Wade in the Water
"Going to a place with a pen or with a camera and a conscience encumbers oneself with a responsibility,” said documentary photographer Ryan Spencer Reed, which made me incredibly self-conscious of the pen I held as we sped down the highway in his minivan.
It’s the same minivan Reed took to the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota in September 2016, where Native Americans were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. After seeing coverage of the protests showing private security forces using dogs and pepper spray to drive Native American protesters away from bulldozers that were flattening sacred ground on reservation land, Reed made the trip to take some pictures and talk with some protesters. Then he returned home after less than a week to gather more resources for a longer return trip.
"I never ended up being able to raise the money to go back, and that was it," Reed lamented.
A combination of factors—the onset of winter and the denial of an easement from the United States Army Corps of Engineers—brought the protest, and Reed’s chance to return, to an end.
Then, the back of Reed’s minivan was set up as a makeshift bedroom. Now, it’s a mess of cables, print material, clothes and some camping equipment: the detritus of three weeks spent at ArtPrize Nine in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
ArtPrize is an annual art competition with a juried prize decided by experts and a grand prize decided by public vote. I met with Reed in hopes of an interview and ended up riding along on an errand he needed to run, to return some rental equipment used to light his ArtPrize entry when it was submerged in the Grand River.
Yes, a photographer displayed his work in a river.
The entry, titled “Oil+Water”, was a black-and-white photo of the Sacred Stone Camp with a teepee and the blurred image of a protester in the foreground. It was printed across six massive canvases and suspended just below the surface of the Grand River, anchored to the Pearl Street Bridge. A colored pattern, like the reflection of oil on top of water, was added to the image to create the illusion of oil flowing in the river over the top of the canvas.
“Oil+Water” is out of the Grand River now and rolled up behind the Richard App Gallery. The piece won Reed $12,500 for winning the public vote in the installation category. Even though he’s pleased that so many people voted for an entry with a social and environmental message, Reed is still disappointed at the public vote grand prize winner.
Whether it was the appeal of "America’s greatest president", the scale of the image created with more than 24,000 pennies, or the lack of political commentary, Richard Schlatter’s “A. Lincoln”, the grand prize winner, had a leg up over “Oil+Water”.
“It's nothing against the man that made it and his four grandchildren that put the last pennies on it, or Abraham Lincoln, but it's a craft project at best,” Reed said.
Reed is stubbornly unapologetic about the message that entries like his carry.
“What did you expect when you signed up for 1,300 to 2,000 artists taking over your city for one month every year? We're going to come here to change hearts and minds,” said Reed.
“Oil + Water” was Reed’s fourth ArtPrize entry. He competed for the first time in 2010 with “Detroit Forsaken,” which illustrated the blight and decline in one of America’s biggest cities. In 2011, he entered “Sudan: The Cost of Silence,” documenting the hardships and realities of the Sudanese civil war. Each of those entries was housed in the DeVos Place. In 2014, the public awarded Reed third place in the installation category with “Despite Similarities to Reality, This is a Work of Fiction,” installed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which documented two years embedded with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during their training and deployment in Afghanistan.
After his brief trip to the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota, Reed knew ArtPrize would be a good place to debut his new work because of the chance to interact with the more than 500,000 people who visit the event.
"You can hijack the conversation in some small way and push or maybe force people to encounter issues that they wouldn't otherwise have to encounter," he said.
Reed was well aware of ArtPrize’s festival atmosphere, and how the public vote tends to reward the spectacular as much as the compelling.
"Immediately, my mind goes to ‘Gladiator’, in that scene where Russell Crowe is standing in the arena with the sword all friggin’ bloody and says ‘Are you not entertained?’” Reed said, raising his arms to either side in imitation of the film’s famous scene..
Nonetheless, the new subject matter did lead Reed to a new, spectacular curatorial choice: using the Grand River to demonstrate the threat to the Missouri River and clean water everywhere.
Excited by the challenge of something new, Reed enlisted the help of Richard App, who has installed several ArtPrize entries in the river before. App is a photographer and artist who owns the Richard App Gallery in Grand Rapids. The two first met at ArtPrize in 2011.
Before they could get anything in the river, they needed Reed’s image printed on a 5,000 square-foot canvas, and an installation plan reviewed by engineers. They devised an adjustable rigging and a leading-edge buoy made of PVC pipe. After they put it in the river, they spent the next five days readjusting the piece to try and get the canvas to flow on the water’s surface.
“We actually had it right the first time,” Reed said, chuckling over their wasted effort.
Once it was installed, however, the work wasn’t over. Reed and App had to clean the the surface of “Oil+Water” with a deck brush every few days or the image would be obscured from viewers standing on the Pearl Street bridge. Reed thinks the pervasive slime that develops on everything in the river is some kind of algae.
"But it's brown and it looks like poop and it doesn't smell great," he added.
The Monday after ArtPrize concluded, taking the piece out of the Grand River only took a couple hours. Reed and App are hoping to be able to display “Oil+Water” again in other locations: the Flint River, near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, or even the Straits of Mackinac. First they need to assess the wear on the canvas from its stay in the Grand River, and get cooperation from local authorities.
Seven years after standing in DeVos Place and talking to passersby about “Detroit Forsaken,” Reed is going home with prize money. His goals surpass the economic, though.
“You can't count on winning anything here, so you better have other reasons for coming and showing work at ArtPrize, and I do,” Reed said. “Half-a-million people saw ‘Oil+Water’ and hopefully questioned their relationship to clean water and what they can do to maintain the relationships that they largely take for granted."