Should the Air Have Rights?
Willoughby Sharp, cover of “Air Art” exhibition catalogue
Three wildfires raged around northern New Mexico this last May. Smoke steamed up behind mountain ranges and, depending on the direction of the wind, clotted the air, diminishing immediate visibility. The Cerro Pelado fire burned outside of Los Alamos. The Cooks Peak fire burned north of Las Vegas. The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires had merged, creating a pyrocumulonimbus cloud that rose up like a primordial god on the horizon — a great column of smoke whose proportions changed just enough each day to admit movement, looming at an uncertain distance. Heat from what would become New Mexico’s largest and most destructive fire drove smoke into the upper troposphere, where the cloud cooled to -75 degrees, carrying and dispersing particles and smoke into the lower stratosphere in the process. “I can’t believe people aren’t falling to the ground to talk in tongues,” a friend suggested as we tried to perceive movement in the earth-born cloud. We did not fall down, but rather lived with it, sleeping in the living room when the gap in our back door made our bedroom prohibitively smokey. Late at night, I thought of all of the particles swirling into my life, particles from the lives of others, drawn into my own body. That sense of loss is communal and embodied.
In 1919 Marcel Duchamp took a small glass vial, emptied it of its original serum and then resealed it, calling it “50cc of Paris Air.” By virtue of that containment he declared the air itself to be a readymade. In this case, the object could be shared like a particularly delicate souvenir. The work had nothing to do with air quality, but in 2014 artist Liang Kegang echoed the gesture in response to the terrible air conditions in Beijing. At the time, air pollution had become a major environmental issue in China, in no small part because of rapid industrialization. Kegang began importing (and selling) jars of fresh French country air with an ironic sensibility mirrored in the Chinese government’s war on pollution (a war that began in advance of the 2008 Olympics, but did not come to global awareness until the 2022 Winter Olympics).
Marcel Duchamp, “50cc of Paris Air,” 1919, glass ampoule (broken and
later restored), 5 1/4 x 2 11/16”. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Kegang’s gesture parallels Duchamp’s compartmentalization of a ubiquitous element of seemingly no value, but, recreated in times of great pollution, enhances the importance (and absurdity) of fetishizing the purity of “elsewhere.” One of contemporary life’s greatest challenges is arguably an inability to find an elsewhere. There isn’t anywhere to put trash or bury nuclear waste or dispose of pollutants anymore. Even carbon offset programs presume the commensurability of environments, using the Cap-and-Trade concept conceived originally by a doctoral student, Thomas Crocker, in 1966.
Like Duchamp and Kegang, Crocker identified ways to conceive of environmental air pollution in units that can be traded for clean air stimulants, thus incentivizing good behavior. In a 1968 paper, he wrote: “The basic thesis is that in the modern industrial world economic man has acquired too much power at the expense of biological man and that this is the root cause of the air pollution and other problems of the environmental quality with which we are faced. From this thesis there easily follows the assertion that in order to maintain some sort of unspecific balance between the two, it becomes necessary to control the rampant nature of economic man. Or, less daintily, we are presented with the rather crude and ugly scene of economic man greedily tearing off and consuming pieces of his own flesh, thereby defeating the ultimate purpose the economic man’s nature is expected to serve: biological survival.” (“Some Economics of Air Pollution Control,” Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 2, Spring 1968, 238-239) Essentially the Cap-and-Trade system allows “economic man” (or corporate interest) the opportunity to buy environmental indulgences intended to placate his biological needs. There is much to say about these complex divisions and their underlying philosophies but for the moment it’s worth pointing out that Crocker’s approach presumes the planet has a certain quantifiable amount of “good” air that must be maintained at all times. According to that framework, air is therefore homogeneous and fundamentally static, regardless of its relationship to geography or weather.
Liang Kegang collecting a jar of fresh air in Provence, France. Photo: courtesy of Liang Kegang
It’s further worth noting that Crocker recognized the dangers of air pollution in 1968, more than fifty years ago. His economic man has continued as predicted, and currently threatens the biological sustainability of the species. Clean air is an ever more exclusive privilege on Earth. “Air,” a group exhibition currently at Salt Lake City’s Utah Museum of Fine Arts, further examines the distribution and accessibility of clean air. Featuring the work of Kim Abeles, Ai Weiwei, Naomi Bebo, Elisabeth Bunker, Virginia Catherall, Nicholas Galanin, Graviky Labs, Ed Kosmicki, Merritt Johnson, Julianknxx, Michael Rakowitz, Daan Roosegaarde and Studio Roosegaarde, Cara Romero, Diego Romero, Anna Tsouhlarakis, and Will Wilson, as well as members of the local community, the exhibit was originally inspired by the uniquely poor air quality of a number of cities in north and central Utah identified as the Wasatch Front. Salt Lake City’s poor air quality rivals that of Santiago, Chile — one of the worst in the world — particularly as the Great Salt Lake shrinks from drought and its toxic deposits become airborne.
But “Air” looks beyond Utah, responding to a traveling exhibition from 1968, “Air Art,” curated by Willoughby Sharp (as a response to the Earth Art phenomenon) and drawing out the atmosphere’s circulation, while pointing to air quality as a collective concern, one that transcends state and national politics while amplifying the ways in which traditionally marginalized groups are disproportionately excluded from accessing clean air.
Naomi Bebe, “Woodland Child in Gas Mask,” 2015, mixed media.
Photo: Jason S. Ordaz. Courtesy of the artists, © Naoimi Bebo
Merritt Johnson, “Prayer Mask, Contemporary,” 2016, hand-dated and
woven fiber, chemical respirator, optical calcite. Courtesy of the artist
What stands out about the current show is its thematic emphasis on masks — well beyond any association with Covid-19. If Duchamp and Kegang parceled discrete portions of air, pervasive global pollution in 2022 suggests we must self-insulate, parcelling ourselves off from the pervasive presence of toxins in order to extract the clean air required to survive. Naomi Bebo (Menominee/Ho-Chunk) includes two beaded gas masks, “Beaded Mask” (2015) and “Woodland Child in Gas Mask” (2015). Bebo embellishes adult-sized and child-sized masks respectively with ornate beadwork that make the reality (and necessity) of the mask’s use especially macabre. Merrit Johnson’s “Prayer Mask, Contemporary” (2016), comprised of a basket woven around a chemical respirator and optical calcite, ensures that the wearer is provided clear, protected sight, and purified air — inspired by water protectors around the globe who, like those at Standing Rock, are vulnerable to tear gas and pepper spray. Ai Wei Wei’s limited edition face mask series, “The Way Follows Nature” (2021) was made for the 2022 Hawai’i Trienniale. It calls forth the way our individual and collective relationship to air shifted during the pandemic with additional prints that reference the ongoing environmental degradation of the Hawaiian coastline (and atmosphere) as a result of human pollution and environmental extraction. These masks all invite us to imagine wearing them, looking through them, and safely inhabiting the environment our species (and industry) has made uninhabitable. “Air” is necessarily broad in scope, tackling the immediate question of air quality in Utah while touching on much broader issues of environmental justice, social justice, and police brutality, to illustrate the ways in which disenfranchised and minority populations are most vulnerable.
False-color image of the Black Forest burn scar from NASA's Terra satellite, June 21, 2013. The darkest gray and black areas are the most severely burned. Unburned forest patches are bright red. Unburned grasslands are pink. Buildings, roads, and other developed areas are light gray or white. Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory
How do we find new ways of thinking through the need for clean air? We must think collectively, holistically. What then would such politics look like? If rivers might have the same rights as people (Patrick Barkham addressed this in an article last year in The Guardian), should air have the same rights as rivers? Doing so might stretch our anthropogenic imaginations to their limit, yet it would provide a way to conceive of air’s differences, embracing a curious porosity — the thingness or personhood of a disparate medium that flows through our bodies, animates us, is blown upon the wind, heedless of the boundaries we attempt to maintain. Maybe in that conception we could adopt a more animistic view, even to the extent that we embrace the inevitability of wildfires. Rather than erect buildings with materials that release toxins when they burn, we might instead think of materials that might “feed” the air and burn clean.
Happily, the Calf-Hermits Peak fire is near fully contained at this writing. But so far this year wildfires have burned more than 600,000 acres of New Mexico in the “tinderbox” conditions that now pass for normal. And that’s just one state in North America. These conditions are rapidly spreading worldwide, as numerous wildfires in Europe now suggest. In response to the Oak Fire in Mariposa, California, former Vice-President and climate advocate Al Gore said, “More people will be killed and the survival of our civilization is at stake.” These fires emit huge amounts of pollution into the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming. We must continue to find new pathways to imagining our atmosphere in order to halt the devastating effects of industrial extraction.
Martin Creed, “Work No. 360. Half the Air in a Given Space,” 2015, balloons.
Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, installation view