Art, which plays so many different roles in life, has long been used and understood as a means of social critique. We have come to expect that the work of a great many artists will illuminate inequity, draw attention to the malfeasance of corporations and elected officials, and start provocative conversations about the many social struggles and structural biases that continue to plague society.
But what if art could do more? What if it could make a difference, in ways more traditionally associated with political and community action? What if it could be used to improve lives and ameliorate social problems not abstractly, but concretely?
These are big questions for contemporary art, which is witnessing the ascent of what is variously termed "social practice" or "public intervention" art—that is, art that seeks to intentionally intervene in the wider world for the material betterment of individuals and communities.
One such intervention is the "Flint Water Project," a multifaceted installation/performance piece by the Chicago-based artist William Pope.L
currently on view at What Pipeline
, an artist-run gallery in southwest Detroit. For six weeks, the 1,000 square foot gallery is serving as a makeshift production facility, showroom, and storefront. The product being prepared and sold is tap water from Flint, Michigan.
Proceeds from all sales will be donated to the United Way of Genessee County, which has pledged to use the money to mitigate the effects of the ongoing Flint water crisis, and to Hydrate Detroit
, which fights water shutoffs in Detroit. Visitors can walk out the door with an unsigned 16-ounce bottle for $20, a bottle signed by Pope.L for $250, or a case for a sum that's more in line with traditional art world prices. The goal is to raise $100,000.
Pope.L, 62, is well-known in the contemporary art world. (His controversial 2017 "Claim (Whitney version)" was recently awarded the top prize at the Whitney Biennial in New York.) Daniel Sperry, who co-owns What Pipeline with Alivia Zivich, is quick to point out that the art of Pope.L "relishes in uncertainty" and that the artist, whose practice is rooted in performance, provocation, and contradiction, is himself ambivalent about social practice art, which comes with its own set of problems (e.g., career-minded artists using members of vulnerable populations for their own gain).
So, Sperry suggests, a critique of social practice is built into the "Flint Water Project," in which, he notes, the "fundraising aspect is almost a material in the work's medium. It's real brass tacks dollars and cents, but it's also symbolic and conceptual."
Pope.L auctions a bottle of Flint Water signed by the artist during the opening of Flint Water at What Pipeline - courtesy of the artist and What Pipeline
In other words, it's still art. And it's certainly true that there's much more to this work than a simple exchange of money for water. There is, for instance, the design of the installation itself, with its Pop Art water bottle wallpaper and gridded, post-minimalist aesthetic, as well as the sculptural arrangement of individual bottles and stacked boxes. And there's the ongoing performance aspect: while the gallery is open, someone is there, costumed in apron and goggles, going about the business of bottling water while engaging visitors in conversation about Flint and Detroit, about clean water access, failing infrastructure, and environmental racism.
Then there are the bottles themselves: weird, haunting art objects dressed up in faux-commercial packaging that, when brought home, exude a compact but profoundly disquieting power.
And yet, the "Flint Water Project" cannot be separated from the potential impact it may have outside of the gallery or the homes of individual collectors. Three years after it became widely known, the Flint water crisis is, after all, ongoing, and the human costs are all too real. (The water being bottled and sold at What Pipeline comes from the home of Flint resident Tiantha Williams, whose young son was born prematurely due to complications from her consumption of Flint water during pregnancy.)
Wall of Pope.L's Flint Water Project - courtesy of the artist and What Pipeline
Pope.L envisioned this work as "turning poison into gold," Sperry says. "Transubstantiation. Taking something that Flint residents have learned to be afraid of and packaging it, aestheticizing it, commercializing it, and trying to sell it to a larger community."
And in this performance, Pope.L has cast Detroit as the hero of the story, as the city that "comes to the aid of another fellow Rust Belt city in need." Hero? That's a new role for Detroit to play in the regional narrative. But maybe the costume fits. We, certainly, can understand the truth of the words that are printed on Pope.L's bottles, that "all fates, just like all waters, are connected."
The "Flint Water Project" is on view until October 21, 2017. What Pipeline is located at 3525 W. Vernor Hwy and is open on Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. or by appointment.