Data Matters Interview Series: Kiersten Nash

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.

 

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Reflections on "Acoustic Ecologies"

continentIn 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.