The last word on water (for now). Wooden tanks filled with potable water pepper the New York City skyline. Iconic and prolific, the city’s 17,000 water towers stand as symbols of hydro-abundance in America. Silent sentinels, until now.
Mary Jordan, a filmmaker/activist/curator, is making Manhattan’s towers speak for the billion people around the world without access to clean water by wrapping each tank in a piece of water-conscious art. Jordan came up with the concept seven years ago, after falling ill in a remote Ethiopian village during a documentary shoot. The women who nursed her back to health asked for only one favor in return: tell the world about the water crisis that plagues our daily lives; about the 8 hours a day we spend collecting it; about how even this hard-won water is often contaminated.
“I came back to New York and I looked up and saw these icons, these water tanks, and decided let’s transform them into an awareness campaign using art,” Jordan said. “And that’s when I established Word Above the Street – to put these things to work.”
As one of the largest public art shows ever staged in New York, The Water Tank Project finds the city awash in water imagery made by more than 100 established and emerging artist, including public school students. Parties, tours, talks and programs further amplify the awareness campaign. Jordan and her nonprofit crew at Word Above the Street aim to alter attitudes and habits among those who spot the art tanks, among us Americans, who use about 100 gallons of water per day, as compared to the two to five gallons used by the average person in sub-Saharan Africa. After its summer stint in NYC, The Water Tank Project will travel around the world, making stops in Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Mexico City.
Conceptual photographer Laurie Simmons created a picture for the project – of a latex doll plunging in a pool – and applauds the mission for stoking both water and aesthetic awareness. “When I first came to Manhattan in 1973 as a young artist, I remember looking up all the time. The water tank near where I lived on Houston Street was a symbol that I had really arrived,” Simmons said in Elle magazine. “I hope that this project jolts people into an awareness to be less wasteful, because safe water should be part of the basic package of your human rights.”
On my next trip to NYC, I vow to look up and let pixelated awareness crash over me like the wave on this sweater.