Representing the creative future

Is the air you breathe affecting the art you make?

Ayesha Tan-Jones's project is inherently political and an effort to make a difference in climate change.

Living in any big capital – London, New York, Paris, Beijing – doesn’t come without repercussions. What it does come with, is a whole load of polluted air particles gnawing their way into your lungs. Not a very attractive analogy, one does admit, but truthful nonetheless. How should we young creatives deal with the wall of unclean oxygen – will it eventually affect us physically and our practises? Exploring this pressing topic in depth is Ayesha Tan-Jones, a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins’ BA Fine Art course. She recently launched a film that may at first seem like a hyperbolic depiction of our current situation, but really is just a quite accurate anticipation of how our late capitalist system may at some point profit from selling us clean air – something which should be a given, a right, not a privilege. We had a chat with Ayesha to see how our generation could come to terms with what’s happening through art, and breathe easy.


First off, I would like to know your ideas on the importance of political art. Nowadays it feels like a particular ‘hook’, especially for art or fashion press, to categorise things as such, with the general climate we’re currently in. How much weight do you feel is given to this ‘angle’ at CSM? Is political enquiry pushed and stimulated?

I think that all art is political – the very act of making art is politics. The reason I chose to make art and music over anything else, was so that I could share my political/spiritual views in an accessible and interesting way. I have been surrounded by politics my whole life. I come from a family of left-wing politicians, who all made huge strides in the North West of England. I naturally rebelled against the life of a politician, spending most of my childhood sitting in the corners of dull council meetings and crusading around rural villages, canvassing leaflets and getting chased by dogs owned by Tories. But only recently did I come to understand that I never escaped the political voice. It followed me through my music and art making, and now I realise that you don’t need to be voted into the council to have the platform to create change in people’s minds: we have the world at our fingertips and our own stage through our art, music and social media. That said, we still need to go out and talk to our local councillors, MPs and government to see the change in action.

CSM is a place that cradles you and your ideas, whether they are political, conceptual, physical etc etc. As with most fine art courses across the world, you must start with your own seed, plant it, and the institution waters it, feeds it, nurtures it into a realised project. But like I said, all art is political in my opinion.

When did you first become aware of the whole air pollution schtick? And why did you decide to express this artistically?

It began a few years back, in 2012/13 when I was exploring a character/alter ego for an art project, Una jynxx. She was a 16 year old mystic blogger, who posted Youtube meditation videos and would pour out her soul on camera for the internet. Through her, I realised how spiritually suffocated I felt in London. Coming from the countryside, I was constantly yearning for fields and trees. This manifested over a period of months where I found it physically hard to breathe, having to consciously remember to inhale deep. Upon introspection, I realised this block was not only a spiritual block, but also down to my environment, our environment. I used to think it was funny to get off the train in North England after a day trip to London, and find black boogers in my nose! But now I realise that it’s not jokes, it’s literally us breathing in fat particles of pollution!By this point I was already working on a new art project with another alter ego: Indigo Zoom. I had an image my mind, a genderless anarchist who was trying to break out the suffocating city. The project fused with my concerns for our environment and evolved into a hyper-real dystopian fantasy, set in an alternative reality where the oxygen is too toxic to breathe. My work is vibrant, hallucinogenic, radically trance-like and pulls the viewers deep into the world that I have created. I believe that showing this potential reality through a magical narrative allows the message to connect with people on a profound level, and stick in their minds for a long time, and hopefully people will walk away from the experienced feeling energised to fight the fight, and do the work to prevent this climate disaster!

Tell me a little bit about your oxygen masks. Why did you make these? Do you actually use it in daily life? I have considered buying one, as I cycle, but it’s a little hard to decide as most are so aesthetically unpleasing.

In the film, Yonivel have created a line of ‘Oxy Masks’ that are moulded to your face, giving you a streamlined breathing system “bringing you closer to nature”. They are only for the elite. In real life I have not yet turned these into a working air filter mask, although this is something I am working on. Hopefully soon I will be able to take bookings to mould people’s faces and create them their own personalised pollution filter mask. At my solo show, alongside the premier of Indigo Zoom, I had a merch table, selling “The Daily Mist” newspapers, posters, and real life working pollution filter masks, which I customised with the Yonivel logo. I use this mask most days in London, I feel naked without it now. Walking out of my house onto Green Lanes in Harringay, the longest high street in the UK, you are hit with a wall of pollution, you can see it in the air. If I don’t wear a mask, I take only tiny little inhales until I get to the tube, which, to be honest, is probably just as polluted!

I also wear the mask as an act of protest. You stand out when you wear the mask. I hear people talk about it when I walk away. The simple act of wearing a pollution mask around the city is just as effective as holding a banner at a march. We need more conversation around this topic. Maybe if we keep making ugly oxygen masks, it will encourage the fashion industry – the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas and pollution emissions, next to oil – to become more sustainable.

Do you reckon the oxygen mask wearing is linked to cultural development? In highly polluted regions of China it seems more commonplace to wear a mask (when you’re not cycling), but in London I rarely see anybody doing this.

China has been in a state of emergency regarding pollution for many years longer than London, due to its big industries and international export. I come from Chinese heritage, and we are people who value health and cleanliness, prosperity and abundance. People in China are probably more aware of the implications that the toxic air has on their health, so actively strive to prevent their lungs from the pollution. I think Londoners are not as in tune with their bodies and health, and our egos allow us to overcome things without thinking about the long term effects.

Ha, yes. Linked to that: I’m sure you have a good number of facts that many of us young creatives don’t quite know. Last week, a radio program of BBC pointed out that pollution in London is actually higher than in Beijing, but nowhere is it really seriously dealt with in media or policy.

We need to stop thinking that these issues only happen far away in China. We need to stop shifting the blame overseas. We need to recognise that we have become a dirty system and that we are poisoning our air. Our government is very good at hiding facts, whitewashing policies and distracting the population clickbait drama. If you are seriously worried about our air, which you should be, we need to write to our local MPs and urge them to talk about it in the House of Commons. We need to invest in more green architecture, ban diesel cars vans and trucks, make cycling more accessible and safe. Take time out of your day and find a space to breathe. Appreciate the gift of oxygen we have been given. We need more trees, not concrete. #Makecitiesforestsagain.