We have data about pollution in the air we breathe, says San Francisco artist Rosten Woo. But he wants to make that data visible and present. That’s what Woo hopes to do with his project, Mutual Air.
Woo was sitting outside the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, where one of his sculptures – there will be 30 around the city by January – is installed. While he spoke, the sensors on the sculpture intermittently chimed in the background.
“It’s this idea of thinking about the air itself as infrastructure – it’s this huge thing that we all depend on that has this really unequal distribution of its qualities,” he said. “When you think about how you define infrastructure, air meets that criteria. So it’s like, how do you give presence to the air?”
Woo decided to do this by using sculptures. He calls them bells, and sensors on them chime to register the particulate matter in the air: one chime or two every few minutes is normal, but fast, consistent chiming indicates an unhealthy amount of particulate matter in the air.
Prior to embarking on this project, Woo was reading a book about village bells in 18th-century France that rang at important life events such as weddings and funerals, as well as letting people know when to go out to the fields and when to come back in. The bells were something no one could opt out of hearing.
“Sound has special characteristics – you can’t choose not to see it, and you can’t look away,” he said.