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Rune Lagu1 essay by Frank Yamrus (2010)

Objects of Desire: Three Views
excerpt from Volume 4 CPN Magazine (2009)


Rune Lagu1 essay by Frank Yamrus (2010)


In this series of typological photographs, plastic bottles that house our drinking water come under the camera’s lens. According to Michael Mascha, author of Fine Water: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Water, there are over 3,000 brands of bottled water worldwide, 180 in the United States.2 In 2010, the global bottled water industry was valued at $60 billion and, despite declining economies, industry analysts predict it to surpass $65 billion by 2012. 3,4 Just thirty years ago commercially produced bottled water barely existed in the United States – today, Americans are the leading consumers of bottled water at 32 billion liters per year.5 According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one in five Americans drinks only bottled water.6 In an analysis of the bottled water boom, Charles Fishman theorizes that: “[b]ottled water has become the indispensable prop in our lives and culture…. the food phenomenon of our times…. [a] chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health.”7 Bottled water is not purely an American phenomenon – Mexico, China and Brazil rank second, third and fourth in bottled water consumption and, on a per person basis, Italy leads the way followed by Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, France and Spain.8

This global trend is not a recent invention. Cavemen carried water in animal skins, ancient Greeks and Romans collected spring water in jugs to transport back to their communities, and in the 15th century water was bottled for the royal courts.9 During the Industrial Revolution when many of our contemporary water towers were first constructed, health spas, which had come into favor several decades before, began bottling their “healthful waters” so that customers could continue treatments at home – a move that crystallized the popularity of bottled water in Europe and in the United States.10 Spa fashion declined in the 20th century, and although bottled water usage endured throughout Europe, it dissipated in the United States when chlorine was introduced into the municipal water resources.11 Our current relationship with bottled water was born in the 1960’s and 1970’s as plastic technologies advanced. Although polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was patented in 1941, the PET bottle was not licensed until 1973.12 These new plastic bottles – clear, tasteless and lightweight – alleviated some of the inherent distribution limitations of glass bottles.13 By 1980 Perrier, in its signature green glass bottles, was already established as a luxury item sold mostly in restaurants. Evian, a still water offered in plastic bottles, exploded onto the American market soon after. The strategy promoting these new plastic bottled waters centered on health, celebrity, exclusivity and portability – a marketing approach so successful that it continues today. Mr. Fishman refers to this period of time as the alignment of “convenience and virtue.”14

The bottled water industry has seen remarkable growth over the past thirty years by turning a simple indulgence into our “sexy and cool” daily companion. Considering that there is no evidence that bottled water is healthier than tap water; that 40% of bottled water comes from the tap; that 50 million barrels of oil are required to produce the plastic bottles used in the United States in one year; that 86% of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter; that bottled water may cost as much as 10,000 times more than tap water; and that, in terms of marketing dollars, the bottled water’s budget is a drop in the bucket when compared to the carbonated beverage industry, it’s success seems illogical and unlikely.15 Recently we have seen minor cracks in the bottled water dam – sales growth stalled in 2007 and, in 2009, declined for the second year in a row.16,17 This recent dip in sales may be attributed to the slumping economy, or perhaps it results from a new awareness that has pushed the bottled water industry to Mr. Gladwell’s epidemiological “Tipping Point?”18

In the developed world, demographically speaking, bottled water consumers are the folks most concerned with the very environmental and social issues associated with bottled water. This target group has positioned itself to clearly understand the irony of building a multi-million dollar water extraction and bottling plant in Fiji where at least one out of three people do not have safe drinking water. They understand the economics behind the privatization of this scarce resource and are concerned about the laissez-faire attitude of governments. They recognize loopholes in bottled water regulations that leave bottled water no safer than tap water. They are aware of the potential hazards lurking in plastic bottles. They get the absurdity of using three liters of tap water to make one liter of bottled water. They see clearly the huge ecological footprint left behind.19

Recently we have seen all factions of the green movement lash out at bottled water. Ecologically savvy and socially aware organizations are using internet and television campaigns to create and increase this new awareness, to sell reusable water bottles and to reveal the true origin of commercially bottled water. Cities and schools are ditching bottled water for tap. Perhaps the greatest grassroots momentum comes from customers snubbing bottled water in restaurants – the very birthplace of our current bottled water infatuation – and demanding tap. In true capitalistic style, bottled water companies have responded with newly designed eco-friendly bottles, fresh marketing campaigns promising “carbon negative” status as early as 2008, expanded “energized” product lines and specialized target markets – all undoubtedly designed to perpetuate the bottled water health mystic.20

Footnotes:
1. Rune Lagu: In his paper, Lagu and Belu: The Semiotics of Bottled Water Packaging, Daniel Fusch writes, “The rune predates written language in the Anglo Saxon and Germanic cultures. Runes were a metaphor-based method of communication, originally pictographs comprising concrete and abstract meanings, representing a conception of the world both deeply spiritual and eminently practical. Runes provided the earliest form of writing in northern Europe…. This particular rune [lagu] represents the shape of a man drawing water from a well. The man draws water from a stone well, and inspiration from the well of his sleeping or waking visions. That is, the rune, which signifies ‘water,’ ‘inspiration’ and ‘dreams’ is also a figural representation of the physical act by which a human being accesses the natural source of water, as well as the metaphysical act by which a human being accesses the supernatural source of inspiration.” Published in Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture (reconstruction.eserver.org) (Summer 2006).

2. The bottled waters photographed for this project represent a sample of the universe of waters in Mr. Mascha’s book, Fine Water: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Water, Quirk Press (2006). 3. See wikipedia.com.

4. See Global Bottled Water Market to Reach $65.9 Billion by 2012, According to a New Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc., Boreal Water News (borealwater.com) (June 2010).

5. See Beverage Marketing Corporation Reports (2008) and Bottled Water Consumption Dips Slightly in 2009, Plastic News Report (plasticnews.com) (May 2010).

6. See Bottled Water’s Popularity Tapped Out? by Sacha Pfeiffer, The Boston Globe (boston.com/ bostonglobe) (April 4, 2008).

7. In July 2007, Mr. Fishman’s published his in-depth analysis of the bottled water industry, titled Message in a Bottle in Fastcompany.com, which has served as my inspiration. After reading his report, I started collecting my plastic models and began to craft this project.

8. See Bottled Water: Pouring Resources Down the Drain by Emily Arnold and Janet Larson, Earth Policy Institute (earth-policy.org) (February 2006).

9. See Summary of Nestle Waters Company Profile, referenceforbusiness.com. Nestle is a top producer of bottled water with a portfolio of over 80 brands and 17% of the global market share.

10. See id.; see also Wellspring: A Natural History of Bottled Spring Water by Frank Chapelle and Kathy Flynn Brown, Rutgers University Press (August 2005) and Bottle, Bottles and Bottling – The History of the Water Bottle (finewaters.com) (date unknown).

11. See id.

12. See wikipedia.com.

13. See kenplas.com.

14. See Message in a Bottle by Charles Fishman (fastcompany.com) (July 2007).

15. There are a number of organizations identifying these statistics including: Corporate Accountability International, Earth911, Green Guide, International Bottled Water Association, National Resource Defense Council, Pacific Institute, Polaris Institute, Recycling Container Institute, Sierra Club, Tappening, Thinking Outside the Bottle, Valleywater and Waste Management World and WaterClue. In addition to these resources, a number of articles present similar statistics and ideas including: 2011 Bottled Water Scorecard by Nneka Leiba, Sean Gray and Jane Houlihan, Environmental Working Group (2011); Bottled Water Carries Hidden Cost to the Earth by Emily Sohn, Discovery News (dcs.discovery.com) (April 2009); It’s Just Water, Right? Wrong by Larry Siegle, The Observer (February 10, 2008); Bottled Water vs. Tap Water by Janet Jemmott, The Readers Digest (February 2008); Bottled Water Boycotts by Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute (earth-policy.org) (December 7, 2007); American Beat: Let Them Drink Tap by Newsweek Staff, Newsweek (October 16, 2007); Bottled Water: The Big Con Job (ellsworthmaine.com) (September 13, 2007); Water Water Everywhere, but Guilt by the Bottleful by Alex Williams, New York Times (August 12, 2007); Bottled Water and Snake Oil, The Economist (July 31, 2007); Bottle Water Madness by Larry Lack (counterpunch.org) (July 25, 2006); Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds? by Abid Aslam (oneworld.net) (February 2006); Bad to the Last Drop by Tom Standage, New York Times (August 1, 2005); Ten Concerns about Bottled Water from the Polaris Institute Report by Tony Clark (polarisinstitute.org) (2005) and Message in a Bottle: Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither Cleaner nor Greener than Tap Water by Brian C. Howard, The Environmental Magazine (circa 2003).

16. See Bottled Water Consumption Dips Slightly in 2009, Plastic News Report (plasticnews.com) (May 2010); Bottled Water Demand Growth Slips in Western Europe by Neil Merrett (beveragedaily.com) (June 11, 2007) and Gulp! Bottled Water is Number Two, and Enhancements are Coming by Allen Gibson (beveragestock.com) (circa 2007).

17. See Industry Sales Bad News for Bottled Water, Good News for the Planet, Food and Water Watch (foodandwaterwatch.org) (September 2010).

18. In their analysis of the bottled water industry, “Bottled Water Brands Beware: Tap is Back,” Tom Asacker and Brad Van Auken present bottled water as a “contemporary illustration of Ted Levitt’s marketing myopia. It’s the moment when a hugely profitable industry populated by billion pound brands start to falter in the face of changing consumer needs.” (brandingstrategyinsider.com) (November 7, 2007).

19. In addition to the resources and articles listed in endnote 14 above, see also San Francisco Restaurants Urged to Eschew Bottles in Favor of Tap by Cecilia M. Vega, San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com) (March 21, 2008); Weaning Off Bottled Water, The Hartford Courant (courant.com) (February 26, 2008); Study Finds Tap Water Purer Than Bottled Water, Helsingin Sanomat (February 15, 2008); KU Students Are Willing to Pay $8 per Gallon for Bottled Water by Mary Sorrick, Wichita Eagle (kansas.com) (February 14, 2008); Bottle Water: Who Needs It? by Tom Harp, BBC Panorama (February 2008); Pure Water, Right on Tap by Yvonne Abraham, Boston Globe (boston.com/bostonglobe) (July 22, 2007); Study: Bottled Water Boom is Hurting the World’s Environment (salem-news.com) (May 31, 2007); Which Plastic Water Bottles Don’t Leach Chemicals? by Vreni Gurd (trusted.md) (March 29, 2007); Plastic Bottles Pile up as Mountains of Waste by Miguel Lianos, MSNBC (March 3, 2005). See also Plastic Info Section, (lifewithoutplastic.com); Biota’s Water 101: Know Your Bottled Water Facts, (biotaspringwater.com) and About Bottled Water, (designboom.com).

20. See Plastic Water Bottles Won’t Hurt You by John Stossel (creators.com) (2010); Bottled Water Industry Faces Downward Spiral by Richard Girard, Polaris Institute (altnet.org) (March, 2009); Beverage Marketing Corporation Reports (2008); Gulp! Bottled Water is Number Two, and Enhancements are Coming by Allen Gibson (beveragestock.com) (circa 2007) and Bottled Water: The Brightest Star in the Industry, Fiberwater (fiberwater.com) (2006). See also (nestle-waters.com); (pepsico.com); (smartspot.com); (aquafina.com); (dasani.com) and (fiji.com).

Objects of Desire: Three Views
excerpt from Volume 4 CPN Magazine (2009)


American photographer Frank Yamrus has explored the economics, semiotics and ecological fallout of what one commentator has called the "food phenomenon of our times." Yamrus named the series Rune Lagu after Daniel Fusch's paper Lagu and Belu: The Semiotics of Bottled Water packaging, in whihc Fusch relates bottled water packaging to the ancient rune lagu, whihc represents the shape of a man drawing water form a well.

Much of Yamrus's art photography is personal, poetic and sometimes abstract, but for Rune Lagu he took a different approach. He created 80-odd portraits of plastic bottles from around the world, stripping them of their lableing to reveala sometimes familiar, sometimes surpising, architecture/ " I was definitely inspired by {the photogrpahers} Hilla and Bernd Becher; these are the water towers of our day, he said wryly.

To read the full article, please contact the artist or CPN magazine http://cpn.canon-europe.com/content/news/cpn_magazine_issue_4.do