Christina Battle is an artist based in amiskwacîwâskahikan, (also known as Edmonton, Alberta in Canada), within the Aspen Parkland: the transition zone where prairie and forest meet. Christina’s artistic practice focuses on thinking deeply about the concept of disaster: its complexity and the intricacies that are entwined within it.
We recently visited Christina Battle’s exhibition the air we breathe at Gallery 44, Centre for Contemporary Photography in Toronto, which was open from January 6 to February 4, 2023.
In this exhibition, Christina’s work helps to document environmental change and educate the general public about the existence of air pollution in a day-to-day context. Her exhibition included an experimental documentary exploring the complexities of air pollution, weaving together themes and connections between environmental catastrophe, and cultural and political strife. Combining research into air pollution with personal storytelling and speculative imaginings, this project deeply considers the complicated means by which our air impacts us – from the physical effects of pollutants to scent and collective memory.
We asked Christina a few questions about her work on this recent exhibition around air quality awareness and visualization. The exhibition essay written by Nadia Kurd can be read here.
Welcome Christina, and thank you for joining us.
Your work in this exhibit focuses on air pollution and includes not just measuring particulate matter but also its qualitative aspects, such as the smell of the air, its feel in your lungs and the “experience” of breathing. Can you tell us more about the origins of how this exhibition came about?
I had been thinking a lot about air quality since moving back to Edmonton in 2018. I grew up here and always had a lot of difficulty with asthma until I moved away in my early 20s –when I suddenly didn’t have to struggle so much to breathe. Once I returned to Alberta, though, my breathing became something that I needed to pay more attention to again – it was as if my lungs had suddenly become visible to me after being able to ignore them for so long. Breathing and air quality became something I was quite suddenly paying attention to again. I knew I wanted to think deeper about the multitude of ways (often invisible) in which air pollution affects us.
There has been some recent research suggesting that artists during the Industrial Revolution (e.g. Turner) were visualizing air pollution in their work. Do you think pollution should be visually recorded – like in the work of Monet and Turner – more often to highlight its existence?
I love that you bring up this research. The works described in the study remind us that artists have been documenting pollution in their work – it’s the ways in which the works are discussed, analysed and remembered across time that help or hinder the visibility of the discussion. The visualizations are already there, it’s the ways in which we discuss them collectively that I think, needs to shift.
I was watching this wonderful exhibition walkthrough by Kirsty Robertson recently where she discusses her exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston Ontario, which considers air pollution and its impact on our dreams. Through the exhibition, Robertson highlights works from the Agnes’ collection that document air pollution. I found this reflection so refreshing, and much of the work that she is doing at the Centre for Sustainable Curating at Western University invites us to consider the impacts of pollution and climate change as part of art history.
Those are the sorts of re-framings that I think we need to help better articulate and recognize the ways in which artworks have been and continue to document the times and the environments we live in.
I’m really interested in the ways that storytelling and memory can help to make sense of complexity when it comes to disaster and crisis, and how they might help us to ‘connect the dots’ across things that otherwise seem unrelated.CHRISTINA BATTLE, ARTIST
Your exhibition featured tangible “visualizations” of air quality using wax figures, some of which could be taken home by attendees or purchased online. What do these visualizations represent? What lessons are you trying to teach the audience in terms of understanding air pollution and longer-term environmental change through the design of these tangible artifacts?
A big part of the overall work was a participatory project that took place over the summer of 2022 in Edmonton, where I invited 6 artists to think and work alongside me to consider and document the air quality across Edmonton for 4 weeks. We spent time practising how to describe the air in terms of smells and tastes and recorded air quality data collected at monitoring stations across the city (via Alberta Capital Airshed). A number of the prompts I provided to the group also had us considering visibility and memory – how we might first make the air more visible to ourselves, and then how we might recall and remember what we discover.
I’m really interested in the ways that storytelling and memory can help to make sense of complexity when it comes to disaster and crisis, and how they might help us to ‘connect the dots’ across things that otherwise seem unrelated. Making the objects was a nice way for me to think through the data that we were all collecting across the summer – a sort of repetitive act that helped me to make sense of things. I think about the candles and handmade air purifiers offered as gifts in the gallery as both reminders and memory holders – of the exhibition, the information communicated within it, as well as of the visualizations viewers might make on their own as they consider the air into the future.
My hope is that, when used, both the candles and air purifiers might spark conversations around the air that folks are breathing outside of the gallery. I find candles a great way to directly visualize the air itself (as the candles burn and as the beeswax begins to smell) and the purifiers a visual reminder of the invisible particles and pollutants that are moving through the air despite not being able to see them.
Do you have any favorite ways of describing the smell of “good air”? Of “bad air”?
I’m actually really bad at putting smells and tastes into language, which is partly why I’m so interested in practising the act of describing the smell of the air and then comparing it to data that measures the quality of air in quantifiable ways. (I’m ultimately working on a series that tries to look for patterns of connection across the qualitative and quantitative data.)
In the video at the centre of the air we breathe, I recall a story about living near a dog food factory in Denver and how the smell sort of tricks you – at first it always smelled kind of sweet but then turned into a quite putrid smell that you could feel at the back of your throat. I think “bad air” often has that sort of temporal sense of smell – where it seems one way at first before you realize it’s actually quite another thing. It tricks you. Incidentally, the dog food factory in Denver has since been at the centre of a number of air quality reports so it’s nice to know there has more visibility around it.
For some events – a brilliant sunset with many colors or the smell of woodsmoke on a cold winter’s day – do you think it’s possible to change the perception of these into pollution events? (i.e. negative events)
I really think this has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves. How we recall and reflect on pollutants, and how we connect the dots between what we see or smell and what the cause is. Shifting people’s perceptions is tricky, but the more we talk about it, the more we connect those dots for folks and help them see the complexity behind the ways in which pollution makes itself visible, the better understanding people will have. Perhaps then, one day those perceptions will shift.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your experience and your work on air pollution?
Thanks for these great questions!
Thank you Christina for joining us today!
Christina Battle’s exhibit the air we breathe was held at @Gallery44 Centre for Contemporary Photography in Toronto, from January 6 to February 4, 2023. As part of this exhibit, you can send an email postcard about your experience with pollution via THE AIR WE BREATHE: Postcards by Christina Battle. You can learn more about Christina’s work by visiting her website.
Exhibition documentation of the air we breathe by Darren Rigo, Courtesy of Gallery 44.
All photos are used with permission from Gallery 44 unless otherwise specified.