AER – THE VEHICLE OF THE SOUL

3 10 2008

by ANDREA POLI

In 1661, public servant John Evelyn made a humble yet persuasive proposal to the King of England.  The title, ‘Fumifugium or The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoke of London Dissipated’ may seem whimsical to the contemporary reader, but the intention of the document was very serious. Evelyn was alerting the English king and parliament to the dangerously polluted air in pre-Victorian London and urging swift action to stop the poisoning of citizens. At the time, scientific methods of researching various effects of air pollution were not in place, so Evelyn’s document would not hold up to today’s scrutiny, the evidence he provided was purely anecdotal. However, even writing over 300 years ago, Evelyn remarkably outlined many of the presently known health effects of poor air quality: persistent cough and bronchial ailments, low birth weights, and premature deaths for example. He also addressed currently known effects of air pollution on crops and visibility. With consummate charm, Evelyn entreats the king, ‘his illustrious presence that is the joy of his people’s hearts,’ who serves as ‘the very breath of the nostrils’ of Londoners, to respond to this crisis by moving the offending industries, primarily those burning coal, out of the city and away from the majority of the population.

Whatever positive effect Evelyn’s words may have had at the time, sadly London’s problems with ‘pea soup’, the lethal combination of smoke and fog that would later be known as smog, were to become much worse. By the end of the nineteenth century, the city had a noxious reputation, and in 1873, over 1000 Londoners died in a smog incident, the beginning of a series of similar incidents in 1880, 1882, 1891 and 1892. Around the same time, Claude Monet spent many weeks in London painstakingly rendering views of parliament from his apartment window. His documentation of the light and sky is so detailed that recently aerologists have looked to the paintings as evidence of the historical chemical composition of the air. Although Monet must have known about the deadly smog incidents in London, like many artists of the industrial revolution he chose to focus on documenting the air from a seemingly neutral position, and some say he even celebrated the effects of smog on the air. Later, artists like the Futurists outwardly celebrated the deadly air, saying that humans should evolve lungs to breathe the poisonous fumes and embrace even this aspect of the industrial revolution, what they saw as necessary human progress.

London’s most horrible air pollution tragedy, four days in December 1952 known as the Great Smog, is now believed to have cost the lives of almost 12,000 Londoners. After that tragic event, the city sent out a fleet of Civil Defense ‘smog detectives’ to measure the acidity, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide in the air and implemented a Clean Air Act, but despite those and other efforts worldwide, London and other cities continue to face air crises. Although coal is used less, pollution from automobiles has more than compensated for the reduction of coal burning fumes, and coal use is on the rise in China and the US.

When I read about the tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of deaths due to smog incidents around the world over the past 150 years, I wonder why I don’t also read about citizens taking to the streets in outrage. It seems to me that these deaths amount to mass murder. Then I realize that poison air is an invisible killer. Deaths from illness, especially among the elderly, are generally accepted as part of life, even when associated with discrete, catastrophic air pollution events.

The artists I featured in the Aer project at The Green Museum are far from neutral about the issue. They look critically at the issue of air quality and use various methods to raise awareness among the public. Some also take an active role by directly affecting the air and human lives. Because air is invisible, artists are faced with the challenge of making the intangible real. Because air pollution is a silent killer, it is challenging to give a voice to the body’s dependence on clean air. Most of the featured projects blur the line between art and activism, and all the projects are changing public understanding of air, questioning accepted norms of ownership and responsibility.

In 1950, it was discovered that a majority of the smog in Los Angeles was being created through a photochemical process. Los Angeles based artist Kim Abeles’ Smog Collectors series makes the invisible visible by literally using the air as an almost photographic medium, placing material surfaces on her rooftop and allowing particulate matter to collect over time. The resulting images, looking like photograms, present the shocking effects of particulate pollution. The Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates made as part of the series, created using actual smog, darkens with each successive president, and strongly illustrates the tragic decline in US air quality with each new presidential administration. Abeles analyzed the environmental record of each presidential administration and timed the smog exposure of the plates based on that information. The Smog Collector series captured the attention of mainstream media and was covered by Newsweek and Dan Rather.

Another project that uses visualization of the air to make a powerful statement is the Pollstream series by Hehe (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen). Using interactive media and sophisticated visualization of the composition of air and smoke, the Pollstream projects inform and alert the public to air quality in real time. Monet found skies of European cities awash with unusual colors, colors due in part to human-made pollution. Hehe’s Champs D’Ozone overlays a real time image of Paris skies with colors representing the unseen pollutants contained within. Hehe’s Pollstream projects pay homage to Monet’s 19th century works by aestheticising the air and smoke. However, unlike viewers of Monet’s paintings, by directly linking the colors to actual levels of pollutants, Hehe’s work forces viewers to pay critical attention to what the colors represent.

Another elegant example of visualizing air is Sabrina Raaf’s Translator II: Grower.  In this project, a tiny robotic rover draws a simple green line at the bottom of a white wall perpendicular to the floor indicating the level of CO2 in the room: the taller the line, the more CO2. The rover moves around the room creating a horizon of tall and short grasses, a history of the changing airscape. This work responds directly to the number of people in a room, since we all exhale CO2.

Australian performance artist Sarah Jane Pell’s works highlight the body’s transfer of air and our dependence on air as living, breathing beings. They explore the physical and emotional limits of the body. Interdepend creates a closed-circuit life support system between Pell and artist Martyn Coutis, and Undercurrent presents a single performer contained within a sealed transparent dome with a finite amount of breathable air. These works are extremely physically demanding for the performer and have an overwhelming emotional intensity. In Fumifugium, Evelyn refers to the air as the soul or spirit of man. Pell’s works seem to give that soul or spirit a physical manifestation, either through human interdependence or through a single womb-like containment that without breathable air could quickly become a tomb.  Like Raaf’s work, her works also seem to hold a vision of the future. Translator II Grower presents a robot that methodically records the human imprint on air. This rover, which can continue to perform its duties even if the air becomes toxic to humans, seems to quietly question our future on the planet if we continue to poison our air. In Pell’s case, this vision is an apocalyptic one in which the very air we breathe is a limited commodity, tied to a time clock we need to robotically feed. In the future, will the earth’s fragile atmosphere continue to sustain us, or will we be forced to remain contained in controlled environments while our machines roam freely, reporting to us the world outside?

In Fumifugium, Evelyn called air ‘the vehicle of the soul’ and in fact the term vehicle is extremely appropriate for defining air in the context of Aer. Many of the various definitions of ‘vehicle’ fit not only the specific artworks in Aer, but many contemporary artworks: for example vehicle as a means of transmission and a medium of communication, as a means of accomplishing a purpose, and as an idea to which the subject of a metaphor is compared.  The ‘vehicle’ is the means by which the idea is transmitted, usually some kind of tangible art medium like a painting or sculpture. Yet in our current artistic climate, what Lucy Lippard has defined as the age of the de-materialism of the art object, air has become a viable art medium. Although air is as fleeting as an idea, and perhaps even because of this, it can also be the vehicle through which an idea is expressed.

Jed Berk’s inflatable ALAVs 2.0 (Autonomous Light Air Vessels) are both vehicles of wireless communication and literally floating vehicles that use the transportation medium of air. The floating vessels, human size, communicate with people using mobile devices. The works seem to anthropomorphize the invisible wireless networks that activate the air. His project also creates a very tangible alternative model for networked communication, a model in which information flows freely between people, objects, and even space itself. This is a participatory networked environment, one in which every being and object in space has a voice.  It’s impossible to view the ALAVs without seeing some kind of floating body, without projecting a kind of sentient life on these creatures. They seem to represent our consciousness freed from gravity, lighter than air, giving us a way to directly communicate with air itself.

The inflatable ALAVs use contained air to shape a space. As we learn more about the chemistry of aerosols, it’s possible to find ways to contain and use air that would be impossible to breathe.  Biogas systems are one such positive use, and the artists’ team Superflex has created a project with Danish and African engineers to provide a modest and efficient portable biogas system for families in Africa. Superflex identifies their artworks as tools, shaped by a social and economic commitment. Supergas allows individual families to become independent producers of energy with minimal time investment and cultural change. The process of development of the tool is interdisciplinary and deeply involves the community for which it is intended.  The design process doesn’t end with implementation, the tool itself is designed for flexible use, a kind of open-platform.  The organic materials that are an ordinary artifact of farming, create an airborne resource that is captured by Supergas, protecting the air and promoting individual energy empowerment. The benefit is doubled because a family using Supergas doesn’t need to purchase and use other, air polluting sources of energy. The thought process that takes a polluting compound and with minimal costs turn it into an energy resource can be contagious, promoting similar independent and innovative cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural cooperation.

In the 1960’s, the US first implemented air quality monitoring and advisory systems to alert the public to dangerous levels of pollution. In days of poor quality air, public notification comes bundled with the weather report and people are told to avoid going outside. This ‘one to many’ kind of information exchange works effectively for these kinds of warnings, but there are other models in a networked environment that may be exploited with respect to air quality. Area’s Immediate Reading (AIR) by Pre-emptive Media (Beatriz da Costa, Jamie Schulte and Brooke Singer) turns individual citizens into volunteer ‘smog detectives’ using a network of wireless pollution-monitoring devices. This open platform allows real-time sharing of location and time-based information about pollution, health and the environment, using media to open a badly needed public dialogue.  In a way, the wireless network created in the AIR project functions like another definition of vehicle: a medium in which medicine is administered. In this case, the illness is a society complacent to the dangerous effects of air pollution and the ‘medicine’ is increased public participation.

Although I was several miles away from the World Trade Center site when the towers fell on September 11th 2001, I could see the plume of smoke and debris coming up the avenues. Although very soon after, New Yorkers were told the air was safe to breathe, we now know the damage this airborne debris has caused rescue workers and others who spent extended time at the WTC site. The city responded by giving New Yorkers air filters upon request. Six years later, our filter has become an integral part of our home, no longer needed to filter particles from a terrorist attack, but essential to filtering car exhaust from the highways just blocks away and smoke and dust from two nearby power plants. We pay to replace our filters when needed, and as a society, in the same way we have become accustomed to buying bottled water, we have accepted that cleaner air is now something with a price tag.

Any Balkin’s Public Smog project addresses the commodification of clean air from the perspective of the market. Balkin is an artist whose works create metaphoric shifts, questioning social and political assumptions and taking an activist stance. Her work often involves intensive legal, financial and political research. Public Smog, a public park located in the atmosphere, of changing size and located in an unfixed location, at first seems like a fantasy. How can a anything exist in such an ephemeral location?  The premise of Public Smog lies in the economic system of carbon trading, the idea that companies can buy carbon offsets, or the right to pollute the air we breathe. Why has the public accepted making fresh air a commodity that can be bought and sold? When we consider the thousands of deaths that have been caused by smog, isn’t the carbon offset system like buying a license to murder? Carbon trading systems have long been criticized. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the NGO Global Forum emphasized avoiding pollution trading schemes which “perpetuate or worsen inequities hidden behind the problem or have a negative impact.” Later, arguments escalated, calling trade in greenhouse gases a new form of colonialism. Still, the general public accepts the scheme and even embraces it. Part of public acceptance to this system lies in desperation, it seems that nothing else has been working to clear the air, but another part has to do with capitalist ideology, equating ownership with stewardship. Balkin’s work operates within this system and exploits the idea inherent in carbon trading of air as a product. If polluted air is a product that corporations can sell, why can’t clean air be something the public can buy? The idea of Public Smog is that the global public purchases as many emissions allowances as possible on the emissions market. These carbon offsets are then retired, in other words taken off the market, making them unavailable to polluting corporations. By openly embracing the free market for the public good, Balkin presents a sharp critique of the system.

In thinking about air as a vehicle of the soul, it is ironic that today most of the poison in our air is caused by the gas-powered devices we also call vehicles. Eve Andree Laramee turns this contradiction on its head with her Parks on Trucks project for the city of Aachen. Through planting gardens in truck beds, Laramee created a carbon-neutral fleet of three Mercedes Benz trucks. Along with bio-geographer Dane Griffin, she calculated the amount the trucks could drive so the emissions exactly balanced the amount of air cleaned by the flatbed gardens. How far were the trucks allowed to travel to do no harm?  In one case, no more than one-third kilometer per month!

Evelyn’s seventeenth century solution of moving polluters away from densely populated cities showed a local mindset, but air quality is a global problem that requires international cooperation. As early as 1852, the first known report of acid rain was made in industrial Manchester, and one of the earliest documented transnational air pollution dates back to the 1930’s, when problems in the Rocky Mountains was found to be caused by emissions from Canada. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, however, when dramatic loss of ozone in the lower stratosphere over Antarctica was first noticed, that air pollution began to be perceived as something with global consequences that required global cooperation. By 1987, massive ozone depletion due to human use of CFCs and other chemical compounds forced the signing of the Montreal Protocol that has significantly reduced the use of CFCs.

Climate change has proven to be a much more difficult challenge to global cooperation. In my own experience collaborating with meteorologists and climatologists on projects interpreting weather and climate data into sound, I have noticed scientists taking a very practical approach, that of the mitigation of inevitable climate change. In part, this practical approach has to do with damage already done to the atmosphere. Even if polluting were to stop tomorrow, climate changes are predicted to continue for at least the next 100 years, but I believe another part of the focus on mitigation comes from an understanding that at the present time the global political will to do what is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is sorely lacking.

On December 11, 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by the US and 121 other nations, but not ratified by the US Congress. American industry forced the rejection, predicting “disaster” if CO2 reductions were enforced. In March of 2001, the US again pulled out of Kyoto, saying that complying would destroy the economy. Many US citizens disagree with their government’s actions, and are concerned about rapid increases in global temperatures, ice melting and sea level rise, changes that the 2007 UN intergovernmental report on climate change states is “unequivocal”. Ben Engebreth’s work, Personal Kyoto, provides individuals in various US cities the chance to comply with the Kyoto protocol. Personal Kyoto analyzes electric usage information and calculates an energy reduction goal of something like what the Kyoto Protocol requires. Personal Kyoto allows individuals to monitor electric use with the goal of reducing their personal consumption of greenhouse gases. Like Balkin’s Public Smog, Personal Kyoto works within an existing system to empower public action and benefit. While Public Smog takes on the publicly traded carbon offset system with collective action using a public space model, Personal Kyoto looks to individual responsibility and accountability as a means to encourage global change.

Each in its own way, the projects in Aer try to navigate the economic and personal politics of air and air quality. These politics can be complex and controversial. The final project highlighted in Aer is Unravelling the Carbon Web by Platform London, a group whose work crosses disciplinary lines to achieve social and ecological justice. Based in London for over twenty years, Platform blurs the boundaries between art and activism, with projects that involve rigorous research, advocacy, public art and education, or various combinations of each.  The global price of oil is set at London’s International Petroleum Exchange, and Unravelling the Carbon Web looks closely at two major players in the oil industry that have headquarters in London, BP and Shell, focusing on their activities in Iraq, the former Soviet Union and Nigeria.

Platform has done significant work related to the oil industry and Nigeria, including the Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa project, in honor of the Nigerian writer and activist who led a nonviolent campaign against the environmental damage associated with the operations of multinational oil companies in the Niger Delta, especially Shell. His execution by the Nigerian Military in 1995 provoked international outrage. Platform coordinated a coalition of organizations and individuals to create a series of living memorials to Saro-Wiwa, including a book of poetry and a stainless steel bus made by Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp.

The growing project, Unravelling the Carbon Web, currently contains an archive of related news, historical documents and analysis, including fables, that try to reach the heart of the global oil industry.

The problems of the air, what John Evelyn called ‘a magnificent inconvenience’ have grown dramatically in scale and complexity since the publication of Fumifgium. Evelyn’s solution of moving polluting industries away from population centers is no longer an option. Population and industrial growth has been so large that there is no longer anywhere to move without creating an environmental and humanitarian disaster. This ‘inconvenience’, referenced by Al Gore in the recent film The Inconvenient Truth, has risen to global proportions, the effects of which will resonate for decades if not longer. The work of the artists in this Greenmuseum feature, the related projects, and many other contemporary projects represent the beginning of an effort to address this issue from a multi-disciplinary perspective, to give a voice to each one of us affected by poor air quality, to highlight the flaws in the current system, and to empower individuals to preserve and protect our fragile atmosphere.

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