Art made of the air we breathe | Emily Parsons-Lord

Translator: Camille Martínez Reviewer: Krystian Aparta If I asked you to picture the air, what do you imagine? Most people think about either empty space or clear blue sky or sometimes trees dancing in the wind. And then I remember my high school chemistry teacher with really long socks at the blackboard, drawing diagrams of bubbles connected to other bubbles, and describing how they vibrate and collide in a kind of frantic soup. But really, we tend not to think about the air that much at all. We notice it mostly when there's some kind of unpleasant sensory intrusion upon it, like a terrible smell or something visible like smoke or mist. But it's always there. It's touching all of us right now. It's even inside us. Our air is immediate, vital and intimate. And yet, it's so easily forgotten. So what is the air? It's the combination of the invisible gases that envelop the Earth, attracted by the Earth's gravitational pull. And even though I'm a visual artist, I'm interested in the invisibility of the air.

I'm interested in how we imagine it, how we experience it and how we all have an innate understanding of its materiality through breathing. All life on Earth changes the air through gas exchange, and we're all doing it right now. Actually, why don't we all right now together take one big, collective, deep breath in. Ready? In. (Inhales) And out. (Exhales) That air that you just exhaled, you enriched a hundred times in carbon dioxide. So roughly five liters of air per breath, 17 breaths per minute of the 525,600 minutes per year, comes to approximately 45 million liters of air, enriched 100 times in carbon dioxide, just for you. Now, that's equivalent to about 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools. For me, air is plural. It's simultaneously as small as our breathing and as big as the planet. And it's kind of hard to picture.

Maybe it's impossible, and maybe it doesn't matter. Through my visual arts practice, I try to make air, not so much picture it, but to make it visceral and tactile and haptic. I try to expand this notion of the aesthetic, how things look, so that it can include things like how it feels on your skin and in your lungs, and how your voice sounds as it passes through it. I explore the weight, density and smell, but most importantly, I think a lot about the stories we attach to different kinds of air. This is a work I made in 2014. It's called "Different Kinds of Air: A Plant's Diary," where I was recreating the air from different eras in Earth's evolution, and inviting the audience to come in and breathe them with me. And it's really surprising, so drastically different.

Now, I'm not a scientist, but atmospheric scientists will look for traces in the air chemistry in geology, a bit like how rocks can oxidize, and they'll extrapolate that information and aggregate it, such that they can pretty much form a recipe for the air at different times. Then I come in as the artist and take that recipe and recreate it using the component gases. I was particularly interested in moments of time that are examples of life changing the air, but also the air that can influence how life will evolve, like Carboniferous air. It's from about 300 to 350 million years ago. It's an era known as the time of the giants. So for the first time in the history of life, lignin evolves. That's the hard stuff that trees are made of. So trees effectively invent their own trunks at this time, and they get really big, bigger and bigger, and pepper the Earth, releasing oxygen, releasing oxygen, releasing oxygen, such that the oxygen levels are about twice as high as what they are today.

And this rich air supports massive insects — huge spiders and dragonflies with a wingspan of about 65 centimeters. To breathe, this air is really clean and really fresh. It doesn't so much have a flavor, but it does give your body a really subtle kind of boost of energy. It's really good for hangovers. (Laughter) Or there's the air of the Great Dying — that's about 252.5 million years ago, just before the dinosaurs evolve. It's a really short time period, geologically speaking, from about 20- to 200,000 years. Really quick. This is the greatest extinction event in Earth's history, even bigger than when the dinosaurs died out. Eighty-five to 95 percent of species at this time die out, and simultaneous to that is a huge, dramatic spike in carbon dioxide, that a lot of scientists agree comes from a simultaneous eruption of volcanoes and a runaway greenhouse effect. Oxygen levels at this time go to below half of what they are today, so about 10 percent.

So this air would definitely not support human life, but it's OK to just have a breath. And to breathe, it's oddly comforting. It's really calming, it's quite warm and it has a flavor a little bit like soda water. It has that kind of spritz, quite pleasant. So with all this thinking about air of the past, it's quite natural to start thinking about the air of the future. And instead of being speculative with air and just making up what I think might be the future air, I discovered this human-synthesized air. That means that it doesn't occur anywhere in nature, but it's made by humans in a laboratory for application in different industrial settings. Why is it future air? Well, this air is a really stable molecule that will literally be part of the air once it's released, for the next 300 to 400 years, before it's broken down. So that's about 12 to 16 generations.

And this future air has some very sensual qualities. It's very heavy. It's about eight times heavier than the air we're used to breathing. It's so heavy, in fact, that when you breathe it in, whatever words you speak are kind of literally heavy as well, so they dribble down your chin and drop to the floor and soak into the cracks. It's an air that operates quite a lot like a liquid. Now, this air comes with an ethical dimension as well. Humans made this air, but it's also the most potent greenhouse gas that has ever been tested. Its warming potential is 24,000 times that of carbon dioxide, and it has that longevity of 12 to 16 generations. So this ethical confrontation is really central to my work. (In a lowered voice) It has another quite surprising quality. It changes the sound of your voice quite dramatically. (Laughter) So when we start to think — ooh! It's still there a bit.

(Laughter) When we think about climate change, we probably don't think about giant insects and erupting volcanoes or funny voices. The images that more readily come to mind are things like retreating glaciers and polar bears adrift on icebergs. We think about pie charts and column graphs and endless politicians talking to scientists wearing cardigans. But perhaps it's time we start thinking about climate change on the same visceral level that we experience the air. Like air, climate change is simultaneously at the scale of the molecule, the breath and the planet. It's immediate, vital and intimate, as well as being amorphous and cumbersome. And yet, it's so easily forgotten. Climate change is the collective self-portrait of humanity. It reflects our decisions as individuals, as governments and as industries. And if there's anything I've learned from looking at air, it's that even though it's changing, it persists.

It may not support the kind of life that we'd recognize, but it will support something. And if we humans are such a vital part of that change, I think it's important that we can feel the discussion. Because even though it's invisible, humans are leaving a very vibrant trace in the air. Thank you. (Applause).

Ben Katchor’s comics of bygone New York

I'm going to read a few strips. These are, most of these are from a monthly page I do in and architecture and design magazine called Metropolis. And the first story is called "The Faulty Switch." Another beautifully designed new building ruined by the sound of a common wall light switch. It's fine during the day when the main rooms are flooded with sunlight. But at dusk everything changes. The architect spent hundreds of hours designing the burnished brass switchplates for his new office tower. And then left it to a contractor to install these 79-cent switches behind them. We know instinctively where to reach when we enter a dark room. We automatically throw the little nub of plastic upward. But the sound we are greeted with, as the room is bathed in the simulated glow of late-afternoon light, recalls to mind a dirty men's room in the rear of a Greek coffee shop. (Laughter) This sound colors our first impression of any room; it can't be helped. But where does this sound, commonly described as a click, come from? Is it simply the byproduct of a crude mechanical action? Or is it an imitation of one half the set of sounds we make to express disappointment? The often dental consonant of no Indo-European language.

Or is it the amplified sound of a synapse firing in the brain of a cockroach? In the 1950s they tried their best to muffle this sound with mercury switches and silent knob controls. But today these improvements seem somehow inauthentic. The click is the modern triumphal clarion proceeding us through life, announcing our entry into every lightless room. The sound made flicking a wall switch off is of a completely different nature. It has a deep melancholy ring. Children don't like it. It's why they leave lights on around the house. (Laughter) Adults find it comforting. But wouldn't it be an easy matter to wire a wall switch so that it triggers the muted horn of a steam ship? Or the recorded crowing of a rooster? Or the distant peel of thunder? Thomas Edison went through thousands of unlikely substances before he came upon the right one for the filament of his electric light bulb. Why have we settled so quickly for the sound of its switch? That's the end of that. (Applause) The next story is called "In Praise of the Taxpayer." That so many of the city's most venerable taxpayers have survived yet another commercial building boom, is cause for celebration.

These one or two story structures, designed to yield only enough income to cover the taxes on the land on which they stand, were not meant to be permanent buildings. Yet for one reason or another they have confounded the efforts of developers to be combined into lots suitable for high-rise construction. Although they make no claim to architectural beauty, they are, in their perfect temporariness, a delightful alternative to the large-scale structures that might someday take their place. The most perfect examples occupy corner lots. They offer a pleasant respite from the high-density development around them. A break of light and air, an architectural biding of time. So buried in signage are these structures, that it often takes a moment to distinguish the modern specially constructed taxpayer from its neighbor: the small commercial building from an earlier century, whose upper floors have been sealed, and whose groundfloor space now functions as a taxpayer. The few surfaces not covered by signs are often clad in a distinctive, dark green-gray, striated aluminum siding. Take-out sandwich shops, film processing drop-offs, peep-shows and necktie stores.

Now these provisional structures have, in some cases, remained standing for the better part of a human lifetime. The temporary building is a triumph of modern industrial organization, a healthy sublimation of the urge to build, and proof that not every architectural idea need be set in stone. That's the end. (Laughter) And the next story is called, "On the Human Lap." For the ancient Egyptians the lap was a platform upon which to place the earthly possessions of the dead — 30 cubits from foot to knee. It was not until the 14th century that an Italian painter recognized the lap as a Grecian temple, upholstered in flesh and cloth. Over the next 200 years we see the infant Christ go from a sitting to a standing position on the Virgin's lap, and then back again. Every child recapitulates this ascension, straddling one or both legs, sitting sideways, or leaning against the body.

From there, to the modern ventriloquist's dummy, is but a brief moment in history. You were late for school again this morning. The ventriloquist must first make us believe that a small boy is sitting on his lap. The illusion of speech follows incidentally. What have you got to say for yourself, Jimmy? As adults we admire the lap from a nostalgic distance. We have fading memories of that provisional temple, erected each time an adult sat down. On a crowded bus there was always a lap to sit on. It is children and teenage girls who are most keenly aware of its architectural beauty. They understand the structural integrity of a deep avuncular lap, as compared to the shaky arrangement of a neurotic niece in high heels. The relationship between the lap and its owner is direct and intimate. I envision a 36-story, 450-unit residential high-rise — a reason to consider the mental health of any architect before granting an important commission.

The bathrooms and kitchens will, of course, have no windows. The lap of luxury is an architectural construct of childhood, which we seek, in vain, as adults, to employ. That's the end. (Laughter) The next story is called "The Haverpiece Collection" A nondescript warehouse, visible for a moment from the northbound lanes of the Prykushko Expressway, serves as the temporary resting place for the Haverpiece collection of European dried fruit. The profound convolutions on the surface of a dried cherry. The foreboding sheen of an extra-large date. Do you remember wandering as a child through those dark wooden storefront galleries? Where everything was displayed in poorly labeled roach-proof bins. Pears dried in the form of genital organs.

Apricot halves like the ears of cherubim. In 1962 the unsold stock was purchased by Maurice Haverpiece, a wealthy prune juice bottler, and consolidated to form the core collection. As an art form it lies somewhere between still-life painting and plumbing. Upon his death in 1967, a quarter of the items were sold off for compote to a high-class hotel restaurant. (Laughter) Unsuspecting guests were served stewed turn-of-the-century Turkish figs for breakfast. (Laughter) The rest of the collection remains here, stored in plain brown paper bags until funds can be raised to build a permanent museum and study center. A shoe made of apricot leather for the daughter of a czar. That's the end. Thank you. (Applause).

Re-Envisioning Climate Change Through Art by Marcus Moench

You know, there needs to be passion. There needs to be art. If we can’t tell the stories that will change the world, we can’t change it. So, this is one of my newest tools for climate communications. For talking about resilience, for changing the nature of dialogue, what we think about, how we connect with people. Who am I?

My background is as a scientist. I was introduced as a scientist. I formed an international organization. We’ve worked across Asia, Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, areas like that. We also work here, and we’re looking at what people are doing to help themselves, to respond to disasters, to adapt to climate change, to adapt to the things that affect people in their daily life. That’s who I am. My brother, who I’m collaborating with, a potter. But I think there’s something a little deeper there. We both came from a family that believes that it doesn’t matter what you do. You can do anything as long as you change the world and that’s a passion for me. The idea that we can create different forms of dialogue, connect people so that they can understand what resilience means, what the ability to adapt to something big like climate change is.

“A gas pipeline was backed into by a backhoe, it cracked open, gas poured into the creek, caught fire”

That is something that is a passion for me. We started to pull together a collaboration to say, “How can we tell this?” He’s a potter, but it’s something deeper than that. He tells stories with his wheels, he tells narratives, and the idea was to pull this together to tell the narrative of the threat, but also something about the solution, something that is artistic and playful, but that is also real, grounded in things people do, things they can do to create change. This was the first wheel my brother made. It was following a pipeline disaster in Bellingham, Washington. A gas pipeline was backed into by a backhoe, it cracked open, gas poured into the creek, caught fire. The two or three kids fishing in the creek, an 18-year-old, a friend of his neighbor, were burned to death. He thought there needed to be a way to tell this, so his art has evolved, as you can see on the screen. This is the first one he did, but it was telling the story of the pipeline disaster, and since then, he’s made another wheel to tell the story of the creek’s recovery.

In a nutshell, that’s what we’re trying to do using this. What’s the world I live in? The world I live in is full of reports and papers. I have contributed on things to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Those reports are read by another emu. There are five or ten people who read the details of all of it. It doesn’t communicate to everybody and it doesn’t give that tangible sense of what we can really do. But the ideas that we’ve put into these, these actually are grounded. They’re grounded in beauty and ceramics, which is static, but is mobile as a story, but also grounded in real change, what people actually can do in response to things that are often very daunting. I don’t know how you feel, but when I look at climate, I often feel tremendously disempowered.

What am I supposed to do? These governmental, the global processes, are distant, intangible, very difficult to connect with. The meanings generate political divisions. But on the other hand, there are many things that I see from my work where people are doing things. When I look at the grand narrative, emissions and climate, there’s very little I can do. But when I begin to look at the details, when I begin to say, “if I have a fear of falling, the way many people often do in the world, what else can be done?” This is the kind of narrative that has to be changed. So, as I look at it, I go through the elements of the threat. I see things like groundwater overdraft. I’ve lead the groundwater review for India at one stage in my life. There’s tremendous over-pumping. It’s the same in California. You get in the image, art can tell a picture in a way that a picture can’t. This is a well in Southern India, ten by ten meters square, a hundred meters deep, eighty more wells in the bottom: totally dry.

“About 90% of the people there have raised their houses by one to three meters”

What can you do about that? This is the type of thing that we hear fear of regularly: flooding, disaster. That narrative is one that is often locationally grounded in specifics. If I showed this picture everybody would think, “It’s India, that happens all the time,” but on the other hand, I was standing on my porch in Boulder a few years ago, and it felt the same: tremendously disempowering. But in India, Northern India, where I’ve worked in the Gangetic basin, about 90% of the people there have raised their houses by one to three meters. It’s not rocket science, and they’re actually able so that they’re not losing every asset every year. That’s a huge change, it’s incremental, and it’s been made by people who are individuals doing it, acting in the space that they have.

They can control their houses, even if they can’t control the global narrative. We look at fire. There were the Australian fires a few years ago, there are the California fires now. It’s a global thing. And yet, the response is real. There are things we can do, and many of them are. If you look in Colorado at the rebuilding, there are changes in the housing design. It’s being driven by individuals, and this is a huge solution space. It’s not solving all of the problems, but it is solving an element, and if we can get individual solutions to emerge, and can recognize them and change our narrative, we can actually create large solution spaces. It’s not going to solve everything, but then we can be open to innovation on those problems that we don’t have solutions for. It’s growing those. The drought issues, you take a picture like this that communicates across Asia. You take a reality like this, it’s California. You take the growth of cities and the tremendous pollution, but there are other ways of envisioning cities.

“If we can monitor, then we can correct what other people are doing”

And here, this is where we get our fear often. This is the idea that we live based on systems, that everything is flowing up from the roots of the tree, and that that’s under tremendous threat. So the idea is to see the problem, but also find the solution, and find that through play, find that through other things. Part of it is being a little reverent about the world we live in. Part of it is playing, being out there experiencing it. Part of it is study, in a playful manner. Being able to understand the migration patterns, the other beings that live in this world with us. Part of it is monitoring and if anything, that’s a dull topic, but it’s an important one. You look at a monitoring station like this, which happens to be Rawalpindi in Pakistan on floods. It seems distant, but that is what empowers us and kids, monitoring things to change. If we can monitor, then we can correct what other people are doing. We can stop people who are filling in the wetlands, stop people who are damming the rivers in places, or address the questions of pollution.

We’ve just heard things about VW, for example. We can also innovate, changing water, looking at energy approaches, community engagement, lots of things like that. This is where we can re-envision our cities. We’ve worked globally on re-envisioning cities and it’s been a collaborative process of many people looking at how you can build resilience in cities. It’s often through those tousand 1% solutions. It’s through people changing design, learning to live with water, telling that story. It’s also through those simple solutions. I talked about people in North India raising houses. Well, it’s happening here as well. If you look up in Lyons where the flooding was, if you look in New Orleans, it’s not rocket science. It’s raising a house, designing it to live with water. This is happening in Boulder.

It’s just a local move; it’s probably not a big solution, but it’s going to keep this apartment building from flooding the next time, perhaps. So it’s innovating. In South Asia, it’s often harvesting water from the rooftops. That’s the same in Australia. It’s recharging the ground water. All of these are part of a mosaic of solutions, and to me, it’s experiencing it, getting out there and being in contact, and it’s telling that story in a way that you can see it, so it’s not this distant cloud of climate change, it’s today’s activities on the ground, things that people can do themselves adding up that can make a huge difference, and then pair down the global problems to a place where they’re much more tractable. So it’s that re-envisioning the systems, remembering that everything we depend on, the food, the energy, the water, it’s not as though we’re going to get rid of old systems. Many of those are needed, they’re essential. But it’s also the slight shift in balance and telling that story.

“Somebody in Germany took a power station and changed it into a playground, and shifted the energy balance”

How instead of talking individually, we can talk as groups. How we can choose to have local agriculture, how we can choose to have local water management, how we can build those pieces that add resilience to society. That’s to me the story that needs to be told because it’s one which empowers people, it’s one which tells people that it’s actually the solution that’s within their grasp not someone else’s. This is something where working with artists has been a delight. It’s not just my brother who I’ve worked with, it’s others as well. This is another; somebody in Germany took a power station and changed it into a playground, and shifted the energy balance. It’s reusing, all of that aggregating upwards. We’d like anyone who’s interested to put in their ideas, because I think the power of art is inspiring. It helps people put in their ideas of what can be done at different levels, and that’s how you build real solutions. So for me, art is a passion, but it’s also a mechanism for getting real change.

If we can’t envision a different future, if we can’t believe in it as hopeful, how can we create it? To me, that is part of the solution. This is a water wheel that my brother also made. He’s at a reception right now for an environmental award in Bellingham based on some of his work around this. The idea of communicating, getting change going, getting people passionate through something that’s tangible. The world is electronic now, and yet, I’m carrying the original word processor, or at least one of them. You know? And my wife would kill me for having the pen in my pocket. It is that tangibility, and with clay, you can touch it, you can feel it, you can move it, and you can take your ideas, put them inside, as the Tibetans do with prayer wheels, and have them accumulate. Those can go out electronically, but you’ve done something physical.