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← Picturing the air around us | Emily Parsons-Lord | TEDxYouth@Sydney

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Showing Revision 7 created 01/27/2017 by Krystian Aparta.

  1. If I asked you to picture the air,
  2. what do you imagine?
  3. Most people think about either empty space
  4. or clear blue sky
  5. or sometimes trees dancing in the wind.
  6. And then I remember my high school
    chemistry teacher with really long socks
  7. at the blackboard,
  8. drawing diagrams of bubbles
    connected to other bubbles,
  9. and describing how they vibrate
    and collide in a kind of frantic soup.
  10. But really, we tend not to think
    about the air that much at all.

  11. We notice it mostly
  12. when there's some kind of unpleasant
    sensory intrusion upon it,
  13. like a terrible smell
    or something visible like smoke or mist.
  14. But it's always there.
  15. It's touching all of us right now.
  16. It's even inside us.
  17. Our air is immediate, vital and intimate.
  18. And yet, it's so easily forgotten.
  19. So what is the air?

  20. It's the combination of the invisible
    gases that envelop the Earth,
  21. attracted by the Earth's
    gravitational pull.
  22. And even though I'm a visual artist,
  23. I'm interested in
    the invisibility of the air.
  24. I'm interested in how we imagine it,
  25. how we experience it
  26. and how we all have an innate
    understanding of its materiality
  27. through breathing.
  28. All life on Earth changes the air
    through gas exchange,
  29. and we're all doing it right now.
  30. Actually, why don't we all
    right now together take
  31. one big, collective, deep breath in.
  32. Ready? In. (Inhales)

  33. And out. (Exhales)
  34. That air that you just exhaled,

  35. you enriched a hundred times
    in carbon dioxide.
  36. So roughly five liters of air per breath,
    17 breaths per minute
  37. of the 525,600 minutes per year,
  38. comes to approximately
    45 million liters of air,
  39. enriched 100 times in carbon dioxide,
  40. just for you.
  41. Now, that's equivalent to about 18
    Olympic-sized swimming pools.
  42. For me, "air" is plural.

  43. It's simultaneously
    as small as our breathing
  44. and as big as the planet.
  45. And it's kind of hard to picture.
  46. Maybe it's impossible,
    and maybe it doesn't matter.
  47. So through my visual arts practice,

  48. I try to make air, not so much picture it,
  49. but to make it visceral
    and tactile and haptic.
  50. I try to expand this notion
    of the aesthetic, how things look,
  51. so that it can include things
    like how it feels on your skin
  52. and in your lungs,
  53. and how your voice sounds
    as it passes through it.
  54. I explore the weight, density and smell,
    but most importantly,
  55. I think a lot about the stories we attach
    to different kinds of air.
  56. This is a work I made in 2014.

  57. It's called "Different Kinds
    of Air: A Plant's Diary,"
  58. where I was recreating the air
    from different eras in Earth's evolution,
  59. and inviting the audience
    to come in and breathe them with me.
  60. And it's really surprising,
    so drastically different.
  61. Now, I'm not a scientist,

  62. but atmospheric scientists
    will look for traces
  63. in the air chemistry in geology,
  64. a bit like how rocks can oxidize,
  65. and they'll extrapolate
    that information and aggregate it,
  66. such that they can
    pretty much form a recipe
  67. for the air at different times.
  68. Then I come in as the artist
    and take that recipe
  69. and recreate it using the component gases.
  70. I was particularly interested
    in moments of time

  71. that are examples
    of life changing the air,
  72. but also the air that can influence
    how life will evolve,
  73. like Carboniferous air.
  74. It's from about 300 to 350
    million years ago.
  75. It's an era known
    as the time of the giants.
  76. So for the first time
    in the history of life,
  77. lignin evolves.
  78. That's the hard stuff
    that trees are made of.
  79. So trees effectively invent
    their own trunks at this time,
  80. and they get really big,
    bigger and bigger,
  81. and pepper the Earth,
  82. releasing oxygen, releasing
    oxygen, releasing oxygen,
  83. such that the oxygen levels
    are about twice as high
  84. as what they are today.
  85. And this rich air supports
    massive insects --
  86. huge spiders and dragonflies
    with a wingspan of about 65 centimeters.
  87. To breathe, this air is really clean
    and really fresh.
  88. It doesn't so much have a flavor,
  89. but it does give your body
    a really subtle kind of boost of energy.
  90. It's really good for hangovers.
  91. (Laughter)

  92. Or there's the air of the Great Dying --

  93. that's about 252.5 million years ago,
  94. just before the dinosaurs evolve.
  95. It's a really short time period,
    geologically speaking,
  96. from about 20- to 200,000 years.
  97. Really quick.
  98. This is the greatest extinction event
    in Earth's history,
  99. even bigger than when
    the dinosaurs died out.
  100. Eighty-five to 95 percent of species
    at this time die out,
  101. and simultaneous to that is a huge,
    dramatic spike in carbon dioxide,
  102. that a lot of scientists agree
  103. comes from a simultaneous
    eruption of volcanoes
  104. and a runaway greenhouse effect.
  105. Oxygen levels at this time go
    to below half of what they are today,
  106. so about 10 percent.
  107. So this air would definitely not
    support human life,
  108. but it's OK to just have a breath.
  109. And to breathe, it's oddly comforting.
  110. It's really calming, it's quite warm
  111. and it has a flavor a little bit
    like soda water.
  112. It has that kind of spritz,
    quite pleasant.
  113. So with all this thinking
    about air of the past,

  114. it's quite natural to start thinking
    about the air of the future.
  115. And instead of being speculative with air
  116. and just making up what I think
    might be the future air,
  117. I discovered this human-synthesized air.
  118. That means that it doesn't occur
    anywhere in nature,
  119. but it's made by humans in a laboratory
  120. for application in different
    industrial settings.
  121. Why is it future air?

  122. Well, this air is a really stable molecule
  123. that will literally be part of the air
    once it's released,
  124. for the next 300 to 400 years,
    before it's broken down.
  125. So that's about 12 to 16 generations.
  126. And this future air has
    some very sensual qualities.
  127. It's very heavy.
  128. It's about eight times heavier
    than the air we're used to breathing.
  129. It's so heavy, in fact,
    that when you breathe it in,
  130. whatever words you speak
    are kind of literally heavy as well,
  131. so they dribble down your chin
    and drop to the floor
  132. and soak into the cracks.
  133. It's an air that operates
    quite a lot like a liquid.
  134. Now, this air comes
    with an ethical dimension as well.

  135. Humans made this air,
  136. but it's also the most potent
    greenhouse gas
  137. that has ever been tested.
  138. Its warming potential is 24,000 times
    that of carbon dioxide,
  139. and it has that longevity
    of 12 to 16 generations.
  140. So this ethical confrontation
    is really central to my work.
  141. (In a lowered voice) It has
    another quite surprising quality.
  142. It changes the sound of your voice
    quite dramatically.
  143. (Laughter)

  144. So when we start to think -- ooh!
    It's still there a bit.

  145. (Laughter)

  146. When we think about climate change,

  147. we probably don't think about
    giant insects and erupting volcanoes
  148. or funny voices.
  149. The images that more readily come to mind
  150. are things like retreating glaciers
    and polar bears adrift on icebergs.
  151. We think about pie charts
    and column graphs
  152. and endless politicians
    talking to scientists wearing cardigans.
  153. But perhaps it's time we start
    thinking about climate change

  154. on the same visceral level
    that we experience the air.
  155. Like air, climate change is simultaneously
    at the scale of the molecule,
  156. the breath and the planet.
  157. It's immediate, vital and intimate,
  158. as well as being amorphous and cumbersome.
  159. And yet, it's so easily forgotten.
  160. Climate change is the collective
    self-portrait of humanity.

  161. It reflects our decisions as individuals,
  162. as governments and as industries.
  163. And if there's anything
    I've learned from looking at air,
  164. it's that even though
    it's changing, it persists.
  165. It may not support the kind of life
    that we'd recognize,
  166. but it will support something.
  167. And if we humans
    are such a vital part of that change,
  168. I think it's important
    that we can feel this discussion.
  169. Because even though it's invisible,
  170. humans are leaving
    a very vibrant trace in the air.
  171. Thank you.

  172. (Applause)