Mapping the Air

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Mapping the Air is a project by artist Rachel Chapman with environmental mycologist Jane Nicklin, where airborne spores that are trapped on people's clothing are extracted and cultivated to generate ecological 'maps' that begin to explore the interwoven relationships between landscape, weather and human intervention.

Atmospheric spores
Living particles, especially fungal spores, pollen grains and bacteria, are common in the atmosphere. Mapping the Air is concerned with collecting atmospheric fungal spores gathered from clothing. Through examining the types and numbers of different species collected, the trajectory of a person’s journey can be traced revealing aspects of the ecology of the environment the clothing has travelled through. Collating the spore collections from a selection of people on a given day generates a kind of ecological ‘map’ of the air for that particular day, interrelated to the topography of the land.
Breathing in
Most fungal spores are harmless when we inhale them. Our immune systems safely remove them from sinuses and lungs. Some however can cause allergic reactions with symptoms like hay fever and asthma. Some species such as types of Aspergillus and Penicillium are very easily blown around and are commonly found in samples of atmospheric spores.
Weather and climate
The prevalence of individual fungal species follows a seasonal pattern, determined by activities on the land in combination with changes in weather conditions and climate: fungi are dependent on a food source to survive, this may range, for example from expansive grasslands or crops, to the deciduous vegetation in parks and gardens of cities. Rain collects spores as it falls, effectively cleansing the air, whilst dry, arid conditions encourage many species of fungi to produce spores.
Airstreams
Blown about in airstreams high above the ground, spores of all kinds are strewn across the land, sometimes at great distances from where they originated. Whilst most spores are deposited within 100 miles of their point of release, some can travel thousands of miles, blown across political borders so that they may originate in one country but land in another. For example it is now widely suggested that foot and mouth disease arrived in Britain in 2001 on a cloud of infected dust blown in from the Sahara. There is also much research currently being done in Britain to determine if airborne microbes may be influencing patterns of climate and weather by evolving ways of triggering cloud formation and rainfall to facilitate their own dispersal and reproduction.
Potatoes and madness
Moulds and other fungi have historically played a large scientific and cultural role in world events. Moulds were responsible for the Irish Famine, reportedly for the ‘madness’ of the Salem witches and for the medical condition St Anthony’s Fire. Penicillin and LSD are both made from moulds and yeasts ferment wine and beer. Fungi is also responsible for the decomposition and recycling of organic and manmade wastes, for example compost heaps, and they control pests and diseases.

 

The Mapping the Air project was kindly supported by
Birkbeck, University of London

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