9 — Harvesting Water Molecules

My creative practice investigates the social and political aspects of race, value, and knowledge production.

I’m interested in probing questions that detail how the affinitive interests of law and science reconstitute and distort the literal meaning of ethics, justice, and truth, and ask whose lives are at stake when the directions of research programs are determined by the moral boundaries of those who financially support them, and how does the interaction of social values and science implicate our conception of scientific knowledge? My work wields thorough material research of the symbolic forms of assemblages, poetics of science, and social weight. Making use of drawing, sculpture, writing, and performance for the camera as a mode of demonstration, my work examines how to live in and with difference and complexity.



Thanks to everyone else who has already presented. My presentation today will be a bit scattered and I apologize for that. I’m going to go ahead and share my screen really quickly. I’m going to do a lot of reading, probably just straight off my phone.

Here’s my glass of water, sitting on top of a reusable bag from Lucy’s Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn.

Underneath that bag is a green folder that has a printed-out text by David Harvey titled “The Visualization of Capital as Value in Motion.” In this chapter, he uses the hydrological cycle as a template to depict how capital moves. This model illustrates water passing through different forms and states, at different rates, before returning to the oceans to start all over again. For Harvey, the movement of capital begins as money capital, before taking on a commodity—from passing through production systems and emerging as new commodities, monetized in the market and distributed in different forms, two different factions of claimants in the forms of wages, interest, rent, taxes, profit—before returning to the role of money capital once more. Next to my glass of water is a stack of books that I attempt to study when I have time, also a record by Hito Coney and some cables for my stereo.

When I was invited to this event to speak about a glass of water, my initial thought was to center this talk around atmospheric water generation and one of its inventors, Moses, who I will introduce in a few moments. I was led to Moses because of the atmospheric water generator that he invented and brought to Flint, Michigan, to counter the water crisis that took place from 2014 to 2019. It’s difficult to not think about abundance and scarcity when observing a glass of water.

I interpret water generation as a process that extracts water from the humidity present in the ambient air. The water that is generated can supplement freshwater and may be treated further, using filtration and purification processes, to make it safer for human consumption. This process doesn’t impact the environment negatively because the humidity removal will be naturally replenished by the hydrological cycle.

The procedure of harvesting water molecules that are available in the ambient air is not a contemporary technology. For example, the Belgian engineer Achille Knapen designed a high-mass air well on a high hill in Trans-en-Provence, France, in 1930.

An airwell is a structure or device that collects water by promoting the condensation of moisture from the air. All airwell designs incorporate a substrate with the temperature sufficiently low so that dew forms. For Knapen’s structure, at night, the whole structure is allowed to cool, and during the day warm moist air enters the structure via the high apertures, cools, descends, and leaves the building by lower apertures. Knapen’s intention was that water should condense on the cool inner concrete column.

Fog Collection

Another example is fog collection—which is the collection of water from fog using large pieces of vertical mesh net to make fog droplets flow down towards a trough below—also known as a fog fence or a fog collector or fog net. Through condensation, atmospheric water vapor from the air condenses on cold surfaces into droplets of liquid. This method dates back to the Incan empire, where buckets were placed under trees to take advantage of this natural phenomenon—but also there are recordings that have taken place elsewhere, where antique stone piles in Ukraine and medieval dew ponds in southern England were also seen as dew-catching devices.

My research as an artist has been invested in looking at or observing or researching overlooked (if not ignored) legacies of black inventors and scientists, and the ways in which present emancipatory technologies or research can be made possible through liberation. So, for example, I looked closely at Norbert Rillieux, who was the inventor of a multiple-effect evaporator system that was used to distill sugarcane juice into crystallized shorter form. This is one of the drawings that I made alongside that research.

That’s why I was drawn to Moses West, because he’s not the inventor of atmospheric water generation but did take on some form of an inventor who makes his own generator that provides water as a response to the water crises that happened in Puerto Rico and Flint. I’ll just briefly describe some things about him.

Moses West

Moses West and his NGO, The Moses West Foundation and AWT contracting company (which is also funded by armed forces of the United States) have the main goal to provide disaster relief to communities that are experiencing water crisis. Moses West was a member of the United States Armed Forces and spent his time working with the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 2nd Armored Division, the 2nd Infantry Division, the 7th Cavalry Regiment, and the 101st Airborne Division. He is a veteran but also, somehow, an inventor of atmospheric water generation. During his military service, he did flight patrol of the Korean DMZ, a strip of land running across the Korean peninsula that served as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. Because of West, generators were brought from a military base across the country on behalf of Latoya Fraser’s funding. Residents of Flint, Michigan, were provided with 2000 gallons of drinkable water per day during a public health crisis.

But today, atmospheric water generation technology is somehow a profitable industry, with participating agents such as the EPA, the University of Berkeley, and General Electric with financial assistance from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agencies). This is what led me to this other departure in the research—it’s not just this kind of innocent power of technology. It’s also funded by the military; it also has federal aid dipping into its technology. This is what led my investigative research towards questions about social relations between black liberation and black invention, how scientific value is entangled with military and federal aid. What I mean by scientific value is the intrinsic interest, systematic relevance, and evaluation of scientific research. If research funding is an essential element in the development of science and technology—and scholars widely recognize that the nature and conditions around funding shape the rate and direction of scientific inventive activity—how might we understand the moral economies of scientific value?

My presentation ends with more questions and thoughts about how these technologies centered around harvesting water molecules out of the air somehow still get disrupted or corrupted through their funding, through their own scientific research. I’m open to having a conversation about that. I’m hoping I’m open to having more questions come up in the panel. Thank you so much for listening to that.