The Fumifugium Orchestra

Making Music From London's Air Pollution

The Fumifugiums Orchestra was an art/science project collaborating with families who live in close proximity to the Westway, A40 in London.

Over several months the families collected data from air pollution monitors placed outside their homes. These were all within 500m of the Westway and varied between houses, flats, tower-blocks and my studio. I worked alongside the families transforming the data into sound and building instruments at workshops.

The inspiration for the project comes from the book (shown here). It was the first book on the problem of air pollution written in 1661 by John Evelyn who, referred to the problem – which was mainly soot – as ‘Smutty Atoms’.

One of Evelyn’s solutions was to plant more trees. It’s amazing to think that this has not changed in over 300 years!

The Project started from concerns over the potential effect of air pollution on my health as my studio (a former nursery school, shown in background) sits directly underneath the A40 Westway One of the most air polluted areas in London. I knew it was a concern to other people in the community and wanted to involve them. Just how bad is it?
The air pollution had become a monster in my mind called –  The Fumifugium – a machine-beast smoke troll that lays wedged between my studio roof and the underside of the motorway.
Genuine live footage of the Fumifugium monster prowling its territory.
It is a noisy organ, feeding on and pooping out sooty pollution. It’s waiting for trouble in urgent need of a cure.
Family Days

On the Family Day we started to make the instruments out of materials such as air-ducting and car exhaust manifolds. We started to wire them in preparation to receive the electronic musical instruments made at the ‘Teen electronic workshops’.

The Teen Electronic Workshops

We made an amplifier and speaker and a simple electronic instrument called a VCO (voltage controlled oscillator) that will be integrated into the instruments made at the Family Workshops Days.

The Technical Side

I used Honeywell Particulate sensors. This read particulates in the atmosphere ranging from PM 2.5 (very small and most damaging to health) to larger PM10 which is more pollen size.  The particulate monitors used were run on ‘Raspberry Pi’s.’

Data readings were taken in intervals ranging from one to every 30 seconds on different monitors. This is many times more than normal on government maintained monitors. A Python software program was especially written to translate the data into sound.

The sound was played with either ‘Sonic Pi’ (digital sound synthesizer) or, through handmade analogue electronic synthesizers I had made alongside instruments made by participants of the workshops.

About The Westway

The Westway is a 2.5-mile (4 km) elevated dual carriageway section of the  A40 in West London constructed between 1962 and 1970.

It was the first urban motorway in London and was criticised for the lack of care over the environment, the well-being of local residents whose homes and community were demolished .

The road has become a significant London landmark and has been noted in several works of popular culture. It is referred to in J.G. Ballard’s novels Crash and Concrete Island. 

The Clash referred to the road in “London’s Burning”, and the group’s Joe Strummer described their music as “the sound of the Westway”. The group’s documentary ‘Westway to the World’ is named after the road.

At this point, mid-March 2020, I had to cancel the remaining workshops and exhibition that had been due to follow in April 2020 at Maxilla studios, London due to Covid_19.
The Fumi Organ Construction
Fumifugium Orchestra was to include an ‘organ’ I made as part of ‘SMUTTY ATOMS’ installation and event at Royal West of England Academy, Bristol. Here it is being constructed at Maxilla.