Treading water

In the midst of a severe drought, the Soundwave art and music biennial encourages reflection on our most precious natural resource


LEFT OF THE DIAL In a parable that opens one of the best-known speeches by the late great David Foster Wallace, two young fish are swimming along when an older fish passes them. "Morning boys," says the (sentient, verbal) fish. "How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a while, until one of them looks over at the other and says "What the hell is water?"

Living in the Bay Area, especially, water is a constant: Our travel routes often entail tunneling under or gliding over the Bay; white sheets of fog roll out in a damp coat over city daily, even in June; the Pacific, with its cold, gray version of the beach imagery most Midwesterners probably think of as "Californian," provides our most obvious grounding point — I can't un-learn directions based on the way I learned them growing up here. "Well, the ocean's that way, so that's west." This was problematic when I lived in New York.

The ubiquity of water in our lives — and the corresponding ease with which we take it for granted, until, you know, we're in a major drought that severely threatens California's agricultural and therefore economic well-being — is part of what made H20 such a natural theme for this year's Soundwave Biennial, a festival of music, science, visual and performance art thrown by the arts nonprofit Mediate every other year. Throughout July, August, and September, in museums and music venues throughout the Bay Area, on beaches, in bunkers and even aboard a boat or two, more than 100 different artists across all different media will explore water and its relationship to sound.

"We're the city by the bay; water's all around us, literally, but we don't really talk about it, or what that means to us," says Alan So, the festival's executive and artistic director. "We'll talk about drought or climate change, but it can be myopic — water makes up 70 percent of our world, and there are so many kinds of life we don't get to see; there's still so much that's mysterious about it."

After kicking off the evening of July 10 with a party at the California Academy of Sciences' Nightlife featuring special interactive water life exhibits and live music from Rogue Wave (get it?) and Kasey Johansing, the festival continues with a somewhat overwhelming menu of happenings.

On July 19, SOMArts will host Pool, a video installation by Fernanda D'Agostino that plays off the idea of pairing memory with place, projecting watery images — a choreographer, Linda Johnson, submerged in water; salmon swimming upstream — via a two-channel generative video system.

July 26 will mark the opening night of Water World and no, that doesn't mean you have to sit through any Kevin Costner dialogue. A multi-media exhibition that will take over SOMA's Alter Space gallery through Aug. 30, Water World is a combination of sound and light installations, a collaboration between seven artists, designed to take the visitor through different sea levels that mirror humans' levels of consciousness.


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