Jim Drobnick, "Guarded Breaths: Art and Smell in the [cough] Metropolis"

The notion of cooling, fresh air in the city may be a quaint, even futile, expectation in the contemporary era. Given the ever-increasing occurrences of smog alerts, lackadaisical enforcement of air quality regulations, and the worldwide circulation of airborne pollutants, more pressure is exerted on indoor artificial climates to provide what the outdoors cannot. Yet air conditioning, one of the twentieth century’s most notable technological achievements, is intimately connected with the current problematic state of the metropolitan environment – as a contributor to global warming and rising levels of toxic emissions, it is also a reputed solution to these problems. Unlike other architectural elements, air conditioning often remains an inconspicuous, mundane presence to building occupants. The product it creates – temperate, humidified, filtered and ventilated air – is invisible and easily forgotten, except of course when the technology malfunctions. Normally, air conditioning serves as a backdrop for the dramas of contemporary social life (Shove 2003), a precondition of comfort that plays a necessary but subservient role – tonight, however, air conditioning will headline the marquee.

The topic of the city and the senses has been a thematic in my writing for the past several years, and I’d like to use contemporary art as a lens by which to focus upon the politics and experience of air in the city. The artists that I will discuss strategically intervene into various buildings’ heating and air conditioning apparatuses. By making the invisible presence of air conditioning manifest, and challenging a technology that is for the most part taken for granted, these artists engage in an “art of ventilation” that contemplates the ethics and effects of urban atmospheres.

My talk is organized into three sections analyzing how art, architecture, and air conditioning intersect. The first section, centered on the micro level, considers the experience of the individual within particular rooms, where contestations over standardization and control arise. The second, or meso level, applies to the building as a whole and how it regulates interchanges between the air inside and the social context outside. Here questions about air conditioning’s neutrality come forward. The third, macro, level, defines the relationship between architecture and the totality of the environment, and the discussion in this section will interrogate air conditioning’s presumption of separateness from the natural climate.

This talk is currently being revised for publication. For details, contact the author at jim@displaycult.com