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Madrid's Broken Drinking Fountains Become Shimmering Waterfalls of Light

Two anonymous Spanish artists use light to highlight defects in the urban landscape. At issue here: Madrid's busted-down public fountains.

Gustavo Sanabria/luzinterruptus

In many neighborhoods in Madrid, it's impossible to slake one's thirst from a public drinking fountain. Pedestrians may wander from one fountain to the next only to encounter a dysfunctional series of broken taps, missing plumbing and bone-dry pipes.

Some locals believe the government is intentionally neglecting these drinking fountains to punish people who use the agua in less-than-savory ways, such as washing their vehicles or cleaning out dirty drug needles. That's the theory promoted by Spanish arts collective luzinterruptus, anyway. The two anonymous artists behind the group claim that more than half of Madrid's public fountains are hopelessly broken, and that people who want a drink either must buy a bottle of water or trudge for 3 miles to locate a working tap.

So after proclaiming that they are "very angry" about the degradation of this "necessary public service," luzinterruptus decided to stage a weird sort of artistic protest to draw light, literally, to Madrid's arid infrastructure.

This kind of glowing public intervention is the shadowy collective's signature. Since 2008, the artists have drawn attention to urban problems using unusual light sources. Concerned that local politicians weren't getting enough scrutiny, the duo surrounded their campaign ads with dozens of red-eyed security cameras; in response to Spain's environmental pollution, they laid fields of internally radiant rain boots (I'm not sure of the connection, either). The luminous hazmat-suited figures in "Radioactive Control" are also tre cool.

Here they are explaining the fascination with light:

“Besides providing a great visual impact, light allows us to make interventions in a smaller degree and greater in others. We avoid deteriorating urban furniture and leave room on the scene for other artists to work on or to the users of that common space, which is scarce in great cities.

To tackle the fountain issue, the artists first persuaded a pair of new parents to save hundreds of empty bottles of infant vitamin supplement. They then cleaned and outfitted the bottles with sky-blue LEDs. People out for a late-night stroll in Madrid's cold January stumbled upon final product, titled Agua potable corriendo por las calles (“Drinking water running through the streets”): Four busted-down drinking fountains suddenly revitalized into geysers gushing cerulean light, which seemed to dribble and pool on the pavement.

As is the case with most of their interventions, people disassembled/stole the shimmering art within a matter of hours. But a wealth of visual documentation remains. Head on over to luzinterruptus' website for tons of photos of the installation, meant to show that “fountains that are used for drinking and refreshing ourselves seem much more necessary and beautiful to us than those which are merely ornamental.”

Images courtesy of Gustavo Sanabria.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.