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Water

John Knechtel, editor

(The MIT Press; US: Oct 2009)

Alphabet City is an anthology series of small hardbacks (volumes are roughly 6 x 5 inches) that present significant global issues as a one word topic to which contributors will examine and respond. The topics may be pressing—recent volumes include Trash, Food, and Fuel—but the approach is often flexible, loose, and playful.Thus, Water, the latest from Alphabet City, is a wide-reaching rainbow of art, philosophy, and science, with everything from studies on infrastructural renewal to transcriptions of music from the ever-brutal Psycho shower scene. 


Though lighthearted, these volumes are indeed serious. Their multidisciplinary slant is one answer to a prevailing overspecialization across academic fields. As intellectual pursuits become hermetically sealed to outsiders, a little collaborative spirit makes for an entertaining and useful multipurpose tool of a book. It’s a mixed assortment, as it should be, and with 20+ contributors the results are sometimes crystal clear, sometimes intentionally muddied.     


Water opens with a series of handsome Eamon Mac Mahon photographs of, um, water. Mahon’s work spans the whole spectrum of H2O variety (a swimming pool, glaciers, stormy seas, a rushing rocky creek) in settings both natural and man made. The shots are a sweeping lead in to John Knechtel’s short but sweet editorial that calls for “care for this essential life-sustaining liquid.” 


Probably because the subject is boundless enough for all manner of errant armchair philosophizing, the opening essay (Timothy Stock’s “The Waters of Metaphysics”) immediately puts water in an expert’s able hands. Stock draws parallels between branches of metaphysics and specific points in the water cycle. Operating under a given statement, “Water behaves like being: endlessly changing, yet ever the same” an ocean is framed as a cosmological metaphor and changes in a river’s shape are tied to changes of human identity. 


Another rewarding essay is Christie Pearson’s “The Public Bath and the City”, which fixes public bathing at a locus between sexuality and cleansing that often proves to be a uncomfortable place for Westerners. To explain why, thought-provoking detours into medieval medicine, day spa pampering, and hierarchies of the urban swimming pool are taken. Her inquiries surface intriguing connections between areas for communal bathing and places of worship.     


If the philosophical/cultural essays are stimulating, many of the articles with a straight expository slant are thoroughly eye opening. Lola Sheppard and Mason White’s “Water Farming in the American Southwest” gets into all sorts of corporate/governmental intrigue when examining commoditization of the deeply stressed Colorado River. The authors pull back the curtain on the trading and banking of waters that serve as the lifeblood for the driest and fastest growing cities in the United States. What’s a bit unsettling about the water markets isn’t so much the way they operate, but more the fact that this pure, ubiquitous, and tap-ready substance has such an extensive and complex legislative backstory. 


Based on what’s reported in Bhawani Venkataraman’s stunning “The Price of Clean Water”, citizens of developed countries should be glad such agencies exist. In addition to providing a clear and extremely accessible review of water’s unseen and costly trek from reservoir to Brita filter, Venkataraman’s position that undervalued water leads to overconsumption and long-term degradation makes a lot of sense. 
 
If all this makes Water seem like academic coursework lets not forget Stefan Petranek’s smoky, spectral photos of footprints in snow; Laurin Jeffrey’s dystopian pictures of puddles in abandoned factories; Arnaud Maggs’ presentation of mold stains; or urban spelunker Michael Cook’s investigation of derelict tunnels under Niagara Falls, complete with beautiful shots of empty industrial pipes and fledgling mud ecosystems. Another gem is Angela Grauerholz’s collection of bottled water pictures that subtly brings up the clever marketing, fancy labels, heath gimmicks, and basic foolishness involved with selling people something that is essentially free.


Complete aside from its content, one of the most rewarding things about Water is the environmentally friendly printing involved. The volume is printed on recycled paper with printing presses powered by wind and wave. For a project dedicated to water, it’s a happy irony that a waterless printing process was involved in the production. Very much a “medium is the message” statement, there is even a little eco-calculator at the end of the book that outlines the environmental benefits of producing green print material in such a way. 


With such a vast subject, there are some omissions worth noting.  Freshwater availability and climate change aren’t mentioned often, and a unique look at marine life or glaciers might have been a welcome addition.  Despite these, great things come in Water’s small, eco-friendly package and readers will come away with a greater sense of awareness and respect for this most vital of substances.

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