Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
This week, as ever, it is impossible to ignore that the body politic and the body are often inextricable. Breath - as with all acts of physical autonomy - is a human right, and it’s one that is often disregarded by people in power, particularly with regard to marginalised groups. Like our lives and opportunities, the air we breathe is not equal. Rather, this inequality is compounded and intersectional. And so, activism that fights such inequalities is not borne out of nowhere; when we organise, we must acknowledge the rich layers of ancestry that have laid groundwork and set precedent before us. I think of all of this as I tour the newest exhibition, In The Air, at London’s Wellcome Collection.
Currently on the museum’s ground floor, fittingly, is Rooted Beings, an exhibition which “reimagines our relationship with plants and fungi, exploring what we can learn from plant behaviour and how we can rethink the significance of plants beyond simply resources for human consumption,” as Anna Souter writes in her review in Issue #9. Here, ancestral rootedness takes on both literal and metaphorical meaning.
But traipsing skyward up the museum’s spiral staircase to the next floor leads me to In The Air, open from May to October of this year, which explores our relationship with the air around us. ” In a complement to Rooted Beings, In The Air takes another crucial element of life and investigates the complex human connection to it. Indeed, as food scientist and author David Zilber puts it in Issue #10’ : “We’re made of the world and ultimately we have to interact with it to be able to edge towards some version of the truth about its constitution.”
In The Air tracks the relationship between air and earth, from 3.5-billion-year-old fossilised bacteria that introduced the atmosphere to oxygen all the way up to the history of anti-pollution activism - in London and elsewhere - from the 17th-century to the present. “Immersive and imaginative film installations introduce us to magnified versions of the particles that occupy our air; reveal the ways that air is weaponised across the world,” the exhibition text reads, “but also reconnect us to the healing properties of fresh air.” In one part of the exhibition hangs a road sign reading: “Pollution Zone: Breathing kills”. Created by Choked Up, a group made up of “Black and brown teenagers living in areas affected by air pollution in London” working for access to clean air to be enshrined in the law, the sign and others like it were placed across the capital as part of a guerrilla installation to highlight how toxic air disproportionately affects people of colour.
Nearby are cases displaying historic environmental pamphlets and flyers from Environmental Protection UK - which emerged out of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, an influential force in passing the Clean Air Act 1956 , plays on loop. The film investigates clouds as both “meteorological and political entities and reveals some of the ways they have been weaponised around the world,” looking at how air can be used as a tool of oppression, policing, and contamination for both humans and environment.
Walking through In The Air and tracing the lineage of tireless activism for clean air over many decades, it’s evident that air and breath hold tremendous power for our mutual livelihoods. And when it comes to human rights and climate abuses - as well as the ever-broadening intersection of the two - the spectrum of violence runs wide: spanning from micro-aggression to overt, and from short-term to long-term. As with any issue of environment, the fight for clean air is irrevocably connected to people and to politics, and the gatekeeping of this essential human right is a vehicle for control, inequity, and marginalisation. To fight battles like this one, we must look forward and backward at the same time; we must be, as Christina Peake puts it in Issue #10, “ancestral with a future gaze”.
Confluences: On 'In the Air'