The Citizen Sense team, Jennifer Gabrys, Nerea Calvillo, Helen Pritchard and Nick Shapiro, participated in the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), hosted in a sprawling hotel and congress centre located in the Mission Valley of San Diego.

Gabrys and Calvillo presented research on air quality monitoring to the panel, “Ecologies of Evidence, Life and Politics,” chaired by Fernando Dominguez Rubio from UCSD. Shapiro contributed to the panel, “Making Environmental Harm Manifest,” chaired by Sara Wylie from Northeastern. Together with Prichard, the group also engaged in the workshop, “Experiments Monitoring the Everyday: Art, Design and DIY Methods for Environmental Health Research,” chaired by Max Liboiron, also from Northeastern.

In her presentation, “Aerial Inscription Devices,” Calvillo focused on the materiality of digital infrastructures for air quality monitoring. By analysing the invisibility of monitoring, ranging from the institutional air quality stations of Madrid’s city council to the Air Quality Egg DIY kits deployed in the city, she proposed relocating what matters in air sensing by moving beyond the data obtained by sensors to consider the spatial configuration of devices. In this way, the design and material assemblage of sensing instruments become newly relevant, and allow us to recognise how they not only configure different sensing practices, but also transform urban landscapes and imaginaries of the city.

Continuing the inquiry on the implications of environmental sensing in her paper, “Sensing the Air and Experimenting with Environmental Citizenship,” Gabrys presented work from the “air walk” that the Citizen Sense project conducted in New Cross Gate and Deptford as part of the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) annual conference. In her presentation, Gabrys unfolded how the experience of monitoring air quality was distributed along the walk through different technologies and sites, from monitoring stations to air apps and DIY kit, and from busy streets to industrial districts and sites slated for urban redevelopment. By attending to the distribution of experience when sensing the air, she considered how participation emerged across multiple sensing subjects, and how new practices for environmental participation could be developed through these active experiences of the air.

Focusing on domestic indoor air quality in his presentation, “’A Human Geiger Counter’: Somatic Science through the Embodiment of Domestic Toxins,” Shapiro questioned how environmental harm is known, and proposed ways to develop affective understandings of air quality. Drawing on his research on residential formaldehyde exposure in the United States, he developed the concept of “bodily reasoning,” where bodies are both the means of apprehension and sites of vulnerability. He also discussed how the aggregation of harm across time and space can be described through the “chemical sublime” (drawing on the sublime as a chemical process) as a mode of chemical awareness that is subtle, private and indistinct, and produces sensorial noise.

At the workshop on DIY methods, the group tested a DIY spectrometer used to identify environmental contaminants, and hacked an infrared camera (with the help of Kim Fortun, a member of Citizen Sense’s advisory board) that detects photosynthesis, both developed by Public Laboratory. The group also tested a sensor for monitoring air quality, developed by David Holstius, and along the way considered the finer points of what counts as environmental data.

From air pollution to citizen sensing and affective engagements with pollution, the Citizen Sense Lab brought together multiple strands of research on rethinking environmental practice, while also taking time to admire the “tow show” that shared the conference facilities with 4S.

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