As attendees start making their way to Glasgow, Scotland, for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, a collection of 6-meter-high orbs is also traveling up the length of the British Isles for the event.
These five giant globes, or “pollution pods,” are the result of an arts-and-science collaboration that produced an artistic installation to test whether visual art has the power to persuade people to actively change their habits to help reduce climate change. Since 2017, the immersive exhibit has traveled the world, inviting people to step into the spheres for a sensory experience. They just spent a week at London’s Granary Square, a hub of restaurants and bars near iconic King’s Cross Station, and will soon show up at COP26.
The pods are made of a frame of Norwegian reclaimed wood, stretched with PVC bioplastic membranes. Inside, each contains conditions to represent the distinct air quality of a city: Trondheim, Norway; London; New Delhi, India; Beijing; and São Paulo. Through a mix of humidifiers, haze generators, scent diffusers, and an ozone machine, the orbs re-create the “suffocating haze” and low visibility of New Delhi; the “vinegary smell” of São Paulo, where most of Brazil’s ethanol production takes place; and the relatively cool freshness of Trondheim, a fjord-adjacent city.
The Norway-London connection is relevant. British artist Michael Pinsky, who’s done climate-centered art for 15 years—and who previously sold another installation, Sleeping Water, to COP21 in Paris—was commissioned by a team of Norwegian scientists to create a piece to show empirically whether people are moved by art to make lifestyle changes. The concept resonated with Pinsky, given he’d always been unsure whether his work, while satisfying, actually effected change. And so Pinsky’s installation, Pollution Pods, came together as part of Climart, the alliance of environmental psychologists, climate scientists, and organizations and educational institutions in the U.K., Norway, and beyond.
Pinsky says the aim was to give people a “bodily emotive experience” of air pollution—which has many of the same root causes of climate change—rather than a set of intellectual data. “My point was that people are fundamentally quite egocentric,” he says. “The old polar bear on the glaciers makes people sad, but then they get into their four-wheel drive and drive their kids to school.”
Since the original concept was displayed for the first time in Norway, the pods have traveled to Melbourne, Australia; Madrid; Geneva; and Vancouver. They first went to London in 2018, and just came back for a second stint in mid-October, a week before the expansion by 18 times of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which requires drivers entering the capital to pay 12.50 pounds (roughly $17) per day. Now, the pods have packed up and are moving, one by one, across the country on a tour; when Pinsky spoke, he was on a train from Birmingham, the first stop, to Lancaster, the second.
Accompanying the pods on bikes will be 30 National Health Service pediatricians, participating in Ride for Their Lives. The 500-mile trek from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital to Glasgow—by way of Birmingham, Sheffield, and Newcastle—is intended to raise awareness for the respiratory risks that children face due to air pollution. Along the route, the doctors will meet the public in venues by the pods for question-and-answer sessions.
Both the pods and the doctors will culminate their journeys in Glasgow, in time for the conference, where the pods will display as a unit again, for visiting politicians. Pinsky has previously exhibited the pods for environmental ministers of France and Spain, and for the president of Costa Rica, but he remains skeptical at changing politicians’ minds (in part due to his agreement with reports of poor management of the organization of the event). “I’m not feeling brilliant about it,” he says. “But, we’re on our way, and we’ll see what happens.”
Incidentally, the results of the Climart study have been relatively inconclusive. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology interviewed guests at the initial viewings of the installation in Norway and England and reported in 2019 that: “Intentions to act were strong and slightly increased after visiting the art installation. . . . Despite favorable intentions, however, taking advantage of an actual behavioral opportunity to track one’s climate change emissions behavior after visiting the [pollution pods] could not be detected.” In Pinsky’s words: “It does have some impact, but with quite a lot of caveats.”