Reflections on making art at the Park River.
An artist interviews herself.
A work of art is a gift, not a commodity…Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities? -Lewis Hyde, The Gift
In 2016, artist and activist Desiree Duell did a performance piece, Free Bottled River about the commodification of water using the Park River as a site. Duell based in Flint, MI has spent the last three years creating work around the Flint Water Crisis using art as a tool for activism to create awareness around environmental injustice. She came to Hartford, CT for a graduate residency in the Nomad9/MFA program in Sustainable Culture. Every day, she walked over the Park River to attend class at the University of Hartford. She eventually spent some time contemplating at the Park River on the commodification of water.
Can you explain the impetus behind Free Bottle River? What was your relationship with the Park River when you performed Free Bottled River?
The performance was to examine my own relationship to rivers. Even though I grew up in Flint that has the Flint River running through the city-it never was a part of my existence until the Flint Water Crisis. Most cities in America have been built near rivers, but now it seems like they don’t exist within our built environment. When I was in school last year, I kept walking over the Park River then decided to really spend some time with it. What I realized is that a river is much more than just water-it’s an entire ecosystem of dirt, plants, wildlife, and water. Then thinking about how we consume water, bottled water, and the privatization of water in its relation to both environmental injustice on both humans and landscape. I thought by bottling the river as raw material and giving it away to the public by river was to show the absurdity of commodity in our culture.
You gave away the bottled river for free. Do you think the meaning of the performance would change if you sold the bottled Park River?
It’s been suggested to me on several occasions to sell Flint River water as art many times. Although, I don’t find that interesting as art because its just reenacting the same paradigm that lead to the Flint Water Crisis. Water has already become a commodity through the bottled water industry that making it into art seems to condone and support that industry which is dangerous for both the environment and humans.
How do you live with the tension of creating art as a commodity and sustaining yourself as an artist?
Well, water and art are not that different that we need both to survive. Humans need water for our physical existence and art for our psychological well-being. My work is about unveiling the injustice created by our capitalist society, which is rooted in commodity. So, I have to live with the contradiction of selling or funding my work as a commodity in order to make work about the toxicity of commodification. It’s completely absurd. Why should I do have to drink bottled water, but am also paying for poisoned water? Why do I make work about environmental injustice, but have no relationship with the natural environment? At the end of the day, I have to sell my art to sustain my family and buy water.
What did you learn from doing this performance? Do you think the performance was effective? How would do perform this piece now?
It was interesting to see how the public took the bottled river as a gift once it was presented as art. It always surprises me how we as a society are so addicted to our objects. I gave some away to children and people who passed by my bench. Although, I think the irony of getting bottled river while sitting next to the river was lost on the public. I think the performance was effective in that it I helped understand my own relationship with the river. Coming back to the Park River, I have a deeper sense of what a river truly is as an entire ecosystem. This year I stood in the Park River and it was a completely different experience than last year. If I could redo the performance again-maybe I would have people bottle their own water while standing in the river.