Open one of the spigots at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum and it’s not water that rushes out, but sound. You might catch a few stanzas of a poem: The Flint water crisis is still here, I don’t understand why this isn’t clear. Or you might hear part of a letter to Governor Rick Snyder: “I am shocked that a city in the United States of America can have unsafe water in 2016.” The interwoven copper pipes along the exhibit hall’s walls carry a steady flow of moving words spoken by Flint high-school students.
Jan Tichy created Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint after the museum invited him to address the city’s ongoing water crisis. The Chicago-based artist and educator, who views Michigan as part of his larger Great Lakes community, followed Flint’s tragic saga of lead-tainted water when it started making headlines in 2015. But before beginning his residency at MSU, Tichy admits that, like many Americans, he thought the problem had been fixed. He remembers watching President Obama drink the water in May 2016 and thinking, “OK, it’s over!”
Sadly (and infuriatingly), the Flint water crisis still is far from over.
In 2014 the city tried to save money by switching its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the river water with anticorrosives, causing toxic lead from aging pipes to leach into Flint’s water supply. Research by Mona Hanna-Attisha revealed that the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels in their blood doubled after the switch—and in some neighborhoods it tripled.
As we approach the three-year anniversary of Flint’s changeover to the river water, the city is still waiting on thousands of replacement pipes. Meanwhile, residents are again paying full cost for water they cannot drink without a filter.
Flint is a majority black city where more than 40 percent of all residents live below the poverty line, leading many critics to characterize the protracted time line of water contamination as environmental racism. After hearing residents describe their battle to get help with their public health emergency, Tichy came to a conclusion about the crux of the matter: “When you pare it down, it was about not listening to each other,” he says. In response, Beyond Streaming opens new channels of communication and amplifies the voices of those affected.
Tichy was adamant about creating a figurative pipeline between students from Flint and Lansing. Not only is Lansing the seat of state government, from which so much of the mistreatment stemmed, but it is also one of the few cities in the country that have managed to entirely replace their lead lines. “It felt like the project somehow should address this relationship: these two places, these two sides of power,” he says. “In a couple of years, these [students] will be leading their communities, so it felt like the act of sharing and listening and working together might be important.”
Tichy teamed up with Jessyca Mathews, an English teacher at Flint’s Carman-Ainsworth High School, and Pam Collins, an art teacher at Everett High School in Lansing. Together they developed a plan to work on the project within the existing curricula so students could spend an entire semester taking a deep dive into the issue.
“It was a perfect opportunity for kids to realize how important it is to speak up when there is some kind of injustice going on,” says Mathews, whose 12th-grade English class focuses on research and activism. “My students didn’t think that they had the ability to actually talk to a broader audience about the issue.”
Each of the 38 students from Flint was paired with a student from Lansing. During a series of workshops led by Tichy, the pairs toured each other’s schools and cities and learned about social justice and creative expression. Mathews says the speed with which her class connected to their Everett High School counterparts was “a powerful thing to see.” The students from Lansing, she says, did not take on the role of bystanders to the crisis. Rather, “they were like, ‘No, this is a problem—we’re hopping in.’”
The final product is the result of collaboration in the truest sense of the word. Together the students composed poems, essays, letters, and drawings that express their experiences of the water crisis. Their recorded sound waves flow through the exhibit’s pipes at all times but can be heard only when the tap is turned on. “It behaves literally like water,” Tichy says.
Tichy crafted this sound mural after the students became inspired by learning about the Wall of Respect, a public mural painted in 1967 on the South Side of Chicago that depicted black heroes. The copper pipes used in the installation are a nod to the new ones Flint is installing in homes with lead lines.
Beyond Streaming is on view at the Broad Museum until August 20. The project’s expansive website archives much of the material featured in the exhibition, including the audio recordings, so people in Michigan and beyond can continue to turn up the volume on the issue.
“The only way we can really grow as a society is to speak up when we need to speak up and to listen when we need to,” Mathews says. “Water is a human right. These are kids crying out to us, for goodness’ sake.”
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