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Artist's machine takes a swipe at Coca-Cola by filtering it into clean water

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Helmut Smits

"I looked at Coca-Cola not as Coca-Cola, but as I've never seen it before. And then I saw dirty brown water," artist Helmut Smits tells Wired. "It was logical to filter it to clean drinking water." Since 2006, Smits has nurtured that dream, and the results were on display at this year's Dutch Design Week. The Real Thing takes bottles of Coca-Cola and sends their contents through a filtration process designed in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam's Synthetic Organic Chemistry Group. The technology (boiling the Coke and re-condensing the water) is not precisely groundbreaking, but to Smits, the point is to make people "think about how there are places in the world where people don't have access to drinking water, but they have access to Coca-Cola." Or, alternately, "I just want people to laugh and then hopefully think about the shit that they consume."

The Coca-Cola Company, in fact, has a terrible track record with water, even leaving aside the negative health effects of its sugary signature beverage. But the problem isn't so much that its supply chain is better than local infrastructure. It's been widely mocked for selling filtered tap water under the Dasani brand, and bottled water in general is an environmental nightmare. Critics have charged it with draining India's water supply to produce its beverages, among other parasitic business practices. And then there are the endless, less credible urban legends surrounding Coke, Dasani, and other brands. The company has tried to turn its image around by setting up centers that distribute clean water, food, and Wi-Fi in developing countries, using technology developed by inventor Dean Kamen. Smits, meanwhile, says that now that he's demonstrated the concept, there's no need to take it further.

"I'm not planning on turning all the Coke in the world back into water," he says.