Who Owns the Water?: Artistic Process
Essay by artist Vibha Galhotra
Thank you Asia Society and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for this opportunity to help realize this multi-layered project, Who Owns The Water? Paying special attention to the context of India, this project considers how urbanization is increasingly changing the landscape of the world, and at a pace that far exceeds what our environment can accommodate. Who Owns The Water?, then, highlights global and local issues of climate change through a site-specific participatory work that is crucial to the times we live in, where ecological sustainability is becoming the foremost concern for the survival of our planet. Understanding the evolution of our civilization from offers me insight into not just our present, but also fires my curiosity to discover where we are going.
Describe your project, the research that informed the work, and how the concept evolved through the project’s development.
Who Owns the Water? involves multi-disciplinary experts from a diverse range of fields—including policy-makers, artists, social practitioners, ecological warriors, and activists—highlighting local and global concerns of climate change with emphasis on the increasingly scarce natural resource of water that sustains all life. The project was conceived in 2016 during the Rockefeller residency at Bellagio where I had the opportunity to interact with not just artists, but people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Following my residency, I travelled to NY for 6 months under the Asian Cultural Council grant during and had the opportunity to share my ideas, thoughts and work with many artists, academicians, and thinkers. Rachel Cooper, Director of Global Performing Arts and Cultural Initiatives, encouraged me to pursue the project as a collaborative, performative one.
Collaboration proved to be difficult in India, however. I was keen on involving policy makers, given their immense role in executing ground-level environmental change, but faced many bureaucratic challenges making direct collaboration difficult. Further, conceptual arts practice, albeit not new, is still relatively concentrated in India, making it somewhat difficult to find collaborations amongst artists and other creatives. Nevertheless, during this time, I received an offer from the Asia Society to execute the project in New York. Their confidence in me and endorsement of this project has been instrumental to actualizing Who Owns the Water? in New York, and has significantly aided in executing the project in March 2020 in New Delhi, India.
Describe the artistic process to create the work, including how you worked with your collaborators.
The idea of the project was to curate a conceptually rooted visual ambience for a participatory dinner ceremony to discuss the issue of water. I worked with a design team, fashion designer, chef, food stylist and photographers to curate an atmosphere that emphasized the absurdity of the times we live in as well as our own action, mis-action, or inaction regarding working towards saving this vital resource. I designed the dinner tables in the shape of a map of the local Hudson River for the New York-based ceremony and the Yamuna River for the Delhi-based ceremony and worked with designers to design table mats that highlight, both through visual imagery and text, various global issues around water. The participants’ seating arrangements were balanced to stimulate the best of conversation and perspectives, and they were served by people dressed in surrealistic hazmat suits. Their dinner menus were carefully curated so that each dish celebrated water as its vital ingredient throughout the meal and highlighted its indispensability in our lives. The dinner performance was recorded to provide audio and visual documentation of the times we live in, including the shared fears, stories and concerns about our planet as contributed by the experts present.
How has creating the work commissioned by Asia Society impacted you as an artist? Will the experience have an effect on your work in the future?
This project has come as a turning point in my practice, infusing it with new meaning about the ways my work lies at the intersection of art and social practice. Art is for me a medium to bring about social change by bringing about a heightened sense of awareness about the world we live in and the issues that plague it. Who Owns the Water is part of my larger practice of engaging people through aesthetic interventions that allow them to be involved in hard-pressing conversations. Using art to simply increase awareness is an important though perhaps relatively easy pursuit; this project has increased my focus on doing more to stimulate conversation, collaboration, and exchange capable of initiating real change.