Breathe was an art-science artwork and installation, and the topic of my MPhil dissertation in Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.
Breathe emerged from the combined efforts of a select group of actors working within the institutional context of art-science collaboration in the UK. The artwork was curated by Invisible Dust, a nonprofit arts organization “working with artists and environmental scientists to explore air, atmosphere and climate change”. The idea for Breathe grew out of a series of discussions between director and curator Alice Sharp, sketch artist Dryden Goodwin, and Professor Frank Kelly, head of the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London. Alice introduced Goodwin and Kelly on the hunch that Goodwin’s direction in recent artworks (which included Linear (2010), a series of portraits of staff on London’s Underground; Cradle (2008) and State (2004) were experiments in drawing shifting states of motion) would lend itself to depicting the deeply human dimension of Kelly’s research. After speaking with Professor Kelly, Goodwin was moved by the work of the King’s College EXHALE research team, which involves a long-term study of the medical effects of air pollution on children’s respiratory health in schools across Tower Hamlets. In turn, Professor Kelly was interested in the opportunity to raise awareness about air pollution in London, and he already admired Goodwin’s past projects. These initial conversations resulted in an application to the Wellcome Trust’s Public Engagement with Science Program, to fund a collaborative art-science project about the effects of air quality on children in London.
The Breathe installation site was demanding for viewers. Since the projection screen was placed on Gassiot House, parallel to the Thames River, it could be viewed from the entranceway to St. Thomas’s Hospital, along the entirety of Westminster Bridge, and along a section of the opposite riverbank near the Houses of Parliament. As residents of London are familiar, Westminster Bridge stretches over the Thames River for 250 meters, and is often vibrating with the traffic of buses, black cabs, bikers and tourists (Figure 2). Thus, Goodwin’s Breathe was exhibited in an outdoor space dominated by a busy architectural corridor; it was from this narrow strip of pavement high over the Thames that many viewers experienced the artwork.
My study emerged from six weeks of site-based field research, in-depth semi-structured interviews, audience surveys, videographic and photographic data and the design of a mobile web application, to apprehend how Breathe experiments with the relation(s) between bodies and air. Breathe was neither sculpture nor monument, but a “restless object” provoking thought on the embodied relations between humans and air, and breathing as a political act in the city of London.