An Interview with Alessandro Ludovico for Neural Magazine

Man-made clouds and pollution are central to your "Pollstream" work series. In the celebrated "Nuage vert", for example, you turned green the smoke from the chimney of a coal-based energy plan in Helsinki, reflecting local consumption. This work has been visible from the whole city in a sort of visualization of the ongoing consumption process and the selected color easily identifies the archetypal pollution. But in your poetic (especially here but also in your other works) there's no evident moral statement. Why? What's your approach to the so called "green issues"?

There are two things, the green colour and the green issues. Green has a large symbolic spectrum; it suggests life, nature, growth and of course, the green movement. On the darker end of the spectrum, is the fluorescent green of twilight, the matrix and Soylent green. This green is used in culture and technology at the moment things take an unknown, synthetic path: The glow of the green cathode ray oscilloscope, the green terminal text console or the green fluorescent protein. It seems to be true that in the aesthetics of emerging socio-technological phenomena green is often the first available or affordable technology in this domain. This is also the case for high-end lasers.

About the green issues. We had the idea of Nuage Vert in 2003, when we moved to the suburbs of Paris close to a waste incinerator. We enjoyed looking at its emission cloud until one day it started moving towards us. Just like the cloud, the issues come to us. The cloud is an intangible form and its meaning can’t be fixed in time; in the industrial age it was a sign of prosperity, and today, it functions as the ultimate icon of pollution. So, to play with the aesthetics of made-clouds is a very comfortable conveyor to trigger a passionate debate.

For people living near the power plant, there isn’t a single moral message but a range of possible interpretations. It is a projection onto a power plant emission but also an open space onto which each individual can project onto: in people’s mind, it could be a toxic cloud or a collective ecological action etc. Rather than being moral, our works are antidotes to a pervasive uniform perception of normality.

In "Toy emissions" you made a video performance with a miniature radio controlled Porsche Cayenne emitting a purple smoke in the middle of the crowded roads of New York City, and confusing the invisible emissions of the various polluting transport machines. Here you're playing with scale, with a smoking toy that finds his way in a much bigger system. Why the scale was so important in your intentions here?

Scale is very important to us, the paradoxical relation between the infinitely small and the big is increasingly prevalent in our society: We build the biggest machines to create the smallest elements and there seems to be a parallel with the struggle between extreme individuality versus the dilution in the mass.

The first impression we had in New York was the continuous traffic hum, and the everyday spectacle of the enormous 4x4 vehicles, of which the Porsche Cayenne is the most prominent (and emblematic) species. Our question was how to represent something so visible, so big, so obvious, and so omnipresent in a different light? Strangely, by making it smaller, it became more visible. It may sound absurd that the toy car emitted coloured smoke (by the way, it was yellow, pink, green, blue and purple) from its mini exhaust pipe, but there is also a sense behind it. It revealed, for us, the absence of an important function in the design of these sophisticated and otherwise hyper-realistic electronic toys. So, why don’t toy cars have emissions too?

"Champs d'Ozone" was made with Processing and installed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, generating a synthetic cloud over a view of the famous Paris landscape, is reacting to local toxin measurements. This visual constant intervention is shedding a different (colored) light on a postcard-like panorama. Do you think about it as an "augmented reality" or a future vision?

The anniversary exhibition in the Pompidou was called “Airs de Paris”, after the work of Marcel Duchamp. It was important for us to make one coherent image, an urban picture that is readable in single instance; for Champs d’Ozone (Ozone Fields) it was the famous “postcard panorama” on the 6th floor in the Centre Pompidou, half city, half polluted sky.

At the time we collaborated closely with Airparif, the Paris institute for monitoring air quality. The tiniest small particles - such as PM10, Ozone and Nitrogen Dioxide - are detected and measured across the vast geography of Paris through a grid of sensors. This information is sent to central servers and processed through a complex computer model and made into maps and graphs that are then published across all media. We are the Google earth generation. We need to observe everything from above, from afar, through the glasses of a scientific model. Perhaps one day we will have to install a machine on the moon to measure nano-pollution on earth?

Maybe it is a design approach, to cut through layers of representation and to project the pollution back onto the air of Paris, to the place in which it exists and where it concerns us.

All these models pose questions. Do the models just complete our imagination and reinforce the fact that we are doomed to live in the disaster we have conjured? We already live in the reality evoked in Champs d’Ozone. In Paris, a chemical microclimate repeats itself in a daily tidal routine: as the ozone rises and falls with traffic peaks. On the other hand, are we not measuring what we know already? The new hi-tech materials burnt in incinerators will release pollutants for which we haven’t yet developed the sensors to monitor.

"Smoking Lamp" turns a lamp's white bright light into a pink one once a sensor inside it detects nicotine in the air. The lamp's light makes the act of smoking clearly visible and even literary. This artwork debuted in coincidence with the European ban on smoking in public places, but, again, this is only an intentional coincidence more than a judgement, and the light role seems to be not only functional, but also symbolic. What you think about that?

Judgement day will come, but later. With the Pollstream series we wanted to speed up this equation, so that cause and effect happen at the same time. What does it mean, when children ask her mother under the Lamp: “Mama, Mama, please smoke more… make the light red!!!” ? And, since the sensor is set to a threshold, one has to smoke A LOT to make it work. Smoking Lamp has only been shown once in a perfect space, this was at the OK Center in Linz last year. Usually, the lamp ends up being relegated to a toilet, the corridor or outside. After a long curatorial discussion, an entire room was dedicated to it. When people finally managed to trigger it, the whole space filled with sound and red light. The white light is the cold bright light of an interrogation; the red glowing zone gives us the comfort of the underworld. It is curious, especially in countries in which one is still permitted to smoke in designated spaces, that an art space could not exhibit this work. In one instance, the Lamp couldn’t even be shown under the condition that the public was not permitted to smoke, as somebody might be stimulated to test the devil.

You're considered part of a quite large movement of artists able to effectively integrate critical design and art. Do you consider yourselves also environmentalists? And why (as you affirmed) "any problem can be solved through movement"?

As the design philosopher Lucius Burckhardt asserted, the term environment “Umwelt” which evolved in the 70’s was a reaction against the brutal city planning and the implantation of a large infrastructures: The motorways destroyed the beauty which they brought into reach. Today we still have issues related to our infrastructures, but the signs of production are disappearing. For example, the new waste incinerator that is being built in Issy Paris, will use an energy costly method to vaporise the cloud higher in the sky, so that the emission is invisible. Power plants vanish from the cityscape and atomic power stations are relocated out of sight. Ever-faster high-speed train networks are put into place to connect us seamlessly to our remote airports. But, with increasing speed and mobility our own movement decreases, our actual bodies are passive, immobile, frozen. That is why we want to set things in motion: our landscape and ourselves.

The Pollstream series and the Train project are environmental because they deal with infrastructure and make themselves legible through movement. Movement can be both physical and immaterial. In the case of the Train project, we literally move our body through space and time. In Pollstream, the movement is also in mobilising the public’s perception.