Air matters: learning from Heathrow

Air Matters
Nick Ferguson
Artists explore the politics of air in Heathrow’s suburbs.


The air is partitioned, apportioned, and legislated like every other part of the environment.

At London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, the needs of aviation collide with those of daily suburban life, rendering the air a site of significant contestation. For some, the air is a hypermodern space of networks, flow, and transit where routines and daily rhythms are structured around economic priorities.

For others, it is what they must breathe. The conflation of incompatible requirements within a shared space presents a significant societal challenge that has implications for sustainable development, wellbeing, and human dignity. If these are considerations for policy at national and supra-national levels, then there is a need for fresh though.

Air and culture 

Air Matters is an exhibition and programme of events that responds to this challenge. Through walking tours, workshops, a symposium and commissioned artworks we ask: What are the local cultures of air use?

How does the air shape our societies, and how democratically is it governed? How is the air fought over and by whom? What ethical questions around air use, noise and air pollution do planners face and how might we equip them to shape its future?

In her work Ascending Composition 1 (For planes) (2019) Kate Carr reflects on the governance of air by using sound to infiltrate its forbidden zones. Working with the conception of the air as a contested space, this artwork inverts the relationship of residents subject to the vagaries of aircraft noise by using helium balloons and kite tail sound systems to take the terrestrial sounds of Heathrow's neighbourhoods into the sky.

The three kite tail sound systems shuffle through recordings taken in residential and natural areas surrounding the airport, creating a shifting soundscape intended for broadcast along the flight path.

In a world where both who gets to make noise and enjoy silence is so tied to wealth and corporate influence, this work seeks to carve out a moment where forgotten, over-powered and fragile sounds take flight. The composition is broadcast via the balloon-elevated kite tails in Watermans gallery.

Global transfer

Nick Ferguson’s research has focused on the aircraft landing gear compartments as an instrument of global transfer. Aside from housing aircraft wheels, landing gear compartments are mobile pods in which organisms, such as spores and aphids become trapped, and in which they are transported, into the UK from faraway places.

These themes pointed to the idea of forensically examining the landing gear compartment of a long-haul aircraft and representing it in a way that evokes the space at a physical level. On display in the exhibition is the outcome of such a project.

The work, Capsule (2019), comprises s 0.7 scale model of an aircraft landing gear compartment accompanied by a set of photographic prints. Suspended from the ceiling and occupying a central part of the gallery, the model is proposed as a pavilion or auditorium in which to host discussions of air politics.  

The prints show samples of material gathered forensically from a wheel bay of Ethiad Airways Boeing 777-200LR A6-LRC upon retirement in the UK in March 2019. Captured under an electron microscope, the sample includes sand, spores, seeds, insects and fragments of reflective runway paint which have become trapped and transported from one part of the world to another.

Pest control 

The work of Hermione Spriggs and Laura Cooper takes up the issue of bird exclusion. Their work The Substitute (2019) is a sci-fi ghost story responding to the “bird free” environment of Heathrow Airport.

The story is delivered via Tannoy speakers common to airport announcements and pest control, and is accompanied by a spinning bird decoy on which are mounted images of the artists’ eyes. The Substituteis presented in the square overlooking the river Thames, Brentford Ait and Kew Gardens, natural reserves for birds.

Narrated through the speakers, the work explores the spectral transformation of birds as we know them into data bodies and zombie-like decoys.

Mapping Heathrow

Matthew Flintham's Heathrow (Volumetric Airspace Structures) is a planning table showing a map of the Greater London area and focused on the land surrounding Heathrow.

The shape of the table is defined by the limits of the London airspace control zone which consists of two intersecting irregular rectangles combining rounded edges and hard corners.

The map shows the major traffic routes across central and west London, as well as the polygonal restricted and controlled airspace zone over Heathrow.

The map also extends vertically, projecting the airspace zones into three dimensions, revealing the invisible volumetric structures that define the London skies. In this way the structure becomes an extension of the map following its stylist design and iconography.

Radio transmission

If the works discussed so far focus on the present, Magz Hall engages with a historical dimension of aerial contestation. Her installation Skyport (2019) takes its name from the pirate radio station Skyport Radio which broadcast from a garden shed under the Heathrow flightpath between 1971 and 1979.

Aircraft noise could be heard in the transmissions. The commission extends the artist’s enquiry into the contested nature of radio frequencies and their governance.

In the skies above London private transmissions from air traffic control compete for wavelength with a range of public transmissions, both pirate and licenced, and indeed, the AM spectrum is dominated by the airport’s transmissions.

While these transmissions are available for all to hear, in the UK it is both illegal to listen to them and to relay what has been heard to a third party. In defiance of these regulations, aviation enthusiasts eavesdrop on air traffic control and there is a burgeoning market for the scanning technologies that make it possible.

On display for Skyport are items from the Skyport Radio archive, a set of scanners and a plasma screen showing in wave form current air traffic radio activity.

Human experience 

Louise K Wilson's Frequency explores human experiences of flying. In an audio installation voice and field recordings are combined to explore the affective and 'felt' experience of air travel.

Verbal accounts from passengers describing their memory of take off and landing are undercut with a layer of airport location recordings. These soft, whispered voices are suggestive of recordings made in an ASMR (‘autonomous sensory meridian response’) register, typically created with the intention of stimulating a ‘tingling’ and relaxing sensation.

They are amplified with the use of resonance devices that turn the skylight windows themselves into speakers, broadcasting the voices both downwards into the atrium space and outwards into the ether.

Elsewhere, recordings of the ‘sonic fallout’ collected from the Airport provide a ‘darker' background for the presence and effect of aviation. Accompanying this piece is a set of postcard drawings sourced from photographs distributed on social media showing passengers’ window views of cloudscapes.

Frequency alludes to a set of contradictory positions implicating anxiety and desire within the context of air travel.

This Author 

Nick Ferguson is an artist. He is Associate Dean for Research at Richmond University and Senior Lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies at Kingston School of Art.

Air Matters: Learning from Heathrow is at Watermans Arts Centre from 3 October 2019 to 5 January 2020. Watermans Arts Centre, 40 High Street, Brentford  TW8 0DS. 020 8232 1010.