Frauke Huber and Uwe H. Martin, LandRush - Dry West, 2014-2017, multichannel video installation, duration 2 hours

Dehydrated - Vignettes for the thirsty listener - Reflections #21

Issue no5
okt - nov 2023

How to keep the art world running when there is no running water? Dehydration, both literally and figuratively, impacts the arts. Clare Butcher on why we need more fluid and collective approaches to art.

Growing up in a number of small mining towns in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 90s, it wasn’t uncommon to bathe in buckets and use that water to soak a patch of thirsty grass in the garden outside. We’d place bricks in the toilet cistern to reduce the amount flushed away in our own DIY grey water system of sorts. It’s not too hard to run a house on water restrictions. So long as that house has no extra guests and sticks to its routines. And the rains would always come. Eventually. Starting with an electrostatic energy that was palpable in the atmosphere and would release a kind of earthy perfume from the soil’s nitrates. Dark clouds would roll in from far off on the horizon and for a few glorious minutes, downpour would transform the dusty hues of the landscape to plump greens and dark reds. Clouds of dragonflies would then emerge to catch their mosquito prey. The cycle would begin again when, if, the rains returned.

Years later, in another home in Cape Town, the city was on lock down. About to run out of water. Seriously. Surrounded by unfathomable gallons of salty sea, the fresh mountain reserves on which the population depends, were running dry. And the desalination plants proposed by climate change voices all those years ago, are still under construction. Two minute showers. Fees were being imposed on families who exceeded their daily maximum (which was minimal) and military presence was increased. Those who found it hardest were the ones who could afford to install grey water systems for their epic landscaped gardens and multiple cars in need of washing. For most, without running water at the best of times, this was just another municipal disappointment on the increasing list. “The white man stole the weather,” one local farmer shared with a team of documentary makers.[1] While rainfall patterns had of course changed over the years, it was hard not to see the long corrupt links between leftover colonial city infrastructure, apartheid’s brutal spatial segregation and the delimited pooling of resources in a time of rampant capitalist aspiration. It’s harder to run a city with no water. No room for guests, no rest for firefighters.

The next vignette in this parched tale takes us to a cramped apartment on a small street in São Paulo where a faucet was opened without effect. We were there just temporarily but the months-long water rationing meant that parts of the city would go for days without it. As usual, the more marginalized neighbourhoods. Those who could afford to drill boreholes or order in deliveries of drinkable gallons did. A whole economy emerged of water moving above ground, hauled by people in trucks or on trollies. Less fluid, more visible. We watch them pass by during a walk with Welton Santos, an architect and rhabdomancist, invited by artist and colleague Sofia Caesar.[2] “What’s a rhabdomancist?”, you ask. A water finder. As Santos led us through neighbourhood lanes he described the network of hundreds of covered over rivers beneath the city streets. Swift development and rapid industrialization meant that São Paulo, like so many metropolises, has sprawled around, on top of and through (underground car parks) somewhere between 300-500 named waterways.[3] Projects like Rios e Ruas are trying to raise awareness of these forgotten water sources, mobilizing communities to get these tested and made accessible.[4]

The seemingly less aesthetic but nevertheless immediate realities of what it means to run a dehydrated institution kept resurfacing. Dehydrated not only due to the water shortage but because of the drying up of institutional support, and the ebbing of communal access to cultural spaces

We weren’t planning on learning all this. Which is often the best way to learn. We were there to see the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, where water and questions around crisis and ecology were being addressed in artist projects and programmed conversations. The seemingly less aesthetic but nevertheless immediate realities of what it means to run a dehydrated institution kept resurfacing. Dehydrated not only due to the water shortage but because of the drying up of institutional support, and the ebbing of communal access to cultural spaces.[5] Suddenly the thousands of freshly scrubbed square-feet floors of the Bienal pavilion designed by Oscar Neimeyer and Hélio Uchôa took on a different meaning as buckets and mops were hastily put away at the beginning of each day. How to keep an exhibition running when there is no running water?

Otobong Nkanga, Landversation, 2014. Site specific installation and conversations – São Paulo, Brazil. Duration: 2.9.2014 until 7.12.2014 

In this arid context, artists such as Otobong Nkanga continued to unearth relations to resources in shapes such as with her installation Landversation. Here, exhibition visitors and specialists such as miners, farmers and geologists, were invited to share their professional and caring relations to land around a cluster of small round tables featuring an opening on one side. Across these tables a much-needed dialogue could be hosted, one that scaled down the enormity of the multiple crises facing the city and the region, to personal spheres of agency. Like a small archipelago in a floating sea of concrete, the work reminds me of something I only read much later. A kind of response to the idea that no man is an island. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson reminds us in her chapter on “it takes an ocean not to break” in the book Islands of Decolonial Love, that time and space for reflection and vulnerability within these shifting tides are a privilege.[6] How to pool the resources of that time and space in ways that flow beyond the exhibition and towards an everyday, embodied sense of…not responsibility but “response-ability”, as in, the ability to respond? (A question still posed by the Bienal’s chief curator, Galit Eilat.) We are all bodies of water after all – 70% of each of us in fact.

Earlier this year, in Sri Lanka’s Colomboscope iteration entitled Sea Change, curator Natasha Ginwala invited contributors to the interdisciplinary arts festival to reimagine the Indian Ocean not only as a realm of economic trade, a “colonial inheritance”, and also “a confluence of languages and a vital artistic meeting point”.[7] Looking from a distance, my encounters with the work shared in that context are mediated by a sea of fiber optic cables and floating bits and bites but I’m still touched by projects such as Francis Joseph Hemshironi, whose intimate embroideries trace transitory personal positions through contemporary conditions of booming coastal development atop a centuries-long history of cartographic attempts at capturing and containing shorelines. “Who benefits from these abstract icons?” the work asks of the violent and impossible gesture of mapping.[8] The coast it would seem is not clear.

As sea levels rise and dramatic figures of environmental catastrophe surface in closer and further-away scales, a shift towards more fluid and collective approaches is urgent. Who benefits indeed from such a dehydrated colonial climate in which attempts to share knowledge and experience are bound by the limited human-centered tools so many of us have inherited? Asking the question is not enough. Listening to other ways of inhabiting land and water are.

As sea levels rise and dramatic figures of environmental catastrophe surface in closer and further-away scales, a shift towards more fluid and collective approaches is urgent

In her book, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination (2006), Julie Cruikshank tunes into a history of glacial imaginaries in the area where British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon Territory meet today. Cruikshank shares how European conceptions of these forms cast the glacier as something sublime, something to be extracted from; contrasting this with Indigenous understandings of glaciers as animate, responsive and entangled in social relations over time. Deep time.

“The question of listening, a form of the question of relationality, poses a particular challenge”, says Rolando Vázquez. In listening we orient ourselves ethically, to those silenced voice and submerged narratives. A practice of listening, says Vázquez, “is an opening beyond the modern/colonial order”.[9] As I’m writing this, I find myself between a lake formed by a melted glacier and an escarpment marking a long-lost shoreline, blocks of high-rise condos now forest the connecting water-logged soil. Sounds and gusts of wind are caught between these hastily developed and unfathomably high residential structures, resting on what was lake-bottom clay.

I have to think of the vanished voices of writers and poets listed by Koleka Putuma in her poem High Tide, those who’ve disappeared into the waves, been buried in sediment. Shared by Gabi Ngcobo as part of the programme entitled Curating Strategies of Productive Refusal – co-hosted by the Rijksakademie, Casco Art Institute, De Appel and the Black Archives – the poem accounts for acts of disappearance, those “who chose to exit” and “the disappearances that do not go on record”.[10]

These kinds of absences are the hardest to trace. Just a few weeks ago a leaked governmental report issued a statement on what it called a “Canadian genocide”. Three decades of missing and murdered Indigenous women exceeds an estimated 4,000, the report, entitled “Reclaiming Power and Place”, was based on 24 hearings over two and a half years. It’s in this context of hearing, listening, that a different kind of water finding must happen.

The Water Walkers is an initiative founded sixteen years ago by Josephine Mandamin and an Indigenous group of Anishinawbe women and men. The first Annual Women’s Water Walk took place in 2003 with the aim to draw attention the state of the Great Lakes and waterways, and the importance of protecting water’s healing and life-giving roles. Focusing on chemical dumping, landfill waste and residential usage, the subsequent walks by the Water Walkers have traced the waters’ edges of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Before she passed away this year, Mandamin had covered tens of thousands of kilometers, and said in an interview “as women, we are carriers of the water. We carry life for the people”.[11]

In walking the water, we may find an ocean of dynamic relations, human and more-than-human. Whether in writing, refusing, curating, gathering or policy-making, the culture of dehydrated island living is over. This is the time for thirsty listening as we get carried away by the tide.


[1] From “The White Man Stole the Weather” episode of Mothers of Invention podcast by former Irish president Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins, 5 August 2018.

[2] I’m grateful to Sofia Caesar for this introduction and inspired by her continued work which emerged as the publication I am Welton Santos (2016), installation and reading performance.

[3] See Claire Rigby’s article “The River Hunter of Sao Paulo,” in The Guardian, 11 March 2015.

[4] See the Sao Paulo section by Jason King on the website Hidden Hydrology:

[5] I’ve written about the 31st Sao Paulo Bienal’s internal struggles here:

[6] Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2013.

[7] See Ginwala’s SEA CHANGE: As Tides Turn, online:

[8] See:

[9] Vázquez, “Towards a Decolonial Critique of Modernity: Buen Vivir, Relationality and the Task of Listening”, in Raúl Fornet-Betancourt (ed.), Capital, Poverty, Development, Denktraditionen im Dialog:Studien zur Befreiung und interkulturalität, Vol 33, Wissenschaftsverlag Mainz, 2012, pp. 241-252.

[10] See Koleka Putuma’s first collection of poems Collective Amnesia, Uhlanga Press, 2017.

[11] See and

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