Even if it seems as though air quality might be a single entity out there to be sensed and measured, its enactment through different projects reveals that what is at stake and what matters enough to be sensed is multiple and has entirely different political implications.
The scientific-institutional approach to sensing air quality might be to build datasets and to comply with EU regulations. In this case, the data and the accuracy of the data is what counts in establishing compliance with policy and health objectives. In other sensing processes, the goal is to act to limit exposure, for example, in order to navigate the city to avoid high air pollution levels or to navigate environments to avoid radiation, as in the radiation measuring and mapping projects after the Fukushima disaster, or to protect the environment of a local area, such as the East End Quality of Life Initiative in Sheffield.
Some projects have focused on community development. The Air Quality Egg has built a community of interest around air quality and the construction of independent collective infrastructures. Other projects have focused on the provision of a tool for collectives monitoring air, as with the Smart Citizen or the Citizen Sensor projects, or on the production of engagement by organising actions of measurement themselves, as with Preemptive Media’s AIR project, or the Air Walk that we organised at the Citizen Sensing project for the IVSA conference in July this year. These projects differently consider the air as an object or experience to monitor, analyse or experience (or even eventually to bottle and sell, as Marcel Duchamp did in his Paris Air (1919) ampoule readymade).
Other projects use a different type of strategy: a distributed way of organising sensing through attending to more-than-human modes of sensing. An interesting example of this distributed and more-than-human sensing approach is the Opal O Lichen Watch project, which observes lichens as indicators of air pollution. Rather than rely exclusively on a technical device, a sensing organism bio-indicates air quality through its incorporation of substances that are present in local air and water.
One of the aims of these projects is to build awareness through the act of monitoring. But in practicing monitoring and embodying awareness, the body also learns to be affected in particular ways. As Gordon Matta-Clark proposed in his Fresh Air Cart (1972) project, by allowing passerby to inhale clean air (79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen), they engaged with air in distinct ways in relation to urban ecologies and what counts as pollution. Sensing can then produced by the act of breathing, and by comparing the experience of different airs.
Moving beyond data, in this sense, a whole number of activities coalesce in the act of monitoring the air, from local environmental protection, breathing, navigating the city, making, monitoring, selling, and walking. These practices might bring together lichens, gas masks, weekend walkers, glass phials, electronic experts, and activists, who variously engage with and even attempt to remediate air quality.
Image: Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago 1985. Source: M HKA