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).

Rachel Armstrong: Architecture that repairs itself?

All buildings today have something in common. They’re made using Victorian technologies. This involves blueprints, industrial manufacturing and construction using teams of workers. All of this effort results in an inert object. And that means that there is a one-way transfer of energy from our environment into our homes and cities. This is not sustainable.

I believe that the only way that it is possible for us to construct genuinely sustainable homes and cities is by connecting them to nature, not insulating them from it. Now, in order to do this, we need the right kind of language. Living systems are in constant conversation with the natural world, through sets of chemical reactions called metabolism. And this is the conversion of one group of substances into another, either through the production or the absorption of energy.

“The little bag is able to conduct itself in a way that can only be described as living”

And this is the way in which living materials make the most of their local resources in a sustainable way. So, I’m interested in the use of metabolic materials for the practice of architecture. But they don’t exist. So I’m having to make them. I’m working with architect Neil Spiller at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and we’re collaborating with international scientists in order to generate these new materials from a bottom up approach. That means we’re generating them from scratch. One of our collaborators is chemist Martin Hanczyc, and he’s really interested in the transition from inert to living matter. Now, that’s exactly the kind of process that I’m interested in, when we’re thinking about sustainable materials. So, Martin, he works with a system called the protocell. Now all this is – and it’s magic – is a little fatty bag. And it’s got a chemical battery in it. And it has no DNA. This little bag is able to conduct itself in a way that can only be described as living.

It is able to move around its environment. It can follow chemical gradients. It can undergo complex reactions, some of which are happily architectural. So here we are. These are protocells, patterning their environment. We don’t know how they do that yet. Here, this is a protocell, and it’s vigorously shedding this skin. Now, this looks like a chemical kind of birth. This is a violent process. Here, we’ve got a protocell to extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbonate. And that’s the shell around that globular fat. They are quite brittle. So you’ve only got a part of one there. So what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to push these technologies towards creating bottom-up construction approaches for architecture, which contrast the current, Victorian, top-down methods which impose structure upon matter. That can’t be energetically sensible. So, bottom-up materials actually exist today.

“The protocells are depositing their limestone very specifically, around the foundations of Venice, effectively petrifying it”

They’ve been in use, in architecture, since ancient times. If you walk around the city of Oxford, where we are today, and have a look at the brickwork, which I’ve enjoyed doing in the last couple of days, you’ll actually see that a lot of it is made of limestone. And if you look even closer, you’ll see, in that limestone, there are little shells and little skeletons that are piled upon each other. And then they are fossilized over millions of years. Now a block of limestone, in itself, isn’t particularly that interesting. It looks beautiful. But imagine what the properties of this limestone block might be if the surfaces were actually in conversation with the atmosphere. Maybe they could extract carbon dioxide. Would it give this block of limestone new properties? Well, most likely it would. It might be able to grow. It might be able to self-repair, and even respond to dramatic changes in the immediate environment.

So, architects are never happy with just one block of an interesting material. They think big. Okay? So when we think about scaling up metabolic materials, we can start thinking about ecological interventions like repair of atolls, or reclamation of parts of a city that are damaged by water. So, one of these examples would of course be the historic city of Venice. Now, Venice, as you know, has a tempestuous relationship with the sea, and is built upon wooden piles. So we’ve devised a way by which it may be possible for the protocell technology that we’re working with to sustainably reclaim Venice. And architect Christian Kerrigan has come up with a series of designs that show us how it may be possible to actually grow a limestone reef underneath the city. So, here is the technology we have today. This is our protocell technology, effectively making a shell, like its limestone forefathers, and depositing it in a very complex environment, against natural materials. We’re looking at crystal lattices to see the bonding process in this.

Now, this is the very interesting part. We don’t just want limestone dumped everywhere in all the pretty canals. What we need it to do is to be creatively crafted around the wooden piles. So, you can see from these diagrams that the protocell is actually moving away from the light, toward the dark foundations. We’ve observed this in the laboratory. The protocells can actually move away from the light. They can actually also move towards the light. You have to just choose your species. So that these don’t just exist as one entity, we kind of chemically engineer them. And so here the protocells are depositing their limestone very specifically, around the foundations of Venice, effectively petrifying it. Now, this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to take years of tuning and monitoring this technology in order for us to become ready to test it out in a case-by-case basis on the most damaged and stressed buildings within the city of Venice.

But gradually, as the buildings are repaired, we will see the accretion of a limestone reef beneath the city. An accretion itself is a huge sink of carbon dioxide. Also it will attract the local marine ecology, who will find their own ecological niches within this architecture. So, this is really interesting. Now we have an architecture that connects a city to the natural world in a very direct and immediate way. But perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that the driver of this technology is available everywhere. This is terrestrial chemistry. We’ve all got it, which means that this technology is just as appropriate for developing countries as it is for First World countries. So, in summary, I’m generating metabolic materials as a counterpoise to Victorian technologies, and building architectures from a bottom-up approach. Secondly, these metabolic materials have some of the properties of living systems, which means they can perform in similar ways.

They can expect to have a lot of forms and functions within the practice of architecture. And finally, an observer in the future marveling at a beautiful structure in the environment may find it almost impossible to tell whether this structure has been created by a natural process or an artificial one.