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.


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.

In support of the exhibition, The Learned Pig’s Spring 2019 editorial season is devoted to Radical Landscapes.

Workshop: Lungs and Lichen


The Workshop

Lungs and Lichen was a workshop I gave — for the first time —on Friday as part of the Know Your Home events programme at the Royal College of Art. The Student’s Union organise a range of events during the week that explore novel approaches to ecology. And you just apply.

Here’s the workshop description which appeared on the posters on campus, on the Student’s Union website, and on the RCA website under Events:

You are invited to join a mini ‘eco-retreat’ with yoga teacher and MRes student, Lucy Sabin.

In part one, Lungs, we will practice control and expansion of the breath through pranayama.

In part two, Lichen, we will study lichen in the park (weather permitting), following a citizen survey inspired by Open Air Laboratories at Imperial College.

The ensuing discussion will reflect upon both experiences as “biological indicators” of air quality in London.

Enjoy a free retreat!
Slow down and nurture the art of noticing.
Come along to destress, recharge, and reconnect with ‘nature’.
Listen to your body and cultivate your ability to sense air quality through conscious breathing.
Learn how to conduct a citizen-scientist survey and get inspired to use scientific methods in your own research.
Discuss the air we breathe with other environmentally-minded people.


The Participants

I have planned three occasions to run versions of the workshop:

  • Know Your Home (March, RCA)
  • Mental Health Awareness Week (May, RCA)
  • I am also going to do the workshop as a Visiting Lecturer at Brighton University with Sustainable Design Students

It is important to me that people demonstrate the necessary curiosity to sign up. Or that they are potentially engaged in ecology-related design or holistic health or public engagement. Because that way, they are more likely to deconstruct and critique my research, and think critically about how to pay it forward.


My Research Identity

As a researcher, I see my role as offering alternative narratives of atmosphere — embodied approaches to ecology — inspired by eco-feminist theory and multi species- storytelling.

Lichen is an example of considering atmosphere from another species’ point of view, because its growth is linked to nitrogen pollutants. It is my hypothesis that participants are more receptive to slowing down, noticing, and appreciating the microcosm of lichen after meditative breathing techniques.

Moving forward, I am communicating and collaborating with medical researchers and researchers in medical humanities who study breathlessness, but not specifically in relation to air quality. More phenomenology and neurology.

I am also in contact with scientists involved in measuring and mapping air pollution levels in an abstract sense.

My aim is to bring the two schools of thought together, with embodiment at the centre. The gas exchange of human respiration is an ecologically unifying experience. When breathing is a conscious experience, it blurs the lines between polluting technologies, human health culture, and non-human organisms and reactive — or vibrant — materials.




Participants wrote journal entries and took part in an audio recorded discussion. I am currently analysing the data collected. There were some exciting insights! Analysis coming soon…

Infiltrating the British Lichen Society

Above: Xanthoria Parietina under a microscope. Photo by Mark Powell.

“Symbiosis” literally means “living together”. The term became popular in the late 1800s, to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichen. A composite organism, lichen is defined by a stable symbiotic association between a fungus, an alga and/or cyanobacteria. The fungal layer literally shields its partner(s) from external conditions, such as wind or UV light. The algae and/or cyanobacteria reciprocates by producing sugars through photosynthesis.

My mission to infiltrate the British Lichen Society (BLS) is a story of artistic energy within a scientific structure. Over the course of an informal weekend workshop, I permeated the membranes of the Society, confronted the limitations of my own knowledge and tapped into the wisdom of others. With no formal training in Biology, I learned practical skills using microscopes, chemicals, and UV torches. By osmosis, I also encountered value systems and scientific languages that were completely unfamiliar. All the while, I couldn’t help worrying that my lack of scientific knowledge would leave me exposed and alone.

Fortunately, BLS members are supportive, much like the lichenised fungi they study. Their shared passion has created a warm sense of community over the years. Every winter, they convene at a hotel in North Yorkshire and establish a pop-up laboratory in a function room. For three days, rows of members peer into microscopes intently, scrawl notes, and buzz excitedly amongst themselves.


Inspecting X. Parietina under the microscope.

I was the unexpected designer-in-residence, and the youngest member of the Society, by quite a stretch. As I was such a curiosity to the others, explaining my presence became a repeated affirmation. “No, not a Scientist — I’m from the Royal College of Art — interested in lichen as a biological indicator of air quality — it’s really about embodied, ecological ways to communicate atmospheric pollution in general”.

It was heartening that most of my interlocutors took my art school musings seriously. In fact, several of them confirmed or called into question my assumptions, coming back to me with advice and recommendations.

Of course, there were times during the weekend where I did feel lost and out of my depth; I discovered that it requires a lot of energy, patience and determination to immerse yourself in a new discipline. I had read enough lichenology papers to at least ask relevant questions, even if the answers eluded me.

But a beginner’s mind has its advantages. I have new mentors now — notable biological minds who I can email or call at any time with queries. Two are even coming to my exhibition. Without their mentorship, I would never have had the guts to start devising my own lichen surveys with qualitative data, or even pursue a pseudo-scientific methodology. Staying humble in the wake of their experience, rather than cherry-picking theories from lichenology papers without visiting the country itself, has made me a more intrepid and rigorous researcher.

Thanks to members of the BLS for their ongoing support. 

Breath As Protest: The Start of Something

Please note that the main purpose of this blog is to be a repository for my ideas and a place I can make mistakes outside of the traditional academic frameworks that OF COURSE I adhere to as part of my Masters in Research and forthcoming PhD applications. There will be typos and grammatical inconsistencies. You have been warned! 🙂

I used to freelance as a UX/UI designer for a startup that was hot-desking in Shoreditch. On my cycle into work, there was a particular junction – the one outside the station – where my lungs felt like they would implode from the vehicle fumes. I became THAT breathless.

I have no history of respiratory disorders yet it seems that myself and so many other Londoners struggle with breathing on a daily basis (I now live in Brighton and appreciate the sea breeze). Some of us may skip off to the gym or a yoga class to “get lean”. But how is our health on a cellular level?

As a yoga teacher who tries to communicate the importance of breathing fully, I’m aware that we aren’t conscious of our breathing all the time. Our wandering minds habitually focus on other things.

But, if we direct our attention to our breathing and trust in our own interoception (how our bodies feel internally), I think more of us would be shocked.

So, my real nagging question is: why is it not enough that our bodies can perceptibly sense air pollution for something to be done about it?

Actually I have a few more questions:

  • Does our society devalue embodied knowledge to the point that we ignore our own experience of breathing as legitimate evidence of air pollution?
  • Will we listen when expensive studies are conducted by scientists belonging to prestigious institutions? The history of communication strategies for “climate change” and the rest of human-made ecocide indicate that we collectively won’t.
  • How do we communicate that BREATH IS LIFE FORCE? Air is a shared medium between all ecosystems on this planet. Including us. I borrow an idea from yogic philosophy here.
  • Lastly, where can I buy a fashionable breathing mask? (Just kidding.)

So this blog is the start of something new. If you like, it’s an exegesis of my forthcoming, self-lead research into Breath as Protest and Life Force and basically Number 42 (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference).

Realistically, my research methods and practices are going to come out of trial and error and general inquisitive open-mindedness.

I am already fretting about the structure of this post (or lack thereof) but I need to start being more “agile” and “lean” with developing these ideas, as I used to in the trendy Shoreditch office with awkward plugs positioned between people’s legs… so awkward.

I digress. Here we go! PUBLISH.

Repository for Older Articles

When I was 17, I had a letter published in Philosophy Now magazine. (That says a lot about my teenage years.) The letter, which the editors entitled ‘Philosophies about Children’, is still available online.

Being published, no matter how short the letter, was a turning point for me; I discovered the thrill of communicating ideas through words. When you leave considered ideas on a page, you never know who may end up reading them… nor what their reaction may be!


Articles on Yoga.

“Choose A Yoga Practice To Complement Your Elemental Personality”, Sivana East, February 2018.

“The Ultimate Guide To Taking Yoga Off The Mat”, Yoga International, February 7th 2017 (9.2/10 from around 1,700 reviewers).

“Improve Your Relationships Through Yoga”,
Om Magazine (print edition), February 1st 2017.

“6 Red Flags To Watch Out For In The Era Of Yoga Consumerism”, Yoga International, November 28th 2016.



On cinema, philosophy and interdisciplinary thinking.

“Representing Masculinity in Bigas Luna…”, Film Matters (peer-reviewed), December 2017.

“How My Liberal Arts Degree Prepared Me For Learning To Code”, SheCanCode, September 30th, 2016.

“Getting Carrie’d Away With Female Sexuality”, Diabolique, September 23rd, 2016.

“Postmodernism: Where Do Women Fit In?”, Undercurrent Philosophy, September 19th 2016.

“The Female Martyrs Of Spanish Horror Cinema”, Diabolique, September 2nd, 2016.

“How To Connect With Locals Abroad”, The Bubble, September 16th, 2015.


The arts.

“Rainbow People”, Archer Abroad, July 9th 2015.

“Artesanos and Artistas”, Archer Abroad, July 6th 2015.

“My Conversation With David McAdam Freud”, The Bubble, February 25th 2014.

“Playing Is Serious Business”, The Bubble, June 10th 2014.

“Dutch Design: Take Another Look”, The Bubble, May 4th 2014.

“Local Artist Collects Human Hair For Her Art”, The Bubble, April 4th 2014.

“Interview With Artist Behind ‘I’ At Lumiere [Light Festival]”, The Bubble, November 17th, 2013.

“What’s All The Hush About?”, Palatinate, 2013.