Public Art, Conceptual

Q&A: Todd Smith


“I am increasingly interested in developing projects that engage the community…”
— Todd Smith


Louisville artist Todd Smith is currently an Adjunct instructor at Bellarmine University and Indiana University Southeast. He is now in the prototype phase of an ambitious public art project commissioned through Louisville’s Commission on Public Art’s (CoPA) ARTmovesLOUISVILLE alternative transportation project initiative. His project, Bike Sense Louisville, will need over 100 citizen cyclist volunteers to use custom sensor units to track their bike usage around the city for one year. He took the time to answer questions about his work and this unique project.

Where did the idea for Bike Sense originate? How long have you been developing the project?

Just after completing my MFA in Buffalo, NY last spring I got an email from Sarah Lindgren from CoPA about their latest public art call for proposals. The theme was ARTmovesLOUISVILLE, with a focus on projects that engage and educate the public in alternative transportation issues in the city. I was moving back to Louisville and excited to have the opportunity to potentially participate in the city’s growing public art programming.

From the call, I began to think about biking and biking infrastructure. I am an avid biker and have been trying to get lost all over Louisville since I was a kid in the Goose Creek neighborhood. Since then I have lived in 7 different neighborhoods in the city and watched the infrastructure change. I commend the city and the last couple of mayors on their initiatives to make Louisville more bike friendly, but I have also seen the efforts come slowly and with mixed results. I have experience biking in Portland, Oregon, and New York City, where separated bike lanes and bike sharing have been well funded and implemented. Louisville has a bike share program that I have rarely seen used and painted bike lanes that many cars ignore. I wanted to come up with an idea that would help the city get more information about bike usage that could be used to raise awareness about biking in the city and potentially be used to improve bike infrastructure.

My most recent projects in grad school were based around data and sensor technology. I had created a glove with pressure-sensitive fingertips, which in its prototype phase, measured the quality of a handshake. The intention is to create a pair of pressure-sensitive gloves and shoes that can measure the relative distributions of pressure in a tree climb and give it to multiple climbers to see how climbing techniques vary.

In my thesis project I embedded an accelerometer into a large Y-shaped branch that was attached to a sturdy steel frame. I placed that branch in the center of an abandoned grain silo and invited people to climb onto it. As they moved and shook the branch the lights in the silo would flicker and a hidden subwoofer would rumble at very low frequencies. The intent was to make the participant feel as if their movement on the tree branch was causing the destruction of the silo. Essentially it’s an interactive metaphor for the history of the industrial site: man makes concrete silo infrastructure, industry booms and busts, vegetation begins to spread across the site inserting roots into cracks allowing water and rust to slowly destroy it.

My idea for Bike Sense Louisville is to take sensor technology and give it to citizen cyclist volunteers, collect their usage over one year, and interpret that data into a real-time sound work that will be broadcast on the Big Four Bridge. In a way, it is a combination of the two previous projects I described, only it’s about micro-measurements of where people are biking and creating a responsive sound piece that draws the public’s attention to bike usage and infrastructure. I also want to add ambient temperature and carbon monoxide sensors in an attempt to see how weather is changing across the city, as well as monitoring the worst part of car exhaust. Then at the end of the year-long project, the entire dataset will be open and available for anyone to see and use, and maybe even help to determine ways of improving Louisville’s bike paths and routes.

I submitted my idea to CoPA in June 2016. I then was selected to develop a more detailed proposal and budget in the fall. CoPA helped to facilitate meetings with members of the city from their bike program, innovation, parks and more. I also met with the Louisville Waterfront Corporation who graciously agreed to broadcast the project on the pedestrian bridge. Then on December 12th I presented my project to the public art commission committee. The project was approved and the prototyping and marketing phase is beginning now. We hope to launch the project with 100 cyclist volunteers by late summer.

You’ve secured support from Metro Louisville and the Commission on Public Art? How are they helping?

CoPA is funding the project, helping to organize PR, public outreach, and facilitating partnerships with the Louisville Waterfront Corporation, Bike Louisville, and more to make sure the project is successful. They will also start a speaker series this summer to be held at Metro Hall and I hope to participate and present the project in relation to art and infrastructure.

This is pretty conceptual with a capital “C”, was it difficult to get that level of municipal involvement?

The most difficult part of the project is explaining how the technology will work and be translated into art. Once I broke it down to the basic concept and explained the possible benefits from such a massive dataset, the project was very well received. The sound portion will be accessible and the complexity of sound will directly relate to the level of bike usage. No bikers = no sound. A few bikers = simple sounds. A lot of bikers in a lot of different locations = lots of sounds...and all in the vein of a wind chime or wood blocks. I control the harmony and chords so that the differing sounds firing at random will work together, just like the tones of a wind chime are made of notes in a harmonious chord. It involves public interaction, citizen science, and lots of potential for public good. I didn’t find that it was difficult at all to get people on board.

You are asking for volunteers who use bicycles on a regular basis? What is it exactly you need them to do?

First, I am asking all interested cyclists of all kinds go to bikesense.net and fill out a volunteer survey. I am interested in seeing who you are, where you live in the city, how often you bike, where you bike, etc. Then I will select 100 volunteers that best represent all the different kinds of Louisville bikers, plus a waiting list. Then I will hand out the sensor units to the volunteers with these instructions:

  • Use the sensor unit whenever you bike.
  • Keep the sensor unit charged.
  • Return if it stops working or you no longer wish to participate.

Your work is very focused on the subject of urban ecology, and is dominated specifically by trees. This is relative to that, but also different. How would you characterize the relationship between this and your previous work?

During my time in Buffalo I made the conscious decision to expand my practice beyond tree-climbing. I believe this was a natural evolution from all my time in the treetops, seeing all the ways in which humans impact trees and natural spaces. A large part of my Daily Climb project involved walking, biking, and driving around Louisville in parks and neighborhoods to find trees to climb.

Over the many years climbing, my observation of trees inspired me to research the heat island effect, tree canopy studies, writings about invasive plants vs. native, tree and urban ecology, previous weather disasters and floods, and more. I also spent countless hours up close with varying infrastructure in the city. In learning how every creature, plant and thing are connected in our ecology, I found more and more ways to approach making art that draw attention to our impact on our environment. When it all comes down to it, I still love trees and believe that the more people bike instead of drive and the more people support initiatives to improve bike infrastructure, the better the trees will be.

I also believe the more people in the community become directly involved in issues like alternative transportation and collecting data about bike usage, getting their hands dirty planting trees with groups like Louisville Grows, the more they will care about their city. Most of my previous work was about me and my personal experiences climbing. I am increasingly interested in developing projects that engage the community in activities that can provide positive results.

Tell us about an important moment of transition for you as an artist?

I have experienced 3 important transitions as an artist. The first happened in undergrad in 2002 when a visiting artist challenged me to share my perspective as a climber. From that moment forward I stopped drawing and painting and started using whatever means necessary to share my experiences climbing trees.

The second was when my Daily Climb project ended in July of 2010. It was unexpected, incredibly sad, and my obsession was broken. It was a relief, but also such a hard place to rebuild after so long. It has taken me since then to slowly let go of my identity as strictly the tree-climbing guy. I still haven’t let it go completely.

The last transition just recently happened in grad school. I came into my first year ready to discard tree climbing and start new. The first year beat me down, confused me, and cornered me into re-embracing tree climbing again. Then finally, one month before my thesis exhibition was to open in my last semester, I had an on-site meeting with my 3 committee members. They finally saw my idea to share my tree-climbing experience with projection and virtual reality in an abandoned grain silo and they all thought it wasn’t right for the site. They challenged me to reassess. I went back to the drawing board, spent hours walking the site, and through some research and countless discussions and writing and sketching, I came up with an idea with two weeks left. It still may have had an element of trees and climbing, but it went beyond sharing my own perspective as a climber. I finally moved on. It allowed me to create works focused outward. It’s where I find myself now.

What's the most challenging part when starting on a new work?

Every project presents different challenges at different times in the process. I’d say for Bike Sense Louisville, my challenge was how I would translate the data into sound. I went to a Sound Builders meeting at LVL1 Hackerspace and asked them about programs that can translate data streams into sound, and someone recommended Pure Data. This open source programming language has been around for a while and is incredibly flexible. I started teaching myself by watching YouTube tutorials and fell in love with it. It’s been a steep learning curve but it has been really exciting to add another tool to my toolkit.

Plus, every new language or skill I learn I look for opportunities to include it in my teaching. My students teach me so much in return when I see what they do with these skills. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to teach Pure Data and physical computing using sensors. Teaching and creating has really become a rich back and forth.

Given how project oriented you work is, how long do you usually spend on a specific piece?

This is a difficult question to answer. I suppose there is no “usual.” At times, I have felt frustrated when I compare my productivity to other artists who work in more traditional media. I see them pumping out a series of paintings or object-based work they can do by themselves and I feel the pressure to be as prolific. But I don’t usually work in a studio where I can go and make something. I am more interested in larger projects that are outside and involve long periods of learning new technology and working with other people. I finally came to accept that I work a different way and that’s okay. That’s why I have really come to enjoy teaching at a University. It allows me to fulfill my teaching passion as well as make connections with students and faculty that might be interested in collaborating. The time in the classroom feeds my art while also providing a way to support projects that don’t always pay.

"the GOOD GUY glove" by Todd Smith (2015) | Click here to learn more about this project

"the GOOD GUY glove" by Todd Smith (2015) | Click here to learn more about this project

That being said, I recently participated in one of Zephyr Galleries Project shows with a series of photographs called Conic Sections . The series was inspired by my hobby of doing parkour. I had discovered that I could use my iPhone to take panoramic pictures, but rather than scan from side to side, I would arc backward or scoop the phone in a “U” shape and get really interesting images with 2 horizons. I asked a close friend to do parkour through spaces around Louisville and New Albany while I shot the pictures. He was often in the picture 2 or 3 times in different locations, moving as I slowly bent over backwards. The results were really disorienting and playful.

It all depends on the idea I suppose. That idea came to me one day walking around in a park and playing with my phone. The moment I realized I could capture two horizons I had the idea in a flash. I scheduled the shoot, spent a few hours shooting and then ordered the prints from the best few shots.

Other project ideas pop into my head at random moments and I keep a list. Then when opportunities present themselves like public art calls, I look back at my previous projects and my list of ideas and see if any apply or can be tweaked or altered to fit. The bike project wasn’t something I had thought of before, but elements of previous projects helped form the final concept.

How do you feel about local art scene in Louisville? Would you change anything about it?

I see two sides to the art scene here. One, it’s cheap to live and still relatively cheap to rent studio space. The culture is supportive of the arts and there is more and more programming going on with public art. Plus, with U of L and IUS and Bellarmine and KyCAD there are programs producing young artists...I just don’t know where they go after they graduate.

The flip side is that there is a very small group of people/collectors who support all the arts in the city. It doesn’t seem like Louisville is a draw for outsiders to look in and see what’s happening here. That means it’s up to us artists to look elsewhere for opportunities. And then many leave. Because of that, great galleries and art spots like Land of Tomorrow are forced to close. I love the energy that Dan Pfalzgraf is bringing to the Carnegie in New Albany.

He’s trying new things, getting local institutions and artists involved, and he’s especially open to young, local talent. It would be great to see all the curators from all the local museums and cultural institutions get more hands on with local artists and include them in programming. I assume it is happening more than I know and am just not aware of it.

Another example I did recently see was Human Abstract at the Kentucky Center put on by Louisville Ballet. It featured the collaborative work of Tiffany Carbonneau, Andrew Cozzens, and Ezra Kellerman, and the show was amazing! I really appreciate that these kinds of opportunities are coming to local artists. I guess it’s up to me to stay plugged in and make sure I am not missing more of these opportunities to get out and support my fellow artists.

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Age: 35
Education: MFA, Emerging Practices, University at Buffalo, NY, 2016; BA, Studio Fine Art, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 2003
Website: http://www.toddcsmith.com

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"Inward Out: Spontaneous Reverberations" by Todd Smith (Exhibited on April 30th 2016 at Silo City in Buffalo, NY) | Click here to learn more about his Master Thesis exhibition

"Inward Out: Spontaneous Reverberations" by Todd Smith (Exhibited on April 30th 2016 at Silo City in Buffalo, NY) | Click here to learn more about his Master Thesis exhibition

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