The Politics of the Air We Breathe

LONDON — The history of air as we know it begins about three billion years ago when the first oceanic cyanobacteria began to draw energy from the sun, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen to establish the delicate molecular balance needed to Maintaining an interaction is required relationship between plants and animals. In the air at Wellcome Collection points out that most of the oxygen in our air is not produced by trees and forests in the process of sequestering carbon, but by marine organisms such as algae, seaweed and phytoplankton.

Inspired by inventor Charles Babbage’s idea of ​​air as “atmospheric memory,” this fast-paced exhibition brings together contemporary art, design, and scientific research to explore the notion of air as a shared space that belongs and relates to all of humanity affects. In the air is conceived as a journey through the ether, meeting three symbolic “layers” to explore air as an ecological, social and political substance.

The first section deals with the air produced or stored in oceans and with earth-bound substances. Depictions of seaweed and seaweed include cyanotypes by 19th-century photography and botany pioneer Anna Atkins, and illustrations by naturalist and eugenicist Ernst Haeckel (a wall text nearby corroborates Haeckel’s racist views). The room also features Irene Kopelman’s porcelain sculpture Gornergletscher from On Top (2017), which depicts a large mass of ice in the Alps that is shrinking due to climate change. The air bubbles in historic ice sheets like this one archive the history of breathing and atmospheric changes on Earth; As the ice retreats, this vital data is lost at an ever faster rate.

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Irene Kopelman, “Gornergletscher from On Top” (2017) (Courtesy of the artist and laboratory, Mexico City)
Installation view from In the air at Wellcome Collection, London. Pictured: Anna Atkins, Cyanotype Casts of British Algae (1843-53) (Courtesy Wellcome Collection / Steven Pocock, 2022)

In the age of coronavirus, people have become more aware of the shared nature of our air, or what the curators describe as “increasing awareness of breathing as a shared, intimate act.” At the same time, the socioeconomic and health effects of the pandemic have not been felt equally across class and racial lines, showing that the notion that we all breathe the same air is a myth.

Throughout the exhibition, the curators strive to make air and its components visible, beginning with David Rickard’s powerful site-specific work A Roomful of Air (2022). This stack of concrete blocks exactly equals the weight of the air in the gallery, taking into account factors such as altitude, humidity and temperature. Many of us perceive air as synonymous with “nothing”; for example, we imagine things that “vanish into thin air”. Rickard’s piece emphasizes the material existence of air, composed of molecules with physical presence and power.

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The second section of the exhibition focuses on the role of air as a container for microscopic pollutants, bacteria and viruses, highlighting the slow and invisible violence of air pollution. The signage produced by the 2021 Choked Up campaign, which will be displayed alongside other artworks and design and activism artifacts, shows that people of color are more likely to live in areas with illegally high levels of air pollution. Inspired by warning signs, the signs warn passers-by that “breathing kills”.

Dryden Goodwin, “Breathe” (2022) (courtesy of the artist and Invisible Dust)

The movie 2021 death from pollution, by Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless of Black & Brown Films, explains that the Great Smog Event in London in the 1950s led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act. It also notes that the government only acted when pollution began to affect people in affluent west London, where deaths from lung problems were uncommon; nothing was done when sickness and death were chiefly confined to the lower-class areas of the East End. Activists are now trying to pass a new version of the law that reflects racial and socioeconomic inequalities over air pollution.

The show’s most notable work is a large-scale screening of Forensic Architecture’s film Cloud Studies (2020), which analyzes the colonization of the air we breathe by governments and corporations, and explores the use of aerosol substances to suppress and control populations . From tear gas used against civilian protesters to herbicides and defoliants used in warfare, Forensic Architecture posits the air as a site of exclusion and oppression – but also of solidarity among activists.

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In the air makes it clear that most of us have little control over the air we breathe; The air ignores national borders, and wind currents can turn local air events into global ones in a matter of days. The exhibition speaks of the need for international cooperation and an end to colonial practices such as B. Northern countries sending their polluting waste to developing countries for incineration. Every breath is becoming increasingly unsafe, threatened by the exploitation of the invisible space above our heads as well as the human-caused destabilization of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. By making air and its effects visible, In the air challenges the audience to think about how we can better manage the substances we need to survive.

Installation view from In the air at Wellcome Collection, London. Pictured: David Rickard, A Roomful of Air (2022) (Courtesy Wellcome Collection / Steven Pocock, 2022)
Installation view from In the air at Wellcome Collection, London. Pictured: David Rickard, “International Airspace” (2019) (courtesy of the artist and Copperfield London; Wellcome Collection / Steven Pocock, 2022)

In the air continues at The Wellcome Collection (183 Euston Road, London, England) until October 16th. The exhibition was co-curated by George Vasey and Emily Sargent.

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