Vasilisa Forbes and Claire Matthews are spearheading the Clean Air Now campaign to raise awareness of how damaging London’s pollution is.
Since before the 1950s, we’ve been aware of the discourse around air pollution. But in spite of that, most people are still unsure of just how harmful pollution really is. That’s a shame, given that pollution levels in the capital are rising once again, causing irreversible, invisible damage to our lungs and hearts. You might also be surprised to hear it’s diesel cars that are one of the most prominent culprits.
As a major emitter of toxic nitrogen gas, our cars are a major contributor to air pollution, and with car manufactures falsifying emissions reports, the motor industry aren’t doing anything to help us breathe easier. All is not lost, however, because a group of young artists are taking a stand and rallying for better emission laws and cleaner air with their Clean Air Now campaign – which, from 15th August, you’ll soon be seeing splashed across billboards and posters all over London.
Multi-media artist Vasilisa Forbes and graphic designer Claire Matthews are the two leading figures behind the campaign. It was after making the unsettling realisation that her walk to work in central London was making her ill that Matthews partnered with Forbes to start the initiative: one which promotes the truth behind our pollution levels and attempts to show just how damaging our toxic air is. As the campaign makes clear, London’s pollution has reached illegal levels (that can cause premature aging illnesses and even premature death) under the Paris Climate Agreement, despite the fact that the solutions to this problem are simpler than you would imagine.
Thanks to Forbes, Matthews, photographer Terry Paul and their team, Clean Air Now is emphasising the important health and environmental truths that were previously covered up, under-reported and even completely denied. What’s more, the campaign’s particularly interested in educating young adults who won’t feel the effects of pollution straight away, but desperately need to know about it.
Wonderland spoke to Forbes about why the campaign is so important, what we can do to help pollution levels and how to take action.
Pollution is a huge issue in London – why is it more important now than ever before to take action?
Air pollution in the city has never stopped being a problem since days of the industrial revolution, even before. The Clean Air Act in the 1950’s was only passed due to the fact the city came to a standstill due to impassable levels of smog where thousands died. “The Government initially resisted pressure to act, and was keen to downplay the scale of the problem due to economic pressures.” Forever the bind between economy vs environment and human wellbeing has held tight and economy has always won, sadly.
Londoners started to become aware again recently of the severity of the city’s air pollution due to the EU air pollution regulations and Paris Climate Agreement. Shocking findings were reported that London had exceeded the WHO and EU Air Quality regulations for 2016 (designed to limit and reduce air pollution) within 1 week of the year starting! Thanks to press such as The Guardian and the The Independent for pointing out these figures, and the lawsuit against the government initiated by Client Earth (for its illegal air pollution levels) which won, the issue of London’s now *illegal* levels of air pollution has come to the fore, and with more awareness there is more urgency – as the facts have finally been revealed. The sad truth is facts were previously covered up, under reported and outright denied. This meant people were just unaware of a killer they couldn’t see or really feel. Once awareness is out there, people can understand that there is a problem worth fighting.
What are the biggest causes of air pollution in the city?
Cars emit the most amounts of dangerous gases in the city also down to the shear number of them, and Diesel cars in particular which emit toxic NOx gas. This is why we geared our campaign angle predominantly towards Diesel cars – as well as it being a more a achievable target than saying ‘ban all cars etc’. Getting a ban on diesel cars would hugely help the issue in an immediate way. Each city has different forms of pollution that affect it but in London it’s most certainly the issue of Diesel cars.
Why is it important that people are aware of the levels of pollution?
To start with its a problem that can be solved, and we have the technology to solve it. We can start to implement a move to electric cars, away from fossil fuels and from burning them. Once people start to become aware that 1) there is an issue and 2) there are sane, sensible and useful ways to solve it then hopefully we can begin to influence a positive ideology that supports this.
We have only been using motor cars commercially since the 1920’s but already over 100 years we’ve seen them take over the world, and cause unmanageable damage, that we are paying the price for. People should be aware due to the way it effects their health, our world and our immediate environment irreversibly. It’s something that immediately affects children growing up in the city, and affects adolescents over time as they grow – so a young adult having grown up in London full-time is greatly at risk of premature ageing, illnesses and even premature death. On your way to work through Oxford Street or hanging out in a pub in Putney Bridge; you’re in areas where, unseen to the naked eye but often felt in the lungs, pollution levels are at a red peak – the worst in Western Europe. It affects people in poorer areas as much as it does people in richer areas, and it hovers over everything. Even if you leave the city later in life for a cleaner Canadian sky, you’ll still carry that early polluted life with you – and it shouldn’t be this way! Not when we can, so easily, change things for the better.
How did you come to work with Claire Matthews and Terry Paul on the campaign? Where did the idea come from?
Claire is a great old friend of mine from school so we know each other well. I told Claire at her recent art exhibition that I was planning on doing a new series that focused on air pollution. Claire immediately jumped on the idea – and said it was something she’d had on her mind for ages particularly since starting a job in Tottenham Court Road – where she resorted to buying nose-plugs to ward off the horrible fumes she encountered daily. It was the turning point for Claire then – realising walking to work was actually making her ill. With our determination joining us together, we pushed on towards initiating the campaign and Claire’s drive and research-led angle made our campaign become more of a political, activist campaign as opposed to an ambiguous art campaign. I’m so glad we took a serious route with our imagery and kept it simple and impactful. Terry Paul I connected with online and we immediately loved his work. He had a superbly atmospheric, dark and minimalist style that I felt would be most suited to the kind of images we wanted to create. And he was a legend to work with – determined, on point and brilliantly smart with his photographic technique – and adaptable to the fact I wanted him to shoot about 35 people in 2 hours.
Why do you think billboards and street art are the best way of communicating the issue?
I had the opportunity of using the billboards following on from my previous series ‘Waxchick’ which placed faux sexist advertisements on billboards to discuss feminism and the issue of sexist advertising. It’s become a formula / style of mine so it does follow on from previous campaigns. It made sense to push this campaign with the same approach. The billboards, due to their size and scale, their placement, and their ability to hold large images means they are a great way to talk about this issue – they hover over London just like the pollution itself and will hopefully reach people who live in areas with strong pollution who may be driven to act on and support change. It also creates a striking impact and greater ‘legitimacy’ which is sadly needed for a project like this where people would prefer to ignore the issue due to the frightening prospects – but this is positive – our prospects aren’t frightening if we know people are doing this, it means we can finally start to drive change from individual campaigns like change.org – individuals without sponsorship from brands can finally start making a difference with their drive and determination!
Who is the campaign targeted at and how can they get involved in the campaign?
We would like to reach people who aren’t already aware or even if they are aware, they aren’t already ‘convinced’ that this is a problem. people who are aged 16-30: young adults and professionals in the city and millennials with their busy, young lives who don’t feel threatened by this because they’re in their prime and unaware of the dangers (unlike young children or old citizens who are physically affected more immediately). Also young Internet-era adults like ourselves and those who seem to care vaguely about environmental issues but without much understanding or drive to act yet. Those that know things go on but have no further incentive to do anything or say anything or even think much on the subject – we want to engage and make them stop and go – ‘oh right, there’s a problem’ and maybe even get them to sign up to Greenpeace.
Your billboards will be put up in Bethnal Green first and then other areas of London including Peckham and London Bridge – why did you choose those areas?
It was partly due to those being the areas I was able to get hold of for billboards but also because they are good target areas with busy, bustling streets – high levels of pollution and a strong mix of citizens from different backgrounds – to get the message across to a powerfully broad range of people!
For more information about the campaign and join the argument visit cleanairnow.org.uk
Words: Annabel Lunnon