Air Quality+ Artworks: Exhausted Sound Air quality sonified through the medium of bicycle
Each artist commissioned by the Air Quality+ project documented their experiences along the way. Here, Kingsley Ash describes his work, Exhausted Sound.
Exhausted Sound aims to allow viewers and participants to explore the connections between air quality, traffic and sustainable transport in the city of Sheffield. The piece makes air quality audible by generating music live from air quality (NO2) data. This data is converted into musical notation (‘sonified’) to be read from screens by live musicians as it appears, accompanied by video projections using images from the City Council’s online traffic cameras that are placed around the city.
The piece is powered by a modified bicycle: the faster participants pedal the faster the music/video will go, and if no one comes forward to ride the bike then the piece won’t play at all, encouraging viewers to engage with the work and provide the energy required to set the music in motion. Through the work, the audience will be able to experience the connection between the primary cause of air pollution (traffic), the results (NO2 levels) and one potential solution (cycling) that is gaining momentum in cities across the UK.
The piece itself grew naturally out of a combination of previous work in the field of sonification and the experience of using this as a tool for engaging the public in large and complex data sets, so I was able to re-use some elements from earlier pieces. However, there were some challenges in realising the piece, as it was technically complex and had a number of different elements that had to work together (reading the data, displaying the images, interactivity from the bicycle, generating the music, sending the scores over the network, etc.).
The inclusion of images from traffic cameras I think was an interesting feature of the work, and it was a shame that these feeds were so sporadic. The traffic camera images were key to enable to the viewers to connect the data with the traffic conditions at the time, and having a more complete set of images would have made this connection more accurate and reliable.
It was interesting to work with a specific data set in this way, and with topical, relevant and interesting subject matter like air quality. This gave great scope for coming up with ideas for work, with the added challenge of trying to engage the public both with the idea and with the underlying data. The three pieces commissioned appeared to work well together, using a range of mediums and dealing with the data in very different ways that served to highlight different issues around air quality.
With more time and resources, I would have investigated using the bicycle as a more direct tool for navigation through the data – turning the handlebars to go forward and backwards through the time period for example. This would have enabled participants to really explore the data using the bicycle in order to find points of musical or visual interest, which may have allowed them to discover trends or behaviours in the underlying data. It would also be good to investigate further the use of live musicians – while they really help with public engagement in the work, there is a trade off with accuracy of representation of the data. Using the computer to play their parts would have given a more accurate representation of the underlying data, though at the expense of a more clinical user experience.
Since the project launch, I have been thinking about the possibilities of developing a system mounted on a bicycle that takes live air quality / traffic data from the local area and converts this to music played through speakers mounted on the bicycle. That way, people could cycle the bike around the city and hear the sound of the air quality live and in real-time. This would require the development of technology to access the data in real-time based on current location (or to analyse live air quality), but would result in a really interesting participatory experience.
Overall, I think using artworks to explore data should be an important element of the open data movement. Open data should allow/encourage a complete spectrum of engagement, from business to individuals and from concrete use (e.g. to influence planning) to more abstract and creative uses without any particular ‘goal’ in mind.