Project focus | Adrian Lahoud: Climate Crimes

Adrian Lahoud's large-scale immersive video installation, featured in the exhibition, explores the complex relationship between air pollution and the migration of refugees. It illustrates how atmospheric particles originating in the wealthy nations of the global north – Europe, USA, China, and others impact the global south, contributing to desertification and migration.

The research builds on an event that took place during the 2009 UN climate change conference, where Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping argued that industrialisation in these regions in the global north was contributing to 'climate genocide' in Africa.

Screengrabs from Adrian Lahoud's video installation 'Climate Crimes'

At the centre of this project lies atmospheric data gathered by satellites, which can now measure with great accuracy the cause and effect of pollution, tracing its path through the air, and its disruption of the Earth's climate system, taking the form of drought, flood and fire. This connection is made explicit through the digital video projected onto a large dome, like a planetarium, in the exhibition. Visitors are invited to lie down on a seating wedge, to be immersed in the video, enveloping their field of vision.

By making these connections between the very small scale of particles, the very large scale of climate change, and identifying those people trapped in between, Climate Crimes invites a new kind of planetary consciousness; an empathy for the victims of an unthinking climate, that disregards national borders. It redefines the idea of responsibility, illustrating that there is no 'away', we are all connected. And ultimately, it asks, how might we design for such contexts?

There is a strange sympathy between the atmospheric particles that float through the sky and the human beings who migrate across the ground and then across the sea. Each body sets the other into motion: the particle bodies flow from north to south; the human bodies move from south to north.

Adrian Lahoud, Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, London
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'Climate Crimes' in Adrian Lahoud's own words

Using an environment to tell a story about the environment
Climate change occurs in the periphery of our vision, at the limits of our sensorium and understanding. It's slow, it's almost invisible, it occurs at multiple temporal and spatial scales simultaneously. This is why climate science and climate visualisation are so important as fields of aesthetic production: they are able to generate new sensibilities and imaginaries. But they are also limited by the tyranny of screen culture, of framing – literally, by screens – and the modes of attention that this framing allows. In other words, the hypothesis of this project is that you have to use an environment to tell a story about an environment. That is, to create a situation where the experience of the space within the gallery creates a new correspondence with the space being represented.

Exhibition views of Adrian Lahoud's video installation 'Climate Crimes'

Moving between representation and experience
This is achieved in two ways. Firstly, the use of a hemispherical dome creates an ambient condition in which attention is liberated – the frame is simply the horizon of the space. I hope that other kinds of sensations and forms of intelligibility are allowed to emerge because of this freedom. Secondly, the dome is made up of 96 triangular panels, which is exactly what you are not supposed to do if you want to treat the dome as a screen, because the screen surface is supposed to be imperceptible. Here, the image is camera-mapped onto each panel using a hemispherical projection system so that content on each of the 96 panels can be isolated. The idea is that the image hovers and oscillates between a representation of another space and the experience of the architectural space in the gallery. This is really a more technically advanced version of an effect common in architecture, such as a fresco painted on the underside of a dome, incorporating various mouldings and decorative features within the image. One might think of this project as a kind of secular cosmology, an animated fresco.

Screengrab from Adrian Lahoud's video installation 'Climate Crimes'

The content of the voice over and the narrative of the various animations and visualisations tell a story about the idea of scale in climate change, especially the way that scientific arguments and political arguments become inseparable. The example is the global average temperature increase, something that has become a kind of shorthand used to structure much public debate around climate change. My contention is that framing debate in terms of global averages, obscures some of the specific, concrete effects of climate change in important ways.

To explain this, I draw on some research that looks at the effects of aerosol dispersion on drying in the Sahel, the desert region in the north of Africa. The fascinating thing about aerosols, and what makes them so fiendishly difficult to understand, is that they are all unique. Unlike CO2, which is long-lived and fairly described in terms of global averages, aerosol dispersion has a particular morphology and spatio-temporal structure – a specific scale in other words – that resists being absorbed into global or planetary scaled arguments. They force us to make arguments at the scale of specific people in specific regions, and so they embody a completely different kind of politics.

This politics erupted into view during the Copenhagen Climate Conference when the Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping accused the G20 of 'climate genocide'. The title of this project, 'Climate Crimes', pays tribute to this heroic moment of political intervention. But it also goes further, by claiming that climate models are not only a medium of decision making about the future, but also a future archive of evidence for present crimes.


Film content design: Michaela French; Dome development: Kamil Dalkir; Engineering: AKT II; Steel fabrication: Factory Settings; Technical animation: NSC Creative; Technical partners: GaiaNova; Sound design: Mike Wyeld; Dome geometry: Spyros Efthymiou, Fanos Katsaris, Necdet Yağiz Özkan
Supported by Royal College of Art

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