On the Apparently Meaningless Texture of Noise
Pedro Oliveira / Berlin, Germany
Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova developed a simple website employing the aesthetics of the color code used to communicate the national Air Quality Index (AQI). Quotes by transcripts that recount experiences of living in the hazy Beijing air create sometimes contradictory perspectives on the phenomena.
Interview with Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova — Dez 20, 2019
For the Web Residency by Solitude & ZKM under the title »Engineering Care,« Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova developed the project As Air Became This Number which functions as a simple website employing the aesthetics of the color code used to communicate the national Air Quality Index (AQI). Quotes by transcripts that recount experiences of living in the hazy Beijing air create sometimes contradictory perspectives on the phenomena. The website closes with an essay exploring the role of care in controlling air pollution through the example of Beijing.
Schlosspost: As Air Became This Number, the project you are working on for the web residencies, is part of larger research on air in which you use artistic and scientific tools to look deeply into the politics of polluted air as complex systems of governance, technoscientific notions, and individual narratives. Where did this interest come from, and what tools do you use in your joint practice?
Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova: Through interdisciplinary investigation of situated case studies, our long-term collaboration between visual artist and researcher in ecology, photography, and new media explores air as a natural-cultural and techno-ecological phenomenon situated in the nexus of media, science, and technological mediation.
Using installation, performance, mapping, and critical analysis, we seek to examine the overlapping boundaries between the aesthetic, science, and politics of air and atmosphere. The imperceptibility of air makes it an interesting phenomenon for science as well as art. Since we see through air, we cannot actually look at air.
As a consequence, our understanding of air and the atmosphere are to a large extent made possible through procedures of scientific measurements and assessment – what we know is contingent on techno-scientific apparatus, epistemologies, and infrastructures. As a result, sensors, imaging technology, and information systems increasingly influence how the environment is perceived. Asking what meaningful alliances can surface between art, science, and technology in times when technoscience and digital technologies predetermine our environmental sensibilities, our collaboratory brings theory, criticism, and scientific research together with art and poetics.
SP: As Air Became This Number takes the extent of polluted air problems in Beijing as starting point for further thoughts on interrelations between global care chains, private self-care, and the transference of responsibility to the individual. In what way does your project address the topic »engineering care«?
HH and AM: The project builds upon aerial imaginaries or accounts – audio recordings and transcripts that recount experiences of living in the hazy Beijing air – collected during a three-month artist residency at Beijing’s Institute for Provocation that are used as a point of departure leading us toward theoretical insights and connections with existing thinking around atmospheric care and control.
»Even the AQI, which is a scientific concept, is designed as a set of safety recommendations that indicates a notion of care for people’s health, rather than simply reporting the level of pollution.«
For the web residency we decided to develop a simple website using the aesthetics of the color code used to communicate the national Air Quality Index (AQI) representing the estimated health risk for a general population. The color code separates the index into categories of health concern, with exposures described as good, moderate, unhealthy, or hazardous. In the first part of the website, one quote was selected for each of the six colors. While the quotes provide far-ranging and sometimes divergent perspectives, they also contain some distinct similarities and patterns that substantiate a clear shift in the perception of urban air. Therefore, they can be read as compelling indicators of changing aerial imaginaries and sensibilities.
While working on this project, we noticed that many of the strategies and tactics relating to the control of air pollution are centered around various acts of care and self-care (for example, wearing protective masks, investing in air cleaning instrument, drinking hot water). Even the AQI, which is a scientific concept, is designed as a set of safety recommendations that indicates a notion of care for people’s health, rather than simply reporting the level of pollution. Thanks to our residency we came to understand that while technologies developed for air pollution control may not be explicitly designed as technologies of care (such as artificial caregivers), they implicitly function as such (for example, protective masks, air cleaning devices, information disseminating apps). Also, we learned that this is not a new thing – technologies of care and control have been used to govern the urban environment and atmosphere at least since Victorian smog.
A smartphone app for reporting the air pollution levels.
Exploring the role of care in the control of air pollution through the Beijing case highlights that technology and care are often more closely entangled than what we may have assumed. It also shows that the notion of care is not universal but can carry different meanings and manifestations. As an example, we have found that instead of proposing or designing solutions for collective care, current technologies of air pollution control consolidate around individualized and privatized forms of care.
SP: In your essay »Sick air in the making of the smart cities« you mention that the »PM2.5, like all other parameters that constitute the AQI index, can nowadays be detected using automated environmental sensors that produce continuous, near real-time data transmissions.« Do you consider the automated real-time measurement systems and the corresponding softwares and apps for the distribution of the data to the public as emancipatory and liberating tools?
HH and AM: We simply consider them as parts of a broader shift toward the technologization of our senses. We realize that technologies are never neutral, but even technology with problematic roots can be emancipatory in some contexts. However, this does not guarantee that it won’t have repressive consequences elsewhere. For example, while the access to new information can be seen as emancipatory on one level, the unchecked use of air quality apps makes them complicit in a broader reliance on datafied representations of the urban experience, or even the datafication and automation of urban governance.
Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova, »Sick air in making of the smart cities«, 2019
SP: How does your web residency project engage with the threshold of science fact and science fiction and/or individual storytelling?
HH and AM: In our project, we treat environmental science not as a matter of fact or fiction, but as a specific social-political endeavor with a privileged position in generating knowledge about the planetary environment. This is not to say that we are suspicious or disregarding of science. We have spent considerable time talking with various atmospheric scientists, who were influential and helpful in informing our understanding about the air pollution phenomena and its technoscientific representation.
»There is no real global management of polluted air, but certainly there are globally manifested, tacit ways of thinking about and relating to the air.«
In addition to this, we explore how scientific and automated data and concepts travel, finding new unanticipated contexts and meanings, whether in the personal stories shared by individuals or in larger geopolitical projects.
SP: Thinking of the dynamics and the alarming scale of the global polluted air and its local impact, knowledge production and access to data becomes a key concept in your project. How does your discussion of the topic differ from solely academic papers, and is there an aim to mobilize a change in system thinking? To what extent do you create a shift or ad reconfiguration of our current relationship with polluted and/or clean air?
HH and AM: In our collaboration, we do not want to assume prescriptive roles for science as »the data production machine« nor art as »the awareness raising tool« nor essentialize one disciplinary approach over others. Instead, we explore the possibilities that emerge from treating our collaboration not only as interdisciplinary, but simultaneously interrogative of the historical boundaries of these disciplines. As an example, we use artistic research, such as the previously mentioned aerial accounts, not only as affective and aesthetic referents, but equally, as original resource for analysis and action.
Also, we recognize that »interdisciplinarity« is not something natural nor automatic, but an effort that requires experimentation between different practices, languages, and ways of knowing, including material forms of inquiry. Therefore, our intention is to develop a multiplicity of outcomes that allow sharing the problematics of air across different platforms, contexts, and audiences. Following Donna Haraway and other ecofeminist thinkers and practitioners, we see the art-scientific practice as a viable means not only to refine our reasoning, but also to create richer, more reflexive and livable worlds (and atmospheres), which are hopefully »less organized along the axes of domination«.
SP: In your opinion, what shift should the global management of polluted air undertake for a better future?
HH and AM: There is no real global management of polluted air, but certainly there are globally manifested, tacit ways of thinking about and relating to the air. We hope that our work contributes to a better understanding of these implicit conceptualizations and prevailing imaginaries.
SP: Please provide some links, book titles, sound files, and videos as further reading related to your artistic practices and research topics to share with our readers.
HH and AM: Finding ways of combining different practices and working together beyond disciplinary divides has been central in our collaboration. In this context, we are grateful for experiences such as hosting the AIR work group for Finnish Bioart Society’s the Heavens Field_Notes Laboratory (https://bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/pages/air-group) that brought together activists, practitioners and researchers in art, architecture, ecology, anthropology, and racial and gender studies, and included practices of sharing, colearning, and living together at the Biological Station in northernmost Finland. Similarly, we also lead an urban ethnography studio at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn (https://www.artun.ee/en/home/), where we go forward through working with students.
The AIR group hosted by Agata and Hanna at The Heavens Field_Notes, photo by disnovation.org
We have of course also been influenced by the writings of theorists as well as other projects of other practitioners. Some of the books and texts that have accompanied us includes Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty by Michelle Murphy (2006), Ecologies of Comparison by Timothy Choy (2011), and various writings on algorithmic governmentality by Antoinette Rouvroy.
The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi.
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author