Lead poisoning can stunt my growth / And mess with my mind / We would like help if you don’t mind. Rather than water, words from poet Ken Silas, a student at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan, flowed through a copper pipe and out of the faucet I’d just turned on, bearing my introduction to Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint, conceived by artist Jan Tichy. Constructed from 1,460 feet of copper piping and installed in a network across the windows of an atrium at the Zaha Hadid–designed Eli & Edith Broad Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, the “sound mural” serves as the physical artifact of Tichy’s wide-ranging project, Beyond Streaming. The pipes, linking and crisscrossing over the trapezoidal floor-to-ceiling windows, are fitted with 30 faucets situated at varying heights. Put an ear up close to one and turn the handle, and the faucet delivers poetry written and spoken by individual students from an English class at Carman-Ainsworth or their counterparts, art students from Everett High School based in Lansing, Michigan’s state capital. The pipes may be the exoskeleton of Tichy’s endeavor, but the students’ voices are its lifeblood.
In the autumn of 2016, Tichy was invited to a residency at the Broad, the only directive being that his work center around the ongoing water crisis in Flint, a working-class city located about 70 miles from Detroit. The details of that crisis are at this point familiar — a fact that does not make them any less painful or extraordinary. In April 2014, in order to cut costs, the city of Flint switched its water supply from the large Detroit system to a smaller one from the Flint River. Soon afterward, residents began to complain of dirty, smelly, foul-tasting water running into their homes. Though the city issued statements assuring the public of the water’s safety, EPA testing completed nearly a year later found lead levels in the hundreds of parts per billion. The water of the Flint River, which was already polluted, was being delivered through antiquated pipes, causing leaching of lead. The immediate effect of the potentially life-threatening lead levels was evident in skin rashes and other illnesses in residents, often children and the elderly; the lasting effects may not be known for years.
While the water supply was eventually switched back to Detroit’s system, a lot of damage has been done. The lead pipes throughout the city need replacing, and while this massive undertaking is ongoing, residents are required to pick up cases of bottled water at designated supply stations for all their personal needs — from drinking to cleaning to bathing — while still having to pay bills for water that is essentially unusable. Flint’s crisis persists, though it has fallen from the national spotlight. All these months later, many residents still have no clean water.
“You hear people making fun, or you hear little jokes,” Niya Bush, 17, a junior at Everett and one of the student artists who worked with Tichy, told me, referring to misconceptions surrounding the water crisis and the common inclination to write it off as a trivial matter. But the issue is anything but trivial. A complete breakdown in communication between a government and the people it purports to serve are largely to blame for the situation in Flint. Words—or their absence—matter, a fact not lost on the students. Bush’s remark was a refrain I heard from nearly everyone I spoke with. “More people should take this seriously,” said Imani Cooper, 17, a senior at Carman-Ainsworth. “I don’t think people know what’s actually going on here.”
To facilitate discussions among the two classes of students during monthly workshops, Tichy had the students from Flint pair up with students from Lansing. During their first gathering, all were asked to arrive with the offering of a cup — a symbolic gesture. One class laid all their cups on a table, and the students from the other class each chose one, thereby forming pairs. The duos worked together through the following months to create an artwork and a piece of writing that reflected on the water crisis. The students’ words and drawings, accompanied by a long piece by published poet Jessyca Mathews, the participating English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth, were compiled into a small published book and are also available on Tichy’s project website. The poetry and prose recordings made by the students over the course of the project, which are channeled through the pipe installation at the museum, are also available to listen to online. Tichy’s hope is that the website will exist not only an archival document of the project but as an ongoing testament to the students’ resilience and creativity in the face of their government’s unmitigated failure to take care of them.
“I see myself as an educator as much as I see myself as an artist,” Tichy, who also teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, told me. Earlier works have likewise taken the form of sprawling, socially engaged projects, perhaps most notably Project Cabrini Green (2011), which also involved the participation of students in a workshop-focused endeavor to illuminate the last remaining building of Chicago’s most infamous public housing complex before it was torn down that spring. But the participants in Cabrini Green were college-level students from SAIC, selected for their technological and aesthetic skills and expertise, and not necessarily neighborhood natives. The students involved in Beyond Streaming are an intrinsic part of the communities affected by the water crisis, which perhaps changes the nature of the intended audience. The question Tichy asks is: For whom is Beyond Streaming? “What is this thing?”
The students themselves have ideas about how to answer. “I think it is important to get that message out, and having the project travel across the country would do a better job of doing that,” observed Justin King, 17, a senior at Carman-Ainsworth. Though that particular wish seems unlikely, King’s desire to keep a spotlight on the water crisis is trenchant. Beyond Streaming, metaphorically rooted in channels, exemplifies both what open communication can achieve and the potential danger that exists when it’s breached. The story of Flint elucidates what happens when a government is allowed unfettered power of decision-making, with no system of checks and balances in place: The welfare of its constituents suffers. In the absence of a properly functioning political system, it is ever more vital for art to bestow parity.
Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint continues at the Eli & Edyth Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University (547 East Circle Drive, East Lansing) through 23 April 2017.