3 03 2009


We are nostalgiac when we lose the phenomena we have fought with – open unknown seas, rainy forests, high plateaus or deep caves. We as the mankind we have grown through these fights and we have gradually becomed stronger than most of the sea storms, underground rivers and deep forests. Civilisations are evolving when they fight with nature and shrinking when they start to fight with themselves. The last wilderness that remains is climate. This relationship is far from being friendly or melancholic one. It is a threat of the magnitude of Pacific Ocean in 15th century. We know now that climate is stronger and does not care about consequences. What we should talk about are not only the real impacts of climate change but the archaic processes how we deal with wilderness – fears, awe, conflicts, reconciliations and finally protection. But we are at this moment at the very beginning of a deal with a new God of Climate Change.

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28 02 2009


The conference call and associated texts ask us to reflect on extreme environments and the extremophiles that inhabit them, understanding such things as indicators and vectors for the mutations that constitute biological change. The goal of our presentation is to extend this concept, to use the language of mutamorphosis,to link biological, environmental and cultural change and to explore how shifts in the space of the artist studio are occurring in the context of social and scientific exploration within their work. Referencing the work of two London based artists – Jo Joelson and Bruce Gilchrist, as well as an emerging project being developed in northeast Brasil, we explore the notion that artist-scientists are increasingly becoming extremophiles, in the sense that many of them are seeking extreme natural and cultural environments in which to develop their work. In doing so we suggest a renewal of engagement by these artists with the notion of crisis – a pointwhere it becomes critical, in their view, to assert the presence of art and artists within conditions of social and environmental change. Often the goal of these artist-scientists is to imagine and achieve beneficial environmental, ecological and cultural impact . But this is by no means a given. If “science looks and observes and art see and foresees,” (Gabo, 1937:9) what can the combining of these disciplines mean in the context of extreme conditions?

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24 02 2009


Petrobrás, the Brazilian National Oil Company, built a pipeline in Western Amazonia to transport crude oil from the Urucu river production region to a terminal in the vicinities of Coari, a city located on the right margin of the Solimões river. Tankers then ship the oil to another terminal in Manaus, capital of the Amazonas State. Between dry and wet seasons, water level dramatic changes in the Solimões River reach up to 14 meters This strong seasonal character of the Amazonian climate gives rise to four distinct scenarios in the annual hydrological cycle: low water, high water, receding water and rising water. These scenarios constitute the framework for the definition of oil spill response planning in the region, since flooded forest and flooded vegetation are the most sensitive fluvial environments to oil spills.

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21 02 2009


Accumulating observational evidence suggests an intimate connection between rapidly expanding insect populations, deforestation, and global climate change. We review the evidence, emphasizing the vulnerability of key planetary carbon pools, especially the Earth’s forests that link the micro-ecology of insect infestation to climate. We survey current research regimes and insect control strategies, concluding that at present they are insufficient to cope with the problem’s present regional scale and its likely future global scale. We propose novel bioacoustic interactions between insects and trees as key drivers of infestation population dynamics and the resulting wide-scale deforestation. The bioacoustic mechanisms suggest new, nontoxic control interventions and detection strategies.

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3 10 2008



A project by Beatriz da Costa with Cina Hazegh and Kevin Ponto

“To Make People believe, is to make them act.” Michel de Certeau. /1/ 

PigeonBlog /2/ was a collaborative endeavor between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers engaged in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative designed to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public. Pigeons carried custom-built miniature air pollution sensing devices enabled to send the collected localized information to an online server without delay. Pollution levels were visualized and plotted in real-time over Google’s mapping environment, thus allowing immediate access to the collected information to anyone with connection to the Internet.

PigeonBlog was an attempt to combine DIY electronics development with a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative, while simultaneously investigating the potentials of interspecies co-production in the pursuit of resistant action. /3/ How could animals help us in raising awareness to social injustice? Could their ability in performing tasks and activities that humans simply can’t be exploited in this manner, while maintaining a respectful relationship with the animals? 

PigeonBlog was developed and implemented in the southern California region, which ranks among the top-ten most polluted regions in the country. PigeonBlog’s aim was 1) to re-invoke urgency around a topic that has serious health consequences, but lacks public action and commitment to change; 2) to broaden the notion of a citizen science while building bridges between scientific research agendas and activist oriented citizen concerns; and 3) to develop mutually positive work and play practices between situated human beings and other animals in technoscientific worlds. 

When thinking of pigeons, people tend to think of the many species found in urban environments. Often referred to as “flying rats,” these birds and their impressive ability to adapt to urban landscapes isn’t always seen in a favorable light by their human co-habitants. At least by association then, PigeonBlog attempted to start a discussion about possible new forms of co-habitation in our changing urban ecologies and made visible an already existing world of human-pigeon interaction. At a time where species boundaries are being actively reconstructed on the molecular level, a re-investigation of human to non-human animal relationships is necessary. 

PigeonBlog was inspired by a famous photograph of a pigeon carrying a camera around its neck taken at the turn of the twentieth century. This technology, developed by the German engineer Julius Neubronner for military applications, allowed photographs to be taken by pigeons while in flight. A small camera was set on a mechanical timer to take pictures periodically as pigeons flew over regions of interest, Currently on display in the Deutsche Museum in Munich, these cameras were functional, but never served their intended purpose of assisted spy technology during wartime. Nevertheless, this early example of using living animals as participants in early surveillance technology systems provoked the following questions: What would the twenty-first century version of this combination look like? What types of civilian and activist applications could it be used for?

Facilities emitting hazardous air pollutants are frequently sited in, or routed through, low-income and “minority” dominated neighborhoods, thereby putting the burden of related health and work problems on already disadvantaged sectors of the population who have the least means and legal recourse (particularly in the case of non-citizens) to defend themselves against this practice. Recent studies also revealed that air pollution levels in the Los Angeles and Riverside counties region are of high enough magnitude to directly affect children’s health and development. /4/ 

With homing pigeons serving as the “reporters” of current air pollution levels, PigeonBlog attempted to create a spectacle provocative enough to spark people’s imagination and interests in the types of action that could be taken in order to reverse this situation. Activists’ pursuits can often have a normalizing effect rather than one that inspires social change. Circulating information on “how bad things are” can easily be lost in our daily information overload. It seems that artists are in the perfect position to invent new ways in which information is conveyed and participation inspired. The pigeons became my communicative objects in this project and “collaborators” in the co-production of knowledge. 

PigeonBlog also helped to provide entry into the health and environmental sciences. The largest government-led air pollution control agency in Southern California is the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), covering Orange County, and the urban areas of Riverside and Los Angeles Counties. Despite AQMD’s efforts, in addition to major air quality improvements achieved over the past thirty years, pollution levels in the region still surpass national regulatory health standards. In 2005 ozone levels exceeded the federal health standard for ozone eighty-four nearly one quarter of the calendar year.

Besides the actual numbers, it was the way in which air pollution measurements are currently conducted that the project hoped to address. The South Coast AQMD controls 34 monitoring stations in its responsible district. These are fixed stations at an approximate cost of tens of thousands of dollars per station. Each station collects a set of gases restricted to its immediate surroundings. Values in between these stations are calculated based on scientific interpellation models. Stations are generally positioned in quiet low-traffic areas, not near known pollution hotspots, such as power plants, refineries and highways. The rationale behind this strategy is to obtain representative values of the urban air shed as opposed to data “tainted” by local sources in the immediate surroundings.

PigeonBlog’s birds had the potential of validating these interpellation models. Not only were they collecting the actual information while “moving” around, but they were also flying at about 300ft altitude, an area that has proven difficult to assess through other means. Most flying targets are a source of pollution themselves. Airplanes in particular have this problem, as it is obviously quite dangerous to fly at such a low altitude. 

Recent behavioral studies of pigeons revealed that in addition to the commonly accepted theory that pigeons orient themselves in relation to the Earth’s magnetic field, they also use visual markers such as highways and bigger streets for orientation. /5/ Flying about 300 feet above the ground pigeons are ideal candidates to help sense traffic related air pollution, and to validate pollution dispersion in those regions. Depending on the location of the initial release, the pigeons could also report on ground-level information at locations were AQMD sanctioned monitors were not available. 

The pigeon “backpack” developed for this project consisted of a combined GPS (latitude, longitude, altitude) / GSM (cell phone tower communication) unit and corresponding antennas, a dual automotive CO/NOx pollution sensor, a temperature sensor, a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card interface, a microcontroller and standard supporting electronic components. Designed in this manner, we essentially ended up developing an open-platform Short Message Service (SMS) enabled cell phone, ready to be rebuilt and repurposed by anyone who is interested in doing so. While the development of the basic functionality of this device took us about three months, miniaturizing it to a comfortable pigeon size took us three times as long. After some initial discomfort, many revisions, “fitting sessions” and balance training in the loft, the birds seemed to take to the devices quite well and were able to fly short distances (up to twenty miles). The pigeons who worked with us on the project belonged to Bob Matsuyama, a pigeon fancier and middle school shop and science teacher, who became a main collaborator in the project. He volunteered his birds for PigeonBlog and helped the pigeons train and interact with us. 

After many trials and test flights in southern California with Bob and his birds, we now felt ready to introduce the project to a larger audience. The pigeons flew at three occasions. Once as part of the Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory, an event sponsored by UC Irvine’s Humanities Research Institute. And twice as part of the Inter Society for Electronic Arts (ISEA) Festival in San Jose. All three of these events took place in August 2006 and the observing human audience members got a chance to interact with the birds and retrieve the collected pollution information. The birds who worked with us in San Jose belonged to a local San Jose pigeon fancier. 

The reactions to PigeonBlog were diverse. While being embraced and applauded by many, there were also critical comments made by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who accused PigeonBlog of animal abuse and conducting non-scientifically grounded experiments. PETA’s campaign didn’t result in action beyond the public statement issued by the group, but it tainted the experience for a brief moment. Animal abuse was not “practiced” as part of the project, nor was animal rights a topic that the project was hoping to create public dialogue around. PigeonBlog was not animal rights in action, but political cross-species art in action and the collaboration with the birds was organic to the project. However, on a more positive note, PETA’s critique also raised important questions regarding the legitimacy of arts/science experiments. PETA’s accusations were built on the assessment that PigeonBlog was not scientifically grounded, and should therefore cease its activities. Is human-animal work as part of political action less legitimate than the same type of activity when framed under the umbrella of science?  

In addition to technophile “fans” of the project who simply admired the “coolness factor” of putting electronics on birds, PigeonBlog also received inquiries from environmental health scientists with questions about the technology used and wondering if the device could be used for their own research, which for the most part was geared towards tracing personalized pollution exposure to humans. /6/ Another group of people who inquired about the project were ornithologists (professional and hobbyists) looking for cheap and feasible ways to track birds of all kinds. Then there were the many emails from pigeon fanciers around the country wanting to become involved in the PigeonBlog project itself, as well as green/environmental activists simply being supportive of the project’s goals. 

All of these inquiries had a logic to them. Whereas the technophile approach to anything electronic was certainly the least interesting or relevant to the project’s ambition, that community is at least partially linked to the type of work technoscience artists engage in. The specific questions regarding the technology and its potential usefulness for other research endeavors made sense, after all the project did produce a very small, light-weight and inexpensive device that couldn’t be purchased commercially. 

However, we also received an invitation to participate in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant geared towards the development of small autonomous aerial vehicles designed around the aerodynamics of birds, /7/ as well as inquiries regarding the feasibility of “measuring pulmonary artery pressure in birds during flight.” How could PigeonBlog possibly be of help to these people? Isn’t it obvious from this work that a DARPA grant is the last thing that its authors would want to be involved in and that she is neither a biologist nor a veterinarian? Why was I suddenly being associated with areas of expertise that I was in no way qualified to respond to? 

PigeonBlog received a lot of media coverage. Both national and international major newspapers had covered the project as well as national television news channels. In nearly every instance, I was being referred to as “Beatriz da Costa, researcher at the University of California, Irvine.” “Researcher” seemed to imply “scientist” in many people’s minds, rather than “creative,” “social” or “artistic” researcher. Suddenly I was put under a similar scrutiny and questioning that scientists have to go through after publishing their work, and the association of the “political technoscientific artist” as a “specific” intellectual, seemed to have gone one step too far. 

This realization and thoughts about the future of PigeonBlog made me pause for a while. Did the project lose its political potential by becoming too closely associated with the university and myself being an actor within it? How should PigeonBlog continue? Should PigeonBlog data be linked to existing air pollution models in order to justify the projects scientific validity to criticism raised by groups such as PETA? And what would this approach entail? Would large amounts of money now have to be raised to conduct a “scientifically sanctioned” study? Would pigeons have to be flown for several years, eventually accumulating enough data to publish results in a scientific journal, rather than at an arts festival? Wouldn’t this end up creating the same trap of eventually developing expertise over time while becoming less accessible to a non-expert public?

At this point, PigeonBlog’s future remains uncertain. Perhaps the most inspiring and gratifying inquiry came from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology who asked me to serve on the board of their current “Urban Bird Gardens” project, which is part of their citizen science initiative. /8/ The citizen science initiative involves bird observation and data gathering conducted by non-expert citizens, ranging from the elderly to schoolchildren. Unlike other “outreach” programs conducted by universities around the country, Cornell’s citizen science initiative actually uses the collected data as part of their research studies. Several projects conducted under the citizen science agenda, such as “PigeonWatch,” “Urban Bird Studies” and now the “Urban Bird Gardens” project overlap in their aim and audience with the ambitions the PigeonBlog project set out to address. 

Rather than dedicating myself to a scientific justification of PigeonBlog built within the university research environment and its related publication venues, I am hoping that this approach will be more true to PigeonBlog’s original aim in situating itself between the academy and non-expert participants. 


/1/ Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 148.

/2/ PigeonBlog 

/3/ Another example is the Zapped! project by Preemptive Media.

/4/ Nino Künzli et al., “Breathless in Los Angeles: The Exhausting Search for Clean Air,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 9  (Spring 2003): 1494-1499.

/5/ Hans-Peter Lipp, “Pigeon Homing along Highways and Exits,” Current Biology 14, no. 14 (27 July 2004), 1239-1249. 

/6/ Preemptive Media’s “AIR” project addressed the pollution exposure to humans in more detail. For more information, see:

/7/ This inquiry came from a major research university in Arizona.   

/8/ Cornell’s citizen science initiative


3 10 2008


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.


3 10 2008



Societies are often required to react to extreme events that arise through either anthropogenic or natural processes. Such extremity might be measured is in terms of its immediacy and intensity; it demands comprehension against understood norms. For example, our present-day debate on future climatic change is driven by scientific assertion, reinforced by evidence gathered from both instrument and indirect proxy measurements, whilst the varying societal responses are predicated by everyday cultural experiences. In contrast, places considered to offer experiences at the boundaries of or outside the everyday, e.g. hot and cold deserts, provide a different conception of extreme. In this conception, change and the rates of change typically lack context, validation and position within everyday norms. Consequently, it is within such surroundings that the greatest tension occurs between the perception of place and rates of change. While the methodologies of science and art practice are often respectively considered positivistic and non-rational, both are in fact able to investigate the extreme in this context. Whether or not such characterisations are legitimate, the obvious epistemological differences both illuminate and problematise our understanding. In this paper we describe a real-time generative installation commissioned from the authors by the UK Research Councils called Ground-breaking: Extreme Landscapes in Grains and Pixels that attempts to explore and test these differences . Further examples are available at

This work offers context and potential validation about change and the rate of change of an extreme environment: this is evidenced through scientific analysis of landscapes and soils and is translated, in a process of critical evaluation, to create an audio-visual installation. The installation seeks to convey cultural imprints left by societal responses to change experienced in a marginalised area, the African Sahel. By considering a landscape that is both extreme and has long-standing cultural activity, a narrative is developed. To borrow Barthes’s terminology (Barthes, 1977), the data from scientific analysis provide functions to the narrative; they are indices to the landscape and to human conditions. These data also connote actions that may be anthropogenic or environmental (such as changes in land management, house building, flooding and desertization). A narrative emerges from the exploration of these data, in which a sequence of actions is deduced from functional descriptions of physical objects, which are in turn offered for evaluation and exploration in sonic and visual forms.


The fertility of soil is fundamental to the long-term sustainability of human societies and is a source of, and sink for, materials used to sustain human existence. Soils may retain the imprint of cultural activities, presenting an opportunity to examine how past societies managed their surrounding landscapes. Soils can act as a record of past cultural activities; the examination of such soils – cultural soils – is a major element in the Ground-breaking installation. 

The soil materials referred to by the installation were sampled from the West African Sahel at a village called Tiwa located in the lacustrine plain of Lake Chad in Northern Nigeria (Adderley, et al., 2004). This region has experienced extremes of flooding and drought throughout history that may have displaced the human population. The village has dwellings constructed from mud-brick and thatch, surrounded by fields. Samples were taken from a pit dug close to the village. This area is subject to intense land management and receives cultural debris washed-in by seasonal rains. The materials were sampled intact with the spatial organisation of the soil maintained through processing and examination in the laboratory. The soils were found to span a 10,000 year period that includes the onset of human settlement in the Lake Chad plain c. 4000 years ago (Connah, 1981). For the Ground-breaking installation these materials were analysed to produce data streams suitable to cross-disciplinary interpretation. An examination of large areas of the samples allows a virtual exploration of microscale features. By using the latest digital image-analysis methodologies, a quantitative examination of the materials identifies objects that provide discrete cultural signals. These objects can then be classified and spatially related and in turn be used to develop a sonic narrative drawing upon both the measurements and their interpretation as cultural signifiers.

To allow microscopic viewing, the soil materials were treated to produce glass-mounted thin-section samples. The samples were dried, impregnated with resin, mounted, ground and polished to a uniform thickness of 30 µm. At this thickness grains of quartz mineral are translucent. The thin-section samples were observed with a microscope and images captured with a sequence of different illumination methods, each producing a different resultant image. For example, the oblique incident reflected light image typically shows dark images with colours that can be interpreted as related to cultural activities; specifically burnt materials, such as pieces of fired clay and partially combusted fuel materials, show clearly as ruby reds and orange colours. 

From eight microscope slides a total of thirty-two areas were analysed. For each sample area a large-scale calibrated image was made, repeated for all four illumination methods. These images were examined using image-analysis techniques (Russ, 2006; Adderley et al., 2002), each group of objects representing the imprint of a different cultural event: construction and destruction of buildings, soil disturbances such as cultivation and periods of flooding. Each object in the image was identified and its size, shape and location analysed. With the object defined as a mass of contiguous pixels that satisfy the segmentation criteria of specific colour properties, the object’s area is given by counting the number pixels whilst the outer edge of the mass of pixels is the object perimeter. Holes are identified as pixels outside the segmentation criteria yet bounded by those that are. Shape was estimated by measuring parallel tangents – Feret measurements – at 360 positions around each object (Russ, 2006). The fractal dimension of each object, a derived measure of shape, was calculated from the area and perimeter relationship (Mandelbrot, 1977). By considering the centre of the object as the point with the maximum distance from any point on the perimeter, a set of co-ordinates for each object within an image can be determined. There is therefore a data set for every identified object comprising {x,y} spatial coordinates and a descriptive list; object area, perimeter, count of the holes in the object, Feret mean, fractal dimension and colour hue, saturation and intensity. These and the 10,000 year temporal data form the precursors for the implementation and structure of the installation.


The macrostructure of the installation is guided by a master clock that represents the 10,000 years. The equivalent time interval executed by the installation system varies on each cycle, which denotes interpolated data describing the lake-level of Lake Chad at decadal intervals. The levels are indicative of three states; flood, drought or human-populated. These data are interpreted as a probability function that influences the generative processes of the installation. Adaptive probability systems have been applied in other recent work by Young (2007).

The visual component comprises a library of on-site photographs and the thin-section images of soil samples. At irregular time intervals a thin section is selected and images, along with soil data, are loaded. The choice is randomised, restricted to the time period indicated by the current position of the master clock. Images are deployed in cross-fading combinations to allow for complementary perspectives of colour and detail. Real-time visual behaviours are related to the lake-level state: drought (minor colouration effects), flood (flowing progression between data points,) and human population settlement (onsite photographic material actively interspersed). Sound materials are controlled similarly, such that the most clearly referential sounds  (i.e. environmental, voices, music) are more likely when relevant to the historical scale. Audio material is generated from the soil data’ each object’s descriptors (area, perimeter, Feret, etc..) are mapped to the sound synthesis algorithm. as long as the current image selection is in view.

The generation of sound from non-musical data is well established (Scaletti, 1994). Pre-existing wave functions are easily susceptible to sonfication, by a direct mapping of function to synthesis. This approach can be contrasted to higher level mapping strategies, in which an input parameter set is made congruent with the requirements of a specific sound generating system (Hermann & Ritter, 1999). Parameter mapping strategies have been classified as one-to-one, divergent or convergent (Hunt & Wanderley, 2002), indicating the possibilities for data to be directly translated, directed to a multiplicity of parameters, or condensed to fewer dimensions. Designer intervention – whether intentional or not – is common in this mapping process. In all these cases, the broad aim of sonification is to render complex data susceptible to analysis. A common question arises from the absence of time information in the data itself, and the consequent need for data to be linearised in time as a stream of discrete events. Given that temporalisation is, in effect, sonification, some form of creative decision-making is unavoidable, and must to some extent be predicated on the desired outcome of the investigation.

In Ground-breaking, the mapping of data to sound parameters is arbitrary but consistent in any one cycle of the 10,000 year history. For each iteration of the master cycle, the mapping is assigned autonomously by the system with no creative intervention from a user. There are seven data parameters and over twenty sound synthesis parameters, so this reshuffling is decisive in pre-determining the vocabulary and behaviour of sounds. Two synthesis techniques are employed; subtractive synthesis (multi-band filtered noise) and granular synthesis (or granular reconstruction, the production of extensive and timbrally-rich sound events by the proliferation of tiny sonic fragments). Granular methods offer the possibility of clear sonic reference, and more abstract material, depending on the content, duration and processing of individual grains. Sonic parameters include the frequency content, bandwidth and harmonicity of filter banks, the size, content, amplitude, post-processing of grains. Grain content is critical: this is obtained from a library of recorded sounds stored by the system, tagged with descriptors denoting their referential content (such as water, work, environment, human voice, music) and sonic character (loudness brightness, roughness, pitch-noise). The tags are assigned as sound parameters, so sound sources are read into the granular synthesiser as a basis for subsequent events. The complete process is summarized in Figure-1.

Our purpose is not direct sonification but non-rational exploration and narration. Sonic – and visual – production is not intended as a proxy for the actual data There is a new emergent narrative that references data both directly and obliquely. This narrative seeks a structural and syntactical relationship that is consistent and, in theory, comprehensible. Returning to Barthes, the narrative constructed in Ground-breaking is the result of a stochastic exploration of the soil data sets as cultural indices. The narration is both cyclical and open-ended; because periodic techniques are combined with probability functions, no cycle is repeated. The exploration is in part randomly driven, but, given that the data can be parameterised as a time-based (i.e. rhythmical) function, the narrative is also self-referential. The data sets have a functional role in the narrative; they are also a mode of description of the material objects that connotes actions. In this case, actions can only be deduced from the description, and may be human or environmental (such as interventions in land maintenance, firing bricks, flooding activity). So, a narrative emerges from the exploration of a data space, in which a sequence of actions can be deduced from functional descriptions of physical objects. 


The Ground-breaking installation was commissioned to raise awareness of the scientific aspects of how people have coped with extreme modifications, regardless of causation, of the environment of the African Sahel. The work has problematised notions of data representation, such that it offers a critique of data-sets rather than a simple audification. In doing so it has attempted to breach the barriers presented by different temporal and spatial scales: between landscape and the production of artefacts, between the scientific analysis of artefacts and their manufacture, between the perception of visual and sonified representations, and between micro-scale information and macro-scale evidence of extreme climatic change. Direct deduction of the human processes or environmental events is not explicitly sought such that the installation remains an unresolved generative work; in this form it promotes the audience towards a liminal space, an understanding of place and of rates of change.

The narrative developed explores a data space which contains as set of deduced actions from functional descriptions of physical objects; this has revealed the possibility that a yet more detailed data analysis and deeper data space exploration can produce further novel insights into the nature of the cultural imprints held by the soil. This also highlights the transferability of the meta-constructs of the narrative to other domains including other geographical environments with other cultural imprints. 


Adderley, W.P., Simpson, I.A. & Davidson, D.A. (2006) Historic landscape management: a validation of quantitative soil thin section analyses. Journal of Archaeological Science, 33, 320-334.

Adderley, W.P., Simpson, I.A., Kirscht, H., Adam, M., Spencer, J.Q., & Sanderson, D.C.W. (2004) Enhancing ethno-pedology: integrated approaches to Kanuri and Shuwa Arab definitions in the Kala-Balge region, North East Nigeria. Catena, 58, 41-64.

Adderley, W.P., Simpson, I.A. & Davidson, D.A. (2002) Colour description and quantification in mosaic images of soil thin sections. Geoderma, 108: 181-195. 

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. 

Connah, G. (1981) Three Thousand Years in Africa: Man and His Environment in the Lake Chad Region of Nigeria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 268.

Hermann, T. & Ritter, H. (1999) Listen to your Data: Model-Based Sonification for Data Analysis. In G. E. Lasker (Ed.) Advances in intelligent computing and multimedia systems. Int. Inst. for Advanced Studies in System Research and Cybernetics, 8 Baden-Baden, 189—194.

Hunt, A., & Wanderley, M.M. (2002). Mapping performance parameters to synthesis engines. Organised Sound, 7:2, 103–114. 

Mandelbrot, B.B. (1977) The Fractal Geometry of Nature. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 365. 

Russ, J.C. (2006) The image Processing Handbook (Fifth Edition) CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Scaletti, C.(1994). Sound synthesis algorithms for auditory data representations. In G. Kramer (Ed.) Auditory Display: Sonification, Audification, and Auditory Interfaces. Addison-Wesley. 223–251. 

Young (2007) NN Music: Improvising with a ‘Living’ Computer. Proc. of the International Computer Music Conference. ICMA: San Francisco, 508-511.