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Something in the Air

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Mixed media artwork depicting a large and detailed diorama. The scene is rich in details of angel wings, bubble, topographical contour lines, coloured geometric orbs, and a multitude of other shapes and objects. The basis of the artwork is black and white in tone, but it is punctuated by brightly coloured objects and elements, in tones of yellows, blues, pinks, reds and greens.
Virtual Atmosphere, a Diorama. © Michael Salu for Wellcome Collection.

In recent years, the climate crisis has forced us to acknowledge the fact that we depend upon a chemical atmosphere that can change and is changing. Meanwhile, two years of living with an airborne virus has demonstrated how the seemingly empty space around us can be saturated with threat.

But while each crisis has affected everyone, they have done so in drastically different ways: enriching, immiserating, and killing according to predictable patterns. Indeed, if Covid and the climate crisis have taught us one thing, it is that air is always a political space: that is, one in which some interests are better represented than others.

In March 2020, the philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote about the urgent need to assert a “universal right to breathe”. And yet what more than George Floyd’s last words, uttered just a few weeks later, could more poignantly demonstrate the extent to which equal access to life’s most fundamental requirements still remains an aspiration?