Answering Society’s Thorniest Questions, With Performance Art

Megan O'Grady in The New York Times:

ManIN A LIVING room in Flint, Mich., Tiantha Williams’s son, Taylor, a bright-eyed 2-year-old in a cheetah-print onesie, is waking from his nap. On the television, commercials for class-action attorneys alternate with an ad for an early childhood intervention program: “Don’t wait. Evaluate.” Williams, an attractive 40-year-old woman, sits on the sofa with her mother, VanNessa, explaining how she first knew that something was terribly wrong with her tap water. “My mom’s dreads started falling out,” she says. “Then all of the house plants died.” Williams was pregnant at the time, and after she contracted listeriosis, Taylor was born two months premature.

I’m in Williams’s home with the artist William Pope.L for his “Flint Water Project,” an installation he did last September for the Detroit gallery What Pipeline. As we talk, a hose snaking from Williams’s basement sink through her kitchen and out the front door fills a 180-gallon tank sitting on the bed of a pick-up truck. Later, back at the gallery, which has been transformed into a Flint Water branded boutique, the water will be bottled by assistants wearing gloves and safety goggles and sold as art objects, with a Pope.L-designed label. It is a project that is characteristic of much of the artist’s work, a theatrical provocation that combines scathing satire with heartfelt activism. The labels feature a sinister image of the Flint Water Plant and reads “16 fl. oz. non-potable.” The reverse notes that the water may contain E. coli, lead, and Legionella.

The “Flint Water Project” began when the gallery’s owners, Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry, invited Pope.L to do a show in Detroit. It was Pope.L’s idea to turn the focus to nearby Flint, whose residents were exposed to contaminated drinking water beginning in 2014, after the city’s water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure, triggering a public health crisis — 12 deaths resulted from a Legionella outbreak — that was ignored for nearly two years by Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and allegedly covered up by a number of state officials. Aimed at addressing the disintegrating bedrock of our presumed first-world privileges — drinkable tap water, an accountable government — the project has raised over $30,000 so far for the United Way of Genesee County and Hydrate Detroit. (What Pipeline reimbursed Williams by paying her water bill for two months.) In 2016, after the water was returned to its original source, the EPA once again declared Flint’s water safe, but no one here believes that to be true until the city makes good on its promise to finish replacing its corroded pipes. Meanwhile, the catastrophe continues to unfold in human terms: unsellable homes, more deeply entrenched poverty, and the mass lead poisoning of a generation of children, the cognitive consequences of which are still to be determined. Adding insult to injury, homeowners have had to continue paying for the tainted water — among the highest rates in the country — or face foreclosure. On our way to Flint, a grave Pope.L spoke of an increasingly Orwellian America; of the symbolic value of one troubled city (Detroit, in this case, about one hour from Flint) reaching out to another; of the things, small and large, that can break a community. But sitting on Williams’s sofa waiting for the tank to fill, everything else momentarily falls away, and we become a trio of parents simply trading stories about our kids.

More here.