How can art help people understand the climate crisis?

At a time when 4.2 million people globally have their lives shortened by air pollution, how can art address this issue and help the public further understand the climate crisis?

After giving world leaders in New York a taste of the toxic air pollution that affects 90% of the population in cities worldwide for the UN Climate Action Summit, artist Michael Pinsky’s dome installation Pollution Pods arrived on Brownsea Island in Dorset from 25-29 October.

The series of interlinked domes were also visited in New York by climate activist Greta Thunberg who heard first-hand from Pinsky how the atmosphere in each recreates the air quality, smell and temperature of five major cities – Tautra, London, Beijing, São Paulo and New Delhi.

Activate, producers of Inside Out Dorset, and Cape Farewell, the artist-led organisation that uses culture to transform how people relate to the climate crisis, co-presented Pollution Pods, giving members of the UK public a chance to follow in Thunberg’s footsteps to safely experience different world cities’ polluted air.

How can this type of interaction help shape people’s engagement with the environment? Kate Wood, Executive & Artistic Director of Activate explains, “This art installation raises very important and pertinent questions about our climate and to be able to present it in such an iconic natural location as Brownsea Island offers a place where we can think about our impact locally and globally.” You can hear more from Kate and view the Pods in action in BBC’s video here.

“In the Pollution Pods, I have tried to distil the whole bodily sense of being in each place,” says artist Michael Pinsky. “For instance, being in São Paulo seems like a sanctuary compared to New Delhi, until your eyes start to water from the sensation of ethanol, whilst Tautra is unlike any air you’ll have ever breathed before, it is so pure.” 

Each dome contains a carefully mixed recipe that safely emulates the excessive quantities of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide that pollute these cities. As visitors pass through the five cells, moving from dry and cold locations to hot and humid, for a few minutes at a time they experience, at no risk to their health, the sensation of breathing toxic air that is a daily reality for millions of people. 

Image credit: Mike Petitdemange  

In western cities such as London, one in five children suffer from asthma; while in cities such as Delhi in developing countries, more than half the child population has irreparable stunted lung development. Many of the airborne toxins in cities such as Delhi and Beijing are created by industries fulfilling orders for the developed world.

Activate points out that a walk through the Pollution Pods reminds us our world is interconnected and interdependent and the price of the western world’s need for ever cheaper goods is the ill-health of our planet as a whole. In this installation visitors can feel, taste and smell the environments that are the norm for a huge swathe of the world’s population.

Did you know?

  • Michael Pinsky’s work has been experienced by more than 30,000 people since it was launched last year at the Starmus Festival in Norway.
  • Sending one person to all five Pollution Pods locations is the equivalent of 5,288 return journeys from the mainland to Brownsea Island.
  • For the equivalent carbon footprint of one class of primary school children experiencing the air pollution in each city in real life the entire population of Bournemouth could visit Brownsea Island and experience Pollution Pods.

Pollution Pods has been generously supported by the following organisations: Airlabs, Arts Council England, Arts University Bournemouth, Build With Hubs, Cape Farewell, Dorset Council, International Flavors & Fragrances Ltd, King’s College London, Medical Research Council, National Trust, Norwegian Research Council, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), The Norwegian Institute of Air Research (NILU), University of East London.

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