Designer, artist, and educator Kiersten Nash likes asking questions. Asking the right questions has changed a lot for her, and getting the people who engage with her work to ask questions, too, is a big part of why she does the work she does. The question she’s been asking lately is “How can we raise awareness about groundwater?” She and her colleagues in the design collective Public Works Collaborative have been attempting to answer that through their recently completed project Livestream.
Livestream, an interactive sound sculpture installed in Lexington, KY’s Jacobson Park, is a project designed to get people asking questions about water—where it’s coming from, what’s in it, how is it being monitored. It isn’t just an artwork, though, Livestream is designed to actively monitor the state’s groundwater using a custom designed toolkit. This first iteration of the project, featuring sounds composed by musician Ben Sollee, “translates data measuring each spring’s conductivity, temperature and flow into sound.” I spoke to Kiersten recently about Livestream, her design process, and how “[un]learning” can be the key to asking the right question.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you asked me, at least if you asked me today this very second, I would say that my favorite album cover is, without a doubt Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. It may just be the gold standard in album art. This cover has movement, it has life. I can hear the music before I even press play. There’s something ecstatic about it. Each body curving into the next. Arms, legs, backs twisted into expressions of joy, of freedom. It tells you something about this album, about its creator in ways that even reviews might not. Album covers do so much to elevate the work they surround. But as DJ Pangburn points out in his blog post at The Creators Project: “some truly great albums have absolute crap covers.”
The online contemporary art store Hen’s Teeth Prints, along with This Greedy Pig and Choice Cuts, wondered what sort of album designs labels and artists would create if there were no boundaries in releasing an album from past or present.
The resultant project, Fantasy 12″, invited artists, designer, and record labels to re-imagine iconic artists’ album covers.
Artist: Donal Thornton. Album: John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme.’
Artist: Stephen Serrato. Album: Frankie Reyes ‘Technoindigenous Studies EP No.1.’
A few months ago, we began the early stages of re-conceptualizing the visuals for a project dedicated to preserving women’s intellectual history. How could we make this information more dynamic, more interactive, more collaborative? And, in turn, how could we make sure that this important, yet often unacknowledged history, becomes and remains a vital part of our educational standards? It’s an exciting project, for sure, but it’s also a project that reminds us that some histories aren’t as heralded as others. Names, faces, thoughts, and ideas. Movements, collectives, discoveries, and innovations. All of them here, many of them forgotten. Their works and their creations have either been relegated to footnotes, or continued on in our consciousness completely divorced from their makers.
The project’s director, New School professor Gina Luria Walker, noted in an interview with Broadly: “It’s too easy to blame the media, or blame big business, or capitalism, or white men. The issue is ancient. It is primordial.”
Simply: we don’t know these names because no one has ever told us that we needed to. But what if, from the very beginning, these names weren’t unearthed discoveries, but readily accessible knowledge? That knowledge has to come from somewhere, and it needs to start early.
Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of reading Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World(Ten Speed Press) written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky. I suppose, that on its face, it may seem like a children’s book— it’s colorful, vividly illustrated, and contains short, easily digestible biographies of fifty women in science—it actually is perfect for the budding science-lover in your household. It would be a mistake to think that it’s only for kids, though (as evidenced by the excited ooohs and aaahs heard around the office when the book arrived). Honestly, how many us know the remarkable Annie Easley who, despite being subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow south, went on the become a NASA engineer whose work formed the foundations for space shuttle launches? Or the work of particle physicist Sau Lan Wu who, against her father’s wishes, applied to college and later led one of the teams instrumental in observing the Higgs boson? For these names to become more recognizable, they need to be written about, read about, and spoken about by people of all ages. We can’t remember what we’ve never known.
One of my favorite images in Ignotofsky’s book is an illustration titled “More Women in Science,” where she highlights eight additional women and provides short bios for each. But it’s the ninth figure on the page that gets me. She leaves this one in shadow, mysterious—”The next great scientist could be you!” she writes. That gets to the heart of it; these biographies do more than uncover history, they make inroads for the future. It’s not important to keep these names alive just because it’s the right thing to do (it is), it’s important because knowing them could mean the difference between a kid seeing the possibilities and, well, not. Women in Science is an important book to hand to a kid because they need to know—as soon as possible—that history includes all of us. It’s also an important book to keep for yourself because, sometimes, whatever your age, you might need a reminder of that fact, too.
In their letter in the special issue on sound studies of journal continent.editors Jamie Allen, Lital Khaikin, and Isaac Linder contemplate the sound artist as a public artist. Sound, they argue, isn’t private. Rather, sound creates an ecology and an environment, one in which we can both choose to be a part of (i.e. music in headphones) and those which we do not (i.e. pretty much everything else). When much of our interactions with sound are an experience that we’re generally not choosing, what is the role of the sound artist? What is the role of sound that is intentional, space-specific, and intended for the public. The editors describe it this way:
We ask the question: through what devices, technologies, infrastructures and systems are the politics of public space debated? What are the mediations and interventions possible in an art involved in sound that are, in our troubled world of multitudinous crisis, necessarily addressing and controlled by states of emergency, homeland security sound systems, consumer prompting PA’s for the incentivisation of purchases and the effective affectation of Muzak.
Built around the theme of “Acoustic Ecologies,” the issue features articles from theorists and practitioners, each with unique approaches to the theme. For example, artist Gail Priest asks “What will art in the future sound like?” in her hybrid audiovisual and literature piece “Welltuned City”; artist and writer Byron Peters examines the force of sound (and silence) on networks and political movements; and Jan Philip Müller explores how radio broadcasts during the Vietnam War were spaces for resistance, compliance, points in between, and often, all angles at once.
In their letter, the editors pose an interesting question: “Yet, as with the non-death of writing that has become a hallmark of our digital age, perhaps we’re both sounding and listening now more than we ever have?” It’s an intriguing thought. Of course, the ways we listen have changed; technology has seen to that. And it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the amount we’re listening to has changed as well. As I write this, I hear the buzz of the air conditioner, the hum of electronics, the ever-present whir of the traffic below—many of those unrecognizable noise to someone occupying this space a hundred years ago. Sound is layered in every part of our days, building a particular environment for the listener. But it’s less about how these sounds are finding us, or how many of them we interact with, and more about what we do with them and how we craft our environments and actions around them. Each of us has the ability to be both listener and producer, creator and participant in our sound-rich environments. The entire issue is a remarkable look at the ways that sound artists and theorists are contemplating the role of public sound.
The Center for Data Arts needs a New School student with a great sense of typography and aesthetics to work with us on a UX/UI project. Both graduate and undergraduate considered. Please send cover letter and examples of your work to Katie Wanner (wannk858 at newschool.edu)
“I think there is no fashion statement greater than being able to change how your skin looks,” says artist/engineer Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao in the video explaining the idea behind the new on-skin interface DuoSkin developed by MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Microsoft Research. DuoSkin‘s wearable tech takes the form of user-designed, gold-leaf temporary tattoos. She goes on to explain that the designers wanted to make DuoSkin‘s technology easily accessible to anyone. The fabrication process “enables anyone to create customized functional devices that can be attached directly on their skin” using graphic design software, a vinyl cutter, and gold leaf
From DuoSkin’s website:
DuoSkin’s three-step workflow. Step 1: (a) Sketching skin circuitry with graphic design software. Step 2: (b) Fabrication, which includes (c) creating stencils of the circuitry, (d) applying gold leaf as the conductive material, and (e) mounting electronics. Step 3: (f) After completing the circuitry, we apply the DuoSkin device to the user’s skin through water-transfer.
The tattoos can take one of three forms, input, output, or communication. The input interface is a lot like the user interface we all know, featuring buttons, sliders, and trackpads to control a music or video player, for example; output uses thermochromic pigments that react to the user’s body temperature to produce changing colors giving it a mood ring quality; and communication lets users read data directly off the skin using NFC tags.
The designers wanted their product to be user-friendly and customizable, both aesthetically and functionally, and by making the fabrication process so open, anyone with a desire to create uniquely beautiful devices on their skin, can. In a paper outlining the development and testing of DuoSkin they explain their hope for the tech’s future:
It is our vision that future on-skin electronics will no longer be black-boxed and mystified; but the will converge towards the user friendliness, extensibility, and aesthetics of body decorations, forming a DuoSkin integrated to an extent it has seemingly disappeared.
In the world before ours, before our texts, emails, 140-character thoughts, before we could have conversations with long-distance loves during a morning commute, in that world, communication was something different, something more challenging. I’d hesitate to call it more meaningful—there can be meaning in even the shortest hello if we want there to be—but there is something more, let’s call it more purposeful, in the act of communication in a pre-electronic world.
Researcher William Decker describes how reading pre-telecommunication letters “requires acts of imagination and empathy, but even casual attention to their commonplace expressions reveals a sense of space and time different from our own.” To sit, to write, to send your thoughts to someone and wait, patiently, while your letters finds its way, and to play this process out in reverse while you await response requires an amount of purpose that we may have lost in an instant-communication world. But there’s something more to Decker’s statement, the idea that reading this pre-electronic letter writing reveals something unknown to a modern reader. We get a glimpse of something new; words we may not have known, a voice we can’t imagine, a new way of thinking, a different way of seeing. We are experiencing their world through ours, and perhaps even seeing our world slightly differently.
In their new book, Dear Data(Princeton Architectural Press), designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec are seeing their worlds in new ways. The book, a collection of postcards the two sent to each other over the course of a year, explores the very mundane data of our lives: drinking (Week 18), complaints (Week 7), swearing (Week 37), or times we wish for privacy (Week 51), and beautifully visualizes them.
As the two write in the book’s introduction, “We would spend the week noticing and noting down our activities or thoughts, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.” Through the process of examining their worlds in new ways, and noting emotions, sounds, and thoughts Lupi and Posavec, like the pre-telecommunication era Decker writes about, reveal a sense of space and time that we’d never considered. Through their weekly postcard exchange the two got to know each other, and themselves. The world around them was data to be collected, to be examined. They continue:
Besides finding data in the world around us, we are all creating data just by living: our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the internet, all contribute to the “data trail” we leave in our wake as we move through life.
Lupi and Posavec’s explorations are alternatively funny (Posavec’s strategy for remembering the animals she spotted on her bike ride ending in a shouted “Give me my PHONE!”) and vulnerable (Lupi’s privacy week postcard, presented as a sort of erasure poem— the absence of words adding weight to the revealed ones), and at all times thoughtful. In an era where our personal data is constantly being amassed, studied, packaged, and sold back to us as ads, initiatives, or motivators there is something very powerful about taking it back. And not just taking it back in the way that wearable technology promises to quantify our lives, but taking it back in quiet, tactile, and let’s not forget, analog ways.
Dear Data is a nice reminder that even in this hyper-technological, ever-connected world, there is a beauty and simplicity in returning to a way of connecting that both roots us to our world and to one another.
Biome Arts started the way that many things do—by asking questions. What would happen if we combined this with that? What would happen if I bring my talents into your field? And in the case of Biome Arts, what would happen if we bring the visual, the digital, the sonic, and the sociopolitical into our art practices? What could we create then? The Biome Arts collective was founded in 2014 by Sally Bozzuto, Saito Group, and Chihao Yo and brings together writers, artists, designers, engineers, architects, and activists whose work speaks to the ways that art, technology, and social justice intersect.
The result of the collective’s collaborations has been two large-scale installations that live at the junction of technology, art, and activism. Their first project was Eco_Hack 2014, which included the structure The Forest Pavilion. This structure served as a multimedia gathering and performance space that also housed several interactive, immersive digital and data art installations.
This year, the team is back with Eco_Hack 2016. They are in the process of constructing Greenhouse Theater aboard the floating food-forest and art installation, Swale. This space, like The Forest Pavilion, will function as a central hub on the project and will also serve as the data center for the space collecting, visualizing, and projecting data gathered from the plants growing aboard.
I met with four of the members of the collective to talk about their upcoming project, data privacy, and how they’ve melded technology, activism, and art into their practices.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
At our visit from IBM Watson specialist Armen Pischdotchian last month, we learned about all the ways that cognitive computing was changing our world. And while Armen was pretty thorough in his workshop, we were still surprised to see Watson on the red carpet. But there it was, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala, in the form of a “cognitive dress” designed in partnership with Marchesa. The designers used the technology to create a dress embedded with color-shifting LEDs that responded to followers emotions.
Prior to the gala, Watson analyzed Marchesa’s social media to translate followers’ sentiments into colors. It turned emotions into information, and created a color palette for the LEDs from that analysis. In real-time during the gala, Watson processed the huge volume of tweets surrounding the event, and changed the color of the dress according to the emotions in them. Rose signified joy, coral meant passion, aqua was excitement, lavender denoted curiosity, and butter indicated encouragement.
The project, which IBM describes as “a partnership between man and machine” required Marchesa designers to feed hundreds of images to Watson; the technology responded with suggestions for design and color. In the past, Watson’s forays into fashion have mostly been on the back-end, helping brands like North Face and Melborne Fashion Week better serve the needs of their customers, so this shift to the design side of things marks an interesting shift.
We are constantly quantifying our days-our steps, our sleep patterns. To that end, this dress feels like a natural extension of that; another way to make sense of the flow of information that washes over us. Data has always been at its best when it’s telling a story, when it’s something more than charts and numbers, so the blend of data visualization, fashion, and emotion seems natural in a way. It’s another story to tell. I suppose that we can’t know right now just what story partnerships like this will be telling in the future.