ART TO THE RESCUE OF THE PLANET
(Note: The art installation Be the Drop that Shapes the Wave was presented for the first time during a UN 2023 Water Conference special event hosted by Femsa Foundation – Scroll to the end of the post to watch the making Be the Drop that Shapes the Wave.The play LOVE authored and directed by Alexander Zeldin was performed at the Park Armory in New York in from in February and March 2023.)
Somewhere among the routine schedule of meetings, the policy papers, and tightly scripted speeches of besuited officials gathering at the 2023 UN Conference on Water, one presentation stands apart.
A vast dynamic piece of art proposes raising awareness about the urgent water situation in Latin America. Composed of 8,000 ceramic beads, each representing a drop of water, it is the imagined work of New York-based artist Inma Barrero and more than 100 entrepreneurs, leaders of corporations and governmental agencies, artists, activists, and children.
Its name is inspiring: Be the Drop that Shapes the Wave. Its reason for being, however, is frightening.
Over 2 billion people worldwide cannot access safe drinking water or sanitation. During the pandemic, many could not even wash their hands. Until and unless decision-makers act on the critical need to make safe water available for all, the situation will only worsen as the global population grows exponentially. This United Nations meeting in New York City was long overdue.
In Latin America alone, the water shortage affects seven out of ten people, according to the local not-for-profit Lazos de Agua program. That represents 160 million people—that is the populations of Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru combined!
To face this challenge, an artwork co-created by a well-known artist and dozens of people spread out in 15 countries, including children from public schools in Manhattan and the Lycée Français de New York, might seem, at best, decorative.
Or is it?
Here is Margaux. She is 11 years old. Margaux was born in France but moved to New York when she was one.
After spending an afternoon discussing water and art in Inma Barrero’s workshop, molding dozens of beads, each to be assembled in Be the Drop that Shapes the Wave, Margaux did not just become an artist. She became a conscious artist.
As she was about to leave the artist’s workshop, Margaux stood with Inma Barrero among the unfinished drops of water hanging from the ceiling; she looked at a camera and proclaimed, “Water is Life.” Many of her fellow students chose the same word. Others associated water with privilege, calmness, survival, luxury, softness, animals, plants, necessity, and happiness. Along with Margaux, there were Inès, Bakoro, Céline, Eowin, Nina, Elise, Mia, Elodie, Nicolas, Zahra, Marion, Zoé, Maximilien, Orfeo and many more, all representing diverse nationalities. They learned about the challenges of water and watched videos of young women walking miles to collect unsafe water in Africa. They commented on this new information and listened to experts led by One Drop Foundation, an organization founded in Canada by Guy Laliberté (Le Cirque du Soleil), which aims “to ensure sustainable access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene for communities everywhere.”
If “artists play a crucial role in surfacing ideas through the emotions that art can sometimes ignite,” as Inma Barrero explains, can they engage others not only to think differently but also to act?
“It is inspiring to witness how people from very diverse backgrounds have shared this artistic experience focused on water and its impact,” explained the executive director of FEMSA Foundation Lorena Guillé-Laris. “I am convinced that when we use disruptive and innovative methods such as art, we can solve the water challenges that people face in Latin America.”
FEMSA is a Mexican holding whose subsidiaries include the world’s largest bottler company of Coca-Cola and the largest convenience store chain in Latin and South America, Oxxo. Its not-for-profit arm, FEMSA Foundation, is one of five organizations that work through the Lazos de Agua program to prove the power of art as a catalyst for social change. The other partners are the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Wavin, the Stockholm International Water Institute, and One Drop Foundation. All believe art can “empower communities to take ownership of projects over time, thereby ensuring their sustainability.”
“It is interesting how art and water conservation can come together in projects such as this to reflect on the reality of water,” said Carlos Hurtado, Head of Sustainable Development Programs at FEMSA.
Art, so often admired, traded, and even feared, can also, it turns out, shift consciousness toward actions.
A 2019 World Economic Forum article states that Art for Social Change “is not a product; it is a process (…) a new approach of assessing social problems.” Artists and their art “can be more accurately viewed as catalysts, building and maintaining a relationship with their audience.”
Was it the case for the audience at the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in 2008? Diane Von Furstenberg, Melanne Verveer, and Alyse Nelson invited corporate and political leaders to hold their business and self-reflective conversations as they watched the play SEVEN unfold on stage. It told the story of seven women who refused to fall victim to their circumstances and instead became trailblazers. When the play ended—and to everyone’s surprise—Diane Von Furstenberg invited the sources for the play—seven women with real stories—to join her and stand next to each actress playing their respective roles. The audience realized this was not just a diversion. This was an opportune moment for them to genuinely review their perceptions of women’s issues. One person, then two, and, within seconds, everyone was standing up, visibly moved, transformed, and perhaps determined to act differently.
Was it the case when, last December, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and photographer JR took over Roosevelt Island in New York to raise awareness about the plight and combat of Iranian women for freedom? Their issue was overtly political. Artists and activists wanted Iran ousted from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. They also wanted the rest of us to keep our eyes wide open to the Iranian women’s struggle. Their rights are “the rights that we claim for ourselves and that every human being is entitled to,” said Hillary Clinton. Two weeks later, the UN voted to remove Iran from CSW.
Was it the case when L’Oréal Foundation launched a competition called Urban Shakers in France last year to search for artists who would become ambassadors against sexists and sexual violence? The French conference Les Napoleons invited one of the laureates, rap artist Fanny Polly, to perform in front of a bewildered and business-oriented audience. They were shaken for sure. Even moderators at Les Napoleons then posed the question: “What can Art do?”
I am convinced that when we use disruptive and innovative methods such as art, we can solve the water challenges that people face in Latin America.Lorena Guillé-Laris, Executive director of FEMSA Foundation
“Art should be as present in our daily lives as we need water and air,” Inma Barrero says, surrounded by hundreds of ‘drops of water’ of her co-created artwork. All had a different shade of blue, from light to dark, symbols of shallow and deep ocean waters. “We also need art to shake up our implicit perception of the world and the challenges surrounding us. Art makes us aware of different ideas, obstacles, and perspectives. It can carry a narrative, spark a dialogue, and impact social change.”
The World Economic Forum has even suggested a word to define the co-creators of Inma Barrero’s Be the Drop that Shapes the Wave: They call them Artepreneurs. The term can refer to “people who pursue their social mission through artistic means and create models that are innovative, scalable, and measurable.”
There are actually many different approaches to Art for Social Change, and sometimes, the purpose is not always a methodology. It can simply be inferred as the result of the artist’s choice.
Case in point, the last performances at the Park Armory of The New York Times-acclaimed play LOVE coincide with the UN 2023 Water conference.
LOVE is the tale of a family of four, of an elderly mother and her son, of a disabled Syrian man, and of a single mother from Sudan separated from her child. All live in a shelter. The action is set in London, but it could very well be in New York City. Just as the dire water situation affects the lives and security of too many worldwide, in New York City alone, 70,000 people, including more than 22,000 children, sleep every night in a public city shelter. Similar to the characters in LOVE, they endure misery, promiscuity, and despair.
Like other audience members, I sat onstage, a mere two feet away from the actors, and was suddenly transported inside the shelter. I became an invisible witness to a tragedy I knew existed but had for me thus far, held no shape, sound, or odor. I sat so close I could have almost tasted the little food they could find—a microwaved bag of rice split among four. Would I have washed my mother’s hair in a sink with dish soap as a son in the play did with his? Children sang and danced. Or they were simply tormented teenagers living out their adolescence, no matter the cramped room they were forced to sleep in. A mother, eight months pregnant, feared her baby would be born in the shelter. Two strangers, a man and a woman, realized they could both speak Arabic and thus felt safe to converse. And if this was not enough, if they expressed their frustration and anger towards one another or against a stalled bureaucracy, they risked crossing the last frontier: being utterly cast out. All they had left is LOVE.
What Alexander Zeldin does is to remind us of our humanity.David Schwimmer, Actor and Producer
What we do with it is up to us.
To write his play, director and author Alexander Zeldin, once an assistant director of Peter Brook, did not just depend on his imagination, creativity, and talent. He instead invited families who live in shelters to join workshops.
“Theatre needs to be a way of going into the world, not sitting at a remove from it and commenting on it,” Zeldin said. “We organized workshops over a year with the organization Shelter—working with homeless families in the UK. Involving them in the creation of the play, in most cases as paid consultants and collaborators, allowed us to anchor what we are doing artistically in a social and artistic mission that goes beyond the theatre.”
While Alexander Zeldin’s process differs from the One Drop Foundation’s methodology that is central to Lazos de Agua and Inma Barrero’s work, they both aim at a similar result: to engage a social dialogue and hopefully to disrupt a status quo.
The Park Armory and Alexander Zeldin invited over 1,000 high school students to attend special performances and participate in a post-show conversation with the cast. In-school pre-show workshops were also organized to allow students to “articulate their own personal definitions of love,” as one can read in the program distributed to the spectators. In the post-show workshops, they could share their experiences of communal spaces and explore through all forms of art “how acts of love can offer the people in those spaces agency and hope,” the Park Armory said.
The other particularity of Alexander Zeldin’s approach was the presence onstage of audience members like me.
“I believe that at every moment in the history of the theatre, there have been changes to the way the architecture of it is organized,” Alexander Zeldin said. “To me, right now, the division between audience and stage, where one group sits in comfort, with the lights off and the anonymity this provides, while another is on display on stage, feels wrong. I believe deeply in the clue that the etymological origin of the word theatre provides: THEATRON—seeing place, place for beholding. In this etymology, there is a clue: theatre is fundamentally about seeing something, and as a result, it feels right to me that we all see EACH OTHER that we have a shared light.”
This is precisely what I felt as I witnessed Margaux and her fellow students co-create at Inma Barrero’s studio.
“The young children present truly surprised me,” Inma Barrero said. “The technical aspect of ceramics did not deter them from actively co-creating in my studio. Instead, they were enthusiastic and relentless. The conversation on ideas combined with the action of working with clay and water gave them both sides of the same coin.”
“A shared light,” as Alexander Zeldin calls it, about life itself. The spectator becomes an actor. He or she is responsible and part of the solution about what the art conveys.
As organic and interactive as is Inma Barrero’s sculpture, so is the play LOVE.
Both awaken the conscience of their co-creators, whether they mold beads, share experiences, stand on a stage, or immerse themselves inside an art installation.
Toward the end of the play, the elderly woman, Barbara (played by Amelda Brown), decides her time has come to walk without her cane, despite her frailty, possibly toward death. Step after step, she moves towards the audience members on stage. I stared at the woman sitting in front of her (I was sitting on the opposite side of the stage). The woman’s eyes connected with those of the character Barbara. All at once, the audience member reached out and took Barbara’s hand. She helped her walk without falling, then another audience joined in, and another–until Barbara reached the stairs and left the stage.
I suddenly remembered the words that actor and producer David Schwimmer (the star of Friends) had said at a dinner the night before: “What Alexander Zeldin does is to remind us of our humanity. What we do with it is up to us.”
Here stands Art. Some would cancel or destroy it–because of radical activism and war. But not here. Instead, Art can be the chrysalis of people and ideas across status and age.
Here stand Inma Barrero’s Be the Drop of Water that Shapes the Wave and Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE. They dare to move our conscience amid the solemn declarations, discussions, and announcements of the United Nations. They are non-threatening weapons of awareness, sustainable hope, and—ideally–of action.
To go further:
About Inma Barrero: Inma Barrero is an artist with an object and installation-based practice. Barrero’s iconography and experimental research with ceramic is influenced by her Spanish upbringing, the latin American continent and her experience living in Japan. Her latest body of work reflects her preoccupation with the fragility of life and a spiritual approach to body and mind. In April 2023, Barrero’s installation “Breaking walls” will be part of Kyotography in Kyoto, Japan. From May to September 2023, “Terruños” an exhibition featuring indoor and outdoor sculptures will be exhibited at the Instituto Cervantes in New York City. More info: http://www.inmabarrero.com
About Alexander Zeldin : https://lookingglasstheatre.org/people/alexander-zeldin/
About Lazos de Agua: https://www.lazosdeagua.org
About the 2023 UN Conference on Water: https://sdgs.un.org/conferences/water2023