• OxCAN Comms

Life=H20, a project for our times

Robert Saco from Life=H2O tells the story of how this art project came together, a project which invites us to reflect on the importance of water. Are you inspired to join in and help ensure that climate change can be diverted in a different direction?

We had a bit over a week at the conference to confront the challenge set forth by the organizers: find a social cause and use any art form to address it. The conference was hosted by the Change Leaders, a global network of change management practitioners which grew out of a graduate program in change leadership at the University of Oxford some 20 years ago. Conference attendees formed groups to tackle the challenge, and our group of four -- later five -- attendees from Holland, England, Denmark, Germany, and USA chose climate change, and particularly water vulnerability, as our issue. Our manifesto, embedded in the project brief, states:

We believe art has the potential to create a new perception about things that matter, and hence foster social change. We believe art reveals the uncanny, the weird juxtaposition that compels us to see things in a new way. Art brings wonder back into the world. We believe a collective change of heart is possible through arresting imagery, the active engagement of the senses, and the application of moral and aesthetic imagination.

And the project entailed designing a simple choreography by a body of water to engage people from all walks of life into a discussion concerning one of the great crises of the 21st century, namely climate change. The philosopher Timothy Morton calls critical mammoth events like climate change hyperobjects, i.e. concepts of such magnitude that they become nearly incomprehensible for human beings. We are somewhat aware of them, we see glimpses of their contour, but yet they remain distant in our consciousness due to their sheer magnitude. Since art is a form of communication which appeals to our intuition and emotions maybe we could explore a participatory play, one in which players engage with an issue playfully to come to understand it at some level by perturbing the problem as it were. The word play has a double connotation here. It is play as in informal experimentation and play as in performance.

The first approach to this play/performance was a vision that one of us had during the conference, namely to place 1,000 people standing in a long line at the water’s edge on a beach. Here each person would enact a movement consisting of lifting water from the sea in a vessel and then depositing back into the sea, one person at a time, cascading the movement down the line. The next in line couldn't start their movement until their neighbor had finished theirs. Seen from above, perhaps, it would look like a giant human wave cascading down the expanse of the beach. And then back the other way. It was grandiose and sublime, but … it meant that it would take more than two hours for the entire choreography to play out. The next day, surely, newspapers would shout out that people had fainted, kids were nearly drowned, several older players were taken into emergency, and the authorities had a field day giving out fines for a massive congregation during pandemic times.

So much for channeling Christo!

In the language of entrepreneurship, we pivoted to our second approach. Instead of one very large event, why not stage much smaller events in different localities? 10 people, 15 people, 40 people? Go small, but go global. And then we layered another idea on top, which was to video each local wave and start placing the video clips into a mosaic of videos on the web. Multiples of waves resonating on the internet.

The choreography itself is simple, it had to be for it to be inclusive. Moving a cup or glass filled with water up and down for a few minutes is simplicity itself. We wanted everyone to join in: not only the swift and the strong but also children, the handicapped, the elderly. We wanted simplicity to outgun complexity. And the vessel to hold the water could be unique to each player, the applicable rule here is that it should be held by only one hand. What we’re replicating here is an ancient archetype, that of the water bearers, givers of life.

Our ambition is that Life = H2O leaves behind the project and then becomes a movement. We like to say that micromotions turn into a macromovement. This has implications, however. One such implication is that each local wave has to be not only fun but meaningful. Will increased awareness of water vulnerability result from the participation and discussion in the wave? And then the second implication is how will increased awareness lead to local action? These questions have no easy answers. We find that both are better addressed, however, when institutions become involved and they do so for a specific interest. For example, a large agro conglomerate in Pakistan is keenly interested in water issues in the Eastern part of the country near the desert. They combined this interest with a conference on water to create their wave, driving home the message to customers and employees the significance of commitment to changing methods and life styles in water management. Another way forward is to instill these sorts of playful experiments in school curricula.

Throughout 2021 we have done a couple of dozen pilots of the wave in Ticino, Germany, the US, Thar (Pakistan), Georgia … not more than 20 people in each location. A few of the resulting videos are professional, most are not. And we have asked participants to post the videos on their social media channels. Later, if they consent, we reference the videos on the website: https://lifeish2o.com. We’ve had artists in Germany getting involved, and an animator, and at this time we’re looking for alliances with kindred spirits to further explore the notion of creating social change through artistic expression. Someone asked at one of our presentations if we really believed that people dancing at the seashore would arrest climate change. The answer to the question is that, in and of itself, a simple dance will not. But the question itself could be better phrased as “what are you doing to ensure that climate change can be diverted in a different direction?” Awareness as such is not our goal, but rather the type of lived awareness that is a prerequisite for real change.