Invigorate the Common Well is a multi-year initiative beginning with the emblematic renewal of the drinking fountain in the Avalon Theater Lobby as an act of commitment to the stewardship of Water, an initial act toward the invigoration of public fountains throughout the region.

Water Spiral painting by Sandy Spieler

Sandy Spieler

On this page:
Project BeginningProject ExpansionWhy Do This?A Civic Project – A Sacred ProjectA Communal Health ProjectNotes from Sandy SpielerInitiativesNotes from On the Commons

Project Beginning (2006-2008)

We will begin by renewing the Drinking Fountain at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in the Avalon Theater. By using our own situation as a microcosm of a much larger situation we will build a body of performed research that will be adapted towards other public water initiatives.

Project Expansion (2008-)

Invigorate the Common Well will expand to all sorts of locals—schools, offices, churches, clinics, etc. Participants of the very local place will engage in water research connecting their locale with global water consciousness. The act of participating in the design and build of the fountain place will tune these specific communities towards sustainable personal, local and global practices. The big vision is to see all the drinking fountains of the city “dressed with honor”.

  • Minneapolis will become famous for its “public wells” (representing its public wellness)
  • Citizens will be educated in the responsible care of water.
  • Plus–this project will be fun, and build the beauty of our common public spaces!

Why Do This?

The public drinking fountain in the lobby of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater does not work. The reason why the fountain does not work is not immediately clear. The repair of the fountain would necessitate breaking into the wall of the theater to examine the hook-up of our water pipes to the city water system. Imagining this to be costly, complicated, messy, and “a bigger problem that it is worth”, we have delayed such repair for many years.

By turning our backs to the problems of our fountain, we have inadvertently turned our priorities away from the conscious care of the communal gift of water. Instead, we have sold bottled water in plastic bottles to our audiences. By ignoring our fountain and selling water in plastic bottles, we are encouraging the marketing of water as an individual commodity rather than assuring the collective right of people to clean water. The use of water in individual plastic bottles is rising. Some people choose this bottle system because they are wary of the quality of the city’s drinking water. Others use it for convenience because public fountains are becoming more and more difficult to find.

But are plastic bottles a solution to these problems? Plastic bottles are fast becoming a waste nightmare, and the purchase of water in individual bottles inadvertently supports the beginning stages of water privatization. There is growing public awareness about the hazards of water pollution, but much less awareness about the complex issues of water privatization. The use of plastic water bottles is a graspable entry point into both of these major water issues, and since the use is so prevalent, it impacts thousands and thousands of citizens.

Instead of turning to plastic bottles, we will now turn our attention to the aspects of drinking fountains that are “problems” for us. We will use the renewal of our fountain to educate and connect ourselves with both the wonders of water and the growing concerns of local and global water issues.

We will support public servants and systems that work to nourish the health of our communities for years to come. Investing our attention and finances toward the public water systems and the care of our natural resources, is investing our attention toward the common good. Solutions of health will be directed not only to ones self, but also to all who collectively use the city‘s water systems, and ultimately all who share the finite global water supply.

Drinking fountains are modern manifestations of the ancient public wells. They are places where people meet in the communal act of water sharing The renewal of drinking fountains as exquisite pieces of public art provide a unique yet acccessible opportunity for experiential education about the many water concerns that plague our world.

The process of fountain renewal will invigorate public consciousness towards the precious gift of water as an inter-connector of all of life. This ignited public consciousness will manifest renewed practices (in homes, schools, places of work, in legislative and engineering practices) toward sustainable futures concerning water quality, conservation, and ownership.

A Civic Project

This project will involve the intersection of artists with partners from ecological, social, geological and civic fields, as well as with broad spectrums of the general public. We will be inventing new forms of artistry that give honor to the vision and expertise of people working with water issues.

Because this project carries the underlying value of responsible, participatory democracy in creating healthy communities, we will also invent forms that spur interaction of the public with the research presented.

We will continually pose the question of our individual and collective responsibilities and activism in meeting the growing issues of local and global water stewardship.

We plan to include noted experts in the big field of water issues. During the excavation of Lake Street, we have been particularly aware of how many city partners it takes to provide the water we often take for granted. We have been especially impressed with the workers who dig deep into the ground to fix the myriad of pipes that run hidden under the streets –under the streets that we walk upon daily.

The act of renewing water fountains will expose some of these “underground” systems as well as the “underground” global systems of water. When we understand the pipes and agencies of our city that cycle the global water systems to our faucet, we will understand how we become responsible partners to this cycle as we pay our water bill each month. How does this compare to the investment cycle we choose as we purchase water in plastic bottles?

A Sacred Project

Water is Life. Let us be grateful for this most precious gift. Let us see how water binds us to all of life, to our histories, to our futures.

A Communal Health Project

People gather around public water sources They greet each other. “How are you today?” Stories are exchanged; people are refreshed by the generosity of water, and by the generosity of each other. The quality of Water shared by one is the quality of water by all.

Issues of water quality for the public good are mindfully inherent in the care of public water sources. The quantity of water is a finite global shared resource. To quote a grade school student expressing what she learned in a residency focusing on water, “All the water we have, is all the water we have.”

Notes from Sandy Spieler in responding to early questions about “Invigorate the Common Well”

Water Spiral painting by Sandy Spieler

Sandy Spieler

Is this important work to do?

For many years I have made shows and images about current concerns of my community of neighbors. I like to look at the spiritual aspects of issues as well as the social aspects. Our audiences tell us that the shows “move” them, that they raise questions, create images of possibilities, raise dialogue. But do they inspire action, do they affect any change in practice, policy making or civic participation? This is difficult to measure, so usually I feel that it is up to other activist organizations to appeal for, and measure concrete actions.

However, I feel the environmental devastation to the Earth is now so huge, yet general public attention is moving so slowly towards the necessity for changed practice by each and every one of us. I feel that each of us must rise to attention in every way we can to address this most pressing issue of our time.

Because I am an artist, I bring my skills as an artist and community celebrant to this challenge. And because I love Water, this is my chosen focus within a larger commitment to the importance of all ecological work.

Several years ago, I read a searing essay by Noam Chomsky titled “Media Control”, in which he traces the insidious, intentional subversion of participatory democracy into a “spectator” democracy in the USA and Great Britain beginning with the creation of a “public Relations industry “ in the 20’s and 30”s. I considered the malaise of our culture of spectators lulled to sleep in front of the TV, where celebrities, corporate executives, politicians, and sports heroes create a world for the passive entertainment, consumption, (and sometimes horror) of “the public”.

But is this theater?

I thought “Wait! I work in theater! Theater is mostly defined as spectator entertainment. Am I actually reinforcing the rehearsal of the public to be spectators? Could I instead re-invent the way we interact with our audience and rather invite the public to be participants? And by inviting them as participants, will we begin to re-ignite a democracy of participation and responsibility?

Propelled by this thought, I wondered how to invent a theatrical “skin” that could hold the possibility of interactive dialogue within the event itself, including suggestions for paths of activism. And how to do it without a didactic voice? And how to infuse an underlying gratitude for water in all dialogue? Something that combines all the worlds water touches – physical, cultural, civic, spiritual, environmental health?

On an activist level, I hope this work will begin a wave of public attention and action towards the many issues impacting local and global water. Here are some initial goals with which I began:

Our Goals Are:

1. to affect the everyday practices of ordinary citizens towards Water Stewardship

  • By ordaining citizens as an integral part of the Mississippi River Watershed (andultimately as global water-keepers!) thus inspiring sustainable and healthful home water conservation practices, home and neighborhood wastewater practices, reduction of home fertilizer and pesticide use, and general gratitude towards water as a precious and vital resource for all of life.
  • By investing in the long term maintenance and use of the public water systems inhomes and public spaces with an immediate goal to reduce the use of plastic bottles byat least 75% within the next 4 years.

2. To build experiential educational curriculum for students of all ages, including family and adult learning

3. To affect public policy for nurturing the commons of water

  • Expansive citizen awareness, advocacy, and practice will demand long term public policies geared towards protecting sustainable and healthy futures for many generations to come

Are these preposterous goals for an artist?

Are there other artists expanding boundaries of ecological and civic action?

Seeing civic dialogue as “art” as one would see sculpture or painting as “art” was articulated several decades ago by Joseph Beuys, and Beuys’ work laid a path for all manor of performance art that is unfolding today. I like to think of the root “AR” contained in the word “art”. AR means “to connect”. I know think of ARt as an ARm that connects things… people, ideas, action, emotion.

I do not know of anyone connecting the venue of performance with civic engagement in the way we are envisioning “Invigorate the Common Well” with such a mix of partners and advisors, but perhaps there are others. There are lots of examples of issue oriented spectator theater (including our roots from the Bread and Puppet Theater and the San Francisco Mime troupe). And there are certainly examples of performance and visual art that seeks interactive response.

How will you evaluate this work?

I particularly like Lucy Lippard’s evaluation of Art that resonates relationships to a specific place. We will develop some questions to evaluate “Invigorate the Common Well” specifically, but until then I will refer to her following list to evaluate the effectiveness of an accessible and local voice in our work: (this is from Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local, p. 286. (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.), New York, 1997)

  • SPECIFIC enough to engage people on the level of their own lived experiences, to say something about the place as it is or was or could be.
  • COLLABORATIVE at least to the extent of seeking information, advice, and feedback from the community in which the work will be placed.
  • GENEROUS and OPEN-MINDED enough to be accessible to a wide variety of people from different classes and cultures, and to different interpretations and tastes…
  • APPEALING enough either visually or emotionally to catch the eye and be memorable.
  • SIMPLE and FAMILIAR enough, at least on the surface, not to confuse or repel potential viewer-participants.
  • LAYERED, COMPLEX AND UNFAMILIAR enough to hold people’s attention once they’ve been attracted, to make them wonder, and to offer ever deeper experiences and references to those who hang in.
  • EVOCATIVE enough to make people recall related moments, places, and emotions in their own lives.
  • PROVACATIVE and CRITICAL enough to make people think about issues beyond the scope of the work, to call into question superficial assumptions about the place, its history, and its use.

Notes from On the Commons:

The Commons

The commons is a new way to express a very old idea — that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all. The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, water, the oceans, wildlife and wilderness, and shared “assets” like the Internet, the airwaves used for broadcasting, and public lands. The commons also includes our shared social creations: libraries, parks, public spaces as well as scientific research, creative works and public knowledge that have accumulated over centuries. This is our common wealth, or the commons. The strange thing is, we have forgotten how to recognize the commons and act like the rightful owners of our own riches. Too many people blindly accept the “enclosure” of our commons, which transforms shared resources enjoyed by all into private commodities available only to those who can afford them. Part of the problem is the narrow version of economics that dominates in the United States today — a version that presumes that the only important wealth is created through market exchange. We, the commoners, know otherwise.

The Water Commons

Water is a common good, the trust of all humanity. The right to water is an inalienable individual and collective right. Each member of the human community has the right to water in quantity and quality sufficient to life and basic economic activities. Water belongs to the Earth and all species and therefore, must not be treated as a private commodity to be bought, sold and traded for profit. The intrinsic value of the Earth’s water precedes its utility and commercial value and therefore must be respected and safeguarded by all political, commercial and social institutions. Creating the conditions necessary to ensure access to water for the vital needs of every person and every community is an obligation of society as a whole; and the collective responsibility of citizens of the world. The global water supply is a shared legacy, a public trust and a fundamental human right, and, therefore, a collective responsibility. Only by recognizing these principles at local, national and international levels can the commons be adequately protected. Despite the everyday dependence we have on water, access to fresh water is far from equal or guaranteed. Of the world’s population of 6 billion, at least 1.5 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water and another 4 billion lack adequate sanitation services. In parts of the developing world, a child dies every 15 seconds due to easily preventable water-related diseases. Without action, inequality and human suffering will only worsen. The UN predicts that by 2025, the number of people deprived of water will climb to over 3 billion. Such disparity is an affront to the world’s shared humanity and threatens our future security. Water scarcity is a common source of conflict in this new century and promises to become more so. And for many developing nations, the lack of proper infrastructure to deliver clean water only perpetuates and worsens poverty.


For most of human history, water has been considered a common inheritance, something that people can freely use but not own. Now water is increasingly being claimed as private property, leading to ecologically disastrous and socially unfair uses of water. Transnational corporations — including venture capitalists, heavy industry, bottled water purveyors, the two soft drink giants, international financial institutions, trade agreements, governments and even parts of the United Nations are ramping up a concerted, multi-pronged effort aimed at forcing governments to privatize public services and to commodify water in the global commons as a way to deal with water scarcity.

But the evidence shows that privatization leads to a rise in polluted water, environmental degradation, rate increases, deteriorating service, loss of local control and increased corruption.– and of course, soaring corporate profits. Transnational corporations see this water scarcity crisis as a huge profit-making opportunity. If corporations control the limited supplies of an element that no one can do without, they stand to gain untold fortunes.

Water is the new oil. In 2001 the water services industry, dominated by just a handful of corporations, made close to a trillion dollars in profits, which is substantially more than the pharmaceutical sector and almost 40% of the oil industry’s revenues (Source “Water is the last infrastructure frontier for private investors,” says Johan Bastin of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Selling water to the highest bidder will only exacerbate the worst impacts of the world water crisis. On a global scale, water privatization is being pushed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in dozens of financially-strapped countries, where global water conglomerates are dramatically raising the price of water beyond the reach of the poor and profiting from the Global South’s search for solutions to its water crises.

The same multinational corporations aggressively taking over the management of public water services around the world are now vying for the lucrative U.S. market, one of the world’s largest with annual revenues estimated at $90 billion. A change to the U.S. tax code in 1997 opened the way to greater private sector involvement in the U.S. water delivery and treatment business. Companies are now able to bid on 20-year contracts that include the operation, design of new plants or upgrades, maintenance and even complete transfer of ownership of water systems to the private sector.

Until now, mainly small public utility operators have controlled the U.S. water industry. In rural areas, small, privately owned utilities were common, but multinational corporations are rapidly buying even these out. These companies have made their way into venues like the U.S. Conference of Mayors where they peddle privatization as a simple, cost-saving solution to cities’ aging infrastructures and regulatory compliance headaches.

Protecting the Commons

The fight to protect the world’s water from corporate control is well underway and rapidly gaining new ground. Powerful, vibrant social movements against water privatization have gained a number of key victories in countries including Bolivia, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ghana, South Africa and the United States.

The solutions to the world’s water scarcity crises are readily available: expand public and community controlled water utilities, repair dilapidated water systems, save water by installing drip irrigation systems rather than flooding, stop polluting existing supplies, increase water conservation, reclamation and watershed management just to name a few.

Armed with the belief that water is a common good and access to water is an inalienable human right we can protect the global commons of water. Water belongs to the Earth and all species and must not be treated as a private commodity to be bought, sold and traded for profit. Because the global water supply is a shared legacy, protecting it is a collective responsibility – not the responsibility of a few shareholders.

Information from the following websites: