By Artistic Director – Christopher McLeod

Let’s explore the question, What Does Our Water Need? Have you submitted a response on the website? I have one so far, with many more that could be offered.

This is a broad question and ideally one that more and more people will begin to reflect upon and consider. What are some of the ways we can bring this question to people and communities that have for the most part, not shown interest in considering such a question? How can we empower those that have committed themselves to exploring this question? And, is it possible to bring these, and all the groups in between, together, to collectively think through, reflect upon, and deeply connect with the question, What Does Our Water Need?

ABCD Event Bring Mud Make Art. Photo by Christopher McLeod.

It started for me as an artist when I applied for a project job posting that specifically stated they were looking for a civil engineer focused on water. I submitted my cover letter explaining that in fact, in my opinion, what they really needed was an artist, especially in that the posting stated that community engagement was a key aspect of the position. I explained that as an artist focused on community engagement and development, I had the skills they were looking for and that the arts are a powerful tool in creating change within a community. An interview ensued, and my practice and research as an artist has revolved around water ever since. (And yes, I got the job)

How did it start for you? From what discipline do you approach this from? I ask as it all feeds back to how we connect to our communities. Each discipline has its own established methods of inquiry and engagement, some based on academic pursuits, others more grassroots, but each usually speaking to a specific community. This for me is where arts-based community development (ABCD) comes together as an open method of inquiry.

“That uses the arts, in the broadest sense, to explore, understand, represent and even challenge human action and experience.”

(Savin- Baden & Wimpenny, 2014, p. 1)
Art Instillation. Photo by Christopher McLeod.

ABCD can also speak to/engage with a broader, if not different, community than the one your research speaks to. ABCD can be conceptualized as artistically inspired projects developed through collaboration, participation, dialogue, and immersive experiences that can incorporate research and ideas from all disciplines. Some of my favourite, and sometimes most challenging, collaborations have been with engineers and scientists from varying fields of study. The rewards however are always inspiring and the level of mutual learning has always been significant. The trick here though is not including “art” as an add on and treating it as a field that does not have its own professional accreditations. All too often I see this happening with well intentioned projects where scientists are listed as ‘Curators’ and the art-based research component is not fully integrated into the initial development/design of the project.

If our goal is to embed the arts into our research questions, utilizing multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary methodologies, then that has to be clearly articulated from the very first moment. Understanding that all the collaborators (scientists/engineers/artists) have an equal role to play.

Christopher McLeod

Artistic discovery often emerges from outside the lines of expectations and plans, this can be difficult for science/engineer types (said in a very friendly way). Each party needs to be open enough to the voice of art that the many answers and possibilities might become apparent. This in part is why my first job in water worked, as it was a civil engineering project, they already had engineers, and the lead engineer who hired me was fully open to the idea of integrating the arts into the research.

Music for the Spirit, part of art unveiling event at Port Dover Harbour Museum.

Arts-based community development, especially in the multidisciplinary sense, can bring/create communities that come together to learn, inform, inspire, mobilize, heal, nurture, build, and improve. William Cleveland in his text, Arts-based Community Development: Mapping the Terrain, speaks to the long histories and impacts ABCD on many fields and communities. His point that, “community art making is necessarily cumbersome, messy, and slow” speaks to my earlier comment that integrating the arts needs to happen at the beginning. It needs to be integral in the design of the project, and be an important part of establishing a projects goals and methods for determining success. Keep in mind that the arts-based component may be used to determine the focus of the research, formulate research questions, generate data, collect data, analyze data, represent the findings of the study, represent a response to the findings, evaluate the research, disseminate the research findings, and/or generate meaning and trigger responses from the audience.

“Community art making is necessarily cumbersome, messy, and slow”

Arts-based Community Development: Mapping the Terrain-William Cleveland

So, as we explore the question, What Does Our Water Need, let’s think about where knowledge comes from, and work to be open to understanding our own limitations. I find by reminding myself of my limitations it opens up the space to embrace other ways of knowing. I’m excited to learn, work and grow with others whose ways of knowing are different than my own. We are a collective still learning how to connect. Siloed, we place limits on our collective capacity to be creative, share and learn from one another – this is something that Waterlution works to address in all of its global projects. When I look at projects like Deep Blue installed at the Toronto Science Centre ( and think about the 1 million visitors a year it impacts, I think about the diversity of experiences that are brought to it. The project Mookibii, installed at the Maawn Doosh Gumig Community Centre, demonstrates how artists work to further connect the collective. Watching Logan Staats and Rob Lamothe write a song with 250 youth, who were expressing and exploring what does our water need, was inspiring.

Video of Song for the Water with Logan Staats & Rob Lamothe.

What comes next? We continue to develop and deliver projects designed around an arts-based community development (ABCD) model. We continue to grow and find new shapes and audiences empowering communities from across the globe. We embrace the messy. We take our time to build and earn trust. We listen in the process of creating spaces for open and honest dialogue. And we continue to discover what asking the question, what does our water need, means to us individually, and collectively. 

Join me and the Waterlution team virtually from across the globe July 27th, 12:30 to 1:30 ET, to discuss ABCD and the projects you are working on.