Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Hippie Modernism, the ongoing series Counter Currents invites a range of individuals and collectives—from artist-archivist Josh MacPhee and artist Tomás Saraceno to Are.na and Experimental Jetset—to share how countercultural artists and designers of the 1960s and ’70s have influenced their work and thinking today. Here, writer and curator Geoff Manaugh examines a provocative and participatory installation created by Haus-Rucker-Co in 1973.
The best speculative art projects have a peculiar ability to come true, years later. In 1973, Haus-Rucker-Co, a “Viennese architectural collective,” in the words of Esther Choi, installed Grüne Lunge (Green Lung) at the Kunsthalle Hamburg. In essence, Green Lung was an architectural breathing apparatus; it pumped artificially conditioned indoor air through a series of inflatable ducts to a grape-like cluster of transparent plastic helmets suspended to a pole in the square outside. Visitors—that is, any public passer-by who wanted to pop his or her head into a helmet—could thus breathe the rarefied atmosphere of an art museum, inhaling airs that only minutes earlier had been gently rolling over the painted surfaces of Romantic landscape scenes and delicate statuary.
While playing with questions of inside vs. outside, of public vs. private, of enclosure vs. space, the project also came with the larger conceptual implication that air itself could be treated as a kind of readymade object. Charged with both sensory and poetic significance, air is an index of the circumstances within which it is found. Air is perfumed with context.
In its time, a commentary on everything from curatorial practices to urban air pollution, Green Lung has been oddly, if uncomfortably, upstaged today by the business practices of everyday capitalism. A café in smog-choked Beijing has begun charging its customers for clean air, for example, and this is only the latest symptom of an emerging clean-air market in China and elsewhere. Fresh air packaged from the Chinese mountains has been canned and sold to enthusiastic urban customers, even as various airs taken from idyllic foreign landscapes—the Canadian Rockies among them—are being imported by firms such as “Vitality Air,” who have found a small fortune to be made in selling atmospheres. Their products—which the CEO’s admits began as a prank—include canisters of “Lake Louise Air” and “Banff Air” (“On Back Order!”).
A 2014 marketing stunt by a Chinese tourism firm played on this notion by setting up a temporary outdoor air bar for urban residents to give them a whiff of pristine countryside. Photos of the event look like a Haus-Rucker-Co installation, with futuristic blue air bags suspended on wires and poles, and people strapping medical facemasks onto themselves and loved ones. In other words, given a sufficiently dystopian atmospheric context, 1973’s Green Lung has smoothly transitioned from a curatorial provocation to a viable business model.
Geoff Manaugh is a freelance writer and curator, as well as the author of BLDGBLOG, a website launched in 2004 to explore “architectural conjecture, urban speculation, and landscape futures.” His latest book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, about the relationship between burglary and architecture, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in April 2016.