At the nexus between art and environmentalism, few products stand out with the immediate appeal of Beijing’s kite-string smog warning devices.
This device, as enchanting as it is effective, will appeal to the child in all of us. Which is no doubt why FLOAT Beijing was nominated to INDEX: Award, the largest bi-annual award in the world for “designs that improve life”.
Issued from Denmark, under the sheltering wing of the His Royal Highness The Crown Prince of Denmark, the €500,000- (Euro, or $664,628-dollar) prize is the result of 12 international judges (in art/design, eco-concept, and business) voting for the most artistic examples of sustainability in five categories: Body, Home, Work, Play and Community.
Winners in each category receive €100,000 Euros ($132,925). It’s a fair amount of money but nothing sensational; no competitor expects to be able to retire on it. What winning really does is open doorways in both the arts and business which help these eco-friendly, artistic entrepreneurs find funding for current (and future) projects in sustainable artisanship.
The entries are judged on their ability to rectify the big problems humanity faces in the 21st Century and beyond. One of these challenges is global warming, a.k.a. greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide which drive climate change. Another is the effect that internal combustion engines have on the air in large cities like Beijing, Mexico City, Shanghai and Karachi, Pakistan.
Beijing is a prime example. City dwellers often wear masks every time they go outside. On the worst days, when the smog is as dense as smoke from a forest fire, many people even wear their masks inside offices and shops, as happened in January of this year when Beijing’s air quality index went from “unhealthy” (150 on the Air Pollution Index, or API) to hazardous (300 API) and finally to “beyond index” (more than 500 API).
To understand how dangerous this mounting pollution is in terms of human health, it’s important to recognize that the smallest particles – the ones which the lungs and respiratory system can’t filter – reached 330 micrograms per cubic meter of air on January 13, or 40 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization. At this level, illnesses ranging from asthma to cancer, and including rheumatoid arthritis, are caused or exacerbated (more often the latter).
Smog is also a major cause of certain birth defects called neural tube deficits. Neural tube development takes place in the third week of pregnancy. When the tube does not close properly, defects like anencephaly (babies born with only part of the brain, or none) and spina bifida, or spinal malformation, occur.
The kite-string smog warning devices are the work of Xiaowei Wang, who collaborated with fellow art student Deren Guler (both from the Harvard Graduate School of Design) to create this public art/air pollution warning device, which in the best tradition of environmental art provides a forum where both the artists and the observers can communicate their feelings about the meaning and purpose of individual art forms. Beyond that, the kites contribute their own observations, albeit electronically: pink for poor air quality, green for healthy.
Fortunately for Wang and Guler, the residents of Beijing are very much ‘into’ kite flying, and many of them got involved in the air pollution-monitoring aspect of the pastime, happily modifying their kites to act as mobile air quality detection devices – which isn’t all that surprising, when one considers that kite flying is Beijing’s biggest and oldest form of fair-weather recreation. In fact, spring brings out so many families, each with its homemade kite (or a simple plastic triangle purchased at t he last minute), that places like the Temple of Heaven Park get as crowded as a July 4th fireworks display in the United States.
For Wang and Guler and other best-of-show finalists, the prize beyond money is that their inspirations will be on display in the 2013 world tour. In the eight years since its inception, the INDEX: Awards has evaluated 3,600 nominations from more than 80 nations bent on improving the fabric of society from an environmental point of view. For 2013, the panel of judges considered more than 1022 nominations from 73 countries.
According to Patrick Frick, one of the judges as well as a partner at Social Investors, FLOAT – the official name of the smog-monitoring kite program – is more than a sustainable art milieu. In fact, if you want to understand the scope, think Kickstarter on steroids combined with the Chinese love of display, whether kites or lights or dragon fights, and you will have a true sense of INDEX: Awards aim.