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IA Tech 1.1 - WaterMarks

Updated: Feb 2, 2021


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

We are kicking off our IA Tech article series with a discussion with Christopher Schwank, Ignition Arts Project Estimator and Technology Specialist. Chris's background in IT and systems programming gave Ignition the opportunity to participate in making the WaterMarks project a reality. In this article, we take an in depth look at the project, the technology involved, and ways public art is seeing increasing incorporation of technology such as computer hardware and custom-written code to add interactivity to public work.


Mary Miss’s foundational artistic goal is to envision and facilitate a public that enables artists to address the most pressing matters of their time. She founded CALL to further this mission through a multi-disciplinary, national network of artists and thinkers dedicated to creating sustainability solutions. CALL’s efforts are in pursuit of true systemic change - rather than thinking of discrete objects as their artistic output, they work to create systems of infrastructure in which artists and communities can dialogue, collaborate, and ultimately create projects that engage and promote change within their environment.

When faced with monumental challenges of our time, such as climate change and sustainability, many people feel overwhelmed with figuring out how to respond in ways that will be significant and effective. CALL creatively breaks down the process, and makes steps available to communities to see and understand how they can have an immediate, tangible, and extremely important impact on their community and city.

Images: @cityaslivinglab


WaterMarks is really emblematic of CALL's mission to connect individual action to collective environmental impact. WaterMarks is an initiative developed to support the city of Milwaukee’s Water Drop Alert, and to generally foster an improved understanding of citizens’ relationship with their city’s water systems and infrastructure. The Water Drop Alert system alerts Milwaukee citizens to times when the city is experiencing a water event capable of overloading the city’s wastewater tunnel backup system. A system overflow results in wastewater diversion into Lake Michigan, and increases the chances of residential flooding. With this in mind, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has developed the Water Drop Alert to let citizens know when they might hold off on activities that use large amounts of water, such as washing laundry, or running the dishwasher.

For WaterMarks, CALL sought to create a series of markers, or signposts that would visually alert residents to the ongoing occurrence of water events such as heavy rainfall. Each signpost takes the form of a letter selected by the community of the surrounding site. For example, UCC Acosta Middle School is the site of the very first WaterMark. Acosta students and community members came together to collaboratively select the letter “A”, of course representing the school’s name, but also other keywords such as Agua, A+ grades, and Arts. As with all of CALL’s sustainability projects, the WaterMarks initiative is expansive and comprehensive, consisting of so much more than the built objects themselves. Be sure to check out the WaterMarks page on CALL's website, UCC Acosta’s marker on the WaterMarks website, as well as the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Water Drop Alert page to get a much fuller picture of the initiatives as a whole. Another great resource is CALL's instagram, which we highly recommend giving a follow!


So, what does this all have to do with Ignition Arts? Mary Miss and CALL came to Ignition with the idea of programming these markers to oscillate between bright and dim during the occurrence of heavy rainfall events that threaten to overload the sewerage tunnel system. Enter Chris Schwank - Project Estimator and Technology Specialist at Ignition Arts. As the project manager from CALL described the project needs, Chris said he “could see the lines of code forming in his mind.” With a background in systems programming and years of work in IT, Chris was able to bring the technology expertise necessary to link the letter markers’ behaviors to the status of the city’s overflow tunnel system.

Chris wrote a program that essentially communicates with a webpage located on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's website. This webpage has just one piece of information - a number that displays either a 0 (no ongoing water event) or a 1 (water event is ongoing). Specialty computer hardware installed in the signpost itself reads the information from this one page site at regular intervals 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Whenever the site displays a 0, the marker remains static, constantly lit at full brightness. Whenever the site displays the number 1, the program activates a dimming/glowing action in the LED lighting contained within the marker, thereby signaling to anyone who sees it to reconsider heavy water usage until the marker ceases to brighten and dim. It’s a wonderfully elegant solution, effectively using programming to foster near-immediate communication between institutions and locations, and initiate actions in real-time based on those communications. Except in cases of debugging or hardware malfunction, the entire system runs itself once it’s put into place.

Chris opted to script the program in bash, citing the language as being particularly flexible and versatile. Programs written in bash are easily read on any Linux system, so the program can be easily ported to other computers installed with Linux. In addition to writing the software, Chris handled researching and procuring the myriad specialized hardware required to enable a computer to make programming actions occur in the real world, such as instructing LED lighting to oscillate between varying levels of brightness. This hardware included an industrial grade PC capable of withstanding the extreme weather fluctuations typically experienced in Milwaukee through the course of a year.


From my own perspective as a studio artist, I found this all really intriguing. Listening to the project details, a number of other questions occurred to me:

Are you seeing an increase in these types of projects at Ignition? If so, what do you think is prompting this increase?

There has definitely been an increase just in the past 2-3 years. It seems to be related to rapid evolutions in lighting and battery technologies, making lighting and interactivity possibilities much more cost effective and accessible. Programming and coding used to be a service I provided every now and then at Ignition, but it is steadily becoming a permanent branch of my position here.

If an artist wants to learn more about the processes involved in incorporating interactive programming into their artwork, how would you recommend they get started?

Get an old PC, load it with Linux, and just dive in. This world is vast and deep, and I’ve been engaged with it for decades. You can learn only so much about programming through reading about it - really you have to get your feet wet and start experimenting. This will help you be more familiar with both the possibilities and the challenges that exist when trying to integrate computer programs with real-world applications like lighting and audio hardware.

What are some caveats artists should be aware of when approaching a company like Ignition with a project that requires programming, lighting, and/or audio components?

Adding intelligent or interactive designs to an artwork, even ones that appear to be relatively simple, will significantly add to the cost of fabrication. Sometimes artists hear that this technology is becoming way more accessible, and take that to mean that it’s now also extremely affordable. I’d say it’s important for individuals to brace themselves for a higher price tag than they might have in mind, especially if they are seeking programmed elements, which require a great investment of time to write code, as well as an investment in hardware that can “talk” with the program and perform the desired actions.

A big thank you to Chris for taking some time to share his experience working on this project! If you have any questions or feedback about this article, please send them to


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