Critical Objects - Midterm - Pollution Inequality

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A few weeks ago I stumbled across the research article, initially published in the journal PNAS, called “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure”. The title of the article fairly succinctly summarizes the findings detailed within; what the researchers found was that within the United States, there was an average inequality between the amount of pollution produced and subsequently negatively experienced by different racial groups. On average white Americans contribute via their consumption to approximately 17% less particulate pollution than they inhale. In comparison, black and hispanic Americans inhale approximately 53% and 63% more pollutants than they produce, respectively. What this study accentuates is the reality that the issue of climate change is intrinsically politically and racially charged, and my project partner Veronica and I agreed it was a topic worth exploring and hopefully generating a conversation around.

One key component of this assignment was to develop an art object which would be interactive, and in the process of developing our concept we went through many different ideas while grappling with how to effectively convey this shocking data and hopefully use the interactivity to engage with the user more so than an innate piece would. We went through a series of ideas involving things like Kalder-style mobiles, hand pumps, and smoke and ink dispensers without settling on something that felt effective enough. We even discussed building some sort of rigged game before quickly realized that gamifying the production of pollution was very much counter to our intended message. Ultimately, what sparked our final idea was my visit to a stunning gallery exhibit of the work by artist Shih Chieh Huang.

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“BTB - White Box Series”, Shih Chieh Huang

“BTB - White Box Series”, Shih Chieh Huang

Huang’s alien-like kinetic sculptures make use of custom shaped plastic bags which organically inflate and deflate under the power of individual computer fans. Taking this technique as inspiration, we visualized smokestacks which would each represent a unique racial population, and the smoke coming out would be scaled to indicate how much pollution that population was made on average to inhale. But rather than using real smoke, we made our own custom, smoke-shaped bags which were inflated by computer fans installed underneath.

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While this aspect of the design concisely illustrated the inequality of pollution experienced, at this point the missing component was how to best use interaction to represent the inequality of pollution production. Using some wonderful feedback from an in-class discussion session, we realized that this would be most effective if the input from users was as literal as possible. So rather than simply having something like a button input, we drew on both the design of traditional factories as well as the trashcans situated around ITP to create three side-by-side trash receptacles, and the act of throwing away trash in each would serve as the input for the piece. We then specifically designed each hole to be sized based on the particular production of the distinct populations, as well as make the internal volume scaled to those numbers as well.

Once we finally settled on this design, we began the simultaneous process of fabricating the structure and designing the electronics. The factory shape itself is simply made from lasercut masonite board and the smokestacks are cut and spray-painted PVC pipe. The individual smoke clouds were arguably the most labor intensive aspect of the fabrication; Veronica cut and shaped each one by hand out of grocery store produce bags using a heat gun and metal knife which she used to cut and then fuse the bags into their distinct cloud shape.

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The code powering the electronic brain of the piece is based around three states which are triggered by IR distance sensors located within each receptacle. When trash is thrown into the left-most hole representing white Americans, all three fans are turned on and the “smoke” inflates representing the way that white consumption produces pollution that disproportionately effects people of color. In comparison, when trash is disposed of in the other two holes only the smoke stack associated with that particular receptacle will activate.

As happy as I am with the way this project ultimately turns out, it feels like an idea strong enough to warrant further exploration. In particular, I imagine the concept would be even more effective if it were scaled up so each section were actually the size of a kitchen trash can, and it was installed in a location where it would be used as such. By creating a version that is both a critical object and a functioning trash can it would even more consistently and effectively bring attention to this urgent topic.

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