Beings that inhabit the earth, (…), must also inhabit the air. Long neglected by thinkers whose overwhelming focus has been on the earthly grounding of dwelling, the air is not just an element we interact with, as we might with other things. it is the very medium that makes interaction possible. Without it, birds would plummet from the sky, plants would wither, and we humans would suffocate.(…)if the medium is a condition of interaction, then it follows that the quality of that interaction will be tempered by what is going on in the medium – that is, by the weather. it is in this sense that weather is about not only attunement but also admixture. Even as we breath in and out, the air mingles with our bodily tissues, filling the lungs and oxygenating the blood, and in this metabolic mingling we are constituted not as hybrid but as temperate creatures.”
We are part of that amazingly complex mesh of metabolising, photosynthesising entities what constitute the “live” of this planet – intricately connected, and however and how much we try – impossible to be separated. This mesh and its elements are often overlooked, forgotten, not noticed and not appreciated, while we get on with our daily activities – or our lives – mainly centred around our surface – the surfaces of our bodied neatly abstracted, superficially isolated from compounds, elements, living organisms, bacteria, insects, tissues – anything which might remotely suggest some sort of animated life. The air itself as Tim Ingold have stated – is something albeit seemingly invisible, but mingling with our lungs, skin, food, movements and bodily tissues. And so its quality, its composition and however we affect it shouldn’t not be ignored.
The invisible in the air doesn’t mean it is not detectable. And our lungs are very good in sensing if something in the air which we inhale is not right for us. Our respiratory system filters that data – detects what is useful, what needs to be rejected and then unnecessary stuff is exhaled. It all happens without our consciousness. That action of oxygenating our bodies is taken for granted and we do not pay much attention to the act of breathing, unless we experience difficulties – that is unless we are unwell.
The breathing is an interface between what is needed to keep us alive – all the internal chemical and physical processes happening to make us as functional organisms – and the air and thus our environment. By inhaling the air inside us we, kind of, inhale parts of this environment and so the environment becomes part of us and we become part of it. The situation where there is “us” as separate entity from our atmosphere and thus environment is not true.
However we engage with the air on a conscious way only when is too late, when damage is done and our airways revolt against inhaled substances; when actually we shouldn’t be part of that environment – even if that means we get ill or even die.
Or when we cannot inhale anything from outside our bodies – like outside of our atmosphere, on the moon or different planet, or even on our planet – inside the ocean (outside our normal habitat) – when we need to use oxygen mask or a suit to keep us alive – that is where we perhaps can feel alien, outsiders – not part of it all. The environment is some of these cases is not part of us and we are not part of it (we can extend our impact to those places – and we are in case of oceans for example – but that is a different essay).
Some people are more sensitive to the air than others. Asthma sufferers probably can detect changes in the quality of air sooner than someone with the healthy pair of lungs, or at least be a warning to what might happen to many people in the future on those percentage of places we can easily inhabit, if we do not start collaborating with those places and embracing them.
As an artist however I do not want to preach and design warnings for people about being careful with their pollution creating activities. It seems that those messages are everywhere, but only those who are ill or concern for some reasons of some sort of benefits – pay attention – at least to information about the state of the weather. But does it change their behaviour towards the air and thus our environment? What I see and am interested in noting, commenting on and thus conveying to the audience is that concept of connection between ourselves and our environment – Earth’s atmosphere – made integral by the air. I hope that by doing so I can for at least a moment bring our attention to breathing and thus extended it further to the air (and to all what air affects), hoping that some of us – me including – will remember about it for a bit longer.
As the air itself is in a way invisible, and not easy to “capture it” and so to understand it, I look at the real time environmental data. I also am not keen on using the word “data” – so much overused now and with so many connotations and baggage, so I am going to call that data – values from various sources – signals. Those signals in real time signify some state/condition – a language through which we can understand that condition of certain entity and a chance to make that entity more present for us. That real time environmental set of signals is thus for me an agency between us and the source of these signals. So my questions are: what can I do with it, how can I use it, so that it is experienced and thus remembered and how can that influence our attitude to our environment? Obviously the relevance of those questions goes beyond the subject of air.
Through “The Anatomy of Human Breath” I want to re-direct people’s attention to their breath/breathing. I take measurements in real time from the exhaled breath via three sensors: CO2, Hydrogen and most importantly exhaled Nitric Oxide. Then I use those values as an agent creating/altering visualisations. That way everybody who interact with the installation create individual picture of their breath. It differs from person to person as everybody has slightly different proportions in exhaled chemicals. Stating that I must stress that sensors used in “The Anatomy of Human Breath” are not very sensitive to spot all nuances and by any means my installation cannot be used as a diagnostic tool.
“The Anatomy of Human Breath” itself started as a side project of “The Human Sensor” installation (currently under development), which positioned asthma sufferers (like myself) in a vital role of sensing changes in the air. “The Human Sensor” focuses on the exhaled Nitric Oxide ((eNO), which has been discovered to be present in human breath during some sort of inflammation of respiratory system and often suggesting an episode of asthma attack in the near future. “The Anatomy of Human Breath” was produced initially to test how I could gather that data in real time from participants’ exhaled breath and how could I then implement it in “The Human Sensor” project.
“The Anatomy of Human Breath” however gain its own “life” and it wanted to tell its own story.
It became my investigation of how to depict/manifest that air data to make it personal and engaging and how to use an exhaled breath so that it could become an agent between us and the air around.
Although “The Anatomy of Human Breath” has been already shown twice – in Brussels and London, it wasn’t possible for me to work with the air quality data. It wasn’t available at all in Brussels (which is very interesting in itself, as one would think that this city should be an example of monitoring and making data openly available to EU citizens), and in London I simply didn’t have resources to do so.
And in order to carry my investigation, and truly explore ways of making viewers to find a connection between their breath and the air around, I needed time and resources, and most importantly a set of environmental data – that is data of the air quality in the location of exhibition.
The Air Quality Plus provided a perfect opportunity to look into how air quality data was made available for people as an information as well as a tool to create an information, how that information was conveyed on a local council/institution website; and how could I use it in my own artwork.
While looking at various portals with air quality information I have realised that although all information was out there, it was presented in a very dry and not very engaging way. It was also often somewhat fragmented and isolate. It left me with the impression that only people affected directly by air pollution might be interested in it – but only for its consequences rather than reasons.
I decided that the through “The Anatomy of Human Breath”, before I could test ways of how to convey that sense of being integral with the air and thus our environment, I first should find out the best methods and tools for using and applying real time data in my code and artwork. The Air Quality Plus allowed me to learn and implement a real time air quality data readings into a “back-end” of my installation – in whatever programing environment I’d chose to use in the future with whatever output I wish to have. For now, to keep it simple and to give myself time to research I decided on screen based visualisation – a complementary to the exhaled breath data rendition, a real time dynamic visualisation based on readings from all active sensors scattered around Sheffield.
Although I have focused for now only on a visualisation, I wanted to make sure that it was intriguing, engaging and clear enough, so that audience would be prompt to ask questions. Obviously there are examples of data visualisations readings on Sheffield council website, but I found them rather boring, limiting and somewhat confusing for those who haven’t had any prior knowledge or experience in dealing with such measurements.
The concept of “open data” demands an appropriate API for that data to be accessed in a way someone might desire. Working already in the past with several portals providing access to environmental data I have had some experience in how that might function.
It is a bit difficult for me to assess how easy to use for a general public will be a tool or API such as SPARQL (used to generate queries from sensors in Sheffield). It naturally gives more control and flexibility in terms of accessing exactly these elements of data which one wish to have as well as in format needed to do something with this data.
I spent few days playing with SPARQL engine, coming up with various queries based on provided examples. By writing some queries I could find out in a quick way which sensors were active and what they measured, which were inactive and when they took measurements for the last time, where they were placed, what were the highest or lowest value of their measurements, or compare measurements during different days.
For my needs, I decided to write a query which would let me access latest (real time, or in this case every 1 hour) measurements’ values from only active sensors. This query would be then requested from my Processing code (as that was a programming environment I choose to use for “The Anatomy of Human Breath”) as JSON file (as that would allow me to keep it updated in real time – that is time whenever readings are updated on the server).
All of the above seemed to be straightforward steps, however I stumbled upon few issues which ought to be addressed. One major issue was in running JSON query. I found out that while using Firefox browser, instead of running query in the browser itself, Firefox kept downloading JSON as a separate file onto my hard drive. It has caused quite a confusion, as what I needed was an URL which I could access from my code. Solution for that was very simple – to use SPARQL engine and run query in Chrome instead. I hope that now will be mentioned in empty so far SPARQL tips page on Github.
There was also an issue of actual visualisation of data coming from sensors. In my breath visualisation I used a spectral representation of various chemicals, and created a number of rings – each ring contained a full spectrum of colors, but only those colors are highlighted which are related to either Nitrogen, Hydrogen or Carbon (for eNO, H2O and CO2).
Active sensors in Sheffield provided me with readings of only two chemical compounds (but in three different locations) – that is NO2 and SO2, and two types of particulates: PM10, PM2.5 as well as pressure.
The small challenge for me was to visualise data of PM and Pressure in such a way so it will be clear to viewers and although it couldn’t be represented spectral colors, still aesthetically being part of the whole installation. I have chosen to use animation to convey the idea of particulates – pulsating dots in random places and the frequency of pulsation were suggesting levels of PM 10 and 2.5.
During the launch event organised by Better With Data Society the audience was very much informed about the subject of the exhibition. People came there for a reason and they were all interested in subjects of open data, air quality and both. The visualisations of exhaled breath – that very intimate invisible particles from inside of someone’s the body which became somehow rendered and thus visible – proved to be very popular. Those who interacted with “The Anatomy of Human Breath” were asking a lot of questions and indeed they were more likely to then look at the visualisation of the air quality. They also very often talked about what they did and where they went in the past few hours or days, in an attempt to localise a place where they could have been exposed to various pollutants (or not – depending on the readings from their exhaled breath).
As an artist I do not want to take a position of social scientist who would analyze the transformation (or not) in people’s attitudes towards a certain subject after being introduced to this subject via an artwork/design/exposition. However it is not easy to escape that role after interacting with the recipients of my artwork and listening to their comments. I have noticed that those comments/feedback mainly came in a form of questions – not about the artwork itself, but about the subject of it – that is about the air quality in Sheffield, in general, human health and human breath. I would like to believe that those questions meant that whatever I did had a good effect.
I feel I have scratched only a surface of how I can use this data to convey my message. But the opportunities to test concepts are very important, and therefore thanks to the Air Quality Plus residency “The Anatomy of Human Breath” and my quest to find a way to make real time environmental signals/data personal, intimate and intense is now one step further to its goal. As I have indicated in my presentation I gave on the evening of the launch event: “To be continued…”.