This essay was written in conjunction with Margaret Cogswell's RIVER FUGUES: Moving the Water(s), on view at CUE Art Foundation April 26 - May 31, 2014.
Margaret Cogswell’s two installations—Moving the Water(s): Ashokan Fugues (2014) and Moving the Water(s): Wyoming River Fugues(2012)—play sound and image off one another to show the social and physical effects of water’s commodification on the land and citizens of the United States. Drawing on documents, interviews and historical records from the past hundred years in New York and Wyoming, these works present an immersive visual and aural score regulated by a metronomic beat. The content of Cogswell’s projected videos are a mash-up of her video documentation, holding together otherwise disparate themes, sounds and locations. Her politicized narratives are punctuated and tied together by the character of a magician who appears in each.
Presented in a darkened room, the projected footage in Moving the Water(s): Wyoming River Fugues is deliberately rough and unpolished. The space is animated by oscillating video projections atop sculptural iterations of surveyor transits—the instruments used to survey and portion off land—as a cipher of the ways in which access to real estate is bound up with access to water. The projector heads pan the walls of the gallery in horizontal bands, occasionally abutting one another and then moving apart again. The video turns left to right while the projected image shifts as well, zooming unpredictably in and out, and side to side in an allusion to the alienating effects of speed and the systematic way capitalism mines the natural environment.
Three circular projections crisscross the gallery walls, employing alternating camera angles, tracking shoots, zooming focus and landscape pans to display footage of dirty, ragged orange tarps; dry, barren land; trucks sunk in a riverbed; decomposing wildlife; and industrial rotary sprinklers. The video begins in the darkened gallery with an audio recording of Mark Soldier Wolf, an Elder in the Arapho Tribe on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. He makes his tribe's analogy between veins in the human body and rivers. In some shots, boots swish through tall grass, river water runs and birds call out to one another. These formal and contextual juxtapositions render tangible the effects of the industrialization that is increasingly controlling access to water in the country today, and reveal what is at risk if it continues unchecked.
Contrary to 18th and 19th century practices that advocated for the preservation of the environment by aestheticizing landscapes that artists celebrated as nature unhindered by humans, Cogswell plays up the gritty details of industrialization and its effects on the environment. Through an imbricated structure of spoken word, ambient sound and visual cues, Cogswell chronicles the transformation of water over the past century from a free and available resource into an element subject to financial, social and political maneuvering. As curators Saskia Bos and Steven Lam explained in the introductory text for their 2009 exhibition Free as Air and Water at Cooper Union, “global power has systematically distributed the world’s resources in unequal ways, concerns such as human rights have become increasingly tied to issues involving air, water and land.”
During the period from 1906 to 1913 the City of New York decided to claim 10,000 acres of land by eminent domain, giving 2,000 people 30 days notice before forcing them from their homes: 500 houses were destroyed, 35 stores leveled, ten churches dismantled, eleven schools eradicated and five railroad stations demolished or relocated. Over these seven years, the project’s chief engineer, J. Waldo Smith, devised a reservoir in this space that would continue to provide the most valuable of liquid assets for New York City: potable, unfiltered drinking water for the next hundred years. Cogswell’s most recent work, Moving the Water(s): Ashokan Fugues(2014), aims to demystify the history of the city’s water and the people, communities and social fabric it displaced when the reservoir’s construction was initiated in 1906.
In this bifurcated narrative, New York City’s mayor at the time, George McClellan, accurately hailed Smith as a magician for providing unlimited quantities of free drinking water to an otherwise dry city. The complex network of reservoirs, connected by a web of subterranean aqueducts, flows down through Smith’s Catskill Water System in a feat of engineering rivaling the aqueducts of the ancient Romans, and delivering 1.3 billion gallons of water daily to millions of people in New York City. Today, when both the local environment and the unfiltered tap water in New York is under threat by increasingly aggressive, corporatized efforts at hydraulic fracking beneath the watershed, it is well worth rethinking the city’s relationship to the water supply, the communities it connects and the divisive role its acquisition has played over the past century.
In both works, Cogswell aims to dispel and unsettle the willful blindness as to where potable water comes from, recurrently laying bare the water’s commodification and the wizardry that keeps New York City’s tap water out of sight. Using the footage of the magician in both the Wyoming and Ashokan works, Cogswell ties a sense of mystery to one of mischief. The appearance of the magician may evoke childhood wonder, yet it can also arouse suspicion, as is seen in these installations. By linking these two works through the repeating footage of the magician, Cogswell connects the consequence of hydraulic fracking in Wyoming, the 1906 land grab that made possible the Ashokan Reservoir and a possible future for one of New York City’s most valuable assets.
Drawing our attention to the politics of water and how the threat of hydraulic fracking has impacted Wyoming, this composition can be viewed as a multi-siren alarm attesting to what would be at stake in New York today should fracking begin below the New York watershed. By reflecting the aural, aesthetic and material commonalities between these two seemingly disparate geographic locations, Cogswell is able to address themes and consider relationships between the two. In the process she carves out a discursive space for considering the networked relations between hydraulic fracking, the erosion of social structures and New York City’s unwitting contribution to these invisible structures that are privatizing the natural resource we rely on most heavily and which will inevitably shape our future.
Writer Amanda Parmer is an independent writer and curator living in Brooklyn. She recently she has organized Crossing Screens at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons, the New School in New York. This exhibition and programming addresses the ways our bodies, in tandem with digital culture, act as filters for understanding the world and one another. In 2012 she organized the Open Forum Panel Discussions for the New York Armory and Volta Shows. These dialogs between New York and Nordic based artists, art historians, curators, critics, directors and dealers to drew on the distinctions and affinities between these cultural bodies. Some of the fifty-seven panelists included: Bjork, Eva Diaz, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Theaster Gates, Ragnar Kjartansson, Linda Nochlin, Sarah K. Rich and Sharon Zukin. Parmer’s 2011 exhibition F is for Fake: The construction of femaleness by the US media at Cleopatra’s Brooklyn and Berlin included screenings, talks, reading groups and installations from Judith Barry, Joan Braderman, Laura Mulvey, Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden, Paper Tiger Television, Elayne Rapping, and Martha Rosler. In 2010 she co-curated the exhibition and accompanying catalog Undercurrents: Experimental Ecosystems in Recent Art at The Kitchen and along the West Side of Manhattan. She is a contributing writer for Art in America, Art&Education, Artforum.com and Bomblog.
Mentor Barbara A. MacAdam is deputy editor of ARTnews, where she has worked since 1987. She was executive editor of Art + Auction from 2005 to 2006 and an editor at Review: Latin American Literature and Arts and New York magazine. She has reviewed books on art and literature for the LA Times Book Review, Newsday, and the New York Times Book Review, among others, and contributed articles on art, design, and literature tovarious magazines and newspapers. She is also a curator and serves on the boards of the International Art Critics Association and the Paris-based Arts Arena.