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.

Author: Surabhi Naik

Surabhi Naik is a designer and writer dedicated to Immersive Narratives & Experience Design based in New York City. Her past work ranges from conducting data-driven narrative research in urban communities in India and prototyping spatial design experiences to creative writing for different media. A graduate student in The New School’s Media Studies Program, she is currently deep-diving into Immersive Storytelling Design & Research and is the Editor of Data Matters Publication at the Center for Data Arts

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