Following Water | San Antonio, TX
The following text is part of the publication for ‘Blue Star Ice Company,’ an exhibition by Works Progress Studio and collaborators in the project space at Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio, Texas. Blue Star Ice Company is open March 3-May 8, 2016.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term Anthropocene, this is a proposed epoch in geological time that accounts for the profound ways human activity has altered the planet. This includes through large-scale landscape change — such as that of agriculture or urban development — and through burning fossil fuels, which have warmed the atmosphere and changed environmental systems, what we now simply call global warming or climate change.
But climate is not the only thing that’s changing as a result of human activities and behaviors, and environmental change is not simply an effect of human activity, generally speaking. When we talk about global-scale impacts of human activity on living systems, or the need to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, what we’re actually talking about is how to confront the exploitative, extractive nature of capitalism and globalization. What we’re actually asking, urgently, What other worlds are possible?
Human culture is shaped by environment, and the ways we imagine our relationships to nature also influence the ways we shape and change that environment (and the other people who inhabit it). For that reason, we cannot address one without examining and understanding the other.
When it comes to water, this circular relationship is referred to by some as the hydrosocial cycle. When geographers look at water, they don’t only focus on the natural processes that govern how water moves, for example, evaporation or rainfall. They look at how humans shape the movement and meaning of water, through activities like irrigation, hydrofracking, or tourism, or through urban development projects, including city water systems or management of surface and groundwater, to use just a couple of examples.
As artists who work in the realm of social spaces and relationships, with an interest in place and environmental activism, we’ve been embarking on a series of projects that follow water through time, space, and human culture. In the process, we try to look for ways we might be able to illuminate narratives that are absent from mainstream environmental or place-based storytelling.
What can we learn, as people who come from that mainstream culture, from the people and communities fighting for their own civil rights and for environmental justice? And importantly, how can we be allies in those struggles, utilizing what resources or privileges we have for the common goals of deconstructing oppressive systems and building cities and a world that we can all live with and within?
In San Antonio, Texas, following water led us to the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, an organization that has made the important connection between civil rights, economic justice, and environmental justice. Importantly, much of their work happens through cultural organizing, creating a bridge between people through art, ideas, and action that is empowering, and that builds powerful relationships.
Blue Star Ice Company is not, however, an exhibition by Works Progress Studio about the Esperanza. We chose to include some of the stories shared with us by Esperanza organizers and activists because we hope to complicate traditional (dominant) narratives about how water has shaped and been shaped by people in and around San Antonio — particularly where it has been commodified or politicized, playing a role in economic development, place-making (or place-taking), and ongoing gentrification and displacement.
The video triptych is a documentary showing water as it moves through the landscape, both as a natural force, and as material for economic and cultural change. One of the things we noticed as outsiders to San Antonio is the way in which iconic architecture (like that of ice houses, which have long played a role as social and community spaces) has been appropriated in the redevelopment of the City, much of which has taken place in proximity to Yanaguana, an indigenous (Payaya) name for the San Antonio River.
What role does the appropriation of culture play in broader changes like gentrification and the displacement of low-income people and people of color? As white artists who are essentially tourists to San Antonio, and participants (or even beneficiaries) of those appropriative spaces, what is our role in reproducing these oppressive conditions? Can we instead reveal these processes at work, and ask difficult questions of ourselves and our own peers?
The objects that we brought into the gallery are purposefully complex, to provoke and hold these kinds of questions. We wanted to introduce some of the ways material culture can embody hidden or absent narratives about a place and the people who inhabit it. Pecans, for example, are a source of sustenance. They also represent an important moment in labor organizing and the struggle against oppression of working class people, as well as an example of the contributions of women (like Mexican-American union organizer Emma Tenayuca) to the cultural and economic landscape of San Antonio.
The pecans we included were collected near Kelly Air Force Base, in the area known to locals as the toxic triangle. In this area, the mostly low-income residents have been advised not to drink or irrigate their soil with water from private wells, as that water likely contains harmful levels of toxic chemicals that seeped through the soil and into groundwater, the result of the Army’s exploitive use of that land. As products of that soil, these pecans also contain toxics.
The sculpture at the center of the exhibition was created using ice — created using water — that was gathered from around San Antonio. We gathered and froze water from some of the places where we went to look, to listen, and to learn. We offer this ice (water) to Blue Star visitors as a point of reflection and a moment to meditate upon our common well and well-being. The installation, a structure made of stacked ice bricks that will melt and shift, is a reminder that our relationship with water and climate is increasingly precarious and uncertain.
To recognize that we are all connected — through water, though land, through the flow of money and of power — is to acknowledge that we are all related. And that relatedness begs us to consider how we might act in the face of social, economic, and environmental change that will more severely impact some than others, but which will surely impact us all.
As Esperanza organizer Gianna Rendon says in an interview we did as part of this project, “Unless you realize the connections between the liberations and struggles of marginalized people and the earth, and the role you play in these oppressions, your views will never make any change.”
Mary, Jack, Pierce and everybody at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum. Thank you for inviting us to your beautiful city. Everyone that hosted us in ways large and small: Justin (Rambo), Walter, Mike, Anjali and Angelee. Thank you for allowing us to see and hear San Antonio through your eyes and ears. Jesse and the whole crew at Mireles Party Ice. Thank you for freezing this water and showing us how you do it. Mario, Gregg, and everyone at SAWS. Thank you for showing us how water flows through your systems, from the land to the people and back from people to the land. Graciela, Susana, Gianna and everyone at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. Thank you for sharing so much of your time and energy with us. Your vision of hope for this world is contagious. And everyone that helped us to build, paste, and stack ice. Your support is critical to this project. With our hearts, we thank you.