Imagine, if you will, waking up to the bartender and ordering a flight of… tap water? That’s what Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, masterminds behind Works Progress and Water Bar, are all about. They’re combining the power of art installations and community engagement to shine a light on conservancy issues surrounding our water sources.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background?
Works Progress is a public art and design studio that creates collaborative artistic and design projects. Through art and design, we build relationships between people and ecologies of place.
Colin started out in Architecture and Design. Before co-founding Works Progress Studio, he worked for a firm that designs affordable and supportive housing, so the idea of using design to improve people’s lives has always been his passion. Shanai’s background is in cultural studies and history of science. She began her creative career as an organizer of public education and arts programs within science and environmental organizations. Over the years, we’ve both developed as artists while also building the studio as a collaborative creative business that just barely sustains our family of four.
Tell us about how this idea came to be.
We were looking for a way to encourage people to slow down, and to think about their connection to the place where they live, specifically the environment and social ecology of that place. Water is an important way we connect to a place, though most people don’t know or consider where water comes from.
We decided to create a bar that only serves local tap waters, alongside information and stories about where water comes from, the issues facing our water sources, and the communities that depend upon that water.
Our bartenders are volunteers with backgrounds in things like environmental science, engineering, advocacy, place-based art, and community organizing. They serve free tap water “tasting flights,” but also ask and answer questions on a range of topics related to water. It’s really about a new experience with something ordinary, and the conversations and connections this sparks.
What is the driving purpose behind this project?
While the purpose of the original pop-up project was to raise awareness and spark connection and conversation about water, our permanent storefront space in Northeast Minneapolis elaborates on this goal. We’re combining the public art experience of Water Bar with an evolving creative and civic space that centers around social ecology and systems thinking.
In partnership with our neighborhood organization and others, we’re bringing artists, scientists, environmental advocates, City engineers, neighborhood residents, and others together. They are teaching and learning from one another, and in the process, imagining and experimenting with ways of living or working differently, as individuals and as a community of practice.
We’re also asking what’s possible when you actively cultivate the grounds for connection, creativity, and collaboration in a visible commercial district, and focus that on things like environmental sustainability, climate resilience, and public health?
Our space is on Central Avenue, in the heart of a diverse and changing neighborhood that’s just a mile or so from the Mississippi River. We’re only getting started, but we know from years of experience that spaces like this can serve a lot of different purposes. Importantly, they can be a hub for experimentation, relationship-building, alternative education, and for demonstrating different approach to inhabiting place and building community.
Describe how the Studio experience and the Pop-up converge?
When you walk into our storefront, the first thing you see is this bar. This is where people are invited to sit, to sample tap waters, to talk with the folks from various places and backgrounds about whatever comes to mind. There is a TV monitor
that plays documentaries we’ve made about water systems. Right now we’re playing a 10-minute video that shows the entire process of wastewater treatment at our Metropolitan Wastewater facility in Saint Paul.
The storefront also features artwork on display, some of it for sale – posters, artist books, and other objects. In the back half of the space, we’re developing what we call a public studio – an accessible space for making art, hosting art exhibitions
and performances, gathering as a community, or just having fun. The bar draws people in, and then they’re invited to participate in other ways if they want to. One of those ways is actually to propose and organize activities themselves, based on what they want to see happen in their own neighborhood.
When we bring the pop-up Water Bar to other places, we’re always extending the invitation to visit the storefront space and to get involved. Importantly, the pop-up is a fee based program that funds our activities in our Northeast Minneapolis
neighborhood, creating an exchange between all of the places we go (we’ll be in California this fall, for example) and what we’re evolving at home.
Describe how you go about engaging volunteers and sustainability professionals to get involved in this project.
Do you know something about water, place, or environment? We’d love to have you join us as a volunteer! It’s really that simple. We’re cultivating a diverse community of volunteers that includes researchers, engineers, designers, neighborhood residents, artists… They share what they know, and are also always learning from the people who visit the bar. It’s a fun and informal way to be yourself and to be part of a community.
We send a monthly email to our list of volunteers with upcoming Water Bar events, and folks sign-up to tend bar as they wish. We also organize social gatherings for our volunteers, and this fall will be offering field trips to volunteers who want to check out our City’s water treatment facility or other local environmental projects. Volunteers are also offered use of the space for their own events and projects.
How does living in the Midwest influence your work?
We’re both from the Midwest, and our local waterscapes have had a huge influence. Colin is from Milwaukee. In the 1990s, Milwaukee had an outbreak of Cryptosporidium in the public drinking water that made a lot of people sick. This was his first introduction to the importance of paying attention to water systems, knowing what it means to live on a lake and to depend on that lake for drinking water. Shanai is from Northern Minnesota, a little town called Palisade on the Mississippi River. The Mississippi is the source of our drinking water in the Twin Cities, and it connects us to communities both upstream and down.
To us, being from the Midwest – from any place, really – means paying attention to things like land, water, people, and the way things change over time. Where are you? Who are you because of it?
What’s something new – or challenging – that you are currently working on?
Launching this project has been a real challenge! We were finalists for a public art grant that we ultimately did not get, but decided to go ahead anyway. Right now we are 100% supported by crowdfunding, volunteers, and by earned income from bringing our pop-up Water Bar to other places and events, or selling artwork. This means we’re continuously fundraising, while also building new collaborations.
One of the collaborations we’re most excited about is with our own neighborhood organization, as well as the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Environment, the City of Minneapolis, and other partners. Together, we hope to establish the first “Art & Sustainability Incubator” in Minnesota, right here in Northeast Minneapolis.
This project will use the Water Bar and the Holland Neighborhood as a hub for community-building and collaboration among residents, artists, designers, researchers, planners, and public works professionals. We’ll incubate collaborative creative ideas and projects where there is already energy and resources, focusing on ways that our neighborhood can be more sustainable, resilient, and a healthier place to live. It’s a project we continue to develop. Right now we’re in the process of writing proposals for funding.
Any fun facts about the brand or the studio experience?
A friend of ours, artist Aaron Dysart (who actually built the Water Bar you see in our photos) recently installed a disco ball in our space. It’s something he’s utilized in art installations in the past. We like to turn it on whenever we can, and in fact, we have it on a timer. Whether or not we’re there, it turns on at dusk every night, so if you happen to be waking by at the right time, you might think there’s something weird and wonderful going on inside. And who knows, maybe there is?
All images courtesy Water Bar & Public Studio