“I have not a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years. We can’t be sure. What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the earth itself. If, through our own mess, that relationship is about to end, then we need to scatter as much beauty around us as we possibly can, to send a voice, to attempt some kind of repair. I think of it as a kind of courting – a very old idea. This isn’t about statistical hysteria, it’s about personal style. Any other response is just not cool”. Dr Martin Shaw.
While on a dry land, we are surrounded by other living species with whom we, in one way or the other, can communicate. Through the process of domestication and anthropomorphisation – we can relate to some of them and in a way start treating them as a part of our “tribe”. We communicate with dogs and cats, hamsters and rabbits, sometimes birds and foxes…we can sense that they have similar to us responses – fear, happiness, hunger, fun…And so in our heads we create stories about them and we feel emotionally connected to them.
We all, the land creatures, are very much aware that ocean life is vital for us. It is a vast world, pretty much unexplored but already altered. I fear that some of that unexplored world will be lost forever, even before we learn about it. I think that is my FOMO – there are habitats and communities of species busy doing amazing things, and I might not ever get a chance to meet them. It terrifies me that while knowing how much we depend on oceans, we keep polluting them with plastic and chemicals or altering its eco balance by overfishing.
And we do that because most of us (from so-called “first world”), while living our urban, hip and busy lives, have no idea that coral reefs, tuna, sharks, dolphins, sea snails or clownfish are there somewhere at this very moment and they are creatures with sensations and instincts just like us, living their own dramas. OK, we know that they exist, because we either eat them, watch documentaries about them or look at their photos. However because we are so far away from these animals, the very concept of their existence as a living, responsive, sentient and important to us and our lives being is somehow very abstract.
We do not “socialise” with them on everyday basis. We do not meet them on our way to work, while doing our shopping (unless in a form of food) or while we are at home. Only some of us are lucky enough to be able to see them while on the vacation. So is it really strange that we cannot develop any emotional attachment to these species, however vital they are for the well-being of this planet?
And so while I was on the beautiful island of Thoddoo in Maldives – rural, green, sunny and with a very few tourists – I kept wondering – how can we develop the emotional bond with these parts of the world and these species which are so far away from ¨home¨?
Maldivians themselves have plenty of old folk tales featuring sea creatures and coral reef monsters. These legends once upon a time acted as a sort of moral code dictating what one can and cannot do to other animals, plants or entities such as sea or soil. Probably now these stories are considered as local curiosities, but thanks to their significance in the past, Maldivians managed their resources very well and kept their environment beautifully balanced and therefore fruitful.
We have tales like that in any part of the world, written before the era of “globalisation”, about our local fauna and flora. But now, whatever we do, that also affects another side of the planet – that is, for example, Maldives or Tuvalu, which in return can impact on live of people in there and subsequently ours. Is there then a good time to create and tell new myths and stories? Ones which are about our relations not only with our immediate surroundings but also with things far away from us?
Can I fall in love with a polyp? Or befriend an Orange Triggerfish? How about if I write a letter this sea snail in the pink shell? Or have a skype conference with the family of hermit crabs?
Those are naive ideas – fairytales and fantasies, however thanks to such imaginative concepts we have developed the relationships with our environment in the past. These weird stories offered explanations about things which we couldn’t yet understand, when in place of scientific knowledge (as we know it now) we used our imagination to unfold mysteries governing our environment.
We seem (and act) now as we know too much to believe legends. The magic is gone, and if I tell you that my crustacean mate and I have some special connection, you will consider me infantile and/or mad. But then again people of Maldives have to have a very special relation with crustacean and other living forms from their oceans, after all their livelihoods in big measures depend content of ocean water as a source of nourishment and income. Ask anyone who works all his/her live on the sea – and you can be assured to hear about all sorts of magical experiences, feelings and adventures one has encountered, despite the fact that we are in the 21st century and we shall know better. And that is perhaps the essence – I cannot directly communicate with the reefs at the moment, but I can communicate with people who live and socialise with them on everyday basis. Stories told by these people are my connections to these other creatures which I fall in love with. Together with my memories and hopes that I would visit them soon again I can pass these stories further – injecting at least a little bit of my love for them in other people.
I want however to end this essay with another thought from Dr Mark Shaw about why those stories were important and why those one from the past are so very much relevant today.
“This is hardly a new practice; for many millennia humans understood that it was necessary, now and then, to seek a fresh exchange with the living cosmos, and to craft from that exchange something so beautiful it feeds the stars and coaxes the hunkered moon up through the tangle of branches to launch itself across the pool of night.¨
So next time I see you – please tell me a story of a creature or a land and its beauty – and I will tell you mine. We pass it on and let it travel, so that a sea snail from my story will be connected through this story to the rest of the world.
And here I was – out of my umwelt, first time ever properly and consciously feeling that I am not from this particular world. An alien. Out of space creature. A voyeur looking at private lives of other things – admiring their beauty and magic. The reality around me wasn’t “real” – I couldn’t relate to it with my senses in such a way how I could on the “dry land”, in the city. It felt as if I was wearing an Oculus headset rather than being immersed in the ocean, under the water, on this planet but very much other-worldly. The fish and animals around me didn’t really pay any attention to my presence. Maybe apart from a couple of fish who came closer, thinking that I was a nice chunk of food. They turned around disappointed however – humans after all were not considered as delicacy. It all has been like a film or a dream – surreal, detached, and I was both: part of it and the outsider.
Two big mantas fly-swam in front of me, tiny electric blue plankton creatures sparkled from time to time, a gigantic population of a baby fish – so tiny that if I didn’t have an oxygen mask on me I would probably have inhaled them – have surrounded me; some camouflage fish on the sea bed trying to bury itself in a sand; some other red one lurking from inside the coral reef cave; parrot fish nibbling around; and so many many others animals! The abundance of life, goodness, beauty, colors, sensations around the delicate yet very tough architecture of atolls was overwhelming.
The mask I was wearing made it very easy to look at everything – just like looking through the glass of the aquarium; the oxygen apparatus allowed me to breathe and exist in this, otherwise hostile to mammals, alien world; the rubber fin shoes on my feet made it easier to swim under the water; the sound – crackling, quiet, but always present together with the sound of my inhales and exhales from and to the mask made me realised how strange thing I was in this environment. It felt like it was an awkward attempt to become one of these beautiful creatures – to blend in and be part of their habitat. I was a clumsy weirdo, an intruder, an ugly beast from the surface who suddenly have been given an opportunity to see the glimpse of organs and processes keeping this planet alive. The outer layer of the organism which we are all part of, was peeled a little bit, so I could marvell on the intricacy, complexity and mechanisms of all things which have made me and let me stay alive.
I was immersed right inside the livelihood of our planet. Why did I feel so alien?
Few days later I found myself back in the city, on the surface, on the Earth skin made out of its crust, present in my habitat, but trying to delay the comeback to my reality.
Although with my body I was back to my umwelt my mind was still lingering in where I was few days ago, in attempt to preserve all memories, sensations and feelings. Perhaps that was because I discovered how scary but at the same time wonderful would be to be one of these creatures more vital to keep this planet alive than me…Or perhaps it felt right to be there with them – creating together a system – a sort of bio-community – to thrive and be happy.
I need just few more minutes…I will call you back later….I will check my emails later….but for now I am still swimming and playing with other creatures who do not have got facebook profiles or mobile phones….with whom I won’t be able to keep in touch. I can only connect back with them through my memories….what a wonderful feeling, what a sad feeling – I probably will never see them again…So please – you wait, wait for a few minutes longer….
Part 3: PlanEt
One of the things which my colleagues and I in World Wilder Lab do is to try to understand signals coming from plants.We have constructed a device called PlanEt which in real time picks up action and variation potential (that is tiny voltages fired on cellular level inside plants – usually as a reaction to some sort of environmental stimuli). I am not a scientist. I am an artist with a very limited knowledge of plants physiology and chemistry. But we had that idea that perhaps if we take enough readings of those signals we might be able to decipher their meanings. And build a “Vocabulary of Plants” which will allow us to understand them better. Funnily enough when we have been showing our first work “Organic Cinema” all over the Europe, we have been approach by many of people hoping that plants really have got some sort of consciousness – that is consciousness as is understood by us – humans. Do they sense? Do they feel? Do they really recognise when one talks to them? According to some scientist (i.e. Daniel Chamovitz) – yes – but not in the way we do. We only can compare their responses to ours because it is easier for us to translate them and relate to them.
But back to those readings. We use technology to gain them. Technology is a mediator for us. Just like a Komba for Baka.
For last few months I set up one of our prototypes every night, connecting it to Orchids which I cultivate at my home and studio. Painstakingly I record readings and make graphs every 24 hours. I look at them and compare them to readings of my colleagues. I try to find something – a pattern – any kind of point of reference which will help to start understand what is going on inside a plant. Indeed – some things were already observed – like a way line of the graphs changes according to circadian clock. Or spikes happening after the plant is watered. But I feel that it is not enough and that it is very predictable and that still doesn’t reflect the real, complex, deep nature of plants.
In fact I feel like I am on Mars, dealing with an entirely new system of species, who defying all known to me understanding of the world. In fact it is worse that being on Mars – Mars is a sphere – so there is at least that point of reference to our beautiful Earth. I feel like I am on a new planet which shape is so abstract, I cannot even begun to walk backwards, not mentioning going forward. Being suspended in this abstraction might be a good thing – after all I am an artist and shall take an advantage of the “outside my comfort zone” opportunities and use my imagination to connect with it. And yes – that is what I try to do very hard – understand the plant talk, translate it for us/humans, so that we can have a meaningful dialogue with them. I dream about having a “babel fish” from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which can translate any species’ language to something we can understand.
Still – in my limiting umwelt – I cannot imagine how we – urban dwellers – can adopt Morton’s or Latour’s concepts. I cannot stop but thinking about groups of residents walking with smartphones (instead of crowbars) or other tech devices, perhaps dressed up in tribal wearables, gathering around a group of trees to have a summit – discussing how we can co-exist together to mutual benefits. For example – one tree is complaining about the fact that it needs more PH soil. The communicator for the human tribes talks to the pigeon who is a transporter (a drone) to bring a sample of soil from another part of town. Or one particular human tribe is not happy with one tree whose roots started taking over a sewage system. That tree in returns complains that it didn’t get any grooming trim for ages (and well, it cannot do it by itself because it doesn’t have hands). The army of termites then are called to chew on the top branches, so that tree won’t need so many resources from the soil and the root will stop growing. In another part of the town there is a party for a lovely family of ferns. This area needs to be purify and ferns are known from their ability to absorb heavy metals from soil. This party will take a long time – at least few years – but in “plant time” it is like a few days. That “Plant time” causes some problems with communication however, sometimes we need to wait a long time for their answers. During the winter a lot of species will take a nap, leaving humans alone and cold. That is when humans need to hid in their bedrooms and put a heating on (hopefully from renewable sources) and take care of those who are asleep. Some lichen is still awake – plants are using it as internet to communicate – so emergency line is opened. Oh and pigeons. Those are also awake. But they are crucial in this new order for humans to survive. From now on each balcony has a pigeon couple. They are informants – patrolling areas for anything unusual and reporting that back to awake humans.
But that picture can only work if all of us (that is humans and non-humans) have an understanding about the importance of the living in a harmony and a role each of us play to safely navigate this planet. What if through our WWL device we find out that we, humans are not wanted? That everybody is fed up with us? And in fact there is coup in preparation to get rid of human species?
The fact is that we – humans – can be very easily wiped out from this planet. We are very weak part of Nature. It is perhaps why we need so many things to survive – architecture to keep us sheltered from elements, insanely big plantations to keep us all fed, various technologies to keep us warm or cool. For some reason we are still here – so we are somehow important enough in this interconnected mesh of species to keep this planet going. Perhaps we, although weak, have some mission to do. Wouldn’t that be amazing to find out that our role is not to sustain ourselves (as people), but it might something different all together? Imagine how that could radically change our perception on our position on here?
Perhaps I wish to find out something like that from plants through WWL PlanEt device. But one must not be biased. So while using technologies to as agency to understand plants, I cannot stop thinking that in Silicon Valley all tech gurus must put up with rummaging for food coyotes, raccoons, pumas, deers and snakes – species revolting against human expansion in this area, and I cannot understand why those clever engineers and computer scientists haven’t explore technologies which would help them to listen to those animals. At the same time I applaud an amazing initiative in Oslo – where a company called ByBi created a first ever highway for bees. Or WWF idea to use turtles with Go-Pro strapped to them in order to monitor the life of the reefs. In the meantime I will continue taking readings from my Orchids and even if I do not understand them yet, at least I look at them as my colleagues and possibly co-creators in some creative artistic mischiefs.
Part 2: Pigmy
So why do I write about my Mum and pigeons? Well, the real answer is because I want to write about plants.
For over two years now, together with two fellow artists Erik Overmeire and Ivan Henriques, under the catchy name of World Wilder Lab, we have immersed ourselves in a science of electrophysiology of plants, in order to be able to understand plants’ behaviour. Kind of slow and inanimate (hence there are plants not animals), they have been co-existing with everybody on this planet for millions of years. In fact they were here much longer in here than us. Without any consideration we cut them, eat them, extract stuff from them for medicinal purposes, replant them, genetically modify them, take them out with roots, plant them in a great excess, transplant them from one place to the other, harvest them, make furnitures out of them, make textiles out of them, smoke them, drink their juices, use them as poisons, use them as nutrition, use them as decoration, marvel on their beauty, hate their viciousness – basically use them and abuse them in any possible way. But they are heros. They are very resilient, which is a good thing because any other species after such treatment would extinct (well, many did) in no time.. But plants are still here and we are very much dependent on them. Quite common knowledge, right? But we never think twice (well, except a few hard core environmentalists maybe) when the tree or a bush has to be removed for a new urban construction development.
Unlike pigeons plants are generally not perceived as a nuisance (unless it is a Japanese Knotweed). They are important for cities to absorb CO2 and produce Oxygen, trees on busy streets provide a bit of the buffer for the noise and shade from the heat of the sun during the summer, the majority of food is provided by plants and also they look nice and induce in us a sense of calm. Personally (and I am sure for many of you too) when I think about “Nature” or going to “Nature” I have a vision far away from the city, with forests, big trees, cliffs, grass, wild bushes, flowers and loads of greenery. Abundance of plants. But this notion of Nature couldn’t be further from the truth.
Timothy Morton in his book “Ecology without Nature “argues that we, Western society, must relinquish the idea of nature all together – in order for us to start perceiving once and for all ourselves – humans as a part of that nature and all other species as equal partners with what we and anything we do are very much interconnected. I do like that concept. I haven’t read the whole book, and obviously I am very much simplifying here, but that idea proposed by Timothy Morton nicely ties in with the Latour’s “Multinaturalism”.
Nature is us. Nature is a city. City is a part of Nature..
So how do we do that? How can we change our perception and relation and reposition ourselves as an integrated part of Nature? Never mind pigeons who are animals and at least move fast and their metabolism can be compared to ours, but how can we relate to plants? There are people in this planet who claim that ability. For example: Baka tribe from one of Pygmy tribes in African rain forests. The Forest is a house , while the village is merely a temporary sleeping space. The relation of the people from Baka tribe with the forest is such, that they consider themselves inseparable, part of each other, an organic whole. Like their bodies the forest is considered inalienable, so long as one remains alive. They are extremely agile in the forest and can walk long distances very rapidly without making any noise. Their incredible skills and endurance in the forest make them successful hunters. They know every plant and recognize every animal track no matter how small, even turtles. Using traps, dogs, spear and crossbow they hunt nearly all animals – but they follow certain rules so that there is no danger of extinction of animals they used to hunt. For the Baka, the forest is living and communicates with them. Instead of domineering nature, the Baka’s goal is to live in harmony with it. There is obviously a spiritual angle to it – with god Komba and his naughty son Jengi who are living within Baka tribe house (forest) overlooking everything. That narrative is crucial for tribal people to position themselves in their worlds and to explain that which is abstract, invisible and uncontrollable.
We in cities do not have such believes. We might romanticise and escape to “nature” – a concept which Timothy Morton also strongly opposes. So how can we change our relation to nature in urban environment then? How can we be Baka in cities? How can we integrate everything which is in here into one big interconnected whole, so that everybody’s needs can be taken under consideration?
PART 1: PIGEONS
My Mum is at war. Regularly she goes on a battle. Usually in the wee hours of the day. Or sometimes in the afternoon, cleaning up after enemies. Who is the enemy? Pigeons. And so it is my Mum vs….Pigeons.
My Mum lives in a not very well known (although the once very important) Polish harbour city called Szczecin. Her flat is on fifth and top floor of the old communist block of flats, with a fantastic view of a river and a harbour immersed in a greenery of trees from one side of the flat, and a balcony facing another block of flat on the other side.
Szczecin as a city is quite boring. But there are good things here. It is full of tall luscious trees, the remains of the old town (Szczecin was destroyed during the WWII) are in a beautiful art-deco style, there is also an amazing, although very much ruined, old industrial part on the bank of the river Odra.
My Mum resides in a city’s district Pomorzany (Pomerania) – built in the early 70s on a land which was once a village. As far I as remember – until mid 80s there was a few small farms around and sometimes, as a child, I was woken up by the sound of roosters. Small sparrows, fast swallows and of course seagulls were everywhere.
The balcony of my Mum’s flat is situated in the more or less middle of the building, as mentioned, on a top floor. Lovely few couples of Mr and Mrs Pigeons used to rest on balconies’ fences using them as shelters when the weather was wet, cold and windy. All neighbours used to leave bread crumbs and seeds for all the birds and it seemed that everybody (that is humans and all type of birds) were living in a perfect harmony.
But recently something strange has happened. Pigeons took over. The gangs of pigeons pushed out most of the other birds. Sparrows are gone, I haven’t seen a seagull in here for ages and only a very few swallows are speeding through the air. Instead pigeons behave like kings of the area.
One particular Mr & Mrs Pigeon couple took a fancy to my Mum’s balcony.. The fairly innocent morning “cooing” turned into an annoyingly loud early morning alarm clock. My poor mother was jumping out of bed in wee hours, running to the balcony door, trying to scare those two to force them to leave, but they were always coming back, ignoring my Mum’s presence. An old stick from the broom found a new use as my Mum’s anti-pigeon sword. She was out on the balcony waving the stick in attempt to slap pigeons’ bottoms. It worked…for a short while. But in fact it got worse. For my Mum that is, not for pigeons.
My Mum has got an old cupboard on her balcony, where she keeps her gardening tools, some pots, soil and other stuff. The doors of that cupboard are a bit wonky, and on a few occasions a strong wind opened them wide. Mr and Mrs Pigeon were only waiting for it. One weekend when Mum was away, they made themselves comfortable inside the cupboard, dropped few tools (among other “dropping”) on the floor and got ready to build a nest. The nest alone is not bad, in fact – can be lovely. But what was a really bad thing in pigeons behaviour was that as much intelligent they were, they did not seem to grasp the idea of the toilet. The floor of the balcony was covered with their poops, the smell from the cupboard was disgusting. Needles to say on her return my Mum went livid. While pigeons were “away” she destroyed the foundation for the nest and spent couple of hours cleaning the floor. She secured the cupboard door and hoped that it would all end there. However pigeons came back. And as soon as an opportunity arose – there were back in the cupboard.
My Mum kept her stick on the balcony all the time, waving it and shouting and, in a matter of fact, couple of times she managed to slap one pigeon’s “bottom”. Birds flew away, but kept coming back. And that situation was repeating over and over again for a few months, while Mum was running out of ideas how to convey to pigeons that they were not welcome, and fighting thoughts about, well, murdering them.
Pigeons are undoubtedly part of urban biodiversity. They are clever. They have extremely good sight (being able to see ultraviolet) and visual memory. Sometimes they are used during offshore rescue operations – it is easier for them than us or any human-made machine sensor – to spot the orange colour of safety vests in the vastness of the grey seas. That good memory too played a huge role in my Mum’s pigeons. They recognised her. They knew she wasn’t posing any real danger. And so they decided to “occupy” her balcony.
If we are seriously thinking about the “collaboration” with nature, especially in the context of urban developments, we also must be ready to put up with such a behaviour. The notion of “Nature” – somewhat romanticised by us is wrong (as we – humans are PART OF IT – so the division on “us” and “nature” is simply faulty). Nature as something spiteful, or annoying, often doesn’t occur to our minds. Unless that is, when we – as a part of nature – must fight for our own survival. The misbehaving pigeons do not pose a direct threat on our lives, although bi-products – excrement, parasites, rotting remains might be a risk for a human health.
Bruno Latour in his book “Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy“ proposes, in a very simplified summary, a democracy which would encompass us all – that is all living species in a given area. The constitution, of a collective, a community incorporating humans and non-humans shall be build on the experiences of the sciences. The old dichotomy between nature and society shall end, and concepts such as “multiculturalism” replaced with “multinaturalism”, a complex collectivity determined not by outside experts claiming absolute reason but by “diplomats” who are flexible and open to experimentation.
In this context lets go back to my Mum’s fights with her pigeons neighbours. Who can be a mediator to resolve the conflict? Who shall determine where pigeons shall live? A head pigeon of the gang or a human? Who understand pigeons needs better after all than, well, pigeons? The ornithologists might be useful here as translators. In fact they were warning us not to feed those birds, because a) often we feed them with not right for them food, b) they lose their wild instinct of foregoing and surviving in the wild, c) more food = more mating = more baby pigeons = more pigeons, d) they are bloody smart and of course if they figured out that people would give them food, they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I mean will you refuse a free food or a chef making you dinner everyday for nothing?
While Bruno Latour makes such a statement, and while some of us (including me) try to create narrative of “collaboration with all living species”, it is clearly not only about not throwing plastic rubbish out to the ocean or polluting our streets with chewing gums to protect birds. It is also about trying to accommodate pigeons (and other species) needs and perhaps accepting their own evolution from wild, self-sufficient animals to lazy, smart species using humans as a constant food/shelter supply.
However – if pigeons shall indeed become citizens of the city and participate in the “multinaturall” democracy – perhaps they also shall work. They might need to pay rent. Taxes. Health insurance. Send their young to schools. Look after retired elders. Definitely use dedicated toilet space and do not make a “cooing” noise next to deeply asleep humans. They might find employment in rescue operations. Their recognition skills might help the police. Perhaps they can work as a “live” delivery drones for Amazon – after all there is a history of pigeon post.
But wait – now I am trying to dictate human rules to pigeons. Isn’t that one sighted thinking? I cannot get out of my umwelt to try to think like a pigeon. If I were that pigeon from my Mum’s balcony – what would be going through my mind? Perhaps I would feel that I have a right to the territory of the balcony occupied by a human? Perhaps it would be me – the pigeon – claiming the tax from humans? Some humans were feeding my gang, so their tax was paid that way. One human (my Mum) haven’t fed my gang, so the other way of claiming the tax was to seize her cupboard.
Obviously whatever I have written here is a big anthropomorphisation of pigeons behaviour, because it is impossible for me to understand what is going through their birdy minds. But the point is – that if indeed we want to collaborate together – we need to start breaking out of our umwelt and try to perceive the world through “eyes” or “senses” of other species.
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…”.
While working on various ways of attempting to visualise meaning of action and variation potential data taken from plants, one sometimes can face the data getting out of control. That has been registered obviously in our processing sketches and I must admit – looks rather splendid. More on World Wilder Lab website.
I have been involved in Protei (look up “Oil Compass”) in my past and now I also am a “member” of the OCP (OCP – ocean collaboration platform) initiative for sensing, exploring and cleaning oceans. One of the focus of these initiatives is mostly (and quite rightly) a development of open source/hardware tools/devices for ocean’s sensing, data gathering or oceans’ life healing and sustainability with aims to empower and benefit local communities. Often the communities which would really take advantage of developments from this type of enterprises are small fishing villages in remote locations, not very well connected to the internet grid and with not much technological resources.
The big portion of these pretty cool ventures however are happening not in these remote locations, but in hip workshops spaces/hacklabs/studios in Europe or North America (obviously I do not want to generalise – not all of them!!!) and so they often are very much detached from the communities for which their ideas/products are intended to be.
While looking at oceans’ waves on the coast of Africa, which weren’t even big, just regular waves pushing and pulling masses of water, one must appreciate the force of that element. My father who was sailing more that 40 years used to say that the longer he had been on the sea, he feared it more and more…The power of it is unpredictable and vast. I myself remember very well storms on the Atlantic Ocean, which make a heavy vessel carring 40000 (!) tonnes of stuff, swinging from side to side just like a tiny walnut’s shell. Unbelievable and scary.
So I have tried to imagine a minute in comparison, few meters long, unmanned, shape-shifting drone struggling on that waves in attempt to conquer them to, for example, sense some data. The prototypes which I have seen so far were equipped with fragile electronics located somewhere inside them, without a proper industrial protection. I fear that those drones would be smashed into pieces by one of these regular waves very fast. No chance of survival. Perhaps the shell might survive. But all the electronic guts from the inside would be dispersed all over the place between equator and Gibraltar.
If those tools are constructed for people living on coasts, in such a way, so that they can make one by themselves, using materials available to them – there is no way such a device will keep afloat on the open sea. Perhaps in the pool. Or a very quiet peaceful lake, but not on the proper, vast ocean.
So I have two major issues here. If those tools indeed are for communities to empower themselves, perhaps the strategy of making them must be re-visited? I sadly cannot help to solve that problem as I am not a marine engineer. The only thing i can say, that for now – for the near future – these tools might need to be manned – and supervised – especially those made with local materials . Possibly attached to the fishermen boats?
And secondly – while we are sitting in our funky hacklabs/studios congratulating ourselves on the urge of saving the world and doing something towards it (erhmmm -I am guilty as charged), perhaps we shall ask ourselves, or actually ask those people for whom we are making that – whether they actually want it. And if yes – what would they like to have?
Africa is being sold. It is torn apart by greedy Americans and Chinese, and some african themselves who are not educated enough to be able to see all sides of the coin called capitalism. Sadly. Africa’s “privileged” knows the value of this amazing continent – its opulent richness and they sell it away for virtual non-existing currency so they can live like those in the “developed” world without much benefits to the rest of African society (little they know about the price we here in first world must pay for our “privileges” but never mind that).
And I was pondering about climate change (as one does…does one actually??) and how to adapt for the future, how to make our habitats more self-sufficient in terms of clean energy, general self-cleaning and healing so that the air we breath is not harmful, and water we drink is not poisoned, and sunrays we absorb won’t give a skin cancer etc etc etc. The problem in the “developed world” is our already existing, cherished for centuries architectural infrastructure. For example – if we are really serious about implementing concepts of living architecture, making bricks that breath and photosynthesise, building walls which filter and dismantle metal particulates from factories and exhaust pipes, changing our heating system from that one which releases loads of greenhouses gases to something which for example purely relies on a clean sun / day light energy to warm up and keep that warmth for 24 hours – we would need to torn so many buildings down. Or if not torn, alter them – replace the paint covering their walls, glass in their windows, plumbing system inside etc etc. That is one GIGANTIC JOB. We would lose some pretty awesome architectural monuments and I guess we would make a lot of people homeless for some time, or if not homeless they would need to move somewhere else – to places they wouldn’t necessarily like very much.
And here is the thing. Something which we seem not to appreciate over in Europe or North America has a huge value in Africa – that is almost non-existing infrastructure. Those in power exploit that very shrewdly and rudely to their own advantage. But the fact that there is not much money for gigantic skyscrapers with solid heavy foundations and most cities, towns and villages are either built using local traditional materials or – in a huge proportion – out of scraps of anything found anywhere – mostly stuff “developed” world dumps in there – means that this continent is perfect to implement some of those amazing green ideas of self-sufficiency, clean energy, adaptivity to a climate change etc. And I am not talking here “Masdar City” – not the over-the-top designish lavish urban construction….(well, perhaps in some part of the Sahara?). But simple solution for simple people who are happy to be wherever they are, in the warm red coast of Atlantic Ocean (or Indian Ocean), surrounded by unstructured nature, in their unstructured cities made out of modules off all sort of rubbish.
For example – can we make a paint which will suck in pollutions from the old exhaust pipes of old cars which are (again) dumped in here by us in Europe, because we don’t want to drive in them (because they produce too much pollution -see the bloody paradox in here?). Or can we use all these rubbish to plant non-edible shrubs and bushes – creating an extra layer of a garden and providing more oxygen? What are out there other ideas?
The bottom line is that this “unstructuredness” might turned out to be the most important thing on this planet. In fact it might be a saviour of “sustainability” of our so-called “developed” world – unstructured saving structured, and it seems that structured cannot be without the help of unstructured. Because you see, when you face uncertainty you are in much scarier place if everything around you was ordered and organised. But if things were always kind of shifty, moving, coming and going – this uncertainty to some extent has always been part of your life. It is thus a natural mode of being. One adapts to whatever is in this moment in here and one doesn’t place importance to many trivial things and doesn’t let those things to dictate how to be.
So that is a core of adaptability. It is why we cannot let Africa to be shaped by rich Americans and Chinese, we need to preserve the wilderness in most of forms (except bad things obviously such as FGM, famine etc), we have to stop exploiting its wealth for a wrong reason, but look how really we can, as whole planet benefit from this wonderful vibrant, messy, moving land. Well, possibly it might sound pompous, but look at the land of our greatest grandparents as a source of wisdom. Because apparently our current edition of homo-sapiens in the end of the day (or rather the beginning) came from there.
It is a very important question. It encapsulates everything I find important in what I do. In fact the answer to this question carries the whole sense of my existence. My faith in art is in stake here! So my faith in myself!
While spending time with my beautiful Lebanese Gambian family I met Gary. Gary was a British Expat from deep corners of London’s East End. Gary was working for my Gambian sister – sorting out plumbing in the newly added to her house first floor. And so Gary was around for every lunch and dinner (because in Fajara we all dine at a big table totally covered with food). I haven’t paid much attention to Gary and Gary kept ignoring me, just a polite: “Good Afternoon Gary!” and “How are you Gary!” whenever I happen to bumped into him.
I have noticed that while in the presence of other people Gary talked a lot. With the heavy thick cockney accent he was going through the enormous length to explain his clever solutions for plumbing jobs on the first floor in a country where the water pressure was an issue. No one could understand him, firstly because of his strong accent, secondly because plumbing hasn’t happen to be a hobby of a first choice for anyone (that I know of course). Unless something goes terribly wrong in your bathroom that is. Then we usually try to blame our neighbours anyway.
One day we were sitting after a lunch around a table enjoying a little coffee and the conversation went around the computers and technology. Gary apparently have had a problem with his PC and a boyfriend of one of my adopted nieces was supposed to help him to install the newest Windows 8 OS. Gary feared that his PC was too old. I butted in (naturally – computers! tech! finally someone talking my world here!) asking when did he buy it? Gary looked at me blinking unconsciously and mumbled something. Naively I pursued with questions about more detailed specifications. Again Gary looked at me blinking with disbelieve and continue talking to my nieces boyfriend. Something has shifted in me. I realised that Gary didn’t consider me as a worthy partner to talk tech because….well….because I was a woman. In his 60 year old world from East End and now here in Africa women are not a tech experts just like they are not plumbing experts. So I happily launched on the tirade about various OS systems, praising Ubuntu and asking everyone present why they haven’t consider that for their needs? Then I went on pros of Open Source, various specs and secrets of apps for tablets.
There was a silence when I was going on and on about it. So I continued: “You know – you need to now learn what is under the surface of the computer interface – it is like reading and writing skills. Otherwise you will be a modern analphabet – easy to control and deprived of information”. Gary indeed was looking at me now very carefully. Others were looking at their phones, smoking cigarettes or looking away. I could see that Gary couldn’t understand 95% of what I was saying. Neither the rest of present people.
So after exclaiming: “Future is in Ubuntu!” with a happy feeling of fulfilled duty towards the Open Source community and agenda, I left for a beach. And when I got there, under the hot sun and facing the clear horizon I suddenly realised: “OMG! I WAS A PLUMBER! I WAS A PLUMBER WITH A THICK FOREIGN ACCENT TALKING ABOUT SHIT THAT NO ONE COULD UNDERSTAND!”
Except that bit about illiteracy apparently. Because it turned out that Gary could not read and write. I wanted to go to the mangroves and spend the rest of my time covered in mud waiting to be eaten by a crocodile. The word “embarrassment” doesn’t reflect how stupid I felt.
But all of that was a very useful lesson. Not the lesson to provide answers but a short class in questioning. As an artist / designer / a person who works on intersection of fields and tries very hard to tell untold stories and be deeply understood – whom I want to address? Do I want to talk to middle class conceptual artists and art theories who just talk, they blab, the same philosophical stuff over and over again – so empty, so self-referential, so over-intellectual with inflated fake self-importance, so looking down at others who can’t understand it (because for example those others found Lacan extremely boring and full of crap – am not saying that I did, that is a different matter for another discussion). Or do I want to talk to a plumber, a fisherman, a waiter, a fruit-lady, a taxi – driver – about values which are emerging based on a deep research made by those boring, middle class academics with inflated sense of self-importance, which suddenly seems might be very varied in some areas? Or I want to take those two worlds and interconnect them better – as both seems to be detached one from another?
In other words: Do I want to get into soul of a plumber because: a) I want to understand plumbing deeply and translate it to others? b) I want to learn Plumber’s language so that I can translate to him values of others? c) I would like plumbing to be well understood all over the world – as pipes and waterways interconnect things and we shall not ignore it…
So – how do we make stuff which we make RELEVANT? RELEVANT not only to here and now, to this narrow group of people and this tiny virtual community made out of bytes and digits but RELEVANT to tangible real vibrant cells, microbes, sand, drowning islands, people of all sorts who are connected more that we are on the network…I want all of us to find out.