Catalog Essay by Edwin Stirman:
Water is a necessary implement of human survival; bottled and packaged it is also a status symbol. In his pieces Thirst (Anti-Bottled Water) Water Bottles and (Anti-Bottled Water) Postcards, Eric Benson criticizes the recent market boom in the bottled water industry. His work questions consumer culture and changes in the market by appealing to notions of good health (an ironic twist considering our addiction to fast food industries) and in the process producing a new waste product in the form of plastic bottles. For Water Bottles, Benson created three labels that fit upon previously discarded water bottles, each dealing with safety, environmental or cost factors in the bottled water industry. The tonnage of disposable plastic containers leads into an intractable issue for global ecology, especially when one considers the negative impact of bottle disposal, and how that translates to new issues of sustainability at national and international levels.
However, even before water becomes a packaged product, water is a basic necessity for industries closely tied to ecology across the country. Suburban sprawl in dry locales like Arizona and Las Vegas demand sustaining large populations in places with limited liquid resources - an exercise in creating strain on urban infrastructures. It's not necessarily defeatist to create cities that require massive systems for survival, but ironic at least. While these are peripheral social issues to Benson's work, cherishing bottled water from a freshwater spring precludes the possibility of adequately addressing long term water conservation security for local environments. It's this cultural suicide that the activist term "culture jamming" addresses.
Developing that criticism is a challenge for socially conscious designers like Benson who want to address capitalist pitfalls and highlight social ills. It's a difficult challenge, and one that requires activist artists to focus on the resultant problems of consumerist culture in America. Though the proliferation of the bottled water industry takes center stage in these pieces by Benson, his work reflects the confrontational style of cultural criticism popularized by activists like Kalle Lasn (author of Culture Jam and editor of Adbusters magazine) or Brazilian artist Cieldo Miereles. Adbusters criticizes global superstructures in transnational industries, as well as broad social injustices through a website and semi-monthly publication. Artists have expanded on linking their criticism of capitalist systems to mass audiences by creating conceptual works that function similarly to Benson's water bottle project, by becoming tangible and interactive with the audience it seeks to encounter. In Cildo Miereles's project Insertions Into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project of 1970, he silk-screened printed messages onto glass Coca-Cola bottles, which were then returned to factories, refilled with soda and redistributed into the market with a visible message that condemned the multi-national corporate systems infiltrating Brazil.
While cultural criticism comes in many forms, the mixed messages create a difficult situation when interpreting where truth and fiction overlap. Regardless, it is important to recognize the role that Benson's design has in creating work with socially conscious messages whose goal it is to wake the viewer up to problems facing society. Thirst (Anti-Bottled Water) functions by negotiating this territory and urging the viewer to know more about their choices as consumers.