kirsty boyle :: robotics artist

oceans of air – NZ

2011 SCANZ 2011 Eco sapiens, Taranaki NZ

We are living at the bottom of an ocean of air. If we climb a 2000 meter mountain, 80% of the mass of the atmosphere is below us. The atmosphere, from the boundary layer with the ground to the stratosphere is a 70km deep and is a very dynamic ocean. Air masses and the substances embarked in them travel globally in hours, days or weeks. Air is the medium that binds all our societies together whether we draw borders or not.

Measurement is the process through which data is obtained from instruments and is the process through which all our scientific archives have been formed. It is a long-term collective process involving objects, ideas and gestures and forms the basis of much of what we think and do and also how we think and do it. It has been the focus of much attention and the locus of much joy for humans over thousands of years.

How to measure the pathways and patterns within the dynamics of the atmosphere is a very old challenge that has yielded a rich literature naming winds. More recently, it drives a huge collective effort to understand the interaction of the workings of the ocean of air and the smoking organisms at the bottom of it. Most of us are not aware of the vast effort and talent historically and currently invested to determine where coming from and going to.

That is what this project begins to address. The act of sending sensors out into the atmosphere becomes a performance, a way of employing and exploring scientific methodology and practices. The performance of collecting atmospheric data becomes more significant than the data collected, is. We entered highly visible public spaces and released balloon-mounted sensors using fishing rods connected to hundreds of meters of nylon thread. We did not want to pretend that this technique was going to uncover new or unknown data, rather it becomes a story telling device regarding the scientific narrative and exploring how understandings and discoveries are made within the world. By taking a bit of science into our DIY hands we interrogate and augment understandings of scientific practice and epistemology.

oceans of air consists of an installation, performance and documentation that probes concepts of how we understand our atmosphere and form our relationship with it. We explore representations of atmospheric pathways, meso-meterology and frame measurement as a performance. During the residency we calculated and displayed the back trajectories of the air masses arriving at surface level in New Plymouth each afternoon, took air samples, carried out air sounding with innovative DiY microsensors and produced documentation our investigations.  We attached very light-weight flexible circuits which were equipped with sensors to a few small helium balloons and flew them, using a 300m nylon thread attached to a fishing rod. The balloons were floated up through the lower atmosphere.

Artist and scientist Ramon Guardans traces pollutants and their effect on local and global populations, health and environments and examines the relevance of different ways of life in understanding exposure. He has been involved for 20 years in international action on atmospheric and marine pollution including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP). Ramon was joined by roboticist Kirsty Boyle and environmental engineer and media artist Tega Brain in conducting experiments within the atmospheric environments of New Plymouth, Taranaki during the SCANZ 2011: Eco sapiens creative residency.