On Water Rights Residency

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This is the final blog from Holly Keasey written in October some months after her return from Santa Fe. Holly reflects on her apparent diversion from her intentional misunderstanding of the ‘rights’ in Water Rights to be equivalent to the ‘rights’ in Human Rights. The delay in publishing it is entirely the responsibility of the ecoartscotland editor.

We have come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. There is still today a frontier that remains unconquered — an America unclaimed. This is the great, the nationwide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear.

President Roosevelt, radio address on the Third Anniversary of the Social Security Act, 1938


Taken at the Bradbury Museum, Los Alamos.

It has been over three month since I left Santa Fe and a month since my first attempt, to write this final post – an attempt that hammers home the difference of focused residency periods and trying to creatively think in between paid employment. To try and find my way back into the particular space I created for myself whilst at the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI), I turned my attention to questioning why – when I set out to investigate how to establish a role for critical public art practices, and what shifts in public arts policy are necessary to facilitate such practices by focusing on the role of policy and particularly water rights – did I end up spending the majority of my time in New Mexico conducting an ‘Atomic Tour’. Is there a reasoning to this shift or did I get distracted?

Whilst in New Mexico, I had the pleasure of meeting Sherri Brueggemann, the Albuquerque Public Arts Officer, who explained that the Albuquerque Public Arts Policy, though drafted as an adaptive policy, is predominantly dictated by a requirement of acquisition by the Albuquerque City Council. In short, the commissioning of object-based art that therefore has a long-term economic value and can be seen as a physical addition to their public art collection. For me, this legally stated requirement, and simultaneous reduction of public art to the manifestation of an monetarily-valued object, presents a clear link to a mind-set that is embedded in property.

As has been reiterated in a previous post, water rights are also directly linked to property, and hence property rights, in that they are focused on a possession-to-use/entitlement-to-ownership ethos. Yet, due to an on-going interest in the expansive role of water, I was interested in how this could be swung into a relation with human rights ( the “rights” inherent in being human, to do or to have simply because they are human) through a simple play-on, or rather, intentional (mis)interpretation of language. What is water allowed to be, to do and to have simply because it is water? And how could such an ethos be applied to all living beings and elements of the Earth? And what effect would this have on humanity’s current resource-focused trajectory if we were to accept and take on board such rights? This led me to consider if non-specialists in policy could misinterpret a policy – or rather interpret it differently whilst legitimising their reasoning for this interpretation of language. Is there a potential to give and in giving policy multifaceted meanings?

To understand the potential of this shift (or strategy of misinterpretation), I chose to conduct site-responsive re-search into the role of water and property rights in New Mexico, which in turn led me to be ‘willingly lost’ in the history of the nuclear as a significant specificity to New Mexico’s history. An inescapable element of my ‘Atomic Tour’ was the development of nuclear weapons and a need to understand what drove such an invention, its use and continued use as a method for ensuring maintained peace – a peace facilitated by threat and fear.

The construction of ‘property’ and it’s relationship with fear also led me to the ‘Atomic Tour’. In 1900, over 12,000 Japanese citizens immigrated to the U.S. mainland, many just released from indentured labor with Hawaii’s 1898 annexation. California became a focal area for settling and farming a key economic foundation for the Japanese population. However, the sudden increases in Japanese immigration spurred the spreading of the xenophobic theory of the ‘Yellow Peril’, with some fearing that the Japanese were attempting to overtake white control of California’s farmland. This resulted in the implementation of The California Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920, that prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land or possessing leases over it or owning of stock in companies that acquired such land.

Although only one early action in an extensive web of global imperialist territorial power struggles, trade route deals and resource embargoes that ultimately led to the attack on Pearl Harbour and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 respectively – the California Alien Land Law, for me, epitomises the driving relations in a number of dimensions. The Act highlights the role of policy in the formation and maintenance of a static national identity as a meditation on the significance of land as property. Finally it makes clear the invisible violence located in such policy-making that is implicitly driven by a fear of the ‘other’ or how I would term a fear of the uncontrollable potential located in difference.

Psychological Operations leaflet. Image taken at the Bradbury Museum, Los Alamos.

Nicolas Bromley writes that, ‘…force and violence are the nemesis of property and their frequent use is a signal that a property regime is faltering…’ and yet that, ‘…law requires the construction of a constituted outside with reference to, and against which, it sets itself apart. And violence is integral to its construction.’ The development, imagined-threat, use and now threat-as-use of the nuclear bomb, therefore could be seen as the site where literal and imaginings of the extremes of globalised property as an individual right, and therefore the fear such a notion requires and perpetuates, are given location.

From such a large-scale look at property, I return to looking further at the current implications of gentrification in which the antithesis to property is embodied by the indigent, the homeless and the renter,

‘…the poor are, if anything, imagined as a threat to property, not only because of their assumed complicity in property crime but also because, by their presence, they destabilize property values, both economically and culturally.’

It is in this act, of identifying ‘threats’ and establishing a legal policy of property rights to ensure security, that simultaneously identifies a feared ‘other’ that must always sit out-with a law in order to maintain the need for a law, that I feel there is a use in noticing a scalable relation between gentrification and the emotional underpinning of the nuclear. Yes, gentrification is embedded in a capital-based power system that thrives on establishing replicable exclusivity and social divides, but in order to dream of an alternative, maybe there is use in investigating how we approach and deal with that which we fear, especially in relation to difference and our prioritised entitlement to survival which currently manifests as possession-to-use.

From the above approach, I wish to move from property back to water, and water rights. In a previous post, I spoke of the Santa Fe River as a site of complexity. Site as verb – the act of giving location. This understanding of the river, and water more generally, does not so easily allow a single concept of rights as the regulation of distributing powers to control valued resources.

I wonder if it is here that I am also able to locate a site to develop potential towards ecological-sensitivity in developing multi-faceted interpretations of policy, through a focus on water rights? A form of policy that is shaped through giving location to difference and hence not responding to fear as something to be excluded, but rather an emotion we must learn to sit with until difference itself, rather than specifically that which is identified as different, unknowingly shifts to the familiar. Could the formation of such an idea be developed by reflecting on my own process of overcoming the fear of feeling out-of-place, due to constant travelling? By allowing myself to get lost and over-time become familiar and give-site to my fear through a relational and scalar approach to the fear embedded in the nuclear? And how could the development of a critical public artwork that focuses on policy, gentrification and property act as a generative challenge to legal regulations that stipulate that Public Art practices must result in an acquisition, either as an object or even as Culture for the purpose of increasing capital-attractiveness of an area?

I will continue to develop this as part of my body of work that considers Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) as a theoretical modelling system for alternative forms of urban planning and where my practice, that focuses on water as a tool to criss-cross theory and ecological concerns, could be situated within such a model as a challenge for critical formations of public art practice.


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