Of Gifts and Gleans

Drinking Water and Expanded Economies
By Lisa Hirmer

 A gift is not a piece broken off from the interior life of the giver and lost into the exchange, but rather an extension of the interior of the giver, both in space and in time, into the interior of the receiver. Money denies such extension, ruptures continuity and stalls objects at the borders of themselves.

– Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost, 1999 

For water to become a commodity, it must be contained. Lines must be drawn around it to say this water is owned by this person. From the scale of a water bottle to the scale of a geopolitical boundary, contained water is owned water. This is in contradiction to the natural properties of water—how water wants to be: water moves; it flows and leaks away; it evaporates and drifts through the air; it condenses elsewhere. There are of course many ways enterprising humans counter this material slipperiness, making containers of plastic, of concrete, of legal and political lines;  yet the constant need for this containment suggests that water, from a material perspective, inherently resists ownership. 

Lisa Hirmer,  Water Infrastructure  (research image for  Drinking Water ), 2016. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer, Water Infrastructure (research image for Drinking Water), 2016. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

The transformation of objects into commodities is an alienation that changes our relationship to those objects and to each other. The commodity value of something distances us from the ways it exists in time and space and within human relationships. Water as a commodity is separated from its origins in ecological systems and its movements through physical, social, economic, and political infrastructures. Water as commodity flows uncomplicated from taps, or is sold as such from bottles, an abstracted quantity of value that can be substituted for any other quantity of similar value. 

While as a commodity water follows a common one-way path from extraction to final transaction and consumption, materially the cycle of water continues in spite of being interrupted by industrialized transport and waste systems—even from a bottle we are still drinking water from some specific place and it will eventually return to some (most likely different) body of water. The movement of water seems to have a kinship with a gifting economy. We drink water to move it through our bodies, not to keep it, a continuous cycle that connects us both to place and to larger planetary movements through the very cells of our bodies. Materially water stitches us to the world.

Water can also stitch us to each other, moving between people to connect them like the gift described by Carson in the epigraph. While it would be inaccurate to say human empathy and solidarity around water is universal, the fundamental need for water and empathy do seem inexorably linked, especially when thinking at the scale of direct human to human interactions—though those of us with relatively good water security may not always be mindful of this. The desire to offer a glass of water to a thirsty stranger is, if not a universal impulse, at least far more common than it is not. All humans (like all living creatures) need water, and the water one drinks is, in the end, part of the same planetary supply we are all drinking from. It is always something shared.

Lisa Hirmer,  Water Gleaners  (documentation from  Drinking Water  in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2018. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer, Water Gleaners (documentation from Drinking Water in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2018. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer,  Water Gleaners  (documentation from  Drinking Water  in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2018. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer, Water Gleaners (documentation from Drinking Water in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2018. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer,  Water Gleaners  (documentation from  Drinking Water  in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2018. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer, Water Gleaners (documentation from Drinking Water in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2018. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Drinking Water—an interdisciplinary work I created in collaboration with choreographer Sete Tele from 2015 to 2018—works with these qualities of water to explore how economies create (or disrupt) connections between things. The project is sited within the processes, practices, and transactions that shape how water moves through our lives, aiming to reveal how these economies shape not only our access to water but also how we relate to each other, the places we live, and the ecologies we are a part of. Drinking Water uses the resistance of water as a device, making it visible as both a material property and as social and political possibility. 

In Drinking Water, members of a community are invited to collect water from around their homes using laborious collection methods such as rain collectors, solar stills, and transpiration bags on trees that draw on survival techniques. The idea is to work with available materials and site conditions to collect water from an immediate vicinity without using usual water delivery infrastructures. These gathering techniques reveal the way water is moving—often invisibly—all around us: beneath the ground, out of trees, through the air. Taking the time to collect water slowly allows participants to attune themselves to these flows and become familiar with water’s desire for movement.

The laborious collection methods also change the participants’ relationship to the water they’ve collected. Personal relationships to the accumulated water begin to grow. The water is no longer a material that stalls at the border of itself but is something somehow richer. After spending days carefully collecting a small jar of water, each drop becomes precious, even in the presence of a running tap. This water is no longer the same as other water. It is itself, something that comes of labour, place, and relationship. 

It’s this sense of value that the project calls forth as a different way of relating to water. The aim is to make visible the material properties of water that resist its commodification. These properties then become a device for introducing different movement patterns, behaviours, and rituals around water that reinforce these resistances and interrupt, even if momentarily, the habits that push us into commodity relationships with water. 

After the water is collected, Drinking Water participants come together to share water with each other. Drinking Water is ultimately based on the idea that the way we consume water in relation with each other matters and that changing this can change how we live together on this precarious planet. It is difficult to translate into documentation or retrospective text, but when the tediously collected water is shared as a gift between participants a different sense of value circulates. The careful relationship with water created through its tedious collection creates a temporary alternative economy and begins to build meaningful connections between people. 

The hope of Drinking Water is to spark future imaginaries around the more careful use of water that challenge notions of deprivation as the inevitable outcome of more prudent consumption of resources. Instead, the project’s alternative economy suggests that care and reduction in the use of resources may bring with it unexpected positive changes to collective life such as richer relationships, mechanisms of solidarity and collective agency, and increased capacities for empathy.

Canada, like Australia where the project has thus far been primarily situated, is a wealthy country with relatively good water security—though shamefully not for many indigenous communities in either country. And yet, as we see water security diminish across the world and climate change wreak havoc on natural systems, those of us privileged with water security need to consider our relationships to this resource and the economies that surround it, with an eye to both social justice and future scarcity. Empathy alone cannot solve critical global issues around water rights and it is important not to let cathartic experiences blind us to our privilege and complicity in systems that have devastating impacts on global water security. At the same time, reconsidering relationships to water and how we can relate to it as more than a commodity can help lead us towards more just and more ecologically sustainable economies of water.

Lisa Hirmer,  Drinking Water  (documentation from  Drinking Water, Saskatoon  in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2016. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer

Lisa Hirmer, Drinking Water (documentation from Drinking Water, Saskatoon in collaboration with Sete Tele), 2016. Photograph by Lisa Hirmer


The author would like to acknowledge Drinking Water collaborator Sete Tele; critical early project support from TimePlaceSpace:Nomad and the Santa Fe Art Institute; and funding support for the project from the Canada Council for the Arts, Australia Council for the Arts and Festivals Australia. 


Lisa Hirmer an interdisciplinary artist based in Guelph, Canada. Her practice focusses on collective relationships—in public life and with the more-than-human world. She has shown her work in public galleries across Canada and internationally, received numerous grants from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts, and done residencies with the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Camargo Foundation and the Klondike Institute of Art in Culture. www.lisahirmer.ca