SANAS Symposium and AGM

30 November 2019

Changing the Narrative: Water and Aesthetic Activism

One-Day SANAS Symposium
University of Geneva, Saturday, 30 November 2019

In the first weeks of 2018 the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the latest in a long history of disputes among southern and southwestern states (Georgia v. Florida and Texas v. Colorado and New Mexico) concerning the distribution and supply of fresh water. In April 2018 Cape Town, the wealthiest city in southern Africa, is predicted to run out of water. Reflecting the urgency of the water crisis, 2018-2028 has been declared the UN International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, following the International Decade for Action, “Water for Life” (2005- 2015). The threat to fresh clean water is intensified by the effects of climate change, but also by human interventions such as the displacement of waterways to serve expanding cities, the privatization of water supplies (a cause of the poisoned tap-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, 2014-?), industrial pollution (including the leakage of hazardous waste into the floodwater that inundated Houston, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017), and the transportation of toxic substances such as oil pipelines. Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (the #NODAPL movement, 2016-?) – which carries oil from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to the Patoka oil tank farm (also serving the Enbridge, Keystone, and Trunkline pipelines) in southern Illinois – focuses on a number of critical aspects of the project: the threat to water of leakage into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and Lake Oahe, near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, as well as the threatened desecration of tribal burial grounds and other sites of sacred and archeological value, and the legal violation of the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851).

Water then lies at the center of a complex network of issues that show the US in conflict at the levels of federal and state government as well as in relations with sovereign tribal nations. But this conflict, characterized by the non-violent protests at Standing Rock, is expressed through peaceful activism that is motivated by heightened public awareness. That is to say, the water crisis (or crises) demands powerful means of storytelling that bring aesthetics into relation with activism. From the Facebook check-in at Standing Rock for virtual water protectors to Leslie Marmon Silko's environmental justice epic Almanac of the Dead and Elizabeth LaPensée's recent video game Thunderbird Strike, storytelling has been used to raise consciousness and to “change the narrative” concerning the value(s) of water. This symposium asks how creative artists in diverse media engage aesthetics in the interests of social activism, specifically as it relates to the ongoing water crisis in the US and globally.


Professor Elizabeth LaPensée (Michigan State University, is an academic and creative artist working in the media of games, transmedia, comics, and animation. Her creative work includes Honour Water (2016), an Anishinaabe singing game for healing the water and Thunderbird Strike (2017), a 2D sidescrolling game that positions the player as a thunderbird protecting Turtle Island with searing lightning against the snake that threatens to swallow the lands and waters whole.

Professor Joy Porter (University of Hull, is an interdisciplinary researcher and teacher of Native American Indian history in relation to war, modernity, literature and the environment. She is Co-Principal Investigator of the University cluster Treatied Spaces: Environment & Peoples in America, 1607-1890. Her latest book was Native American Environmentalism (2014)