Listening to a Glacier on a Warm Summer Day

Photo: Brett Gilmour, © 2018

In June, CDA Director Ben Rubin and Data Artist Jer Thorpe completed Herald/Harbinger, a work of light, movement, and sound that unfurls from the south lobby of Calgary’s Brookfield Place, extending outdoors into the open tree-lined plaza.

The plaza at Brookfield Place, Calgary. Photo: James Brrittain, © 2017

Heralding the ascent of Earth’s Anthropocene period, Herald / Harbinger speaks to the interrelationship between human activity in Calgary and the natural system of the Bow Glacier in the Canadian Rockies.

The artwork’s story begins about 160 miles west of Calgary, where the Bow Glacier melts, cracks and shifts with changing temperatures, existing in a perpetual state of physical transformation. In 2016 and 2017, the artists constructed a solar-powered seismic observatory at the edge of the glacier. There, they installed sensors that register the near constant shifting of the restless ice and feed this data in real-time to the artwork’s servers.

“Up on the mountain, when the wind wasn’t blowing, there was an eerie, complete silence. Watching the data scroll by on the screen, though, I could see that the ice was not as it appeared; that its stillness belied a quick and constant movement.” – Jer Thorp

The glacier’s movements are made visible as displacements of scan lines on an array of LED lights. Photo: Brett Gilmour, © 2018

The artwork itself is a permanent public installation that renders the glacier’s movements audible in an immersive outdoor soundscape of ice and water sound, and visible as displacements of scan lines on an array of LED lights. Inlaid patterns on the granite plaza surface map the forces pushing the Bow Glacier down from the Wapta Icefield toward the Bow lake.

“Climate Change is an abstraction. We read about it, but it’s happening too slowly for us to perceive, and so it’s hard to accept it as something that’s real and urgent. This artwork is an attempt to give a ‘voice’ to a specific glacier in the hopes of making climate change something we can hear and see — something that feels real.” – Ben Rubin

The pattern embedded in the granite plaza surface maps the forces pushing the Bow Glacier from the Wapta Ice Field down toward Bow Lake. Photo: Brett Gilmour, © 2018

As Calgary’s day gets busier and traffic levels rise, the patterns in the artwork are interrupted by the patterns of the urban life, with aggregated data from pedestrians’ footsteps and traffic sampled at 14 different locations around the city sometimes intruding upon the glacial tempo. Vehicle traffic is displayed as seven ‘roadways’ on the piece’s seven LED fixtures. Herald/Harbinger creates an encounter between Alberta’s natural systems and the city’s restive human activity, establishing a kind of conversation between these two realms.

And yet for all of its complexity, the artwork’s presence remains subtle, blending discretely into its urban surroundings even as it invites curious passersby to pause, listen, and investigate.

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.

 

Continue reading “Data Matters Interview Series: Kiersten Nash”

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.