Our Dark Materials

Posted: July 18th, 2023

Slowly but slowly the work moves forward. It has a new name and is exploring a new technology (for me at least). At the risk of repeating myself the latest synopsis update for the work is below as well.

The North Circular is a road with its own environment; noisy, dangerous and suffocating, but also for many, home. It’s been named the most polluted road in London, and with one-in-5 deaths worldwide linked to pollution, it begs the question: who would live here?


The work photographed between 2009 and 2015 started with this simple question. Then, during lockdown, I had the opportunity to revisit the project. I theorized that if up to a quarter of global warming is attributed to the motor vehicle and vehicle emissions are the biggest cause of London’s air pollution, I could connect the subject of climate change to vehicle emissions to amplify discussions around both of these environmental issues.


In 1952 the great London ‘pea soup’ Smog led to the clean air act of 1956. This inspired my realization that making the invisible pollution visible was key to the success of the project. By hanging the original photographic images as prints on the side of the road, I found I could directly evidence the dangerous road dust, physically transforming the original photograph and changing the emotional impact of the picture.


However, despite amplifying the significance of the dust with close up photography, a problem remained: the real killer is invisible to the naked eye. The particulate matter 2.5-10 microns wide, that slips past our bodies’ defences is so small, you can fit a thousand on the full stop at the end of this sentence. These particles then penetrate deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain. What we were actually seeing on the prints although visually effective and dramatic, was actually, at the safer end of the scale. I was eventually able to resolve the issue with his use of electron microscopy. We can finally see the invisible killer in the last image of the quadriptych.


I believe debate needs to be improved. Also, ideas around how we trade our personal health and that of our planet for seductive convenience needs to be challenged. The title ‘Our Dark Materials’ references the Pullman novels, but is also about materialist culture.


The first quantitative estimate of carbon dioxide-induced climate change, was made by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. The first production electric vehicle was made by Thomas parker in 1884. We could have chosen electric vehicles when we first discovered burning carbon was heating up the planet, not in the 1980s but in the 19th nineteenth century.  No doubt back then, as today, cold logic struggled to be heard above fevered disinformation. Climate change deniers and petrol heads are all part of the equation. The fact is, air quality and global warming are inextricably linked. The wild fires in Canada this year, contributed directly to poor air quality in the Midwest USA.

This work points to a logical way forward. To progress, we have to quench our passion for the motor engine quickly, and reduce the dangerous levels of ‘hot air’ that cloud rational debate!