Alan Kolok works small. He's a scientist, specifically an aquatic toxicologist, who studies water contaminants. And just like the scientists analyzing the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, Kolok studies contaminants at an infinitesimal yet critical scale — parts per billion — that might sound familiar even if the meaning isn't.
Ying Zhu works big. She's an artist, specifically an installation artist, whose work can span walls and envelop entire rooms. There's subtlety in its intricacy, but the impact of Zhu's art comes in its repetition and totality — her ability to turn many small things into something grand and poignant.
Here's where Kolok's work meets Zhu's work. The pair, scientist and artist, are among the many collaborators contributing to an ambitious new exhibition, "Water," opening Friday at Kaneko. In particular, Zhu has worked with Kolok and his team at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to create a visual interpretation of that boring-sounding measurement — parts per billion — in a way that not only communicates its meaning but, ideally, provokes something in viewers, as well.
What: Multimedia exhibition presented by Kaneko with numerous community partners and artists
Where: Kaneko, 1111 Jones St.
When: public opening 6 to 9 p.m. Friday; continues through April 23
Info: 402-341-3800 or thekaneko.org
"The question, artistically and scientifically, is how do you express what that means to the general public?" Kolok said. "Scientists tend to focus on the head. I want to have a cerebral connection with you. (But) sometimes a cerebral connection is not the connection to make. What does it mean to people? How does it make you feel?"
With "Water," Kaneko and its many partners are hoping to hit visitors in both the head and heart. The exhibition tackles arguably the most important issue in the world today — or rather "a spectrum of issues," as Kolok called it, with countless global, national, regional and local nuances and implications. There are issues of access, distribution and quality, and ultimately an imbalance between supply and demand that tilts toward catastrophe.
"Water" doesn't attempt to address every issue, but it covers a lot of ground. It includes exhibits by pioneering companies and nonprofits, such as Omaha-based Aqua-Africa, which drills water wells in East African villages, and Whispering Roots, which aims to reduce food insecurity in Omaha through aquaponics systems.
One of the main presenters, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will present a multimedia overview of its research, including a video installation demonstrating groundwater depletion and recharge — essentially the ebb and flow of underground aquifers — set to sound designed by artist and sound engineer Tommy Bartlett.
"It should be a very cool way that people, to my knowledge, have never seen or heard groundwater," said Jesse Starita, an associate with the Water for Food Institute. "What we tried to do is pick different aquifers in different areas of the world. One, the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas, has shown a really eye-popping decline in its water levels since the 1950s.
"That's one thing people will take away: just how much water is being used, largely for agricultural production. People could walk away going, 'Oh, I never thought that simple scientific data, decimal points and numbers, could be interpreted in a way like that.' Maybe that could help them understand the science."
The nexus of science and art is a major aspect of "Water." The show includes contributions from more than half a dozen artists, including work by photographers Joel Sartore and Pierre Carreau, and large scale installations by Zhu, Suzan Shutan, Iggy Sumnik, Matthew Dehaemers, Ran Hwang and Susan Knight.
Pieces include a kinetic sculpture about center-pivot irrigation (Dehaemers), an elaborate display of plexiglass, crystals and projection called "Garden of Water" (Hwang), a tar paper work about water pollutants and another representing groundwater wells across Nebraska (Shutan), and an abstract, color-coded depiction of soil quality in the Hudson River watershed (Knight).
In their own ways, the artists address issues of quality, infrastructure, access and distribution, to say nothing of nature, beauty and loss. As UNO's Kolok puts it, "Fine arts can galvanize a lot of information."
The Omaha-based Knight has looked to water as a subject for more than a decade.
It began, in 2002, as a form of introspection, with Knight looking back on her early years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the role water played in her upbringing. More and more, she looked outward, researching different water and environmental issues around the country and distilling her findings into paper-based installations.
"People will say, 'Are you still doing water?' " Knight said. "The truth is, it's a subject that keeps on giving. You could think of a valid installation every week of the year based on water."
For her, the Kaneko exhibition is more than an obvious opportunity to present her relevant work. It's a chance to reach Nebraskans who don't feel a connection to water issues on a day-to-day basis.
"It's bringing together industry, science and the arts," she said. "That's just inspiring."
Like Knight, Kolok also grew up around water, near Long Island Sound.
"I was on the water, fishing, swimming, all summer long," he said.
He's a "water guy," he said. Every stop in his career, he's studied the particular water issues facing communities there. Today, he heads the Nebraska Watershed Network at UNO, and he sees it as something of a personal mission to recruit everyday citizens into his research. In 2014, Kolok conducted a study of the Mississippi River in which hundreds of people from Minnesota to Louisiana tested the water on the same day for levels of the herbicide atrazine.
He plans to do similar studies this year, again along the Mississippi River and also locally in and around Omaha. He'll provide strips that indicate whether the amount of atrazine — the parts per billion — exceeds the government's standard for healthy drinking water.
The obvious benefit of such "citizen science" is that it increases his capacity; Kolok and his research assistants couldn't cover the same area by themselves. But perhaps the more lasting benefit is the way it encourages people to think about water.
He sees the exhibition in much the same way. Sure, the information is important. But Kolok hopes people leave with an emotional connection to the material.
"Citizen engagement is really expanding the classroom to a larger population," Kolok said. "I'm not telling you what to believe. I'm telling you to take part in the process."
Aqua-Africa, ARC Document Solutions, Conservation Fusion, Healthy Rivers Partnership, Ideal Pure Water, Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Missouri River Relief, Nebraska Science Festival, Nebraska Watershed Network, Omaha Storm water, Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, Platte Basin Timelapse Project, Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, Solea Water, University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Urban Sustainability, UNO STEM, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health, Upstream Weeds, Valmont Industries and Whispering Roots.
Tommy Bartlett, Pierre Carreau, Matthew Dehaemers, Ran Hwang, Susan Knight, Joel Sartore, Suzan Shutan, Iggy Sumnik and Ying Zhu.
RELATED EVENTS AT KANEKO
March 3, 7 to 9 p.m.: "Great Minds Speaker Series" lecture by Tyrone Hayes, National Geographic Society Explorer and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Tickets: $20 general public, $15 Kaneko members. March 10, 5 to 7 p.m.: "Transdisciplinary Conversations," a community talk on water-related issues, hosted by the Water for Food Institute. Free. April 19, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.: "H2Omaha at Kaneko," a day of family-friendly, water-themed activities, presented as part of the citywide Nebraska Science Festival. Free.