Arts and Culture

Kentuckians use about 4 billion gallons of water per day. Of this, about 156 million gallons comes from groundwater.

This sounds like enough to drown the sea, let alone our modestly sized state. But such abundance often camouflages fragility – we tend to confuse a current bounty with a guarantee that the bounty will endure. This understandable human fallacy makes raising environmental awareness around such issues as groundwater difficult.

Raising such awareness is precisely the point of Livestream, an interactive musical sculpture at the intersection of art, technology and environmental science.

Livestream is a maze of neon green steel tubes that appear to sprout from the Earth and tangle around each other. It looks like some contraption that would have been on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, all nestled near a pond in Lexington’s lovely and popular Jacobson Park.

Each of the neon green tubes contains proximity sensors: The closer one gets to the sensor, the louder Livestream plays music created out of data drawn from Kentucky’s groundwater.

“You could look at it like a string quartet or a string trio being played through these pipes,” said Ben Sollee, the musician and Lexington native who “composed” Livestream.

Sollee composed the music using data from the Kentucky Geological Survey. That data come from springs in three different physiographic regions of the state: Bluehole Spring in the Bluegrass Region, Cold Spring in the Eastern Coalfield and Lost River Spring in the Pennyroyal.

Three measures of groundwater health – temperature, flow, conductivity (water’s ability to carry electrical current, an indicator of the presence of minerals) – were pulled from the data and transformed into sound. Sollee examined the existing data to grasp the possible ranges within each of the chosen parameters. That effectively became his scale of notes. He then composed a note for each data point in the portion of the archive that Livestream performs.

But what does it sound like? Sollee said he focused on “long string tones and a pitch range that is in nature,” and though that sounds abstract, it makes sense. The music feels both alien and entirely organic, a sensation heightened by the visitor’s role in the sound production. Livestream sounds strange and beautiful – as you move among the sensors there are resonant cellos that start to sound like distant whale songs that fade into a kind of euphonious clanging.

Listen to Livestream: 

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By its nature, groundwater is something that we take for granted. Most people may not even know what groundwater is, let alone how much we rely on it. Groundwater is precipitation – rain, snow, etc. – that soaks into the ground, funneled downward through open areas in rock and soil, a process of natural filtration.

According to the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, groundwater accounts for 90 percent of the world’s freshwater, making it one the most essential and shared resources on the planet. We share in both the benefit and the responsibility of this fragile resource – groundwater is easily rendered non-potable by pollution.

“The boundaries of what is yours is kind of blurred, thus the maze of pipes,” said Kiersten Nash, founder of Public Works, the organization responsible for the project’s design and implementation.

Public Works, a New York City-based arts and design collaborative, employs innovative design strategies to coax “unlearning,” their way of getting audiences to set aside preconceived notions and look anew at the world.

Sweeping aside preconceived notions about groundwater isn’t all that hard – how many people have any notion about it? – but opening a space for environmental literacy and new thinking about natural resources requires diligence and innovation.

“Art’s a great venue for that,” said Jon Pope, Livestream’s construction manager. “You don’t really want to create a sense of ownership as much as you want to create the sense of stewardship.”

That Livestream is an audio project is part of this notion of stewardship. There is a lot of talk of data visualization these days. But, as Nash puts it, Livestream is a novel attempt at the “sonification of data.”

“We’re quite attuned to the spectacular being fed to us visually,” Nash said, “but it takes a bit more to engage with audio. So that’s why we foreground the audio here. There’s a strong correlation between engagement and audio.”

In its current form – the “initial provocation,” as Nash terms is – Livestream runs on an archive of data that the Kentucky Geological Survey has collected over the decades. Livestream has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Lex Arts and more, but the group is currently seeking additional funding to expand the project.

For the next stage, Nash and her team, which also includes engineer Sean Montgomery and artist Bland Hoke, would like to expand both the number of data sources from three to five and begin using real time data from groundwater monitoring stations.

“The intent here is not ultimately just to raise awareness about groundwater, that it exists,” Nash said. “What we hope to do is create educational outreach programs that hope to also cultivate accountability. In my mind, for too long we’ve relegated the responsibility of our environment to institutions like the Geological Survey. So that’s the ultimate intent.”

Livestream is up and running now, and a formal dedication is planned for October.