A weekend of creative events in central London aims to raise awareness of poor urban air quality
January 22, 2017 — Featuring a sturdy leather head-strap and mask, two large tubes and a transparent backpack containing a small potted plant, designer Chih Chiu’s response to crowded, polluted cities is stark.
“My initial idea was to separate an individual from the public space,” he says.
Titled Voyage on the Planet and originally created by Chiu for his BA final project in China in 2013, the work is set to take to the streets in Space to Breathe, a two-day exhibition based at Somerset House, central London, that is hoping to propel the issue of air pollution and public health into the limelight.
Kitting out visitors with the apparatus and taking them on to the Strand, Chiu, now a joint student at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, hopes the sight of the people donning the otherworldly masks will shake the city out of its complacency.
“When all of us are sharing this polluted air, but none of us has a reaction to it, we feel nothing [is] really seriously wrong,” he says. “But when people start to have a reaction to the polluted air, like wearing this [mask], we start to [pay] attention.”
It is time we did. Amid a growing crisis in cities around the world, air pollution in parts of London smashed through the annual limit in the first week of this year. And with poor air quality linked to dementia, heart attacks and strokes, it is taking its toll on public health.
“What people really struggle with is the dislocation in time,” says Ian Mudway, lecturer in respiratory toxicology from the environmental research group at King’s College London. “The exposures you have now could produce effects in 20, 30, 40 years’ time,” he adds, pointing out that air pollution is estimated to cause around 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK alone.
A collaboration between curators Shrinking Space, scientists from the environmental research group at King’s College London and Cape Farewell, an organisation that pioneers the use of art to promote cultural changes to tackle climate change, Space to Breathe is an energetic mix of art, science and entertainment.
Among the weekend’s highlights, which includes a DJ set by former Pulp frontman, Jarvis Cocker, visitors will be able to don virtual reality headsets to take a tour around the Strand with the project Energy Renaissance. A 360° video, the experience explores how the area could be transformed through interventions ranging from tree planting to urban wind turbines and zero-emission buses.
Taking the ideas further, the weekend will encompass a set of panel discussions, with representatives from the Greater London Authority, the British Lung Foundation and Tidal Lagoon Power, the company behind the mooted Swansea Bay project, to share their views on the air pollution crisis and how to tackle it while, perhaps more creatively, a pollution-removing bench designed by Airlabs will be exhibited on the river terrace.
Also on show is a specially commissioned installation by sound artist Wesley Goatley based on six months’ worth of air pollution data gathered by instruments in the area surrounding Somerset House. The aim, says Goatley, is to offer visitors an innovative way to explore pollution data, while pushing back against the perception that such figures and statistics are only for specialists.
Entitled Breathing Mephitic Air, the experience involves a 360° soundscape with three different components of air pollution – nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide and particles known as PM10s – depicted by different sounds. These sounds, the rush of traffic, a catalytic converter and the sound of a refinery are themselves linked through their relationship to a metal intricately involved in the problem of air pollution: platinum.
The sounds, notes Goatley, rise and fall in volume with the levels of the pollutant they represent, while the apparent direction of sound mimics the direction and speed of the wind when the data was recorded. “There is a very firm connection between what you hear and what the data says – you can kind of read the data through the sound,” he says, adding that the data is also depicted dynamically through a visual display.
But Space to Breathe is not only about raising awareness of air pollution: it’s also an attempt to put the public back in control. Scientists will be offering visitors the chance to try out some of the latest real-time pollution-monitoring technology, as well as revealing how web-based apps can be used to plan journeys and dodge pollution hotspots.
“We will get people not just to think about what the pollution is on the day, but to actually have a perception of what their long-term exposures are likely to be,” says Mudway. The hope, he adds, is that the experience will galvanise visitors into action, from the way they navigate cities to the cars they choose to drive, and even encourage them to lobby those in power for change.