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Watershed Ways

Clare Butcher

Having grown up in small mining towns in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and ’90s, “drought” was a word I learned early. Those who had flush toilets would place bricks in the cisterns to reduce the amount of water flushed away. Any water left over from washing bodies or cooking pots would be used to tend to withering plants outside. Decades later, in another home, in Cape Town, the city was about to run out of water. The countdown to an ominous “Day Zero” served as a reliable but incalculable measure of the time between present water scarcity and future dehydration. Surrounded by unfathomable gallons of salty sea, the mountain reserves of fresh water on which the population depends had all but run dry. The desalination plants proposed by climate change activists and researchers years before Day Zero was forecasted still remain under construction. Those who had showers were restricted to two minutes of use per day. The military presence around remaining water sources increased. There was talk of draining the aquifers. Hydrological terminology I had never heard before crept into everyday discourse through public service campaigns, taxi rides, and stand-up comedy. For most, without running water at the best of times, Day Zero was just another municipal disappointment on an increasingly long list.1

Water levels fluctuate while the pipeline of corruption between colonial infrastructures and the present-day reserving (reservoiring) of resources for a powerful few lies just beneath the surface. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write in The Undercommons, “Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way.”2 Water as a metaphor for both connection and division, I realize, can become dehydrated. But in days of elusive “dark pool” trading and “waves” of climate refugees, the reading of relationships in such fluid terminology invites further fantasy. The dictionary as manifesto.3 One in which lunar pulls and lapping tides become collaborative corrosive forces, wearing away the hard structures that seem unchangeable now.

In Toronto, on the shoreline of Ontario, a Great Lake, the prospect of water as too much and too close is real. Like so many places built geometrically on land and waterways that will always “break the modernist grid,”4 this city undulates on a system of hidden rivers formed over time by glacial melt. With the straightening of streams and the filling of the lake with land to create even more city, more efficiency, islands disappear, no longer nourished by shifting sediment. Advertisements for flood insurance line subway stations; trains flow toward the harbor. Those who walk these waters draw attention to waters’ rights and our reliance on them through language, action, and bodies. Their practices of following, listening, and learning with rather than about, articulate “watershed” ways of relation- and decision-making so crucial on the days before Day Zero and the ones after that.5

—Clare Butcher

Clare Butcher is a curator and educator from Zimbabwe who cooks and collaborates as part of her practice. She is Curator of Public Programming and Learning for the Toronto Biennial of Art, before which she coordinated programs such as unsettling Rietveld Sandberg in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and aneducation for documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany. Clare has worked with museums, academies, and communities in Europe and Southern Africa, and holds an MFA from the School of Missing Studies, an MA in Curating the Archive from the University of Cape Town, and has participated in the De Appel Curatorial Program. Some collective and individual endeavors include Men Are Easier to Manage Than Rivers (2015); The Principles of Packing... on two travelling exhibitions (2012); and If A Tree... on the Second Johannesburg Biennale (2012).

1 Some further notes on these points can be found, in Dutch, in my article in Ziektebeelden, Metropolis M, no. 4 (2019).

2 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (Minor Compositions, 2013), 61.

3 See Jane Wolff, Bay Lexicon .

4 With thanks to Maria Thereza Alves for her words and work around The Return of a Lake, as well as her ongoing research. See: .

5 See Lost Rivers and Rivers Rising Initiatives’ “watershed thinking” philosophy: . And for other contributors to the Programs of the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art, see: .

September 19, 2019