Artists, activists and scholars alike gathered together the weekend of Oct. 7 for the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and Stamps Gallery’s “The Ways of Water” two-day symposium. The showcased exhibits — UMMA’s “Watershed” and Stamps Gallery’s “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Flint Is Family in Three Acts” — tackled the past, present and future of environmental justice and access to clean water.
Day 1: Friday, October 7
The symposium began at Stamps Gallery with opening remarks from Srimoyee Mitra, Stamps Gallery director, and Jennifer Friess, associate curator of UMMA’s “Watershed” exhibit. The two spoke about the purpose of the symposium and the inherent relationship between both exhibits involved.
“Both exhibitions … provide a fitting framework for a symposium of this kind because both surface 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 present-day understandings of water and highlighting history.
Khan, award-winning Detroit-based artist and associate professor at the School of Art and Design, spoke about two of his past works that address the impact of global warming. Khan’s 2013 work “Come Hell or High Water,” showcased the flooding, draining and re-flooding of a typical suburban Midwestern living room. Their 3D installation tackled larger concerns of global disasters and infrastructure failures that destroy the safety of lives, narratives and histories.
Levy, a documentary filmmaker, photographer and activist, followed Khan’s presentation with a discussion of historical tactics used to conceal reports of Canadian oil and gas pipeline company Enbridge Inc.’s impact and the dangers the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline poses to communities inhabiting the region. Levy’s documentary project “The Roar on the Other Side of Silence (Along Line 5)” is currently on display at the Watershed exhibit. This multi-media installation focuses on Enbridge’s Line 5, which travels under the Straits of Mackinac, and its environmental threat to crucial waterways.
Vickers, a creative writer, researcher, ethnographer and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about their current project, which focuses on drowned towns of the Santee-Cooper Project in South Carolina and community displacement in the name of American progress. In their work, Vickers recognized the impact of artificial reservoir projects and federal dams while recognizing contributions from Black activists on geographies and landscapes. Through this study, Vickers emphasized how historical knowledge can help prevent future dispossessions.
“Water has been made into a simultaneous object of necessity, but also an entity to fear,” Vickers said. “It’s crucial to honor, mourn and learn from inundations of the past.”
Mitra also provided an exhibition tour of “Flint Is Family in Three Acts,” a multi-part project underscoring the threat of environmental racism in the United States and increasing advocacy for access to clean water. According to the Art & Design School website, the exhibition explores how individual and institutional agencies engage in advocating for equity, transparency and environmental justice.
Upon conclusion of the morning session, Mitra said she hoped for the symposium to function as a platform to convene University of Michigan research on water rights, justice and conservation.
“Together, we can leverage and bolster the depth of the conversations and take steps towards building a more just and equitable community at U of M and beyond,” Mitra said.
Day 2: Saturday, October 8
Saturday’s two sessions of the symposium highlighted two sets of panelists at Stamps Gallery.
“Breaking Waves — Research Around, Through, and With Water” was the first session of the day. This session focused on the way that research and teaching on the University’s campus intersects water and environmental justice, along with 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 give equal access to clean water. The panelists were introduced by moderator, María Arquero de Alarcón, associate architecture and urban planning professor.
The panelists combined data and storytelling to show the audience how they are working locally and state-wide on issues regarding water. Flooding and a lack of clean water were the main focus 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 class and library to learn a lot of things but (it’s also important to) be aware that there’s things happening on campus, and then beyond that (things) happening in the community,” Kerkez said. “A good thing if you’ve never done it is to go to a city council meeting and see what they discuss … they’ll give you a sense of what’s going on in the community.”
The session concluded with the panelists answering questions from each other and the audience, moderated by Architecture profesor María Arquero de Alarcón. During the audience questions, Shea Cobb, another panelist, U-M alum and one of the poets who collaborated on “Flint is a Family in Three Acts,” discussed what mindset people should take on when looking at crises caused by water.
“The earlier pushes for water activism, including water acts … those things were done in a collective way … Everybody is taking on the responsibility of saying it’s not just in Flint, you know, just because I don’t live there. I’m a part of humanity,” Cobb said. “Starting there, just making yourself conscious of the fact that it’s all of us and not just over 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 a result of the city’s decision to switch their water supply from the Huron River and Detroit River system to the Flint River to cut costs. By the time Flint switched back to the Huron River in 2015, about 99,000 Flint residents had been exposed to lead.
LSA freshman Amber Estor attended the final session of the symposium and expressed feeling moved by the way Cobb and other panelists provided a human aspect to the data-driven presentation.
“It was really nice being introduced to these topics, all the panels and the panelists. I feel like my mindset has sort of changed because … I’m planning to go into biochemistry and we’re that scientific perspective,” Estor said. “So it was really interesting to hear the human side of it and personal experiences being brought into that and how they can sort of connect (to) what I can do.”
Rackham student Sierra Mathias attended the majority of the symposium and said she was interested in how the different events highlighted the intersection between art and the natural sciences. She said she felt the panelists cultivated a welcoming environment and appreciated hearing other people’s questions.
“I was curious to just learn 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) a critical way to approach the topic as we move forward as a society, just because so many of our issues today — social justice, environmental justice, health care, access to the outdoors — all these things … are so interconnected.”
The symposium ended with closing remarks from a group of speakers from both days. Artist Senghor Reid, a panelist who spoke at the Friday session, said maintaining a focus on how water is intertwined in 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 are each protecting water in our spaces and communities. We have shown that the solutions for protecting our water, our one water, is in our hands,” Reid said. “Stay local … support your local water organizations, activists, creatives and individuals who endeavor to protect water by being an agent for change (in their) communities.”