All That Is Air Melts Into City. Speculative geo-history of a European Emission Allowance.

0> Brief

All That Is Air Melts Into City is a situated materialisation of the intangible circulation of carbon-dioxide through non-human and human ecologies. Through a ten-day walk across London, a series of potential financial exchanges of carbon stocks is enacted at a human pace, documented via an online data-stream and archived in an installation at Arebyte Gallery. The project questions and examines the intra-action between, on the one hand, the ungraspable speed of contemporary economic flows and transactions, and the temporalities of the bio- and atmosphere on the other.

The mission statement of the carbon emissions market is to progressively reduce the pollution so to meet the sustainability targets. However, this market treats only the amounts of emissions, not acknowledging other participants in this ecology/economy, especially the massive “labour” of the vegetation which ceaselessly captures and stores carbon. The project tries to bring a multitude of actors that are usually not in view and to maintain them in the line of sight. The walks trace a path of between one possible topography of the electronic stock market, the photosynthetic activity of trees and movements of the air by documenting and intertwining their disjoining and conjoining rhythms into a unitary flow of data.

1> State of things

A molecule of carbon-dioxide (CO2) takes a panoply of shapes and circulates among swarms of actors - particles in the air, animal bodies, plants, rocks, car engines, industries, and further and deeper. All these actors capture, transform, or release carbon-dioxide, contributing to the carbon cycle. This vital circulation is all-pervading and ubiquitous but, in a strange twist of evolution, it is all but intangible to human senses.

Over the last couple of decades carbon-dioxide has been gradually establishing itself as a major public “figure”, appearing across political, social and mediatic spectrums. Nevertheless, some of its embodiments are not as obvious and clear. Among its many roles, it is the main protagonist of the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), electronic financial market for industries trading in “allowances” to release CO2 into the atmosphere. The market’s logic and operation is complex and its movements are generally imperceptible in a similar fashion to the clouds of CO2 in the sky. Yet, this market is physically based in London, and myriads of molecules of CO2 are floating through the air of the city.

One European Emission Allowance (EUA) amounts to a permission to release one tonne of carbon-dioxide into the air. But the cycle does not end there, it is barely one segment of a much vaster loop. Our living is based on the fact that vegetation proceeds to capture back the CO2 through our economic activity or even mere breathing. This plant's labour is therefore almost beyond measurement but it is usually considered as an “externality” to our economy, therefore it is not taken into account in the carbon trading system. This relative invisibility of the vast parts of the carbon cycle is, in my view, one of the key issues of current political economy/ecology. Because of this opacity, not only the spaces of the transformations or exchanges of carbon, but on the same level, the times of the cycle remain generally unacknowledged.

How do the rhythms of our (financial) carbon stocks relate to those of its fixation? How do the rhythms of trading correspond to our daily experience of breathing? What are the environmental futures that are being shaped now through the interplay of the economical instruments and the biosphere's labour?

2/ Transportation Walks

All That Is Air Melts Into City juxtaposes the real with the imaginary paths and rhythms of carbon in London to create a voyage through a hybrid landscape of natures and cultures. The walks invent possible routes of exchange of the carbon stocks market on street-level, alike a maze of speculative back-to-the-future Silk Roads.

The walks physically transport what appears to be doubly immaterial – carbon and carbon share. These two elements are embodied in a dragon tree which is a labourer in the carbon-dioxide-capturing economy. This “carbon worker” is transported by myself on a red trolley. I therefore become an infrastructural labourer, and together with the tree, we form a “carbon convoy”. The convoy threads a narrative of a slowed-down and material circulation of one EU carbon stock across a landscape concurrently made of data and glass and steel. This travel is not through a barren landscape, but is interspersed with encounters with the particles of the air, trees, buildings and many other landscape agents, human and nonhuman ones.

Throughout the walks different processes involving carbon are followed by periodic observations and makeshift measurements. Transformed into discrete chunks of data, these recordings surface on the web. Risking readability, this heterogeneous and uneven dataflow aims to echo the living disjunctions and conjunctions among the participants of the carbon cycle.

In parallel, the installation in Arebyte Gallery, a forest of young dragon trees in a provisional office space, is a miniaturised landscape of the constellation of the financial market. Outside any comparison in scale, it is in effect a tiny factory of clean air laboriously producing wooden matter and oxygen. At the same time, an ecological office labourer is systematically transforming the data coming from the field into the online stream, and, at the same time, printing out the documentation and creating an offline archive on (one hundred percent recycled) paper.

The interplay between the walk, the online platform, the trees in the gallery and the archive in the making intends to reveal the vibrancy of carbon dioxide’s intra-actions with other entities. At the same time, it is a field study that, I hope, looks deep into some of the ideologies about the potential of digital data “to reveal mystic truths”.

3/ Documentation/exhibition

The transportation walks produce a trail of data, which is then outputted into two distinct environments. The first data stream is a near-live online platform which follows the proceeding of the walks as they unfurl, each day between 10am and 5pm. The other stream is an archiving process that takes place in the gallery.

During the walks, myself and a field-data ecological labourer, gather data through a choreography of methods, implemented at determinate intervals:

1) current geo-location is registered via an iPad app;
2) two photographs are taken using the near-infrared technique. This is done via a modified Canon A810 camera, which has been equipped with an infrablue filter (following Public Lab's Infragram project, see link below). One photograph is taken parallel to the street-level depicting the “carbon convoy” in the landscape, and the other is vertical with camera looking up towards the sky. Subsequently, the photographs are processed with to create a NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) composite which reveals the photosynthesis of the vegetation. This is performed with Ned Horning's Photo Monitoring plug-in, in open-source photo processing software Fiji (Fiji Is Just ImageJ).
3) the concentration of carbon-dioxide in the air at the spot is measured with a portable industrial CO2 meter.

After performing all these steps, we foward the data to the office-data ecological labourer, who then assembles it into an on-line stream and adds another layer:

4) current financial data displaying the price of the EUA futures, and the volumes traded, is screen-grabbed from the ICE Futures official web-site.

The three sets of data are published online with the delay of 10 to 15 minutes from the actual times of the data collection, the time needed to elaborate the material, and in resonance with the fact that the trading data is published with 10 minutes delay. The whole process of assembling the data-stream is projected live in the gallery.

After each online update, the screenshot is printed out and attached onto the wall, creating an overall history of the walk, or a score from which rhythms can be discerned. The archive of all the updates is available on the web-site in /updates/ section.

As the conclusion of the project, on Saturday, 17 May at Arebyte Gallery at 3pm, a performative talk will transform part of captured data into a story told.

4/ References

Detailed information about the EU ETS system at the European Union's web-page or wikipedia page.

The list of trading members of the EU ETS, whose trading mnemonics are used in the routes> data entry of the project

For more about the circulation of carbon-dioxide and its impact on environment, there are many resources, a good handbook is Tyler Volk's CO2 Rising. The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge.

Public Lab's Infragram project containing info about near-infrared photography and how to make a DIY infrablue camera. Thank you, Public Lab, you're amazing!

Ned Horning's Photo Monitoring plug-in used to post-process the infrablue images. Thanks, Ned!

The project owes its ecological/political ontology to the texts of Gregory Bateson, Jane Bennett, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Gilles Deleuze, Franco Farinelli, Félix Guattari, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Graham Harman, Bruno Latour, Henri Lefebvre, Timothy Morton, and many other thinkers of networks, ecological thought, materialist philosophies, object-oriented ontology...

5/ Team

The project is produced with the kind support of the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), at the faculty of Media, Arts & Design, University of Westminster

The project is developed within the framework of my ongoing doctoral research at CREAM, under the working title Ecological Labour: Performance of Flat Ontology in Everyday Life.

The project is realised with indispensable assistance of Declan Driver (field-data ecological labourer) and Steffen Michels (office-data ecological labourer).