World Health Organisation (WHO) recently installed artist Michael Pinsky’s Pollution Pods during the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and increasing air pollution, which is killing nearly seven million lives every year. Hosted in the lawns of the UN Headquarters, the experiential installation welcomed climate activists and world leaders to engage in dialogues and propose solutions to mitigate climate change for a livable future.
Pinsky’s installation was the perfect fit to highlight the urgency of the matter. The work featured five inter-connected geodesic domes, mimicking the air quality of five international cities - Tautra (Norway), Beijing (China), London (England), São Paolo (Brazil) and New Delhi (India).
With only a minute or two inside the pods, the visitors experienced uneasiness and shortness of breath as each pod contained carefully mixed recipes emulating the relative presence of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide – the toxic ingredients that are polluting our cities and poisoning our health.
The multi-domed structures were linked via tunnels. The shells made of thin timber rods with plastic sheets covered the overall surface. Visitors passed through the tunnels to get inside each pod, where the temperature alternated between dry and cold to hot and humid. Safe perfume blends and fog machines allowed them to sense the changing air quality of moderate to highly polluted world cities.
From the cool, misty environment with a tar-like whiff of Tautra’s Pod, the passage opened into the misty grey simulation of the London Pod where a pungent smell of diesel permeated the shell. Treading ahead, one landed into the smoky hot potbelly of New Delhi, the city where burning of plastic and crops, as well as large particulate matter released off unsealed roads, has made the situation worse. Further, it was Beijing with its nippy smog due to extensive coal and wood heating, and São Paulo with its vinegary, fruit like smell connected with ethanol, the popular transport fuel in the city.
“In the Pollution Pods, I have tried to distill the whole bodily sense of being in each place. For instance, being in São Paulo seems like a sanctuary compared to New Delhi, until your eyes start to water from the sensation of ethanol, whilst Tautra is unlike any air you will have ever breathed before, it is so pure,” said artist Pinsky.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who came down for the summit from Europe on a zero-emission yacht, also visited the installation ahead of her moving speech at the UN.
While visitors to the Pollution Pods experience the sensation of air pollution for a few minutes, but breathing poisonous air is an every day reality for billions of people. Overseen by art non-profit Cape farewell, the installation, since its launch in 2017, has travelled to various cities across the globe to urge action on climate change. The earlier iterations were installed at the London’s Somerset House for Earth Day (April 2018); Place des Nations, Geneva for the first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health (October 2018), and TED’s annual flagship conference in Vancouver (April 2019).