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.
DataMatters: Can we talk a little bit about your background and how you how you started doing what you do?
Kiersten Nash: I have a background in environmental design. I worked with museums and “culturally-accredited” institutions to construct spaces that immerse individuals in their unique narratives. And for several years, I really enjoyed it. I afforded me an opportunity to assemble a really unique toolkit. A toolkit for adapting an environment to tell a story. I became adept at— inviting individuals to interact with said stories in different ways. However, at a certain point, I grew skeptical of the narratives that we were privileging.
DM: Skeptical? In what way?
KN: I was working at an exhibit design firm in Kentucky. We were working with an historic plantation owned by a prominent family in the area. It was the first time the family was willing to tell the story of the slaves on the plantation. This story—the story—is what I grew skeptical of, the one story, our story or interpretation of their lives on the plantation. At that point, I realized the power inherent in design. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Manhattan to help design the Children’s Library Discovery Center in Queens. That’s when my practice shifted from wayshowing to wayfinding or from telling stories to asking questions. But I still didn’t quite understand what that meant. I needed time and space to consider : “If these are the tools that we have, then how would I like to use them?” So, I came to Parsons and enrolled in Transdisciplinary Design. I spent two years in the graduate program, and that’s when I re-framed my practice, and really began embracing design in the expand field as a political, social, economic as well as environmental practice. And understanding the implications, I becam more intentional about how I practice and where, with whom and why.
DM: Design is by nature interdisciplinary, it’s intersectional because we’re all using design no matter who we are. I think it’s really important to constantly be asking those questions. What other kinds of questions are you hoping that your design prompts from people?
KN: The questions are contingent on the context. I have a background in art. In many ways, my designs parallel site-specific artworks. The questions emerge out of that context. I don’t enter a space with specific questions; I enter a space with my experiences, beliefs and biases.
DM: As we all do.
KN: Absolutely. I’m trying to afford myself the ability, through designing, to understand other perspectives and interpretations of an environment by asking questions. Sometimes those questions manifest as conversations; sometimes questions manifest as workshops; sometimes they manifest as tools; and sometimes they manifest as interactive art works like Livestream. In my mind, that’s a big question. It’s a provocation. It’s not an end or solution. The intent, at least in this particular phase of the project, is to start a dialogue.
DM: So let’s talk about Livestream a little bit.
KN: Sure. It’s been three years in the making, so our intentions have evolved over time. The project was was initiated by the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council (LexArts) in partnership with the Lexington-Fayette County Urban County Government (LFUCG) Department of Environmental Quality in 2013. You see, in 2008, the LFUCG Department of Environmental Quality signed a consent decree issued by the EPA to improve their sewer systems and raise awareness about water quality. To this end, they partnered with LexArts. Together, they published a request for propsals that invited artists and designers to help raise awareness about water quality in Kentucky. We responded. Livestream has grown from that initial provocation into a broader campaign to raise groundwater awareness, literacy, and accountability across Kentucky.
So groundwater. What is it? Well, if we consider design as a dynamic political, social, economic, and environmental infrastructure, then what is groundwater? And that’s the question this campaign is asking. Far too often I feel as though we’ve relegated the responsibility of these infrastructures to organizations such as the Kentucky Geological Survey. It’s unsustainable. Period. It’s going to take a much more collective effort for us to understand how we’re interacting with and hence effecting the environment.
DM: So what ways does this project manifest? There’s sound, data collection, and?
KN: The project has three initiatives: awareness, literacy, and accountability. Each phase of the project privileges one of these three initiatives. In general, Livestream translates groundwater data from across Kentucky into interactive soundscapes that manifest as public art installations (the first in Lexington’s Jacobson Park) and educational outreach programs or workshops.
DM: It’s kind of going back to what you said about how design is social and political. In what ways have you seen design respond to those kind of issues in ways that make you really excited?
KN: Generally, I foreground the politics, [but] in this particular project the politics are backgrounded. Instead we privilege play and interactivity. It’s fun. Through play, we invite individuals in. Once we’ve harness their attention, then we can begin to disassemble the politics. I find this to be an interesting and effective strategy. That said, for awhile, I didn’t understand how much politics pervades this playground. But it became apparent quite quickly. In Kentucky, like anywhere, we are a society that’s dependent on water. Yet currently the water is not being monitored or measured at the frequency or distribution necessary to understand how its changing the rest of our everyday lives change. In many areas, it’s drying up. In some, it’s overflowing.
When we talk about data, more often than not, we assume that we have vast data sets because we’re so inundated with data right now, right? Wrong. Let me explain. Early in the Livestream project, my colleagues and I at Public Works stumbled upon the Kentucky Geological Survey’s (KGS) groundwater data repository. Upon cursory glance, it seems like a lot of information. It’s incredibly dense. There are different springs, regions and parameters. But it’s entirely illegible, at least to the vast majority of us.
So we wondered: “How might we how can make this information more accessible?” Along the way, we realized is that KGS doesn’t actually have much information For some areas of Kentucky, the most recent groundwater data is more than 30 years old!
DM: Wow. So much has changed in 30 years.
KN: Precisely. I mean our economy depends on groundwater. Coal, tobacco, soy corn, and bourbon rely on the limestone water. But little is known about the water that runs beneath the Bluegrass. Why? Measurements requires manual labor—someone from a geological survey has to physically to go to a location and take a sample. And so the project evolved: Can we go beyond just an awareness campaign? And can this awareness campaign also help the Geological Survey increase of their capacities? Can we design an integrated groundwater monitoring network to measure at the frequency and distribution necessary to sustain this valuable resource?
Livestream is named Livestream for a reason— we had imagined this integrated network where we would have sensors submerged in aquifers across the state. Ideally, we would have started with at least one monitoring station in each physiographic region. In these regions groundwater data measurements would increase from once every 30 years to once every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It’s still not enough but it’s more than what we have now.
Then the data is translated into sound and uploaded to public art installations across the state. The art installation in Jacobson Park is a representational map of Kentucky. The pipes are divided into clusters. Each cluster represents a different spring in a different physiographic region, and each pipe represents a different parameter—conductivity, temperature and flow. Imagine ginormous green pipes emanating from the Earth. As you get closer to the pipe, the volume increases and as you move away the volumes decreases. The intent is to show that your actions have a reaction in the environment—you’re in dialogue with your environment. The intent is to make this invisible interaction visible and audible.
DM: It’s a good way to get people to be invested in the issue. If we don’t know there’s a problem, how can we even begin to address it? So is there public engagement beyond the installation?
KN: There are workshops. Generally these are multi-generational and cross-disciplinary. They’re a real treat. That’s phase one—art installations and educational outreach programs to raise awareness groundwater awareness. Phase two is focuses on expanding our literacy. To that end, we an online archive that would allow individuals to mash-up the sounds/data. Embedded in that interaction you would also have other “facts” and figures about groundwater. Again, foregrounding play. Then, in phase three, we can shift our attention to accountability. For that what we had imagined a mobile type of application—I don’t necessarily mean your mobile phone—but designing a means for individuals to measure their water and upload that data to an archive. Our intention is to ultimately transform citizens into geologists with the capacity to measure and monitor our water ways.
DM: And also activists.
KN: Mapping is activism. Why are certain people and places on a map and others aren’t? It’s like designing an exhibit. Why are certain narratives privileged and others aren’t? One might assume is that we’re measuring groundwater in certain areas because A) these areas are really vulnerable, or B) you suspect there’s a density or depletion of groundwater in this area. Those were my assumptions. It was explained to me, and [what] I’ve come to understand, is it may have been intended to measure these areas because they’re vulnerable, but what happens when the farmer says, “I don’t want you measuring on my farm.” And then the miner says, “I don’t want you measuring next to the coal mine.” It becomes a whole different negotiation in terms of the politics.
DM: Mapping is political.
KN: Precisely, yeah. Institutions such as the Kentucky Geological Survey are inherently political, but identify as apolitical bodies.
DM: How long is Livestream going to last. Is it a permanent installation?
KN: The install is permanent, but what’s permanent? According to our contract, Livestream will be installed in Jacobson Park for five years. After five years we discuss whether it’s dismantled or not. The intent was not for it to be a one-off, but an installation distributed throughout the state. So you see these green pipes emerging from the Earth in Lexington. Then you’re an hour down the road in Louisville, and you suddenly see them coming out of the sidewalk. And then, maybe you’re down in Paducah and all of a sudden you’re in a coffee shop and you see that rounding the corner. Seeing these green pipes in different contexts and different scales, you begin to question: My water? Your water? Really? Or is it our water?
DM: Yeah, exactly. Water has been in the news so much lately. We’ve seen one prime example in Flint right now. I think people want to know more about the systems that bring water into our homes. Is this something that you could see being replicated in other places?
KN: It could be. I mean, I’d like to start with it actually manifesting Livestream in its fuller capacity in Kentucky. But I mean we would be happy to entertain the notion elsewhere. I think if anything that’s been one of my key takeaways of the project. I find it fascinating that the same geographic and ideological boundaries that we used to identify ourselves we also use in terms of how we identify things such as water. I have a hard time referring to water as a resource now. I don’t have the right word for it yet but resource implies that it’s merely there for our use, and I don’t see it as such. But I don’t quite have the word for it yet. But what I now understand is that what’s happening in Flint, or what’s happening in California or China in terms of their water, is really what’s happening here.
DM: It’s a relationship to water rather than a resource, which, like you say, really goes in one direction.
KN: Yeah. And so we’re connected to the folks in Flint. And we’re connected to the folks in California and in China. But the ways that we perceive and practice water currently, and the way that our government is structured around it, and [the way] our infrastructures are currently constructed is that we have very distinct boundaries. This is our water. This is your water. If something is wrong with your water that’s your problem. Until it trickles into our turf and then we can somewhat wrap our head around it, instead of taking the approach, “Oh shit, that’s happening in Flint? Then surely it’s happening here.” In my mind, there aren’t hard boundaries particularly with water.
DM: Much of your work is community based and you’ve said that you want to people to be in conversation with the piece, but those conversations may change based on community needs. How do you approach that when you’re going into a new community? What responsibility, as an artist, do you have to the community?
KN: That’s a really good question. My responsibility is to create a platform that privileges a diversity of voices. That’s my responsibility. And in order to do that I feel like my obligation is, again, to recognize what I bring and what I don’t bring to a space. All of the baggage that I bring. I must realize that. Also, I must recognize that design isn’t an inherent good. I can tell you the story of Livestream as I’ve just shared it, but I can also tell you an entirely different story of Livestream that foregrounds all of our shortcomings over the last three years. More and more as an artist and designer, I feel I need to start telling these stories too.
DM: You’re also a teacher. I’d like to talk a little bit about your approach to teaching and how you’re kind of bringing in all of these ideas. The idea of producing different voices and the idea of it being interdisciplinary. The idea that design isn’t an inherent good. How do you bring those things into into the classroom?
KN: OK so I should I should preface: this is my first semester, full semester, in a traditional classroom setting. So figuring that out four weeks in, and working it out. [laughs]
But that said, years ago, I asked one of my mentors, Cynthia Torp, she owns a very successful exhibit design firm called Solid Light, about teaching. She said, “I do that every day.” It wasn’t until years later, when I was in grad school, that I realized what she meant. We essentially were creating classrooms. An exhibit is essentially a classroom of sorts that has a curriculum integrated into it. That’s why, in many ways, I feel as though I have been teaching for years. It’s just now my pedagogy, I guess, has shifted—it’s less didactic. Really what I’ve been working on over the last few years is trying to craft a practice around a process that I refer to as unlearning. And in my mind that is a parenthetical, [un]learning—learning and unlearning. It’s a constant reflection—learning something and then challenging what you’ve learned and how that’s interpreted. This process affords me the ability to develop and gain broader understanding. And that’s what I try to bring to classrooms now: What are the opportunities for [un]learning? How might we [un]learn and grow together?
DM: You’re part of a collective of artists, as well. Can you tell me a little about Public Works?
KN: Sure. Public Works is a collaborative of individuals that assemble based on the needs of the project. It was intentionally designed that way. But, it’s been now about two years since it was officially launched. In theory, a collective sounds really great. In reality, it’s very difficult to negotiate. If you have a project and you’re contracted by someone in your collective, who assumes responsibility? Who signs the contract? Is that everyone, or is there one person that sends the contract and the others are subcontractors? Then, automatically, you’ve just created a hierarchy within that collective, right? I don’t really care for the structure of it currently. Here are the nuts and bolts: it was set up as an LLC and honestly that’s not what it needs to be. In my mind, it would function better as a co-operative. Although the logistics of that are . . . difficult.
DM: It seems very exciting, though, to have all of these voices who bring something different to the table.
KN: It is. It is very much informed by my time at Solid Light and being reared as an exhibit designer. There’s no way you can create a classroom on that scale with just one person at the table. And so it has always been this interdisciplinary playground. Over the years, I’ve cultivated a community of incredibly creative folks. It’s such a treat to be able to tap people on the shoulder and be like, “Hey, you know, any interest in playing over here?” There’s a luxury and excitement about navigating the nuances and the logistics of that.
DM: One of the things I found so interesting on your website is that call yourself a “thinker-tinkerer.” I would love for you to talk a little bit about that.
KN: So that’s inspired by my [un]learning. My career has followed a circuitous path … over the years, I’ve collected different capacities and if I were to use one label it doesn’t really communicate what I bring to a space. But ultimately in whatever role I’m playing, I think and I do, I think and I act…and I think—as a reflective practitioner that’s my process. Thinker-tinkerer privileges the process as opposed to the product. So if I refer to myself as an artist or a designer, what I’m suggesting is the product is what I do. But what I really do is work, I practice. I practice at thinking and doing, and those two inform one another very much. So I think by referencing that, I am privileging my process as opposed to the product, because I don’t generally know when I step into a space what the project is going to be, but I can guarantee you that the practice will involve some thinking and some doing [laughs].
DM: So I’m just curious what do you think you’re excited about in the art world, things that you’ve seen that you just really glad that it’s here.
KN: Lev Manovich’s cultural analytics— jazzed. Jazzed that framework exists. Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Jazzed that this space exists. On the other hand, I’m terrified at how big data, little data and cultural analytics could play out in the realm of advertising, policing, so many other sectors. But I think there’s too many positive applications not to pursue. I’m excited about the potential for it to shift what we know today, what we think we know today to be true. [projects like] Selfie City, for example, are really reshaping and challenging our notion of time, space and identity. It asks: What is a day? And how does a day look different in Tokyo versus the US? Jazzed.
DM: Data availability has definitely putting into question a lot of these things that we believe. Hopefully it will, like you say, get people to ask questions, to engage with the work, and ask “What does this mean?” “Have I been thinking about this the the right way?”
KN: Or thinking about it at all.