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Posted - 08/06/2015
BREATHE with CoClimate - by Gabriel Harp
coclimate_logo.pngOn May 19th, 2015, CoClimate produced an exhibition, entitled BREATHE, in cooperation with the World Health Organization and the Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC). CoClimate was selected for the task of engaging delegates to the World Health Assembly on the matters of particulate air pollution and its impacts on health.

The exhibition has since been extended and expanded to include additional artists. It now occupies the library of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, through October, 2015. 

CoClimate’s work focuses on new forms of engagement between people, technology, and the environment. We develop exhibits and experiences, and we also develop research-based insights to help guide groups and organizations in their efforts in communications, public engagement, and design around climate change solutions, impacts, and their cultural meaning.

The BREATHE exhibition provides a chance to reflect, and be mindful about the linkages between health, the environment, and public engagement. The exhibition offers attendees a small sample of evidence, objects, visualizations, images, and gestures; each is designed to convey the impacts of air pollutants and what those impacts mean for personal and environmental health. It is hoped that the work stimulates viewers to further explore linkages between air quality, climate and health, as well as between technology, culture and infrastructure in their own environment.

But why use art? Why not show the facts to spur action or exhibit more conventional persuasive messaging examples? The answer to that question lies deep at the heart of human psychology, and it stems from the diversity of human experience. People interpret information about the environment—and their experiences with the environment—in vastly different terms. As a result, risks and linkages between human and environmental health hazards are treated very differently by different people. When it comes to the environment (and even personal health), there is no such thing as common sense. Instead, the vast majority of people on the planet look to those who are closest to them for evidence of what works and for moral guidance.

The impact of art—like air pollution—exists at the level of human experience, rather than at the level of direct communication. It is an inherently “fuzzy”, ambient, imprecise, and inefficient form of communication. Those same qualities also make it special and powerful; it speaks more directly to different kinds of people through the common bonds of human experience—the senses.

Artists and designers ask what emotions are possible, and they invoke those emotions using an array of skills, materials, and meaning. Emotions connect directly with people’s deep-seated moral foundations through novel aesthetic experiences, visceral reactions of disgust, pleasure and surprise, abstract confusion and uncertainty, or even a sense of alienation about one’s own identity and role in society. Art prompts audiences to reflect on their personal experiences, to update their mental models for how the world works, and to expand their worldviews to encompass new goals for themselves and new forms of risk and reward. Art provokes informed citizenship.

One of the projects in the BREATHE exhibit is Smog Tasting, a project of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, Edible Geography, and CoClimate. It offers visitors an opportunity to conduct a side-by-side tasting of air from different cities. Taking whisks, mixing bowls, and egg whites out onto the streets of the city, a smog-tasting cart, complete with precursor chemicals, uses the structural properties of meringue batter to harvest air pollution in order to taste and compare smog from different locations. Visitors are provided with tastes of smog meringues from four different locations and an opportunity to discuss the chemistry of air pollution, its impact on our health, as well as its relationship to the idea of the concept of “aeroir,” and the idea that urban atmospheres capture a unique taste of place.

Air pollution is now one of the world’s largest health risks, and the biggest environmental health risk—with some 7 million deaths annually attributable to outdoor and household air pollution from heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and cancers. Now imagine that 7 million as roughly equal to the population of Hong Kong, only a little more than Rio de Janeiro (6.5 million), or a little less than the population of Switzerland (8 million). Thinking about air pollution in those dimensions offers even more perspective on the problem. It’s huge.

Art often employs metaphors, and the best examples connect directly with people’s everyday experiences and senses. What does smog taste like? Is it sweet, salty, bitter, or sour? How does it make you feel? We often write about social and environmental change using terms like “force”, “impact”, or “movement” to describe its weight in terms people can understand. But how do most people actually experience those changes? Is it hot or cold? Does climate change mitigation require the tiniest push of a pen or the Herculean effort of moving a boulder? Without readymade comparisons, it can be difficult for ordinary people to imagine the task at hand. Art and artists draw these comparisons and make them visible; they lower the cognitive effort of uncertainty.

The BREATHE exhibition presents original works of art to stimulate new perspectives. By creating awareness and asking audiences to reflect, art provides a platform for different audiences to share common strands of human experience. Art takes people out of the ordinary, the expected, and the anticipated. It opens people’s minds to new possibilities, alternative scenarios, and unexpected paths of action.

Caption 1: The BREATHE exhibition was on display at the World Meteorological Organization for the opening evening of the High Level Assembly of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition during the World Health Assembly.
Caption 2: Designer Chiu Chih’s custom-designed backpack and narrative images explore how deteriorating air quality, crowded environments, and the changing face of the built landscape impact experiences of migration, resilience, and preparedness.
Caption 3: “Sky Color of 10 Chinese Cities”, by Xiaoji Chen, displays a decade of air pollution index values for 10 different Chinese cities.
Caption 4: A recipe card for the “London Pea Soup” meringue from Smog Tasting.
Caption 5: Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and Zack Denfeld of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and CoClimate hand out smog meringue samples to New Yorkers during the New Museums’s “Ideas City” Festival in May, 2015.
Caption 6: Visitors and delegates to the BREATHE exhibition included many health ministers and officials from the World Health Organization Member States.