The Art of Transforming Polluted Water into Clean Water, Energy, and Sound

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Mexican visual artist Gilberto Esparza works with technology, including electronics, robotics, and biotechnology, to develop innovative solutions to the detrimental impact that humans have had on the natural world, particularly on water. His overall goal is to rethink and redo the current relationship between human society and the environment by establishing collaborations between the two. 

Esparza’s work is currently part of Common Frequencies (May 1 – Oct.15, 2021), a group exhibition of four cross-disciplinary Mexican artists and one collective at BioBAT Art Space in Brooklyn, New York. Curated by Elisa Gutiérez, the exhibition explores the intersection of art and science through sound, urban ecology, language, and the construction of symbolic imageries. In addition to Esparza, it features the work of Tania Candiani, Lorena Mal, Marcela Armas and the Interspecifics Collective.

Nomadic Plants in its habitat (2008 – 2014)
NOMADIC PLANTS 

In 2008, Esparza began the process of developing Nomadic Plants (Plantas Nómadas), his first project addressing urban and industrial water pollution. A collaboration between technology (a robotic system), plants, and bacteria, it took six years of research and experimentation to create the final product. The robot extracts polluted river water, stores it in a group of microbial fuel cells (think biological batteries) where the bacteria in the water itself break down the toxic substances to create clean water that, in turn, feeds the living plants. At the same time, the bacteria generate energy to recharge the batteries. Esparza’s research indicated that the more polluted the water, the more energy it produced. Over the course of the project development, as he does with all of his projects, he worked with a team of engineers and biologists to create the robotic system. 

Esparza has taken Nomadic Plants to a series of polluted rivers in Mexico and, in each locale, talked with the local residents about the critical water pollution problem that exists in 70% of Mexico’s rivers. While he was setting up the robot, he observed that it was always the children who came first to see what he was doing, then their parents, and finally the school teachers. Although he educates residents and city leaders about the need to address the fresh water crisis, Esparza admits that any small efforts that are attempted to clean up the contaminated rivers fail because of the high levels of corruption in Mexico. The irony of Nomadic Plants is that the robotic system as a distinct “species” only lives as long as there are polluted rivers. Once the rivers are cleaned, it will become extinct

In 2020, Esparza completed a 360º rendering of Nomadic Plants situated in its habitat on the banks of a polluted Mexican river, showing the robotic system as well as the local manmade and natural environments.

Autophotosynthetic Plants, 2013 – 2014
AUTOPHOTOSYNTHETIC PLANTS

Autophotosynthetic Plants (Plantas Autofotosintéticas), like Nomadic Plants, produces energy from water bacteria but with another outcomeThe instrument that Esparza developed consists of twelve separate vertical vials, which hold twelve different samples of polluted water. Each of the vials is connected to a central nucleus. When the polluted water is placed in the vials, gravity forces it to descend into microbial fuel cells to be cleaned. The bacteria in the water becomes trapped and produces energy. Ultimately, the energy enters the nucleus and creates a light that allows photosynthesis to occur. Using bacteria from polluted water in this manner provides a way to imitate the sun’s role in enabling the process of photosynthesis to happen in a place where sunlight is not readily available. 

Esparza has taken Autophotosynthetic Plants to a number of countries around the world, including France, China, Greece, Slovenia and Korea, among others, where he has also conducted research on their relationships with their water sources and how they address their own water problems. He arrives at each country before installing Autophotosynthetic Plants and asks those who are responsible for water treatment to collect twelve samples from twelve different sites. They then analyze the water from each site. His goal is to create conversations about the sites where the water was extracted and raise awareness of the pollution issues. 

BioSoNot (2008-2014)
BIOSONOT

At the same time he wasworking on Nomadic Plants and Autophotosynthetic Plants,Esparza and his collaborative team of sound engineers, musicians, biologists, and researchers were developing an instrument called BioSoNot (2008-2014), which translates the pollution levels of rivers into sound. BioSoNot is included in the exhibition Common Frequencies at BioBAT Art Space. As curator Elisa Gutiérez describes it, 

The instrument is made up of microbial fuel cell modules that generate energy from the metabolism of microorganisms present in contaminated water. These cells work as biosensors measuring the bioelectric activity of bacteria, while other types of sensors simultaneously provide data such as PH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, oxidation-reduction potential, and temperature. The data is converted into analog signals that are interpreted by a synthesizer, which translates these values into sound. 

The purpose of his work with BioSoNotis to generate a database that is available on the Internet containing information on pollution levels from different parts of the world.

For the exhibition, Esparza used salt water for the first time and water from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which is regarded as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. What he ultimately wants to do with BioSoNot is to create a playlist or record of the sounds he has recorded from contaminated river water and invite artists to interpret the sounds. The playlist would allow listeners to hear the different sounds made according to the level of water pollution existing in a particular river, or to give voice to the polluted waters.

Sound recording from the Molola River in Tepic, Nayarit (Mexico)

The overarching message behind Esparza’s remarkable projects is the importance of leaving nature alone and “making friends with bacteria.” From his extensive research on bacteria, he is convinced that on a large scale, if we simply stop polluting, the rivers would clean themselves. To us, his work may seem quite complicated, but Esparza insists that what he does is simple; it is the biological processes of nature that are beautiful, complex, and regenerative. 

(Top image: Gilberto Esparza at work on Nomadic Plants.) 

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work, called “In the Beginning There Was Only Water” is a re-creation of the natural world without humanity’s harmful impact upon it.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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