Last February, at St+art India’s open-air street art festival in Delhi’s Tughlakabad area, a work by prominent Indian street artist Daku caught my eye: the word “BREATHE” stretched in simple black letters across the length of a white wall. It was a nod to the fact that the noxious Delhi air makes it one of the most polluted cities in the world, but “breathe” also had more hopeful allusions: the work’s ink was abstracted from PM2.5 (particulate matter, a type of atmospheric pollution), the heavy presence of which makes the city’s air so dangerous to breathe. The ink had been sourced from Chakra Shield, a device used to convert soot in the air into inks and paints. The shield is the brainchild of three IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) engineering alumni, whose interest in the environment and solving problems related to sustainable development culminated in their start-up, Chakra Innovations. And they’re not alone in the pursuit to transform pollutants into paints. The heavily polluted skies in his home city of Delhi similarly inspired designer and engineer Anirudh Sharma to co-found Graviky Labs, the award-winning Bangalore-based collaborative which also converts carbon pollution into a usable pigment called AIR-INK.
A growing number of artists today are incorporating transformative material into their designs and producing artwork which serves as corollary to global discussions regarding climate change and environmental degradation. Mexican installation artist Alejandro Duran’s site-specific rainbow sculptures, from the series Washed Up, uses objects from all over the world that have come to shore in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere along a stretch of Mexican coastline, drawing attention to the catastrophic consequences of ocean pollution and “colonization by consumerism.” Other such “green artists” include architects Amanda Schacter and Alexander Levi, whose Harvest Dome was assembled from 450 umbrellas and 128 bottles and floated in the inlet of a New York City park in 2011. This piece of performance architecture demonstrated the potential reuse of garbage while bringing attention to the city’s waterways.
These two examples function more as visual responses to environmental issues, with awareness-building as a central goal. Other artists, designers, and engineers are attempting to identify and implement more long-term sustainable solutions. Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde and his team, for instance, created the world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner, the Smog Free Tower in Beijing, which also figures amongst the most polluted urban spaces in the world. The team created jewelry from the collected pollution as a way to garner funds to bring the project to more cities. Two Pittsburgh-based artists, Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry, established the Land Art Generator Initiative, which brings together artists, architects, landscape architects, and other creatives with scientists and engineers. Together they produce designs for public art structures that function as sustainable energy solutions while simultaneously inspiring and educating viewers in their capacity as public art. In a current project in Kenya they are working with Maasai women of Olorgesailie, who are assuming leadership in designing renewable energy installations for their homesteads. The overall goal is to utilize local materials to create renewable energy projects and design functional art objects that reflect the women’s culture and vision for the future.
John Sabraw. Courtesy of the artist
One artist who envisions a viable long-term solution to a specific environmental issue is artist and academic John Sabraw. Sabraw, who now creates paintings wrought from toxic sludge, moved to southern Ohio several years ago, where he discovered local streams deeply hued in orange, red, and brown. He learned that these colors originate mainly from iron-oxide, which happens to be the same raw material used to make many paint pigments; in this case, though, the material was arising from polluted water in abandoned coal mines. “I thought it would be fantastic to use this toxic flow to make paintings rather than with imported iron oxide,” he said. “It turned out that environmental engineer and fellow Ohio University professor Guy Riefler had already been working to create viable pigment from this toxic sludge so we began collaborating.” Sabraw brought his knowledge of what constituted a good pigment to Riefler and his team, but the artist was also interested in extracting beauty from these polluted waters. “We needed an expressive visual demonstration that tells the pigment’s story,” he said. This impulse led to Chroma, a series of paintings consisting of distinctively marbled and hued circles, almost resembling planets from a distant galaxy.
Some of the seeps Sabraw and his collaborators work with release over one million gallons per day of polluted water into Ohio streams, causing the water to ultimately have a pH level below 2 and carry over 2,000 pounds of iron daily—the equivalent of what Sabraw says is junking a car in the stream every day. “The underlying idea behind the collaboration was to intercept the toxic acid mine drainage before it reaches the streams, neutralize the acidity, extract the iron oxide, and then release the now clean and safe water back to the stream,” he outlines. Once the dissolved iron oxide is separated from the water and turned into pigment, it is made into paint and used as any other paint would be used.
Sabraw suggests that all is intertwined: the art, the paint, and the streams from which the pigments are derived, which connect to other waterways and eventually the ocean. What appears to be a local issue has global ramifications. “That’s what my artwork is about. Each of these micro events I have chosen to explore in my art help me to understand better my connection to everything else and perhaps what more I can do to benefit the whole system,” he says.
The artist also emphasizes a search for a long term solution, saying that they are starting to refine a process which will continuously treat acidic mine drainage, restore streams for aquatic life, and collect sustainably-sourced iron pigment which can be sold, offsetting operational costs for the next century or longer. “We should be able to create employment and produce a small profit while eliminating a perpetual pollution source,” he says, adding that they have just secured funding for a pilot facility to demonstrate the process at a field site and begin producing large quantities of pigment.
The Graviky Labs Team: (from left) Nitesh, Anirudh, Nikhil and Nisheeth
While Sabraw and his collaborators are performing an alchemy of sorts transforming toxins into art materials, Anirudh Sharma and the Graviky Labs team in Bangalore are creating both a tool and material which will facilitate the art-making while stopping air pollution particulates at the source. Sharma came up with the idea of capturing pollution and repurposing it to use as ink as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, back in 2013 before returning to India where he set up the Labs with Nikhil Kaushik and Nitesh Kadyan. “We thought, what if we could use it as a pigment for coloring? We then tied up with several designers, artists, chemists, and automobile experts to make this a reality,” says Kaushik. The team’s first pilot took place in Hong Kong last year in collaboration with Tiger Beer. Since then the inks have been distributed amongst artists in Singapore and London, and the team is working to bring the product to market (they have 2,000 preordered units to date).
Having seen measures taken to address India’s increasingly polluted skies, they observed how responses to the problem were lacking community-engagement and bottom-up strategies. “We saw the potential of creating a community-driven approach where individuals take a pro-active approach of first reducing their own carbon footprint and then engage with the solution of recycling air pollution into something really useful such as inks,” says Kaushik.
AIR-INK mural in Hong Kong
Thus they developed the Kaalink, a device that can be fitted onto the exhaust pipe of a car or portable diesel generator and collects the soot from burning fossil fuels. Following a detoxifying process, which removes heavy metals and carcinogens, the soot metamorphoses into a purified carbon-based pigment which is processed further to become a variety of inks and paints. “Developing a hardware ground up and integrating it with vehicles and generators is not the easiest of tasks to complete within Indian ecosystem,” Kaushik admits. “Sourcing of materials, logistics, and movement of goods are other difficult issues to tackle.”
The team points out that they are not just recycling material into inks; they are also replacing the need for elemental carbon that otherwise would have been used to make black inks. “The artists in the meantime have been using it a lot for street art, screen printing, and canvas painting, to name a few approaches,” says Nikhil. “There are several ongoing engagements with community via AIR-INK. We also recently finished an art event in Dubai with footfall of several thousands.”
Courtesy of Graviky Labs
Kaushik says that making these inks from pollution is their art, which then happens to become a medium for other artists to create their own masterpieces: “We instinctively gravitated towards working with artists to take AIR-INK out to the world as they are the first adopters for new technology and materials giving different meanings and expressions to connect technology to masses in their own unique ways.”
Having produced over 1,000 liters of ink and purifying some 1.7 trillion liters of air so far, their upcoming plans include setting up a pilot phase for the Kaalink across the state of New Delhi. Coming back full circle to the city whose doom-laden skies were the source of inspiration, Graviky Labs seeks to reduce air pollution while creating art from what they refuse to see as waste.
Priyanka Sacheti is a Bangalore-based writer and an editor at Mashallah News. She writes on art, gender, environment, culture, and heritage for various publications. An author of three poetry volumes, she’s currently working on a novella. She also explores the intersection of her writing and photography at her instagram: @iamjustavisualperson and tweets at @priyankasacheti.
(Image at top: Courtesy of Graviky Labs)