A Disturbing Recreation Of The Noxious Air We Breathe Daily - Pollution Pods by Michael Pinski
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
When I heard that a climate themed installation involving the senses was in town, I couldn't wait to check it out. This smell based artwork presented an exciting opportunity to test my exceptionally acute sense of smell. Pollution Pods by Michael Pinski recreates the polluted atmosphere from four major cities with the lowest air quality in the world, and the super fresh air of a Norwegian Island. These 'suffocating' Pods installed for Earth Day allow visitors to directly experience the different environments and aims to increase awareness of our air quality.
Around 95% of the world’s population is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution. With 80% of the world currently living in urban areas (a figure which is swiftly growing) the threat of serious health conditions, from asthma to cardiovascular disease is also increasing.
What inspired Michael Pinski to create the Pollution Pods?
The creation of the Pollution Pods is intended to be much more than simply infotainment. It was originally commissioned by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim for a research project called Climart – run by a team of international researchers in psychology, natural science and the arts. We, the audience, are the test subjects. The aim of the project: To answer the question whether framing factual scientific information within visual art can affect viewer perceptions of climate change – leading to behavioural change and an increased sense of personal responsibility.
The installation is made up of five Buckminster Fullers’ geodesic domes – spherical forms resembling the familiar bio-dome. They are constructed from wooden frames and tented in clear PVC plastic. These five connected domes lead visitors around full-circle, from Norway to London, Delhi, Beijing, Sao Paulo and finally returning to Norway.
Why does London feature in the Pollution Pods?
British artist, Michael Pinski included London's air in Pollution Pods for a good reason. Back in January 2017 air quality data collected by monitoring stations dotted around London was analysed by scientists at Kings College London. They concluded the high levels of pollution in this city consisted mainly of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The culprit: Fumes emitted from diesel engines. Concentrations of NO2 in London were so high that within the first 5 days of January, Brixton had already exceeded the EU permitted amount for the whole year. Research conducted in 2016 by the European Environment Agency stated that the UK had one of the highest rates of deaths linked to NO2.
Fortunately for visitors, wandering around the Pollution Pods will not shorten your lifespan in the same way walking the streets of London will.
Each Pollution Pod merely recreates the experience of unhealthy environments, minus the unhealthy cocktails of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Pinski uses air filtering technology in the pods developed by a Danish-based company called Airlabs. The air is stripped of harmful substances, actually creating extremely clean air, to which fragrance and atmospheric effects have been added. Ironically the very concept of this installation still caused organisers so much concern, that it almost didn’t happen due to health and safety considerations. “Having something people walk through is very regulated,” Sophie Power, Airlabs CEO said, noting the comparatively startling lack of regulation on pollutants in London’s air.
The poor London air quality actually inspired the creation of the technology used in the Pollution Pods.
The co-founder of Airlabs who provided the air filter technology in the Pods is a Brit called Sophie Power, whose reason for starting the company echoes my own experience of London's smoggy air. “I realised I was walking down Marylebone Road every single day for work and incurring huge amounts of air pollution, which was having a huge effect on my unborn baby’s lungs,” she said.
My own daily walk to work, which should be a healthy alternative to driving, also puts me directly at the mercy of idling engines. At crossings or on grid-locked roads I frequently inhale whole breaths of traffic fumes – almost certainly undoing many of the health benefits of walking.
By comparison to other cities, London's air pollution problem is more insidious due to it being invisible. As Dr Fuller from Kings College London points out "[China and India] are suffering from coal pollution which is very bad but very visible. The most you could probably notice is a bit of brown tinge over London, otherwise it's so hard to see that most people are unaware of the harm that's being caused."
Instigating action over something that cannot be seen has proved difficult. Recently ClientEarth, a group of activist lawyers, took the UK government to court for the third time over it's failure to tackle 'the illegal and harmful levels of pollution in this country.'
Will my super smell senses be overwhelmed?
So while it’s clearly no secret that London is a very polluted city, how does it measure up to other places around the world? Could the very different atmospheres of five locations, thousands of miles apart, really be accurately re-created?
Michael Pinski's Pollution Pods invite visitors to consider the interconnected nature of our world and climate change.
My visit to the Pods was not just to sate my curiosity for comparisons, but also to road test my super sensitive sense of smell. This sensitivity has affected my life in numerous ways, from avoiding perfumed products to getting headaches and nausea when filling up my car with petrol. Press coverage of the Pods had ominously described them as 'suffocating', so was it possible I could become overwhelmed? A friendly staff member breezily mentioned that if I should start to feel ill, it was easy to leave. Thus I entered the first Pod with trepidation.
‘Visitors begin in Tautra in Norway, breathing in clean smelling air' stated the information sheet. Immediately I experienced something quite unexpected as I slid through the plastic flaps into the cool, dry Tautra pod – a flashback to my childhood and the distinctive smell of new beach balls! I'm pretty sure Tautra doesn’t smell of sun-warmed PVC plastic so this very distinct odour evidently came from the dome itself and distracted from the clean atmosphere the Pod was meant to recreate.
I moved onto the London Pod. This was warmer and, with some patience, hints of traffic fumes were minutely detectable above the PVC, but it didn't smell much like the air I was breathing outside five minutes ago. The air in the pod was clear, congruent with London’s invisible but deadly nitrogen output. The info sheet worryingly pointed out 'it is estimated that the average Londoner, exposed to the current levels of pollution, loses up to 16 months of their life'....The temptation to stay in this filtered air recreation suddenly became very great!
I prepared myself for an olfactory assault as I approached the misty New Dehli pod. The wall of fetid, hazy, warm air did successfully overpower the PVC.
The odour was a curious mix of smoky incense sticks and sulphurous blocked drains.
'New Delhi air is filled with a haze of airborne particles. Here the pollution could cut short the life of a resident by around 4 years.' This city suffers from extreme and very obvious air pollution that was unpleasantly stifling.
A glance through the plastic flaps revealed Beijing's atmosphere was not much better. A smoky fog filled the pod with a strong, pervasive smell of burning – rather similar to the charred aftermath of a forest fire. The effect was so psychologically intrusive I could feel my throat beginning to feel sore and wheezy.
By contrast the Sao Paulo pod looked fresh and had a strong acetic tang reminiscent of PVA-based wood glue – possibly due to the PVC smell mixing with a manufactured vinegary scent. Sao Paulo's curious odour 'comes from the use of ethanol-based fuel in many vehicles'. The air here was also humid but decidedly more bearable than the claggy atmosphere of New Delhi.
Returning to the first pod, Tautra's dry, cool atmosphere was suddenly so comparatively fresh that even the PVC smell had vanished. I took a few joyful moments to deeply inhale the pure filtered air before heading back to lung-fulls of nitrous oxide and particulates.
What did I learn from visiting the Pollution Pods?
This is undoubtedly an impressive and entertaining artwork to raise people's awareness of air pollution. However, it's quest to encourage us to think deeper about our global interconnectedness and environmental pollution actually highlighted some inherent flaws in the installation itself.
Firstly, for me, the most overpowering part of the Pollution Pods experience was the smell of the domes themselves. This not only undermined the key part of the experience but drew to attention an apparent hypocrisy of using plastics in an installation about pollution and climate change. It raised questions in my mind as to how it will be disposed of once the exhibitions are over.
Secondly, many of the press articles about the event heavily plugged the Airlabs filter technology used in the domes as 'having the potential to vastly improve air quality in schools and hospitals'. This doesn't, however, tackle the original problem that inspired the Airlabs CEO to start her company – the hazardous outside air pollution – the very air pollution that the Pollution Pods recreate. Dr Ian Mudway, a respiratory toxicologist at King’s College London points out that “everybody really wants technology to fix the problem so that nobody has to adjust their lifestyle.” Surely a danger of promoting this technology, which is fundamentally a stop-gap solution, is the delaying of policy change.
Thirdly, there is a strong possibility that these types of exhibits merely preach to the converted - providing skewed data to the Climart project. My visit to the Pods was not just to entertain my nasal passages but to show support for the message it was conveying. I already walk to work; my partner cycles and takes public transport; and we recycle over 80% of our rubbish. Ultimately as an individual I can only do so much, the rest is up to policy makers and the implementation of more robust regulations. London's air quality has been the unwitting victim of the 'Dieselgate' emissions scandal, where the public bought cars they believed to be cleaner and more efficient. This in itself shows that people are aware and willing to change their behaviour based on available information - providing that it's honest and accurate.
Ultimately this type of experiential art does get us thinking.
From a pure experiential stand-point The Pollution Pods are a superficially interesting and novel way to get the message out about improving our air - so long as you don't think too hard about it. From an educational point of view it should be very enlightening for those who have not given the air they breath much thought.
With a problem as complex and nebulous as solving air pollution, the Pollution Pods are a much-needed instigator to encouraging change.
The mere fact that I have written a long post on the topic, shows just how much it got me thinking. So Climart: your mission has been successful, just may be not quite in the way you intended.