Along with access to energy, access to potable water is quickly emerging as one of the most pressing and complex issues we face on our globe. At UChicago, scientists and engineers are focused on developing new filtration technologies, novel methods to monitor underground water movement, and innovative smart grids for urban water management, while social scientists and economists are researching policy interventions for water governance. This research across the disciplines, however, proceeds in isolation—and, perhaps, without much consideration for the emergent and powerful role of arts and culture production around water-related issues.

The Arts, Science + Culture Initiative has launched The WATER Project: Research and Cultural Production, a University-wide program to amplify the discourse around the pressing concerns of water—locally and globally—by bringing together scientists, humanists, social scientists, curators, students, community members, and professional arts practitioners. Such a program that brings these voices together currently does not exist on our campus. The WATER Project will cross disciplinary boundaries to establish an “ecology of perspectives” focused on water.

Expanding on a series of successful faculty roundtables (“Water Tables”) in 2018–19, the WATER Project will combine coursework, performances, exhibitions, commissioned artworks, and film screenings that address issues of water as they relate to scientific research, public policy, artistic practice, and humanistic inquiry. The program will invigorate and deepen research and teaching on the topic of water and also provide a forum to address the impact on the local and global health and well-being of humanity and our ecosystems.

2019–20 Public Programs

January 17, 2020, 12:30–1:30pm
Roundtable: The Study of Water
Classics 110, 
1010 E. 59th Street

Join Chicago Studies for an interdisciplinary dialogue about ways of studying water, learn about some of the projects scholars at the University are pursuing in relation to it. Victoria Saramago, Assistant Professor of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Studies, health policy researcher Prachi Sanghavi, and Sabina Shaikh, Senior Lecturer in Environmental and Urban Studies in the College, come together in this roundtable, part of the Chicago Studies Research Roundtable Series co-hosted with the UChicago Program on the Global Environment. Attendees may bring their own lunch, and fresh-baked cookies, coffee, and tea will be served.

April 2, 2020, 6pm
Talk by artist Ellie Ga on her new work Gyres, 1–3 (2019)
Location TBD
Free and open to the public

Install view Gyres 1-3, Whitney Museum of American Art

In oceanography, gyres (gyros, Greek: a circle, a ring) are a combination of winds and currents that produce orbital patterns in the ocean. Debris is often caught in these gyres, and sometimes this debris is released by the gyre and washes up ashore. The new video installation Gyres by Ellie Ga weaves interconnected narratives focusing on the diverse objects which wash ashore. Gyres is a series of short videos made up of hundreds of transparent photographs filmed on two light tablets, and a voice-over narrative by the artist which moves through a range of experiences, conversations, and geographies.

We hear stories about an oceanographer who uses debris from container spills to map the circulation of the Pacific Ocean’s gyre. Similarly, debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan is used to reconstruct how invasive species have made transoceanic crossings. In Gyres, the viewer encounters stories and objects from forced migrations across the Aegean Sea. We hear about rituals of launching messages in bottles and the offering of metal shoes to appease the Archangel Michael on these same Greek islands. People end up on far-away shores only to be told that they don’t belong. Objects that end up far from their origins are collected by beachcombers and put on display. In Gyres, the narrations are constructed through conversations and chance encounters. One conversation is nested inside another conversation. Locations flow into one another. Through this new work, Ellie Ga explores how flotsam can speak of what is left behind and what resurfaces time and time again.*

*Description from the artist's website.

2019–20 Courses offered on the topic of Water

Molecular Science and Engineering of Water
Professor James Skinner and Assistant Professor Chong Liu
Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering
This course will cover the properties of the water molecule, hydrogen bonding, clusters, supercritical water, condensed phases, solutions, confined and interfacial water, clathrates, and nucleation. In addition, methods of water purification, water splitting and fuel cells, water in atmospheric and climate science, and water in biology, health, and medicine will be discussed.

Water: Science, History, Policy, and Futures
Professor Seth Darling
Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering
Water is shockingly bizarre in its properties and of unsurpassed importance throughout human history, yet so mundane as to often be invisible in our daily lives. In this course, we will traverse diverse perspectives on water. The journey begins with an exploration of the mysteries of water's properties on the molecular level, zooming out through its central role in biological and geological scales. Next, we travel through the history of human civilization, highlighting the fundamental part water has played throughout, including the complexities of water policy, privatization, and pricing in today's world. Attention then turns to technology and innovation, emphasizing the daunting challenges dictated by increasing water stress and a changing climate as well as the enticing opportunities to achieve a secure global water future.

Flooding the World: Creation and Restoration in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and India
Cathleen Chopra-McGowan
University of Chicago Divinity School
From Genesis to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Rig Veda to modern novels like Geraldine McCaughrean’s Not the End of the World (2004) and Jeanette Winterson’s Boating for Beginners (1997), humans have repeatedly accounted for, imagined, and ironized civilizational collapse and restoration through stories of catastrophic floods.  These texts, modern and ancient, are fraught with political, religious, and historical background. In this course, we will compare these texts, focusing on literary issues like narrative plot, the construction of characters, the literary devices used, and the role of the narrator in telling the story of the flood. We will attempt to ascertain why imaginings of a deluge are generative while being attuned to the complex differences between the ancient narratives and their significantly different afterlives. Through sustained inquiry, we will both challenge the notion of sacred exceptionalism even while confronting the enduring presence of this trope in the post-modern novel. 

Water: Economics, Policy, and Society
Professor Sabina Shaikh
Environmental and Urban Studies
Concerns about water have a long history in human societies. While modern advances in water technology and new ways of considering water economics and policy have emerged to address stressors from development pressures, land-use changes and urbanization, water problems continue to evolve across the globe. These problems, while rooted in scarcity, continue to become more complex due to the myriad human and natural forces. Droughts and water shortages persist, putting pressure on agricultural production and urban water use, while the increased frequency and severity of rainfall and tropical storms, already being experienced globally, are only projected to grow in intensity and duration under climate change. This course examines how to design, implement and evaluate water-based policies at multiple scales under pressures from climate change, development, globalization and population growth. Students will explore water from the perspective of the social sciences and public policy, with attention to behavioral dimensions of water use and water conservation. Students in the course will consider and evaluate policy interventions to manage water and governance of public goods including property rights, water trading, and water pricing.

2020 College Summer Institute
The Place of Water: histories, presence, and futures