Bike Sense data project will make sweet sounds

Todd Smith’s Bike Sense project aims to make Louisville a better biking city. | Courtesy of Bike Sense Louisville

In his time as an artist, Louisvillian Todd C. Smith has painted representational pictures, moved on to conceptual tree work and played with sound, sensation and experience.

Now, Smith is on a unique artistic journey he needs help finishing, and only Louisville bike enthusiasts can help him.

That journey is his project Bike Sense Louisvillean interdisciplinary art project funded by Louisville Metro’s Move Louisville initiative, with cooperation from Public Art Administrator Sarah Lindgren.

Metro’s website offers a quick description of Move Louisville:

“(It) is the city’s 20-year multi-modal plan. It takes a holistic approach to the city’s transportation system, which is a $5 billion asset that includes roadways, sidewalks, bike networks and trails.”

Basically, the mission is to fix and better use what we have and dream and create a better future.  

Insider first met Smith at our Artists Showcase in February, and he impressed us so much we had to know more.

Todd Smith | Courtesy

A self-described Air Force Brat, Smith ended up in Louisville when his family moved here so that his father could start piloting for UPS. Smith began to focus on art while attending Ballard High School, moving on to Amherst College.

“I switched from doing very representational, realistic drawings and paintings and started to make conceptual sculpture, performative works, and that’s when I really hit on making work about climbing trees,” says Smith.

To date, Smith’s work with trees runs the gamut from climbing a tree every day, all the way to creating experiences that brought those trees to his audience for his bachelor’s thesis exhibition “The Climb.”

“It culminated in the large installation in a gallery, where you walk in and you are in the top of a tree,” he explains. “So there was this, like, structural beam in the center, and I just attached bark and branches off of it and then I had branches coming out of the floor, so when you walked in, you were at the top of the tree without having to climb it.”

His work also included rope ladders, periscopes and other interactive experiences.

It was during a residency at the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts that Smith began the practice of climbing every day, which he continued back home in Louisville.

Then his practice began to include bike riding. “I started to see the infrastructure of where I could walk, where I could bike, places I could just be, public spaces where I felt comfortable climbing, private spaces where I didn’t feel as comfortable,” says Smith.

The Bike Sense sensor resembles a water bottle. | Courtesy of Bike Sense Louisville

As his work continued, he started to accidentally collect data that pointed straight to the difficulties of the modern city.

“I started to see so many trees that I had climbed get cut down — especially when they did the highway expansion downtown. So many trees were lost when they expanded Spaghetti Junction,” he says. “I started to think so much about our impact on the environment.”

While in graduate school getting his master’s in studio art and emerging practices at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Smith began using sound in his exploration of trees and the natural world.

Eventually, these ideas melded into Bike Sense.

The project is designed to gather a broad spectrum of data from bike riders in Louisville, and then use that data to create sounds and ambient music, which pedestrians will experience while crossing the Big Four Bridge.

But first came the design process.

To gather the information, Smith conceived and worked to source the building and programming of a sensor that cyclists could place on their bikes to collect info. A prospective volunteer, someone who regularly rides a bike, will attach that sensor to her bike, where it will gather information about temperature, air quality, weather and, of course, route and miles biked.

That data isn’t randomly dumped into a computer. Smith has chosen notes and chords that interact with the biking data and even added things like distortion to represent moments when a biker is being exposed to polluted or unhealthy air — like when a cyclist is sitting behind a gas guzzler at an intersection.

In addition to making music — in real time — on the pedestrian bridge, after the project ends, the aggregate of the cycling data will be used to analyze trends in bike riding in the hopes of using that data to make Louisville a better biking city.

A closer look at the sensor | Courtesy of Bike Sense Louisville

Smith also is concerned with individual privacy, and he will be passing only aggregate information on to the city. So don’t worry, the info that you always run that one red light will not come back to haunt you. 

And there’s something else Smith wanted possible volunteers to know:

“There’s no reason to think you aren’t qualified. I want mountain bikers, I want unicyclists. I don’t care what kind of mode you use — if you’re out in Louisville, or you go across the bridge into Indiana, if you’re a BMX-er and you’re just going to the parks, I want to get every kind of person who uses the city infrastructure in all its forms.”

So if you ride regularly, hit Smith up at the Bike Sense website. There you can fill out a short form, and when the project begins — probably Memorial Day weekend — he’ll contact you about getting a sensor to attach to your bike. Kids under 18 are welcome to participate with parental consent.