Emma Critchley is a visual artist specialising in underwater photography and video. In June 2016 Emma was awarded a year-long residency called Culture & Climate Change, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, The University of Sheffield, The Open University and the Ashden Trust www.cultureandclimatechange.co.uk
Follow the residency: http://www.cultureandclimatechange.co.uk/projects/#scenarios-sixteen
Something that returns to me again and again, is our adept tendency to ‘other’ anything that is inconvenient, uncomfortable or means we have to change, and the ease of which we are able to perceive things as distant or remote. This comes up in conversations within the context of Human/Nature, which is precisely focused on the critical importance of our present-day relationship to remote locations like the deep-sea and space, but it also surrounds the topic of underwater acoustic pollution. I have been grappling with finding a way of relating what is happening ‘under there’ – beneath the membrane of the ocean’s surface to non-human creatures with us, here in the every day.
This has been particularly interesting to think about within the context of another strand of research to do with enclosed ecologies, which I’ve started exploring with the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield. These are controlled environments that already exist to varying degrees but are becoming increasingly important within the context of climate change as for the most part they are designed to separate a hostile or undesired outside from a controlled inside. Plans for Dubai’s ‘Mall of the World’ show a major retail and leisure destination that will allow people to consume away, whilst sheltered from the arid heat outside; Chengdu’s existing ‘New Century Global Centre’ enables people to enjoy a beach resort, a replica Mediterranean village, cinemas and shops all with shielded protection from soaring air pollution; but these environments also include spacecraft, submarines, airplanes, Centre Parks, hotel foyers, hotel rooms, trains and offices. It’s another great example of a fantastical future that you’re already living in.
There are a number of concerns that immediately come to mind when I think about these enclosed ecologies. Firstly, would this mark the end of atmospheric commons? Who would control the air and would this button supersede the code to the atomic bomb? How would we deal with the air itself – smell? heat? pollution? Our environments are already regulated, there are people who design and moderate how warm a space should be, what it will smell like, sound like, feel like. In Sheffield I learnt of the vast yet hidden technical management and waste disposal systems behind the air conditioning units that control a single hotel. I guess we just don’t notice until they get it wrong – something I was made acutely aware of on the train home as I sat freezing from someone’s over reaction to the first sunny day of the year. Would we want a breeze or wind even, living in an enclosed ecology? Would it have to be voted on and how would that be managed? I also learnt this week that trees need wind in order to strengthen their branches so they don’t collapse, so the Winter Gardens in Sheffield have fans in the ceiling and harnesses to hold the branches, as they are weak from being inside. How would we evolve in a windless world?
Another thought that fires is about what our sonic worlds would become in these controlled environments? We all know what it’s like being inside buildings made of hard shiny surfaces – imagine being locked inside a shiny glass dome for life! Inescapable sound bouncing around off the hard ceiling you are encapsulated in. Would you ever be able to experience silence again? But then when was the last time you experienced silence – real silence? As I’m writing this now in the early morning sitting on the roof tops in a quiet area of Brighton I can hear cars, buses, seagulls, other birds, someone washing up, a distant car alarm … the list goes on. I was filming in the Atacama Desert in Chile this month, which is the closest I’ve come to silence for a long time. But although there were moments that I think were probably silent, because I have tinnitus I wasn’t able to fully appreciate this – I knew it was there but I couldn’t experience it. This is not by the way meant as a sympathy vote – 1. I was lucky enough to be in the Atacama Desert in the first place and 2. I am fortunate enough to be able to manage it in everyday life, but it made me think about the fact that I’m normally able to manage my tinnitus because of the spectrum of other sounds we are continually immersed in. So I can tune in to all these other sounds and distract my brain – even at night. It also made me recall the fact that it was caused by sonic damage to my ear – a love of music and hence spending too much of my time close to large speakers (a habit I haven’t managed to shake). To me it seems that with both sound and air pollution, we only notice or really care either when it’s gone, or the intensity is at a point where we can’t get on with our daily lives. This month London breached the annual air pollution limit for 2017 in 5 days – why aren’t we more concerned about this? To our individual perception this may seem abstract but it’s the air we’re living in. One of the things I love about the underwater world is how the density of the space makes it impossible to ignore the environment you are held within. In air we feel and hear the breeze when it moves, we sense the sun’s rays when it warms but why are most of us so blissfully unaware of, or at least not too bothered about the pollution of the air we are immersed in?
What I find so conceptually interesting about these controlled environment designs for our urban futures is how they accentuate and therefore call into question what is already here and now. Even in their imagining there is no evasion of where one decides to place the dome. They are an inescapable demarcation of what you want and what you don’t want – to be associated with, to engage with, to be surrounded by. Yet these are decisions that most of us already make to a greater or lesser degree, in the way we go about our everyday lives.