Noticing the Invisible

In cities, we don’t usually see polluted air in front of our eyes, but its impact may still be felt inside our lungs. According to Open Air Laboratories at Imperial College, “In contrast to the visible smogs that affected cities in the past, much of the air pollution in the UK today is largely invisible and so more difficult to detect”. The researchers say that nitrogen-containing pollutants, emitted by vehicle engines and industry, are a pervasive problem. But how do you raise awareness about something that’s invisible?

My approach is to render the invisible tangible by forming conscious connections. As a communication design researcher at the Royal College of Art, with a background as a yoga instructor, I am investigating how we can sense — and make sense of — atmospheric pollution through our own bodies.

Air is a medium shared by humans and non-human organisms; it effects and connects us all indiscriminately. If we pause to trust and listen to our felt experience of air quality, we are acknowledging connections between: polluting technologies, humans, ecosystems, and reactive matter.

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Entangled. Reindeer lichen, willow, natural dyes. Lucy Sabin, 2018.

In cities where life moves fast, the only way we can reach awareness of synonymity between breath and atmosphere, is by practising the ‘art of noticing’, so that we can unravel our conditioned ways of being.

What connections can we look for? An example I’ve been using in my communication design workshops is field studies of the golden lichen, Xanthoria Parietina. When we actually question why cryptogams (sporing organisms) such as lichen and algae have constellated a surface, we are questioning the qualities of the atmosphere and environment. You may have already noticed X. Parietina’s leafy spread and cluster of orange fruiting bodies on roadside surfaces or near farmland. X. Parietina is, in fact, one of the most common species of lichen in the UK. The upsurge is recent, correlating with the rise in nitrogen-containing pollutants; X. Parietina evolved to derive nitrogens from bird droppings, but now it has a ready supply in our air.

A simple survey of X. Parietina only requires our physical senses, with no specialist equipment. Starting by a roadside, you can walk towards the heart of a park and take mental or written note of the lichen’s distribution. Typically, the lichen is concentrated near sources of transport emissions. It’s a fungal illustration of air quality in relation to surroundings.

The art of noticing is perhaps a lost or endangered art in some places. In London-based workshops, I’ve found that it is helpful to mentally prepare people for tuning in to their surroundings, the present moment. I do this by guiding a Prānāyāma session. Prānāyāma literally means to control or expand the life force — represented by the breath. The session involves a series of breathing techniques, that I might incorporate in a drop-in yoga class, but not habitually for such a long period.

Sustained conscious breathing has a profound effect on participants’ physical and mental awareness. After. time, their nervous systems completely shift gears. When they head outside to investigate air quality, they are filled with purpose and concentration. What’s more, they are able to perceive subtle changes in air quality through their own bodies.

The art of noticing requires a state close to meditation.

I am developing the art of noticing through lichen surveys, macro-photography, and sensory mapping by walking through streets and plotting changes in ease of breath and spectrums of smelled toxicity.

Philosophically speaking, the art of noticing is a kind of phenomenology, i.e. consciousness in relation to objects of direct experience, from a first-person point of view. Subjectivity has traditionally been undermined within monolithic, Western hierarchies of knowledge. But change is happening. Several research groups are currently investigating first-person experiences of breathlessness in relation to specific health conditions (see BreatheOxford and Life of Breath).

My goal is to find connections between breath phenomenology (art or participation) and atmosphere (science or experimentation), then facilitate communication channels for others to explore these connections. Air is ungraspable, yet it has a clear impact on our health. If the connection isn’t made in terms of collective understanding, then symptoms of lung conditions aren’t seriously considered in the context of air pollution and clean technologies aren’t demanded as a right to healthy cells.

As Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015), “To learn anything we must revitalise arts of noticing and include ethnography and natural history”.


This article was originally published in The Learned Pig…

Lucy Sabin is taking part in Radical Landscapes: Innovation in Landscape and Language Art at The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington, Devon from 23rd March to 22nd April 2019.
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In support of the exhibition, The Learned Pig’s Spring 2019 editorial season is devoted to Radical Landscapes.