‘Hidden’ water: where does it all go?

The New York Times
By Kelly Slivka
May 30, 2012

Water, a plentiful banality to some Americans but a source of conflict for millions of others, is a more intriguing commodity than you may have thought. At least, that’s the conclusion one might draw from Surface Tension: The Future of Water, an exhibition that opened today in Manhattan as part of the 2012 World Science Festival.

For many people, “water is thought of as a basic human right,” associated with immediate needs, said Michael John Gorman, one of the curators of the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 11 at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in Chelsea. But drinking makes up only a tiny fraction of water’s manifold uses. “We actually eat and wear a lot more water than we drink,” he said.

One of the main themes running through “Surface Tension” is what Mr. Gorman calls “hidden water” – the water that goes into producing plastics, clothes, and foods, for example. It takes 52 gallons of water to produce one egg and 713 gallons to produce one cotton T-shirt, according to the Virtual Water Project, an exhibit that enables visitors to understand their own water consumption patterns. (It’s also the basis for an iPhone app.)

Similarly, a conceptual piece titled “Hidden” consists of a collection of bulbous bottles that each contain the amount of water that was used to create the metal corks capping them.

Most of the creations in “Surface Tension” were dreamed up by scientists and artists. Many of them will be on hand during the science festival to discuss their productions with visitors, with docents filling in to engage the public as needed. “It’s really important to have that conversational exchange,” Mr. Gorman said.

Mr. Gorman is the founder and director of the Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin, where the show ran from October to January. “Art opens up science in a different way,” he said. Because artists are generally bolder, they “can often ask questions scientists can’t necessarily ask.” He said the friction between the sciences and the arts opens a valuable dialogue, with each exhibit becoming a hook for a conversation.

For one installation, Di Mainstone and Louis McCallum, two artists in residence at Queen Mary University in London, built a water-based musical instrument called the Hydrocordion that you must use your whole body to play. Ms. Mainstone said she was inspired to build the Hydrocordion by her stubborn village water pump, which for her suggests an intriguing dynamic between expending energy and reaping direct rewards.

Other projects on display include pharmaceutical-laced salt from the water released by wastewater treatment plant in California and a film about a man pond-jumping across Dublin via canals, rivers and public and swimming pools.

Mr. Gorman said he hoped visitors leaving the exhibition would feel inspired – even if only slightly – to rethink a familiar subject. “I’m a big believer in the little wow-factor,” he said.

Relying on a grant from Google’s philanthropic arm, the Science Gallery plans viewings at a network of international locations in the near future.

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