if these multi-state packs and the state and the city is what we have, then let's build on that. Let's claim the natural resources for the people that are here with leadership from the most historically impacted communities."
'Cause those people have been—have stepped up all along—through the shutoffs, through the poisoning of Flint, through the lead pipes, right? The leaders in the most impacted places have been leading all along—indigenous people. They've been fighting this the whole time. We've got our leadership right here so; we need a massive reclamation of what we'll call "resources" for ourselves and future generations and we've got build on these compacts for environmental and public health regulations. If we're on our own, then every single one of us and all of our allies and all of the inhabitants here—like, we need to seize that right now. That's what the sort of opportunity that this tragic pandemic allows us.
J. Parkos Arnall:It might be a good moment to go into this thought from one of our attendees—"What is the role of the artist in this work? So, I'm hearing these different perspectives on how these two crises relate to one another and that often, it's a matter of perspective. And I think about how artists work to create new ways of looking things." So, this person asks, "I'm interested to hear why we work as artists and not in community organizing politics, critical infrastructure, similar." It strikes me, Pope.L, that you work does all of this at once so, I wonder if you might take that on.
Pope.L:Thank you, January. Jesus. I think, in some of our earlier conversations—when we were preparing to do this project—this idea came up of artists changing the narrative or creating new narratives. And then, I think I thought, "Well, maybe some artists might be concerned whether it would be art anymore." And I guess, you know, I remember this discussion from the '60s in terms of black empowerment.
When some artists were concerned that, "Well, I won't be making that painting anymore or it won't be seen as painting" and then wondering—when you have such a—I mean, let's be clear. In a certain way, even though this can be very depressing, this can be very dis-empowering, but on the other hand, it could be the total opposite. It's an opportunity to build new community, to build new value, and for artists to think about, "Well, maybe the art part is not the most important part and maybe ones engagement with this struggle—yeah, maybe art would not be the first thing right away and maybe that's okay. Because there's something else that's more important." And I think that might be the key in a number of fields where one is concerned about one's professionalism. So, I think that would be something—a challenge—offering a challenge to your field, as it were, where you say to folks, you know, "Here's your opportunity to really make something maybe you've never seen before."
Because this crisis is—we've never seen this focus of concerns and invents and this is a time of a great excitement in a certain way. Yes, it can be debilitating, depressing, blah, blah, blah, but for those who have wherewithal, this is a time to jump in.
J. Parkos Arnall:I wonder, Alivia and Daniel, whether you're seeing that with the artists that you're working with. It strikes me that some of the artists—some of my colleagues, even—just want to take care of themselves right now and they don't want to try to innovate today but, I think for many others, just as Pope.L was saying, out of crisis often comes such great creativity and new ways of working. It's my hope for the way that we can work as a museum that we'll build more accessible offerings out of learning all these digital tools. So, I wonder if you're seeing that with some of the artists you're working with.
Alivia Zivich:Well, I mean, the short answer would just be, "No" only because everybody's kind of just dealing with their day to day lives right now is the sense I'm getting—and dealing with the repercussions of the chain reaction of cancellations, postponements, lost opportunity. I think we're kind of a little bit still in that moment too much to really be able to impose the structure of art making on what's happening right now. But I do think—you know, before all this happened, one of the big discussions happening in the art world was a lot of art is made about the environment but what are we actually doing? You know, we're making art about the environment and then, shipping it around the world and taking planes around the world. And it's kind of like a lot of talk and also, a lot of carbon emissions.
So, what's kind of interesting to me personally about this moment—and January, to echo what you were just saying—like, how do this virtuality extend beyond this enforced moment to where—I think we're gonna sort of see the building of the infrastructure that we might need going forward to kind of reduce some of the ecological costs of the art world. Maybe some of these art fairs will finally die—fingers crossed—and I think with some of those reductions—I don't know. I'm curious to see what—not necessarily what artwork comes out this 'cause artists are constantly responding. That—I'm hesitant too much to push artists—the role of activist and artist because it's everyone's role and I always feel like artists kind of get handed the short stick. Like, "What are you gonna do about this?"
And it's like, "What is the car salesman gonna do about this? What is everyone gonna do about this?" But as far as the art industry goes, I would like to see some of what we're learning now be like, "Oh, this actually does work. We can do things without necessarily shipping, flying, blah, blah, blah, all around"—taking away some of the physical-ness, which is ironic to me because, like I said earlier, we opened the gallery in Detroit with the idea of being "People in Detroit now don't have to travel to go see emerging or cutting edge contemporary art that's not necessarily going to be at the level that gets into one of the museums in Detroit but, you know, here they can come experience it in their own city without having to have financial means of traveling." So, we were bringing in a lot of work but, at the same time, I do think it's just ready for an evolution.
I don't really love the total online platform so, I don't really know what's next but—and certainly, experiencing art in person is hard to recreate in a lot of ways but yeah, anyways, I agree that this is a moment. We aren't quite seeing what that light at the end of the tunnel is yet, but we're all being forced to learn things quickly and be put in uncomfortable positions and adapt quickly. And we're humans. We're good at that. So, this should be the moment where we get kind of like, pushed over that boundary or that limit that was keeping us in that place of just convenient every day how things were. That's what I would like to see.
J. Parkos Arnall:And, of course, as we anticipated when we all were chatting earlier, our participants are eager to start thinking about what we can actually do so, we have someone saying, "What advice do you have for an emerging artist to begin engaging with local communities to lead to greater environmental justice? Have artists found an entry point through collaboration or joining environmental organizations or groups? What are some of the most productive ways to aid experts and residents?" Jenny, I know your work really sits in this space as we're talking about. You have such an urgency around your activism and also, working as an artist.
That relationship between the art that you make and the activism that you are everyday enacting—I wonder if you can speak to this a bit.
Jenny Kendler:Yeah. I'll respond really briefly to what Alivia was saying, too, which I agree really strongly. I think that fundamentally, at its best, art is a practice of attentiveness and response so, it is absolutely our duty to be attentive now. We don't necessarily have to be responding right now but I think we need to be ready to respond when we can. I also think that this is also a little bit in response to the prior question—you know, what can artists do in the situation that's maybe unique, which is I think exactly that—that we can put ourselves into uncomfortable, difficult, and maybe even embarrassing positions that would have political or professional consequences for people in other spheres but don't happen to us.
So, several years ago, at this point, I started telling people that I wasn't gonna fly places to give talks anymore and that I wasn't gonna ship big heavy things and I think I totally recognize that that's a position of privilege, but I think that we should recognize, as artists, like, what are unique abilities to kind of tweak what we can do are. And I think that like, there's also this really special role right now—partly responding to Rachel's amazing presence in this conversation—for artists around how do we de-silo these disciplines. This is something that we absolutely need to be able to do if we're gonna respond to the challenges of the 21st century—is to stop thinking about Art and Science as these separate things and start thinking about how we can act interdisciplinary. And again, because artists are practiced at doing this like, uncomfortable, sometimes fumbling work out in the public—I'm thinking about my friend Claire Pentecost—who I think Rachel knows as well—who talks about being a public amateur. I love this idea—that like, we're kind of learning in public—and I think that that's a great way to model how we can create interdisciplinary spaces that are gonna be needed to understand these like, systemic challenges of the 21st century.
You know, it's not just about like, where does water come from. It's interlinked to all of these other issues. And so, to respond to the young artist who asked the question, I think that this is the way to proceed—which is just to lead from your heart and from your interests. If you're passionate about working with scientists, find a way to reach out to them. If you're passionate with working with activists—everybody needs help. People are gonna accept honest, generous, creative, willing participation.
And so, I think like, the idea first is to participate in what's already going on and then find how you can use your unique strengths and your unique interests to build a trajectory forward. And don't be afraid about whether it's art or not. As Pope.L says, "Who cares?" [Laughs] It's about what we can do as living beings at this time.
Pope.L:The funny things is about modernism, or even post, is that the really interesting stuff always came from a place that initially, maybe that wasn't the intention, you know? And so, I don't know. It's like, this is like—as hardcore as it is, this is a great opportunity to be in that place from which great art stems. You know, it's a lot of ignorance going on. That's why we're here.
And in the ignorance comes this kind of—if you're sensitive to it—push and pull. That's an old art term. You can come up with a certain way of visioning things that it's fresh and—how do you say—eye opening. So, there's a lot of, how do you say—to use a capitalist term, perhaps—opportunity to see beyond what we think we know.
Jenny Kendler:Yeah. I think that this is a moment for us to be brave—really brave—and I think that's actually the lucky thing, again, about this crisis—is that it's made all of us so uncomfortable to begin with that it maybe becomes easier to imagine a different reality—which, of course, is another job for artists, right? Is creating these seed beds where we can germinate impossible ideas.
J. Parkos Arnall:We're getting even more questions about what we can do so, we should definitely start to pivot towards that. Someone is asking, "What can private property owners do to ensure that their pipes get updated if they are LSLs or put pressure on municipalities to take action in updating infrastructure?" There's someone else who feels that we're really living through a time that's cataclysmic and that we'll see future generations really pitying us during this time and that what we do and fight for is critical. So, you know, seeing some hope but also, some real pessimism about our time and what we're living through. So, those are both coming in from the attendees.
I wonder if we do want to start to think about what you all are doing today. What are the ways—and we're talking about generational inequalities—and that can feel quite overwhelming, but your leaving something for the next generation starts with everyday actions. So, I wonder if you all want to talk a little bit about what you're feeling are those potentials today.
Pope.L:I want to talk about a failure and it was a public failure. In other words, I did it in public. [Laughs] And after—it was about immigration and it was something I was learning about. And my interest, interestingly, was water because a lot of immigration occurs either across large tracks of land or water. But I started learning about it and I realized, you know, again, ignorance and that ignorance was leading me through this subject.
And so, this was like a six-month project and, at the end of it, I realized, you know, "I wish I'd done this in the beginning." It's always that, right? And it's that kind of thing. And what I realized, though—I wouldn't take anything back. I would not have learned what I did if I had not tried in the first place.
And, if anything, it urged me on to say, "Okay. That happened but I'm not going to let me stop thinking about immigration, right? If anything, I'm hoping that it steels me to build a better structure to think about it." So, I'm hoping that—sometimes, subjects can seem so large that people feel overwhelmed.
"What can I do?" And I think we were talking about the idea that if some poor folk may not feel an ownership of some of these issues because of historical disenfranchisement, but I'm hoping, you know, just sending out that energy, that folks don't let this sense of overwhelmingness put a damper on their—even in small ways—drive to do something about it.
Rachel Havrelock: If I can jump in and go from the very practical, hopefully, to the more abstract on the question about lead pipes, again, first of all, get some information available to you about your own lead pipe but all of these pipes need to be removed from the collective ground. And, of course, there's a very problematic idea that this issue of public health is actually one of private property. On Freshwater Stories, there's a brilliant story written by lead pipe experts who argue that we need to think about our pipes in a public context and not a private one. As we think about how to pull these pipes and do water delivery and access better, really just a shout out to all the artists on this call and listening and beyond because we rely on all of you to make these things visible. Again, Pope.L's Flint water project—I mean, you made privatization, commodification, public poisoning through private channels—like, you made that all visible with like, the sense of irony and play and investigation.
And we need you, too, to kind of help us see what's going on—what water makes invisible in terms of contamination. You know, what's going on with corroding pipes and their privatization? So, we need to advocate to get all of these pipes changed at the same time that we must maintain public oversight and control of our water. We've got to stop accelerated privatization. In Illinois, there are two house bills to make this easier and what's going on in University Park is Flint the sequel.
And to speak on the more abstract level, we also have to get the corporations out. Last weekend, when the tower of the Crawford Coal Plant—that Little Village environmental justice organization had closed down through their own activism—now that the federal EPA has declared that they're just off-duty. From March 13th, there is no federal environmental protection regulation officially. So, that means we're really on our own. And what that mean in Little Village is that they demolished a tower, as Jenny said, and unleashed a toxic dust cloud that likely took the life of a resident. We're gonna watch this video right now. And so, there's a very active call coming out of the Little Village neighborhood right now to get Hilco, the corporation responsible for blanketing one of the densest Chicago neighborhoods in a cloud of toxic dust to get them out of the neighborhood.
Now, this goes beyond Little Village—not only because we all breathe this air and send out waste down that canal that you can see there, but also because Hilco, to build a warehouse for Target, is receiving $20 million in public subsidy. So, getting Hilco out of Little Village, pulling our subsidy—and my call for this to Hilco, Nestle, Veolia, Enbridge is go fund yourself. Give us our money back to remake the world the way we want to live—with clean water and out toxic dust clouds and go fund yourself. If the free market is so good, then you can certainly—corporation—get off welfare.
J. Parkos Arnall:Thanks, Rachel. I want to call on Sydney, who just put up something in the Q&A. Sydney, your microphone should be being turned on. Do you want to go ahead and speak your thought and question?
Sydney:Oh. Hi. Yeah. Sure. Let me just pull it up.
I didn't realize I was gonna be circle. Okay. So, I would like to know in what ways you all, as artists, activists, and scientists, perform slowing down within our culture of fast-paced consumerism and how we can build sanctuary during this time of profound and unprecedented social and ecological precarity? Thank you.
J. Parkos Arnall:Thanks, Sydney.
Jenny Kendler: That's a beautiful question. Thank you. And a relevant one for people, I think, who feel like us, perhaps—I can speak for the group—feel like there's way too much work to be done. I know that at least in my work with Extinction Rebellion, something that's at the core of everything that we do is regenerative culture. So, when we're planning action, we also have to plan regen and it's an attempt to try to learn from the mistakes sort of activists of the past, I think who have been engaged in cycles of burnout—which is typical of like, every type of movement space or not-for-profit space and is certainly true in corporate spaces.
For me, personally—especially now—it's been really paying attention to springtime and watching the progress of even individual plants and flowers opening on my block. I have a 17-month-old and it's a really beautiful way to kind of try to tune through her senses, this like, blossoming and unfolding of the natural world. And so, I feel like it's really important for us to not forget to have tangible contact with what it is that we're fighting to protect. Nature doesn't—it doesn't have to be hiking out to Grand Teton—although that's wonderful, too. It can just be, you know, what's coming up in like, the mud patch under the Siberian Elm that's been watered with pit bull urine for the last 17 years outside of my window. Still amazing, actually, if you pay attention.
So, that's how I try to practice that. But I'm also gonna take your comment as a reminder to do that more, Sydney. Thank you.
J. Parkos Arnall:Anyone else want to speak to Sydney's thoughts and comment?
Pope.L:Maybe just one thing. You know, it's like when Daniel and Alivia asked me what kind of project I wanted to do—'cause I'd been thinking, a number of years, about how do you make a project that's just not about itself? That built into the project—and not necessarily being Duchampian, but its own obsolescence in the sense of it's not made to serve itself so much; maybe it's made to serve something not itself, you know? Something—well, in my case, I was interested in community—where you make something where—in terms of your term "slow down", I guess, at least in the art world—at least in the period of the art world that I understand—it's a lot about achievement, you know? It's about your own shadow and how large your shadow looms across the land, as it were.
But what if you decided to make projects where that wasn't always the key thing, right? When someone says, "Well, hey, I want to do a project with you" your answer isn't always, "Well, here's my suite of paintings." Not—nothing against you painters, but maybe it would be something that would be more double headed or more triple headed. It would have a consciousness of something outside of its—nothing against you painters—the frame. So, I think that's a way of slowing down maybe the—in the last, what? What is it? I don't know what it is. 50 years/X years of professionalism in the arts—which is really about a kind of production line attitude.
So, I would come at it—at least in this conversation—maybe that way. In terms of creating this artist narrative, that might be different. That might be one way to get at it.
J. Parkos Arnall:We've got another comment from Clare. Cameron, do you want to go ahead and add Clare's microphone? Clare, you can speak.
Clare:Sure. I'm wondering—something you said, January, made me think more about hearing about inheritance. What I wrote in the chat was, "I'm almost 40 and I'm about to have a child—or I hope I will—this year. What are we anticipating that our kids are gonna inherit in terms of water if we do nothing? And if we do something, what are we hoping for them to inherit?"
Rachel Havrelock:Well, Clare, thank you. Already, we're not doing nothing so, there's the good news. There really are leaders and residents and inhabitants and people are really engaged with this. So, there is no doing nothing. It's wild that already before the Coronavirus, we are at record high levels for Lake Michigan.
We were already at a kind of a moment of flooding and that still needs to be taken care of but what—how this dialogue has been regenerative for me is that I see that there is the energy and the will and there are these ways to build out the network. So, what—I'm gonna really go here with the more utopian—is I think that we can give to future generations a part of the world where we figured out how to use/reuse water, how to distribute it justly. That we can be a beacon where other climate migrants can flee and can come here. I think we're gonna get agriculture right. I think we're gonna get off animal agriculture and its negative impact on our world.
I think we're gonna de-carbonize. And I think we're going to build something that looks very different from what we know but also, for the good. I think that we're gonna see these cities ravaged by industry and also by post-industrial capitalism—like, I think they're going to rise and I think we're gonna do it. And I think there'll be different realities and different relationships to wealth and consumption but like, let's go. Let's like, three cheers for the Great Lakes Republic. It's going to be good as long as we get going and get the villains out.
J. Parkos Arnall:I have to wrap this up in a second. If anyone has any last—I want to draw folks' attention to the chat. Jenny has been adding quite a few resources into the chat and, like I said, we'll put some things up on our website and on the Facebook page for this event that are additional resources shared by Rachel and Jenny and our collaborators here, our participants here. Any last thoughts from any of our panelists?
Daniel Sperry:Well, actually, there's just to point out—there's a very recent report in Vice that kind of gives a good present snapshot of what's going on in terms of accountability for the leaders in Flint—and particularly Governor Snyder and what he knew and what he said he knew when and all of that. Liv will put up a link in chat but to date, very little accountability has—we've seen very little accountability. So...
J. Parkos Arnall:Thanks, Daniel. I think we're all getting the gist that there are many, many actions that need to be taken right now but I really loved Rachel's comments—hopeful comments as well as the imagination and perspective brought by these artists, Jenny and Pope.L and Daniel and Alivia. It's been a real pleasure getting to talk with all of you. And to those attendees out there who have joined us, please come back. Come to the MCA's online comments to see our future conversations and gathering spaces across all of our digital channels.
We will be sharing these resources. If you did RSVP for the talk, we can send you that link when they're up on the website. Otherwise, just check back with our website. But thank you all for joining us. This is so meaningful to have all of you, even though we can't see your faces, and thank you Jenny, Daniel, Pope.L, Rachel, Alivia, and our wonderful MCA team for all coming together today. Thanks.
Alivia Zivich:Thank you, MCA.
[End of Audio]
Furthering the Dialogue Series on inheritance, and coinciding with the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, this open conversation with visitors over video conference asks us to consider the environmental realities we are leaving for the next generation.
The discussion is related to the exhibition Water After All and includes artist Pope.L and collaborators on his Flint Water project What Pipeline; local Chicago water activist and artist Jenny Kendler; and scholar Rachel Havrelock. The speakers will invite participants to work together in envisioning an alternate future for our children to inherit.
This conversation takes place over Zoom video conference and will be streamed on the MCA's Facebook page. The panelists and moderator will be visible, all other participants in the Zoom room will be invited to share their thinking via the chat function and may be asked to contribute verbally over their computer's audio lines. The moderator will also be sharing comments made on Facebook in the Zoom call to incorporate as many voices and perspectives as possible.
About the Series
The Dialogue Series is a museum-wide commitment to sustained inquiry about museum practice, access, and inclusion. Each annual series includes eminent speakers presenting innovative work happening across disciplines, panel discussions, and opportunities for open dialogue between local arts professionals and audiences. Dialogue is organized by Curator January Parkos Arnall with the Performance and Public Practice team.
Major support is provided by Julie and Larry Bernstein, Zell Family Foundation, and Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund.
Generous support is provided by Lois and Steve Eisen and The Eisen Family Foundation, and Caryn and King Harris.
- VIRTUALDialogue Keynote: Kerby Jean-Raymond–DialogueTalksVirtualFree
- Short A person with short dreadlocks and a beard stands with arms crossed and head slightly tilted to their left while regarding the viewer with a serious expression.