As Air Became This Number

Concept Text:

Our intervention combines elements of artistic research, scientific expertise and critical theory to explore the role of digital technologies in changing imaginaries of urban air, and to reflect upon how these may be contributing to new social ordering.

As air pollution is increasingly recognised as one of the world’s largest environmental health risks, bygone sensing technologies, such as the iconic canary in the coal mine, have been replaced by seemingly ‘less cruel’ and more ‘objective’ automated real-time measurements and technologies. Informed by accounts of embodied experiences of living in the toxic air of Beijing—notoriously known for its pervasive fine particulate pollution—our project highlights how the adoption of easily digitisable indexes of airborne particulate matter such as PM2.5 and the Air Quality Index (AQI) has opened up for a datafied conceptualisation of urban air, thus contributing to a new perceptual regime in which urban air is reimagined as a site of ‘care and calculation’ managed through data.

Further, it outlines the conflicting politics of the continuous, near real-time pollution data as they, on the one hand, give visibility to the toxic particulates—allowing certain citizens to individually self-care by managing their personal risks and exposures—while on the other hand, they are consistent with a broader shift towards algorithmic regulation and environmental distribution of control and governance that largely bypass any aspiration towards collective care.