Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shanai Matteson - Water Bar: Tapping Into Our Collective Future

Shanai Matteson is an artist and co-director of Works Progress Studio, a public art and design studio whose collaborative projects catalyze relationships between people, place, and environment to enable new possibilities for artistic expression, civic imagination, and participation in public life.

I grew-up in a rural community drinking water from a private well. While there was nothing remarkable about the taste, when I moved to Minneapolis it still took me a while to get used to city water. Though I’ve now lived in the city for as many years as I spent in the country, some experiences take me right back. Drinking well water is one of those experiences; another one is bellying up to almost any dive bar.

In the small town where I grew up, the municipal bar and liquor store was an important center of community life. For one thing, it was owned and operated by the city, so profits went back into local projects. It was also the kind of place where people went to tell stories and make meaning from the stuff of everyday life. As kids, we spent more time at that bar than one might imagine, whether stopping in with our parents to pick-up beer from the off-sale counter or begging for quarters to plug the jukebox while they chatted with friends.

While it wasn’t a community center in an official sense, the Muni—as we called it—was and still is a place to build and sustain the community. It’s also a place through which news travels, conflicts are sparked, and long-held assumptions are sometimes challenged.

This was the case recently in another rural Minnesota community, when a municipal liquor store voted not to sell beer made by a local company because the brewer was advocating against proposed copper mining projects. Tensions continue to bubble in rural communities over the importance of both clean water and economic opportunity, and the assumption by some that the two are mutually exclusive. Bars and taverns are one place these arguments are made public. As individuals and communities, how will we negotiate these kinds of decisions about the future—decisions that are at once personal and political? One way is through common place, and also, through our common stories.

"Water is all we have."
That’s the motto of Water Bar & Public Studio, an artist project and social space that Works Progress and collaborators will be opening this spring in our northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. While the only beverage that our bar will serve is free tap water, we’ll be gathering that water—along with stories about life, place, and environment—from communities across Minnesota.

By creating a common place that is welcoming and social, where people can taste and drink the commonplace water that sustains other lives and communities, we hope to inspire self-reflection and storytelling across different experiences and realities. Water is central to the project, not only because water sustains our lives, but also because water is a mirror, a conduit, and a point of reference and tension. In short, it is a means to talk about life itself, and the many systems—ecological, social, and political—on which our lives depend.

Once we start talking about where we come from and the things that sustain us—including our water—we can begin to see how our subjective experiences shape the ways we see and interact with the world. In what important ways do our experiences differ? What stories about the world do (or don’t) we hold in common? While the experiences and stories of others may be markedly different, they're no less important to our collective future. Through this knowledge of one another and the stories we tell, we might begin to form relationships across difference, rather than with the assumption that difference always divides.

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