Mutual Air brings new understanding of air pollution to Oakland

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Air quality will create sounds through artist Rosten Woo’s new public sculptures in Oakland starting this October.

The project, Mutual Air, was launched on September 30 at the Oakland Museum of California in collaboration with the Exploratorium, the science museum in San Francisco where Woo is a resident artist. Mutual Air is aimed at calling attention to the fact that air pollution is unevenly distributed, even though air is a shared resource.

Each sculpture, called a “bell,” consists of a wind chime, a particulate matter (PM) sensor and a microcontroller that connects to global carbon dioxide emission data streams provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The chimes will not be set off by wind, but rather by a magnetic striker that will be triggered by the data from the sensor, which detects solid and liquid particles suspended in the air that can harm people’s health. Once a day, the bell will signal the change in the global carbon dioxide level from the day before. And from moment to moment, it will chime if the particulate matter count goes up.

Woo said that when the Exploratorium commissioned the project, asking him to work with air quality data collected in Oakland, he was really interested in finding a way to represent all the work that goes into producing the data. “In a lot of the cases that work is really repetitive. It takes huge amounts of labor to coordinate these things,” Woo said at the launch. “It’s a staggering amount of work. So what I try to do is to represent that work both in the exciting moments, but also in really mundane moments.”

Woo said he also happened to be reading Alan Corbin’s Village Bells, about how the ambient soundscape of 19th Century village bells regulated people’s lives. Woo had the idea of creating a similar soundscape across Oakland and using the distributed sensors to produce a common experience. That gave birth to Mutual Air—”a network of bells that reflects the composition of the air,” as the project’s website puts it.

The goal of the project is to have 30 chimes working together in Oakland for six months. Bells would be installed by January 2019, and the project would run through May.

The way the bells are designed, with an embedded PM2.5 censor inside, means the more particulate matter there is in the air, the more noise the chime makes.

“My hope for the project really is that it’s barely noticeable—that people might not really notice they’re installed for possibly up to several months. It’s not meant to be a dominant huge sound that you’re always kind of aware of,” said Woo. “When you hear about the sound distantly throughout your daily routines in Oakland, you might have this moment of pause to think about the system, to think about the profound collectiveness we have, and the profound unevenness of that air system.”

Speaking by phone after the event, Kirstin Bach, Center for Art & Inquiry Program manager at the Exploratorium, said that they were very inspired by UC Berkeley’s BEACON project, which used a high-density network of air quality sensors around Oakland to measure air pollution. And, she said, Oakland seemed to be an interesting place for the project with its dynamic air. “We’re hoping that people notice what might be going on around them as they hear the bells being activated at a particular time versus another time: ‘Oh, a bus just went by! Oh, the restaurant nearby barbecues at this hour! Or someone’s smoking near the sensor,’” Bach said.

She said what they’re most interested is people’s reactions. “This is kind of a dream project,” she said. “If in the future the air got so bad we decided we needed some kind of an alarm system, this is the beginning to think about how that could function.”

The Mutual Air team encourages people to host these bells in their businesses and homes near schools, places of worship or busy streets.

Woo said they hope this project will open up conversations, as people hear the chimes and become curious about them. “The dream for me is that this is an urban experimental infrastructure—that through it kind of living out in the public, and having people think about and have conversations, it kind of guides us to think about what we actually want out infrastructure to be like in the longer term,” said Woo.

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