(© Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu)

SAN FRANCISCO — We have data about pollution in the air we breathe, says Rosten Woo. But he wants to make that data visible and present. That’s what Woo, an artist in residence at San Francisco’s science and art museum, the Exploratorium, hopes to do with his project, Mutual Air.

Woo was sitting outside the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, where one of his sculptures — there will be 30 around the city by January — is installed. While he spoke, the sensors on the sculpture intermittently chimed in the background.

“It’s this idea of thinking about the air itself as infrastructure — it’s this huge thing that we all depend on that has this really unequal distribution of its qualities,” he said. “When you think about how you define infrastructure, air meets that criteria. So it’s like, how do you give presence to the air?”

Woo decided to do this by using sculptures. He calls them bells, and sensors on them chime to register the particulate matter in the air: one chime or two every few minutes is normal, but fast, consistent chiming indicates an unhealthy amount of particulate matter in the air.

(© Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu)

Prior to embarking on this project, Woo was reading a book about village bells in 18th-century France that rang at important life events such as weddings and funerals, as well as letting people know when to go out to the fields and when to come back in. The bells were something no one could opt out of hearing.

“Sound has special characteristics — you can’t choose not to see it, and you can’t look away,” he said. “At the end of book, the author said nowadays you could never have a village bell, and I took that as an interesting challenge of what could be something that would function like that and would provide this connection across space.”

Along with chiming in response to the hyper-local particulate matter, the sensors also indicate global carbon dioxide levels with a wood block sound. Woo wanted to have both measurements to show the quality of air changes depending on where you are.

“People don’t breathe the air of Oakland, they breathe the air right around their face,” he said. “The air could be totally fine in the center of Oakland, but if you move right next to the port or a freeway or where a bunch of trucks are stalling, it could have a totally different reading, and that has big implications for the way we make policy.”

(© Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu)

When the worst fire in California’s history burned in Butte County in November, the air in Oakland, although about 150 miles away, reached levels considered extremely unhealthy to breathe. The bells registered the high levels of particulates in the air, says the Exploratorium’s Ray Gruenig, chief designer and engineer of the bells.

“The sculptures are meant to alert people to the air being invisible but dynamic, and they were ringing as hard and as loud as they ever will for a week and a half,” he said. “The sculptures are meant to detect increased pollutants from traffic on a highway or an idling bus nearby. These were at least four or five times that. They were forest fire conditions, a whole other order of conditions.”

The air in your neighborhood — and how polluted it is — is political, Woo says, as well as which regions are monitored. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has around 30 monitoring stations — where data on air quality is collected and analyzed — but Woo suggests the area could use more. 

Woo hopes the bells will help create political pressure about air quality in West Oakland, which is circled by freeways and diesel trucks that are supposed to only use certain routes at particular times, but don’t always adhere to those rules. Adjacent to the Port of Oakland, the area has concentrations of diesel particulate matter about three times higher than the rest of the Bay Area. But it was the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project that carried out local measurements before any outside agency was involved.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t like all these trucks,’ and the Port of Oakland can be like, ‘OK, whatever,’ but when you say, ‘Well, we did 1,000 measurements over the course of three months’ — that data set has had effects in the seriousness with which the Port has taken the air quality concerns,” he said. After doing a truck survey in West Oakland with various organizations and communities groups, the Port of Oakland announced last year that diesel emissions are down 81 percent— and they plan to make that 85 percent by 2020.

“Our target area of where we’re trying to site the majority of the bells is here in this band of freeways because we want to increase public knowledge and public pressure around these truck routes,” he said. “On the one hand, if you live in West Oakland, you know the air is bad — it’s not like this is a news flash, but I think that’s part of what an art project can do and culture can do, it can break through to a different set of people who might care about that in a different way. That’s part of what we’re trying to do with the project — generate interest and attention to this problematic and very fixable local situation in Oakland.”

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Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California...