Toxic Water

Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2017, photo courtesy the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

Intending to save $200 million dollars over the course of twenty-five years, in 2014 the city of Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and, in its place, built a pipeline channeling water from the Flint River.  This resulted in lead corrosion in city pipes, exposing tens of thousands of residents to toxic water, and a state of emergency was declared.  Three years on, the reverberations of the Flint water crisis are still being felt.  Beyond Streaming, an interactive “sound mural” at the Broad Art Museum, addresses the Flint water crisis, but this conceptual sculptural installation is merely a fraction of what this art project actually entails. 

Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2017, photo courtesy the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

Chicago-based artist Jan Tichy’s urban art projects involve community engagement and outreach (such as workshops in schools) intended to make art and art-education accessible to people of all social and economic stripes.  Prior to the installation of Beyond Streaming at the Broad, Tichy conducted a series of workshops for high-school students in Flint and Lansing, which generated the audio content for the final installation.

The installation itself is largely conceptual, but nevertheless maintains a striking visual presence in the Broad’s education wing.  The walls of the gallery space slant counterintuitively at unexpected angles (typical of the architecture of Zaha Hadid), but Tichy’s labyrinth of copper water-pipes frame the space in a stable rectilinear grid that reaches from floor to ceiling.  At about eye-level are thirty faucets; turn the spigots, and out pours the sound of voices reading poetry about the water crisis. Tichy’s concept was to literally create a pipeline of dialogue.

Image courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

The voices we hear belong to students from Lansing’s Everett High School and Flint’s Carman-Ainsworth High School.  In the months leading up to this installation, the students traveled to each-other’s respective cities in a show of solidarity, and participated in a series of workshops facilitated by the artist.  In addition to discussing the Flint water crisis, the students worked on collaborative art projects, exploring art as a way to call attention to social issues.

For many of us in Michigan, the Flint water crisis admittedly remains something distant and foreign— we’re only forced to confront it during the occasional public radio news spot.  But for these students, the issue certainly isn’t abstract, and this project quite literally amplifies their voices.

Photo courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

As political discourse becomes increasingly shrill, one has to admire Tichy’s community-based, dialogue-driven approach to activist art.  It’s laborious and time consuming to actually build relationships and foster constructive dialogue, but that’s precisely what Beyond Streaming manages to do.

Beyond Streaming runs through August 20. More information about Beyond Streaming can be found here, including student artwork and access to all the audio files used in the installation.  Also helpful is this succinct timeline from National Public Radio, explaining the events that led to the Flint water crisis.

By Jonathan Rinck

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