Matt Hope, a Beijing-based artist, is taking his adopted city’s problems head on. Instead of hiding in his apartment and dealing with Beijing’s extreme pollution crisis with the help of air filters and masks, Hope is hitting the streets with a bicycle-cum-sculpture that actively filters the air around it.
A short documentary shows Hope pedaling around the city on his “breathing bike” with his face in a fighter pilot mask. The bike works by creating electricity from the pedaling motion, powering a wind generator. Air gets pulled into the bike through an Ikea trashcan, and the dust particles get positively charged and stick to a metal trumpet. The cleaned air gets propelled through a tube to the gas mask, fit for breathing.
Hope says that the impetus for making the bike was seeing riders around the city wearing masks, a must considering the danger of exercise outside in Beijing’s smog. “It seems to make more sense to give you clean air than when you filter it, because when you filter it you can’t breathe,” Hope explains. Unfortunately, the bike also creates 5,000 volts of electricity — enough to kill the rider. It’s not quite read for production, to say the least.
Though its factories cloud the air, Beijing is a city still dependent to a large degree on bicycles. The city’s highways are still bordered by sprawling bike lanes populated daily by students, commuters, and deliverymen. In and of themselves, bicycles help beat back the tide of pollution, but then they’re no competition for the massive amount of cars on the streets, growing ever higher as more Chinese can afford them — by 2016, Beijing will have six million cars on the road.
While Hope is using his mechanical skills to adapt to the environment, a Chinese businessman is shilling canned air as a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the pollution problems. Chen Guangbiao’s cans of (presumably fresh) air go for 5 RMB, or a little less than a dollar. (Chen should check out the pre-packaged trash sculptures of Justin Gignac’s “NYC Garbage” project.) “If we don’t start caring for the environment then after 20 or 30 years our children and grandchildren might be wearing gas masks and carry oxygen tanks,” he says in the video. Given Hope’s bicycle, it might be a little late for that prediction.