“One of the things that I have learned over years of working with water is that it exposes all our ideas of boundaries and borders and binaries. It just washes them all away, revealing them as puny manmade constructions that cause so much violence on people’s bodies.”
Amy Sharrocks has been on a water-led journey for her whole life. From her early days as a swimmer, to tracing the lost rivers of London through her art, to now as the instigator of an ever-changing project called Museum of Water. It is clear that she has a passion for the subject and a deep connection to it, however, it is her willingness to let the water itself become the focus of her life’s work that is most striking. With each year, with each new discovery, the artist recedes into the background and the subject comes into sharper relief.
After 9 years of learning from this artwork, with collaborators and visitors, Amy now finds herself questioning the very nature of museumhood, disentangling from colonial roots and finding out what these institutions can offer us now and into the future. While she has always intended for her works to be collaborative, open, and mutable, her most recent collaborations go beyond simply interrogating our systems and worldviews and question their entire validity. In short, she is now looking outside of the western canon and into traditional, Indigenous forms of knowledge in the hopes of finding a pathway to a better tomorrow.
Here Amy muses on the continued evolution of this special project, the life-changing collaborations that have emerged from around the globe, and the process of unlearning that has taught her to think with rather than simply about water.
What are your earliest memories of water?
I was a really big swimmer. We all were in my family. One of the reasons for that is my dad, who is incredibly tall, had many back problems for which he had two or three operations throughout my childhood. When I was at primary school, he had had a slipped disc and needed an operation to hollow out the vertebrae. He was in a wheelchair for a really long time and the only way back to health for him was through swimming. Seeing that gave me a new understanding of what water offered, an understanding that even air itself could not offer the kindness that water offered. In fact, moving through the air was far more difficult than moving through water. So from a very young age, I knew that water held us differently.
It seems as though there’s a strong connection to those early experiences and the work that you have done in adulthood. Was there something specific that motivated you to create Museum of Water? How did it emerge?
I’m a live artist, so I invite people to come and do things with me, with the aim that we may both get somewhere new. I think we learn better together, through sharing knowledge, so I am for an art that is not about “Come and look at what I’ve done” but rather “Let’s see what we can make together”.
For many years, I’ve been making works about people in water. Floating boats on swimming pools up and down the country; inviting people to go for a swim with me across London; swimming in large groups through the Thames; dowsing what many people call the “Lost Rivers of London”. There are actually 22 rivers under London but you only ever hear about one, so I’ve made a lot of collaborative walks with dowsing rods in order to find a path from the spring of a lost river to its mouth. A journey through London streets, trying to trace the memory of water in street names and weeping willows. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of water through our bodies and through our cities. I then became intensely curious about what other people thought about water.
When you make live art, the works are usually a moment rather than a thing. What I’m interested in is the architecture of a moment and how we can look at that together and see the kinds of shapes that we’re making of our lives, our days, our cities. Through that process, you tend to build up a lot of residue, the kind of “leaking extras” from the live work. They’re what you’re left with after the moment. Back in my studio, I began to examine some of these residues from the walks that I’d made to see what they could tell me.
Were there any specific residues that essentially germinated into Museum of Water?
I think it started with some of the swimwear but there were ephemeral things too like newspaper headlines. I had a blow-up boat, soft and out of puff in the corner of the studio. There were also small pieces of pottery as well as shells and stones and chalk from the banks of the River Thames. It was just this general build-up from the live artworks that had begun to populate the studio.
I had also made an artwork on the Walbrook River with 65 people all dressed in blue and tied together with blue ribbon. We walked the Walbrook River even though it was gone 500 years before the Romans and is now only held in place names: Walbrook Street, Walbrook Church, the architecture of buildings that were along its banks, and a slight curve of the valley as it heads down. It was one of the many tributaries into the Thames, so when we arrived there I filled up a little pesto bottle with water (pictured above). This was in 2009. I sat looking at it in the studio for a long time. It sat on my windowsill. I love that water is both one thing and another. This sample was both Walbrook and Thames. It was also neither, and more than the sum of its parts. Memory and molecules.
Museum of Water essentially emerged from here, and from me wondering what on earth other people would put in their bottle. It became an invitation to sit with the water, to spend time with it, to really consider it.
From this point of inspiration, how did the project develop and grow?
It has gone through many, many changes of form over the nine years now of its existence. It properly began when I was asked to make an artwork for the bicentennial of John Snow, who is known in the UK as the father of epidemiology. He was a scientist in the 1850s who discovered that cholera was waterborne. There were these huge epidemics of cholera in London and across the UK and nobody could understand why they were happening. There was a theory at the time that it was miasmic, that the disease was in the air that we breathed. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying, and nobody could understand why. It was really scary. It has these weird correlations now with COVID, except what John Snow discovered is that it was not airborne but waterborne. He did this through walking and talking, which are the tenets of my art-making practice. I call myself a live artist but really I’m a walking artist. Journeys and conversations have been the media of my work for this for my whole practice. Snow’s investigations took him to Soho, the site of the biggest outbreak, and began knocking on people’s doors. He asked them how they spend their days, which for the time was completely unheard of. Doctors sat in their rooms they prescribed from afar. This is still the time of leeches and outlandish remedies of all kinds. Also at the time, London had many different water companies. There was no state apparatus in the way that we have it now for providing things like water and electricity, there was just this ungoverned network of pumps set up by different people who were tapping into subterranean rivers, some of which were horribly polluted because there was no sewage system. Eventually, Snow discovered that the deaths all congregated around a polluted pump. He then cut up some of the cadavers and saw that the disease wasn’t traveling through the lungs but into the stomachs, through the gullet. So he traced the water from streets, through the pipes, into our houses, and finally our stomachs.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases who was hosting the Bicentennial and the art advisory group Artakt invited me to make a work on the Bicentennial, and I suggested Museum of Water. We literally stood on the street corner by the pump and said “Bring us your water”. The offer was that we would look after the water and listen to your words. What I’ve loved about Museum of Water over the many years of its continually changing existence is that it’s not a work that I make. I took my name off it a long time ago. I’m just one of the many people who make it because the museum works as an instigator. It’s just beginning the question.
How many contributions have you received at this point?
The museum is built up of over 1000 bottles now that are all completely different. It’s so far beyond anything I could have imagined, and again I have a hard time calling myself the artist behind it. I’m not entirely sure what my role is anymore! I may have begun it, but I certainly didn’t finish it, and I am just one of many voices that have had the chance to shape the museum over the many years of its making.
A significant part of the project seems to be about interrogating how projects like this actually function and what their real purpose is, but, on a practical level, how does Museum of Water operate?
It operates as a two-year artwork that is invited into different countries and states around the world. It works in collaboration with local artists, designers, and thinkers. We build a new structure each time based on each particular location. It’s an invitation to members of the public to think with water and to reconsider their relationship with it. It’s also an invitation to me, and to the artists and designers and thinkers that we get to work with to see how we can impact each other to see how we can learn from each other, in relation to the country that we are in and its own particular history of water. We try to investigate, through talking with scientists, with artists, with engineers, and academics in every field, but there’s no hierarchy of knowledge. We learn as much from three-year-olds telling us about their relationship with water as we would from 89-year-olds. The Museum of Water is based on the premise that we are each specialists in our own water history. That’s the work of the museum, to listen intentl, to pay close attention, and to ask as many questions as we can think of.
Do you have any particular favourite bottles or stories that have been contributed so far?
No, is the answer. I feel about them the way I feel about children: no favourites. I don’t know what it is about the invitation or the work of the Museum of Water, but I have been privileged to hear the most extraordinary conversations. I didn’t want to say stories, because they’re, they’re not stories like fictional accounts. They are stories, but they are also histories. I think of them more as testimonies, acts of witness. So I have a little fear around the word “story” when it’s applied to personal experience. As crucial as they are in how we make sense of the world, stories to me are too deeply connected to the realm of fiction. Museum of Water is about a multitude of experiences and observations. So what we have are really individual witness statements. One of the many things I love about Museum of Water is that it offers many perspectives.
I have certainly been impacted by what people have told me. I have cried, and laughed, and delighted, and longed. I am very thankful when people have gone to incredible efforts. But that doesn’t mean that they have had a big physical adventure. Sometimes people have just leaned down, or as one lady on a canal boat told me: “I leaned back”. Other times people have run up mountains and down again, or they’ve swum to islands to get water from the midway point of the swim, the point of no return when it was as far to go on as it was to go back. Sometimes people have traveled nowhere but have brought me the tears caught from their eyes over time.
In terms of the museum being a collection, I was curious about the practical considerations for archiving water. Are these contributions actually archived or simply documented or is the ephemeral nature of it all part of the purpose?
Whatever people give is archived. Someone once asked whether they could give a “gap” or a “loss” that would represent the dried-up qanat that they’d visited in the Middle East. It had once been this huge body of water underground and then there was nothing, just space. We accommodated this. For the archive, what that means is that we put a picture on the website alongside the recording of the donor speaking about it, if they were happy to be recorded — that’s not for everybody. Sometimes people give things along with the water, like a drawing or a picture of the site that the water comes from. There was a farmer in Australia who had tested the salinity of his water over 25 years, and he gave Museum of Water this hand-drawn, 25-year mapping of the salinity of the water on his farm. It’s really a lifetime’s work and gives this sense of a rising tide of salinisation across the land. The Australian water has gone into the archives Western Australian Museum. In the UK, I have the archive for the UK and the Dutch collections. It can’t be shown all the time, so at the moment the museum is mainly experienced virtually.
I’ve never attempted to conserve the water itself for many reasons. This is a dynamic museum. It’s a live artwork. It’s moving. The water in the bottles is unstable. It leaks out of the bottles at every moment and floats around the air. It’s not static, just like everything in the world is not static. I could go to enormous efforts to make sure the water stays in the bottles but there would really be no point. The last thing I want to do is stop the water from moving. I’m trying to consider the atmosphere as much as the water itself in the bottles – because if it leaks out, all that happens is it’s going to be breathed in by you or me – and then it becomes part of the water in our bodies and continues to implicate us all in the museum. The museum isn’t just in the bottles, I think it would be a pretty paltry affair if it was. I mean what’s going to happen to the water in 50 years? It’ll be gone, then all we’ll have are bottles. So then we have to ask ourselves where the museum is. Is it in the water? Is it the water itself? Or is it in the act of paying attention and remembering?
What are the plans for the future of the project and where is it headed next?
Across these Covid years, I’ve been working in Toronto, Canada. During that time I have been working virtually, in a collective with three other artists: Elwood Jimmy, a member of ThunderChild First Nation; Leslie McCue, a member of the Mississaugas of Curve Lake First Nation; and Anishinaabek artist Sara Roque. Alison Wong has been producing the work, and together we have been asking questions about the nature of museums. Rethinking or unlearning through a series of conversations that have really challenged all my ideas of museum-hood and museum-making. After this long process of unpicking the knowledges and assumptions and thoughts and ideas we’ve had over our lives, through our different cultural relationships, we have begun to make a work together that reaches out towards our different knowledges but tries not to presume anything.
Museum of Water had always been intended as an anti-colonial work. The work always attempted to learn from people who lived in each country to shape the museum, the aesthetic of it, the concerns of it, and the context of making it in each space and city and country and culture. But in Canada — or as my collaborators are clear with me, the land now known as Canada — we have begun to question the whole Western canon of museum making in ways that I had not been brave enough to do before. The very first thing that Elwood, Leslie, and Sara said to me was “You can’t give water, water is kin, how can you give family?” and this immediately challenged everything that I had ever thought or done. If we treat water as family, how could we pollute it? How could we pipe it and push it and squeeze it and exhaust it in the way that we have? This re-understanding of our relationship insists on a completely different way of working in the world. It’s a challenge to the structures and frameworks of education, of instituting social gathering, the network of relations between different countries, and how all of our bodies are implicated in the political and social frameworks in which we are living.
One of the questions we have continually asked ourselves is “How can this work be useful?.” So, together, we have begun to make a work called M̶u̶s̶e̶um of Water. We’ve dissolved the museum’s structure to try to connect with a more resonant “um” of the world, where we can silence human voices to listen more attentively to the water itself. You can see the very beginnings of this work at www.umofwater.com.
With all you’ve learned from this undertaking, and your deep personal history with the subject, how do you feel about the future of our global relationship with water?
The thing about water is we all have a deep personal history with it that goes back ancestrally and forward to as many future generations as we can imagine and hope that this world supports. Water connects our collective web of histories to every single thing in this world, it is the DNA connection with every rock, every river, every plant, every breath of every being in the world. So how do I feel about the future of our relationship with water? It doesn’t really matter how I feel! It’s really how water feels, isn’t it? The human race is only a very tiny part of the history of the Earth. At the rate that we are going, we won’t get much of a chance to have a very long relationship with water unless we change our behaviours. I am hopeful that global powers will shift, will continue the work of dismantling white supremacy and its institutions, and will uplift and learn from Indigenous communities in the hope of building a different future for everyone. But the impetus is on all of us to keep paying attention and to focus on the inequalities of our relationships.
One of the things that I have learned over years of working with water is that it exposes all our ideas of boundaries and borders and binaries. It just washes them all away, revealing them as puny manmade constructions that cause so much violence on people’s bodies. Water is our undercommons. Our beings are porous and our existences are interdependent. These are knowledges that Indigenous peoples around the world have known for tens of thousands of years. It’s how they’ve lived in relation to water and all beings. Thinking with water has helped expose many of the constructions of the Western cultural context and European histories that I’ve grown up into. Looking at the water insists that we look at our oceans, that we keep focus on the actions of the Middle Passage, of the British Empire and other European empires around the world. There is an accounting to be made there, that also needs to find ways to repair the unequal environmental catastrophes that we are facing. There is an accounting to be done with the Mediterranean Ocean now, as with the Indian Ocean and the English Channel at the moment. All eyes need to be on the oceans and the millions of refugees forced into diasporic existence by the wars and violence in their own countries as a result of global politics, inequalities, capitalism, and the colonial systems imposed on them. All eyes need to be on the watery commons of the rivers and glaciers that are being polluted and destroyed for future generations. Until we can find a way to care for our commons and to build systems that take into account the network of relations that we are all part of, then I don’t understand the future that we can build.
20. Kipp Bryan (10/03/2013)
Sea water, fizzy water, and a bath bomb
64. Andrew Taylor
Bespoke Energy Water with heart
45. Mark Carter (09/03/2013) Vitamin T
485. The Flew Family The Flew Family Snowball.
Made by Tom Flew in about 2001 in Godalming, Surrey. Inspired by a Calvin & Hobbes story – boy freezes snowball to throw at girls in summer!
209. Cheryl Pierce Condensation
71. Vanya Balogh “PISS WORK”