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The Interview: Artist Michael Pinsky

We spoke to Artist Michael Pinsky about his international projects exploring issues which shape and influence the use of our public realm. His latest piece Pollution Pods, was exhibited at Somerset House from the April 18t to April 25th 2018 to mark Earth Day.

Michael Pinsky at Somerset House

Michael Pinsky at Somerset House

You have previously created works of art like Plunge or Monometer that visualize the impact of climate change. Why did you choose to focus on pollution for your latest project and how did you have the idea of the pods?

I did a piece in Paris called L’eau Qui Dort and there was a group of environmental psychologists from Norway who were doing a study on whether Art can change people’s perception of climate change and change people’s behaviour. They studied my piece there amongst another 30 other pieces, and as part of that project they wanted to commission an artist to make a piece that they could study in more depth in Norway. So I got that commission and before I started I spent about two or three months in discussion with them about their findings, because they had been working on that project for two or three years. One thing that became very clear from our conversations was that the kind of artworks that deals, for example with polar bears and glaciers and people starving in Africa, while they are highly emotive, they don’t actually change people’s behaviour. The thing that does change people’s behaviour, are the things that affect them in their daily life. That started me thinking about indirect causes of climate change and I started to research pollution.  Causes of climate change and causes of pollution overlap enormously, even though Pollution is not directly related to climate change. I considered it something to be worth dealing with in an artwork.

L’eau Qui Dort, Paris

L’eau Qui Dort, Paris

It was a question within the group, whether this was a good idea, because I had actually been commissioned to make a work around climate change, and this was not really directly about climate change. When we discussed it in more depth, I convinced them that this was a good idea, so then we continued on with it.

I did propose a whole series of others works that were more directly related to climate change, but I didn’t feel they would be so effective. And I think that analysis is right, certainly from the feedback we got in Norway when we showed it last year. It did have a big impact on people psychologically and they did a study also on the London installation, and these findings are in the process of being studied and written up. It captured people’s imagination in a much more direct way than many works. It is interesting like Plunge, the piece I did in London in 2012. I was commissioned by Artsadmin and LIFT, as part of an European Project to do a piece to raise awareness around climate change. I like that piece of work, but it didn’t get the media response that this piece did even though it was a much bigger budget project and we worked on it for about two years. It didn’t quite capture the imagination, maybe if possibly to abstract. In this piece we only had from me getting the funding which was just barely enough to do the piece to getting it on site it was only six weeks.

I only got the funding in late February and the piece was still in Norway in bits and piece. Just getting it back from Norway, which isn’t part of the EU, was already a really complex operation and then getting it shipped was a really tight turnaround. Anything could have gone wrong, at every stage it was borderline if it was going to happen. But when it arrived at Somerset House, the interest in the work was just enormous in comparison to Plunge. So it has all been very good from that side of things.

Plunge, London

Plunge, London

You have mentioned the importance of allowing visitors to experience pollution physically not just intellectually. How did you chose the five cities and what was the process involved in re-creating the air quality?

I based the first pod you come into on the first place we installed it, so that is just on this peninsula in Norway and that has actually been the most difficult pod to do. Technically the air is very clean in that pod, but because of the really hot weather the plastic smells. The plastic isn’t quite melting at that temperature, but it starts releasing molecules and the smell, the hotter it gets the more dominant the smell of the PVC. So you got that very clean air which means you can smell more precisely, so what you end up smelling is the plastic. That is still something that I want to resolve. And then I picked London because that is where I live, and in Norway we used an old generator to reach a diesel infusion but I wasn’t allowed to do that in London, so I worked with a company called IFS to recreate the diesel. They have a way of analysing any smell and recreating it with safe chemicals using Headspace Technology. They imitate things like computer components and all sorts of smells that way. I did London that way, but I think in future installations I actually would like to work more with that technology to emulate the other ones, because it was quite nice to get a consistency to the smell. It is easier to manage. Some of the other domes are more difficult to manage.

I picked New Delhi because it has the worst pollution in the world on average, it is truly horrific. It has Diesel pollution, it has large particulates, it has crop burning around and you got some industry, and they burn rubbish and I has the smell of burned plastic in there as well. All sort of things are going on in there and the low visibility of course.

And then in Beijing in the winter the pollution is worse. I know China because I have done quite a few shows in China, and I am quite familiar with the kind of underlying smell which is produced from the factories and also in the winter it is produced from people still using coal to heat their houses and flats, which is kind of crazy. They have centralized heating systems in most of the big buildings with big boilers that are basically using coal still. However all the bikes and most of bikes are electric so they are doing quite a lot to address diesel emission. Hence why I do not have diesel coming out there, but quite a lot of other smells.

Then Sao Paolo just because the scientist I was working with had lived for several years in Sao Paolo and he knew the smell very well. He said it is really distinctive because they use ethanol as their fuel source for transportation and ethanol gives off a very vinaigrette smell. I haven’t been to Sao Paolo, I just worked on the basis of what he as chemist advised. And also we have an ozone machine there that was made by the Norwegian Institute of Air Research, because Sao Paolo suffers from high levels of ozone as well. Ozone can make your eyes water. Some people are not very sensitive and others are, but if you hang around in the dome for a bit your eyes might start watering. If you are in London and your eyes are watering it is often because if high level of ozone.

There were others ones like Cairo or Johannesburg we were interested in doing but in the end the places chosen worked, because they have very different type of pollution and I wanted to contrast them as much as possible.

The Pollution Pods at Somerset House

The Pollution Pods at Somerset House

When visiting the Pods, as the environment in the cells becomes more polluted both physically and visibly, it almost feels that you are breathing fresh clean air when returning to the London Air of Somerset House. What do you expect visitors to take away from you work and have you planned to showcase the installation in other places around the world?

It is true that when you come out in the courtyard, the courtyard is not very polluted. The strand, the area around Somerset House is incredibly polluted, like Waterloo Bridge. It suffers from a lot of pollution, but because there is no traffic in the middle and the building is a very effective barrier to pollution. Physical barriers really work in terms of pollution; just putting up a wall makes an enormous difference. Pollution is incredibly localized; the pollution from a street will hand around maybe two or three meters for that street and fall off very quickly. If you could physically avoid the polluted streets, it will make a huge difference to your health. You could take another route. And also this is why it is so crazy in London that places like Oxford Street are not pedestrianized. If these really busy shopping streets were pedestrianized, it would make an enormous impact on many people’s health. They are going out with their children, their babies. The taxis have diesel fumes. The strategic thinking around this, is still really very week in my opinion.

Have you been invited to showcase the installation in other places around the world?

So far I have lots of crazy offers from Hong Kong and Kazakhstan, but I am not very convinced by them. The serious offers I have had so far were from Oslo, which is Green Capital of Culture next year and they are hosting the Sustainability conference. And Geneva has asked for it, because they are having a World Health Organisation Conference around Air pollution & Health in November, so they are keen to take it. I have had a request from Milan from a big PR company that are interested in putting it on for of a green energy client, so that is what I have got so far. Also Manchester is keen to take it. Offers come in about every one, two days and it’s the question which ones are viable or not.

The Pollution Pods in Norway

The Pollution Pods in Norway

As part of Climart you collaborate with researchers in natural science and environmental psychology. What has led to this collaboration and how has this collaboration been for you as artist?

The psychologist has been very valuable because a lot of my work, whether or not it is about climate change, it is always quite politically orientated work; it is about changing people’s ways of living together. Obviously I do think that it can get responses that are either positive or negative, but to have some sort of robust and empirical system in which to assess whether my work is effective as activist tool, is something that is really amazing. Not many artists get that opportunity and so from that point of view it is very valuable. Also just to discuss with them the findings they have already had, to have a kind of sounding board. They don’t come with the same cultural baggage, so things that may be aesthetically very successful might not work in terms of having an impact on people’s behaviour and emotions. Just having those conversations has been very good. So that has been great.

And the scientists, that has also been useful, I still think it is an underdeveloped part of the project because I did apply to the Welcome Trust to collaborate with Kings College, which has one of the global leading departments on air quality research, but I didn’t get the money for that, so that has been kind of left standing at the moment. I could do with more rigorous conversations around the nature of the pollution itself. I think from a psychological position it is quite strong but from a more a hard scientific, chemical analysis position it is not so strong and the thing about Kings College was that they have people working in all of these places, like Bejing and New Delhi and they are scientists that really know in depth the pollution issues.
For example, things that have come up from my early conversations with them is that it is great to move to electric vehicles because you get rid of diesel pollution, but these vehicles still give off a lot of large particulates because of the breaks. So just the motion of the tires, the friction on the ground and the friction of the break on the wheels produce a lot of large particulates and that isn’t something that people would necessarily know. So if you have got a strategy to still use private transportation and autonomous vehicle for example and think they well they are all going to be electric and they go and self-charge. Obviously it gets rid of the nitric oxide and the carbon monoxide but not of the large particulates.
I think the trouble we have had with our strategies today, is that they have not looked at the overall picture. We had subsidies to buy diesel vehicles only 6 or seven years ago because they have lower co2 emissions and now they are reversing the whole process because of nitric oxide emissions are so high. But this is also because companies were lying.

Renewables are increasing by market demand. People are switching to renewables and this is where the demand will be. China is now producing solar panels and turbines at much lower cost than they have ever been before, and things like solar energy are becoming much more accessible to the private users.

I imagine in ten years there won’t be a roof without solar panels. Every new build should be zero emission; there is no excuse for that.

The Pollution Pods are part of a research project investigating whether art can really change people’s perception of climate change. Can you share with us a little bit more about the research and if the reactions to artwork/installation have lined up with expectations?

I have to remain quite seperate from the research  and am not really allowed to know what they are doing, so that I cannot pollute the outcome. I have not had any real findings back yet. I think the idea is to write it all up as they have been doing for quite some time. That process should be finished in August, September and then it goes out to peer group review, with the idea of publishing it towards the end of the year. I am pretty sure they have to have it all published and wrapped up before March 2019.

I haven’t been given any feedback yet. I have been shown some of the methodology but none of the findings. And it could be that it has absolutely no impact on peoples behaviour or even a negative impact, we just dont know yet.

They are working with an emotional framework. It is important that it strikes visitors quite hard in the all elements but if that leads to fear and anapathy, then it wont do anything.

This is why we have on the back of the research questions, 10 things you can do to help mitigate and change issues around air pollution. They are very direct things visitors can do, changes of behaviour  that they can implement the next day. That is really important. Even if it is just a small change, it is a change in the right direction

The emotive impact is there, no question it has an emotive impact from what I have seen. I find social media is a really good feedback mechanism, in terms of what people write on instagram or twitter, but whether that leads to behavioural changes remains still open. Hopefully it does,  but we just dont know yet.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview

For more about Michael Pinsky visit his website at
Photographs courtesy of Michael Pinsky