Airchitecture: Guarded Breaths and the [cough]
Art of Ventilation

Jim Drobnick  

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 engineering achievements, is intimately connected with the current problematic state of the metropolitan environment – as a both a contributor to and solution for global warming and rising levels of toxic emissions. 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 an enabling framework for social relations, a precondition of comfort that plays a necessary but subservient role. In the practice of several contemporary artists working with the non-visual senses, air conditioning takes prominence as a mechanical apparatus for the diffusion of artworks as well as an object of ethical scrutiny.

      Air conditioning’s origin and history parallels the development of modernist architecture and its artworld correlate – the white cube. All three employ a similar, disciplinary operation, whether it is in the interest of controlling the climate, streamlining a building’s form, or focusing attention on the purely optical.1 In each a reductive process occurs that diminishes sensory experience, however different may be the rationalizations of efficiency, sanitization, aesthetic purity, and so on. The white cube is perhaps the acme of such reductions, for its calm, silent, shadowless, deodorized interior expressly relinquishes the fullness of the sensory spectrum for a modernist privileging of visual rapture. For artists critiquing or seeking alternatives to the singularity of the modernist paradigm, the inodorateness provided by air conditioning ironically creates a tabula rasa that is ideal for olfactory experimentations. Even though air conditioning harbors an intolerance for the olfactory, the technology can just as easily be adapted to disperse as to eliminate odors. In the white cube, viewers must inhale as well as look, and since air is the medium and conveyor of smells, the act of breathing becomes charged with meaning.2

      The artists that I will discuss below strategically intervene into the air space of galleries and museums and make the normally invisible presence of air conditioning manifest. These artists engage in an art of ventilation that defamiliarizes air conditioning’s habitual use, challenges its technological assumptions, and contemplates the olfactory (and sometimes thermal) affects of indoor atmospheres.3  

Microclimates: Air Impurification

At the micro level, where individuals experience the immediate indoor environment, the effects of air conditioning are the most personal. The atmosphere circulated throughout the rooms of a building is designed to create optimal conditions for comfort and productivity,4 but such benevolent intentions do not guarantee universal appreciation. The question that continually arises regarding controlled climates is: Who will be in control – engineers or users? The predominantly industrial applications to which air conditioning was applied in its formative years, like tobacco processing factories or textile mills, facilitated the subtle authoritarianism of engineering. Rational design, dependable performance, mechanical precision, uniform consistency – these characteristics were the main selling points of an emerging artificial climate sector that aimed to instrumentalize the atmosphere. The achievement of standardized climatic conditions, however, relied upon the passive acceptance of technical authority. The engineering ideal focused primarily on measurable phenomena such as temperature, humidity levels and ventilation rates, and ignored more complex, contextual factors such as individual preferences, cultural circumstances, and adaptability.5 Here the quantitative trumped the qualitative as engineering professionals crafted their concept of atmospheric perfection in a laboratory environment, which subsequently legitimated the establishment of quasi-laboratory conditions in the daily milieus of home and work.6

      Critics and even some advocates of air conditioning noted the fallacy of optimal conditions. Lewis Mumford, for instance, saw little difference between environmental and psychological conditioning.7 Even as air conditioning was being touted as a liberation from the vicissitudes of the weather, it nevertheless enforced a dubious sense of conformity. Henry Miller, in The Air Conditioned Nightmare, considered air conditioning to be a subtle form of authoritarianism that threatened to asphyxiate individuality and freedom.8 Other critics noted the downside to a completely regulated climate – “thermal monotony [and] sensory deprivation.”9 By homogenizing the indoor environment, functionality and convenience were gained, but variation – and the potential for sensory stimulation that accompanied it – were sacrificed.10

      Into this domain enter artists who, in the language of the air conditioning industry, would be considered “irrational” users. Their non-normative ventilation projects go against the grain of legislated functions and deliberately introduce olfactory distractions that conventional air conditioning seeks to eradicate. Artistic microclimates utilizing perfumes and synthetic scents disrupt the deodorized sanctity of the white cube and challenge standardized notions of air quality by practicing what could be called air impurification.

      New York-based artist Peter Hopkins gravitated toward ventilation projects through the medium of painting. At first, perfume supplemented the use of pigments, then supplanted them altogether. Performances and installations followed that activated the entire ethereal ambiance of the gallery, where he would spray perfumes into the air, diffuse scents through ventilation ducts and holes in the wall, or intensify the experience of certain non-gallery spaces, like apartments, with the strategic application of fragrances. For Hopkins, air conditioning is harnessed not only as a conveyance for his perfume-based artworks, but is also the means to draw attention to what is perhaps the basic and essential element of the everyday environment – air. Contrary to the standard of deodorized air circulating in most buildings, the artist purposefully corrupts the atmosphere to produce a volatilized art. Perfume, often considered the most complex of olfactory creations, provides a counterexample to visualist concepts of beauty, and charges the space with an ephemeral affect.

      This type of disembodied art in a dematerialized medium disrupts the implicit overdetermination of space by architectural narratives. Besides challenging the

deodorized ethos of the gallery space, Hopkins also critically intervenes into subways, stairwells, apartments and other building sites with random acts of perfuming. Such spraying in unexpected places, without forewarning, renders these acts subtle and radical at the same time: they almost could be called perfume terrorism, not because they cause bodily harm, but because they hijack the public’s breathing space. Just as much as architectural features contain and package volumes of air, buildings also discipline the types of behavior that occur within their boundaries. Hopkins’ aestheticization of the atmosphere subverts the sanitizing dictates of air conditioning by converting standardized air masses into ones redolent with unanticipated heterogeneity and difference. His perfume diffusions might appear to be linked to the practice of environmental fragrancing – in which scents are vented into offices, factories and retail outlets to achieve specific aims such as increasing workers’ productivity, calming down prisoners, manipulating shoppers, or masking unwanted odors – but carry none of its instrumentalist motives. Without serving a distinct functional purpose, the artist however does maintain an explicit intention: to surprise and awaken individuals to an aromatic experientiality that can reconfigure habitual relationships between body, self, city and society. Such strange yet exhilarating sensations depend as much upon their uncanniness and “aura of indecipherability” (as Anthony Vidler terms it11) as upon scent’s ability to derepress seemingly supernatural or oneiric states of consciousness.12

      In Hopkins’ perfumed rooms, noses supplant eyes as the privileged conduits for information and aesthetic sensibility. As fragranced air greets visitors from behind, below, above, and all around, there is no direct relationship to the art, only immersion. The surreptitious scents engage on an almost subliminal level, catching passersby while in states of vulnerable distraction. Underdetermined by language and visual representation, scents can destabilize fixed classifications and architectural schemas with their erratic play of associations. Instead of just freshening the air, the artist fosters adventurous and disorienting experiences of alterity. Taking advantage of air conditioning’s technology, yet seeking to liberate occupants from its normative influence, Hopkins unleashes atmospheric effects that critique the alienation of utilitarian architecture and seeks to transform the lived quality of everyday life. In this sense, the most threatening aspect of scents to the standards of air conditioning is not that they contravene the obsessive law of deodorization; its radicality, rather, is that the freedom and playfulness inherent to their volatile state offers an opening onto an unmoored and inexplicable ecstasies, perhaps even to the experience of an olfactory sublime.13