P.O.S performs, photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash.

P.O.S performs, photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash.

The Water Bar is Open

Pouring H2O in the service of enlightenment

A lot has changed over the last two years in the world of water. The high level of lead found in children living in Flint, Michigan—exposed by consuming and bathing in Flint River tap water—was brought to the nation’s attention. And last fall, over 10,000 Keystone Pipeline resisters showed up at Standing Rock in North Dakota to show solidarity with the Sioux tribe protecting the Missouri River. Oil wars logically lead to water wars, and it looks like a time of reckoning is near. What role can artists play in addressing this life-threatening issue? This is a question that often falls flat. Coming up with an arts practice model that serves both educational and aesthetic goals can be a tricky business. In Minnesota, serving free water is what’s on tap.


“Welcome to the Water Bar. Water is all we have,” says the water-tender as patrons approach the bar. When you hear the word “bar” you kind of perk up, thinking alcohol is involved. At this bar, however, you will find a small wooden tray with little compostable cups filled with tap water from various water sources, including small towns, farms and tribal communities. At this juncture you are invited to sample each of the waters to experience their taste and smell, which is a subjective thing since these olfactory senses are very complex and far from uniform.

Colin Kloecker tending bar, photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash


Developed as a public art project in 2014 by visual artists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker, the Bar operated exclusively as a pop-up for the first two years, with its big debut at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Bar was placed at the entrance of the Museum’s highly publicized “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” exhibition. The following summer Matteson and Kloecker presented another pop-up in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the Elsewhere Museum. This Bar was staffed by a water-tender, a representative from the Greensboro Water Resources Department, who discussed with bar-goers how to protect local water sources. Last October Kloecker was artist-in-residence at Stanford University, where he presented the Water Bar as a program for the exhibition “California: The Art of Water” at Cantor Arts Center.

Dakota Language Society tending-bar, photo Shana Matteson


After doing over 60 pop-ups in Minneapolis and venues in Wisconsin and Illinois, the husband/wife duo is currently focused on raising money for their storefront space, located in their hometown of Minneapolis. Formally known as Water Bar and Public Studio, the physical site acts as an incubator for collaborative projects on water, place and environment, all under the direction of Works Progress Studio, a volunteer-run organization. Matteson and Kloecker plan to continue staging pop-up Water Bars in other communities. However, they feel that a local storefront offers more opportunities to build long-term alliances with other artists and water organizations.

Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash.


At each Water Bar storefront and pop-up event a different audience brings its own broad spectrum of knowledge about local water resources. In 2016 the artists started collecting stories in rural Minnesota in collaboration with a statewide storytelling network. They will be sharing these stories at this summer’s State Fair in St. Paul, where they will serve water and converse with over 20,000 fairgoers during the 12-day event. Kloecker explains, “Water is a lens through which we hope to address the rural/urban divide, which is really important.” They have, however, encountered participants who were skeptical of their motives.


Both artists are very political people, although they say the Water Bar isn’t about giving voice to their personal politics or beliefs. “For us, serving water means two things: we serve water to people as a way of encouraging them to slow down, contemplate connections, and better know themselves and their place through that experience. It also means that together with other people we serve water—we are in service to water.” While some artists are on the frontline challenging “the establishment” with scientific ammunition and angry indictments, these artists are wetting their whistle with their potential detractors, attempting to deconstruct in a less contentious environment what is implicit and invisible. There are many roads to Mecca. The Water Bar is one of them.

#refugeeswelcome #waterbar #waterislife #waterisallwehave