We've all seen countless headlines about Beijing's airpocalypse and photos of the gray haze of pollution that hangs over the city on a typical day. But a new art project makes the problem a little more visceral for those of us who aren't there: By turning smog data into music, Brian Foo—a.k.a. the Data Driven DJ—wants to help listeners feel the dirty air.
"I wanted to create an experience that gives listeners an emotional response and intuitive understanding of the levels of pollution Beijing residents are exposed to on a short- and long-term basis," says Foo. "As for the sounds of the song, I wanted to emulate the feeling of slowly being surrounded by a cloud of smog."
The song, built using samples from a Nine Inch Nails track, follows the path of particulate pollution in Beijing over the last three years. With every beat, the song adds data from a new day, and the music video adds new dots to show where the smog lands on an air quality chart. For each reading above 50 parts per cubic meter—the point at which the pollution poses a health risk—the sounds and dots stick around longer.
"As more and more particles accumulate, more and more instruments are added to the song," Foo says. "At the peak levels of pollution, the song succumbs to a deluge of instrument sounds. The song only 'clears up' after continuous days that are considered good or moderate. I chose this approach because someone's health generally isn't affected by one particular day of bad pollution, but prolonged exposure over time."
For Foo, who has also written songs tracking income inequality on the New York City subway and the brain waves of a child suffering an epileptic seizure, music was a way to give a fresh perspective on China's pollution.
"I believe music is good at connecting with people on an emotional level," he says. "This is a great medium for important social or environmental issues because a song can communicate intuitively and viscerally the human impact of such issues, thus increasing empathy. Songs are also good at spreading ideas quickly."
As he worked on the project, he realized how serious Beijing's challenge is. "I knew it was bad, but I didn't know the extent of how bad it was," he says. "There were days that exceeded the Air Quality Index, which tops off at 500, and very few days within the recommended standard. I find my heart beat a bit faster every time I listen to the song."