WAT-AAH! Taking Back the Streets

Brienne Walsh in New York on the street-art fuelled campaign to give up sugary drinks in favour of prepackaged H2O

WAAT-AH! Taking Back the Streets Michelle Obama with Rose Cameron WAT-AAH! Taking Back the Streets WAAT-AH! Taking Back the Streets WAT-AAH! Taking Back the Streets

Despite the absence of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose appearance had been hinted at by the organizers of WAT-AAH!'s 'Taking Back The Streets', a street-art-fuelled campaign aimed to get fatsos (ie. most American children) to drink water rather than sugary beverages, the launch event at the New Museum in New York on the evening of February 20 remained a heady affair. Heady, quite literally, because clouds of marijuana smoke filled the air.

“Yo, Don Lemon!” yelled Pierre Francillon, a former intimate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and a curator familiar with some of the 14 artists chosen to design plastic water bottles featured at the event. Francillon was wearing a batik shirt, beanie cap, and blue sunglasses. “I’m so happy you’re here, man.” Lemon, a CNN news anchor, smiled warily.

the campaign cynically neglects to point out how water is largely free, safe, and widely available from faucets across America

Michelle Obama had been promised because the event is connected to her ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative, which aims to combat childhood obesity. In the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control, one in three children are estimated to be overweight. Mrs Obama had in fact been at the museum earlier in the day for a brief photo op with children from the Little Red School House, a progressive private school in the West Village. Very few journalists were invited (I was not one of them), but those who attended universally concurred that she looked very beautiful.

WAT-AAH!, a for-profit bottled water company with a private foundation attached, was founded by Rose Cameron, a former advertising and branding executive, and it’s involved with Let’s Move! as well as a sister initiative, ‘The Partnership for a Healthier America.’ This involvement seems largely to facilitate the company’s brand awareness, which suggests that WAT-AAH!, first sold out of Cameron’s car in 2008 and now found in over 10,000 stores including those of supermarket giants Whole Foods, Shop-Rite, and Krogers, stands to benefit most from the association.

The 14 artists who agreed to participate in the project include well-known figures such as Kenny Scharf and Shepard Fairey, as well as Damien Mitchell, whom Francillon claims is a protégé of Banksy. The designs are largely vibrant, graffiti-inspired compositions that feature, somewhere, the phrase ‘Drink Up’ and WAT-AAH!’s logo. After the launch at the New Museum, the works were installed at WallPlay, a gallery on the Lower East Side. Later in the year, they will travel to so far undisclosed locations in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, eventually landing, as all things uncomfortably marrying art and commerce must, at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Despite any initial feel-good association with Michelle Obama and her childhood obesity project, 'Taking Back The Streets' recalls a Donald Barthleme short story, in which artists are co-opted to package and sell a natural resource at the behest of an inane corporate brand. The name of Cameron’s company reads more like a demented wail than it does the word it’s supposed to represent: ‘water’. Thanks to these new bright labels, perhaps kids will pester their parents to buy WAT-AAH! instead of, say, Evian, but let’s be honest, no kid is going to voluntarily drop their sweet sugary beverage for something that tastes like, well, water. Humans just aren’t hardwired that way.

Worse, the campaign cynically neglects to point out how water is largely free, safe, and widely available from faucets across America. Would it have been too much to ask for artistically dressed up and branded re-usable water bottles that children might use to drink water from the tap? Perhaps the profit margins were too low, and who cares about the environment anyhow. Come to think of it, ‘Drink Up!’, the campaign’s slogan, sounds less like some virtuous imperative than what one imagines an alcoholic dad rasps at his kid upon initiating him into the dark club of compulsory inebriation.

A signature feature of American brainwashing today is that, as long as your product is introduced as part of a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, no one says a word against it – especially not if ‘high culture’ like ‘street art’ is involved. It’s enough to make you want to turn to the bottle yourself.

“I’m sorry, I had a little bit to drink tonight,” a woman said when she bumped into me at the event. A few seconds later, she leaned over and said, “In fact, I’m drunk practically all of the time.” I gave her my press pass when I left so that she could have VIP access. She wanted to stay for a while; apparently she was in the right frame of mind for having a great time. 

WAAT-AH!'s Taking Back the Streets exhibit continues at WallPlay until 4 March 2014.