On Saturday 27 March from 21:00 CET, The Smog Event brings together artists, theorists and film in an online programme about smog, initiating a new series of Sonic Acts transmissions under the banner of Night Air.
The first event of the series includes presentations by artist Amy Balkin and anthropologist Timothy K Choy. These take place alongside a weekend-long screening of the 2019 documentary film Smog Town (viewable in Benelux only) by Chinese filmmaker Meng Han. The programme will be moderated by Harshavardhan Bhat and audience members are invited to join in the conversations via a live-chat Q&A.
→ Tickets (€3,50)
→ Attend on Facebook
Ticket-buyers will receive a link to the event via email
Smog, a portmanteau of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’, is pollution made visible. It is a cloud of nitrogen and sulphur oxides, ozone, smoke and other particulate matter (PM) – matter so small that it lodges deep in the lungs and bodies of living beings. It usually comes from human exploitation of resources: excessive coal combustion, traffic, industry, forest fires and various reactions of those emissions combined with atmospheric conditions.
Smog is everywhere, visible, yet normalised and largely ignored in big cities. Only with the rise of apps that measure fine particles, or PM 2.5 levels, can we glance at the visual representation of the invisible air around us. In severe cases, alarms go off. Similarly, during the last hundred years, there were several extreme ‘smog events’ that caused severe harm to people living in those areas: the Donora Smog in 1948 caused heavy respiratory problems for 14 thousand people in Donora, Pennsylvania (see Donora Smog Museum); the Great Smog in London in 1952 killed thousand people in a couple of months; the 2013 Eastern China smog had levels 30 times higher than deemed safe by WHO in Shanghai, Tianjin and various provinces in China. Again, just this month China was hit by an unprecedented spike in air pollution, turning the skies an eerie orange in Beijing and surrounding regions.
Amy Balkin, Public Smog. Image courtesy of the artist.
Amy Balkin, Public Smog. Image courtesy of the artist.
Amy Balkin’s work involves land and the geopolitical relationships that frame it. Current and forthcoming exhibitions include The Vienna Biennale for Change at MAK, Overview Effect at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, The Normal at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, and Beyond the World’s End at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, California. Her work has been published in Decolonizing Nature by TJ Demos (Sternberg), Materiality (Whitechapel/MIT), and Critical Landscapes (UC Press). She is currently a remote artist-in-residence at Penn Department in Environmental Humanities (PPEH), while on leave from California College of the Arts.
In her talk, artist Amy Balkin will focus on a number of her works that have dealt with air pollution, such as the audio tour Invisible-5 (2006), centred along a highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles where communities are fighting for environmental justice; or Public Smog (2004–), an ongoing attempt to create a ‘clean air park’ by buying carbon emissions and then keeping them back from use, and also pushing for the Earth’s atmosphere to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Timothy K Choy holds a PhD in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz. He is an associate professor in the Science and Technology Studies Program and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. In his research, he focuses on ecological discourses and practices, atmospheres and human-nonhuman relations. He authored the book Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) in which he proposed the term ‘breathers’ as figures of life or life forms connected through the medium of air.
Harshavardhan Bhat is a PhD researcher for Monsoon Assemblages, a five-year-long research project at the University of Westminster exploring monsoon-urban relations through South/South-East Asian cities. Harsha’s work is an interdisciplinary project on the politics of monsoon air read through the materialities of the New Delhi National Capital Region. He has a background in research and political practice, is an alumnus of the postgraduate programme at the Strelka Institute in Moscow, and holds an MSc in Comparative Politics (Conflict Studies) from the London School of Economics.
Smog Town (2019) is an observational bureaucratic drama unfolding in Langfang, a city about 40 kilometres from Beijing and one of the most polluted towns in China. The city's environmental bureau does its best to find solutions in order to get removed from the ‘most polluted’ list, but it only finds dead-ends in various clashes with the state, industry, workers and citizens. Meng Han, a Beijing-based filmmaker with a background in journalism, captures the broader context: the limitations of local clerks in fighting the environmental crisis, the intense pressure from Beijing and the impossibility of China to solve its problem of pollution. Han works as a photojournalist in China and her other recent films include China’s Forgotten Daughters (2017).
All times CET
21:00 Introduction by Harshavardhan Bhat
21:15 Lecture by Timothy K Choy
21:50 Presentation by Amy Balkin
22:20 Q&A moderated by Harshavardhan Bhat
23:00 DJ Snufkin
*Closed captions available in English
Smog Town by Meng Han, 89 min, Chinese with English subtitles
Repeats every two hours from 14:00 on 27 March until 23:00 on 28 March
The Smog Event is the first edition of Night Air, a series of online transmissions that aim to make pollution visible by bringing forth the various side-effects of modernity: from colonial exploitation of people and resources to perpetual inequalities brought about by the destruction of the environment and common land – in other words, destructive capitalist practices that shape both our environment and human-nonhuman relations.
**Night air is a myth with its origins in miasma theory (from the Greek for ‘pollution’). The theory held that smelly air from decaying organic matter caused illness. The smell would intensify and worsen by night, so night air became synonymous with poisonous and noxious vapours that could even cause pandemics such as cholera or plague. Only with developments in medicine and various scientific endeavours around the London cholera epidemic in the mid-1800s, did germs replace the ‘unhealthy fog’ as the culprit for diseases. And now, even though the idea has been abandoned, night air still echoes in words such as malaria (‘bad air’ in Italian), which actually connects air-borne poison with flying pests such as the disease-carrying mosquitoes.Part of Re-Imagine Europe, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union