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May 29, 2015

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Pollution data music is breath of fresh air

Smog, for most people, conjures up bad visibility, dirty air and potential health hazards, but American artist and musician Brian Foo has a different take on haze.

Using Beijing air quality data over the past three years, Foo created a song entitled “Air Play” that has received considerable attention online.

New York-based Foo, 29, says while he has never been to Beijing, he has first-hand knowledge of air pollution, having travelled to cities such as Los Angeles and New Delhi.

“I chose Beijing due to its size and growth, though it is only one of the many major cities in the world that will have a significant impact on the global climate,” explains Foo through an e-mail interview.

While there are many environmental issues in the world, air pollution is something that can be immediately observed and felt firsthand, he adds.

“It goes into your lungs and blocks your vision,” he says. “I believe music is good at creating immediate and visceral experiences for listeners. I wanted to create an experience that gives listeners an emotional response and intuitive understanding of the levels of pollution Beijing residents are exposed to on a short and long-term basis.”

Foo also wanted to focus on one city so it would be a more tangible and direct experience for the listener.

He also admits that his research has made him wary about visiting China’s capital.

“After studying a lot of this data, I would be concerned for my health if I visited the city,” he admits.

Foo says compared with his other songs, this piece has reached a much broader international audience, including listeners in China and Europe.

He has received both positive and negative feedback — positive toward the song itself, but negative toward the smog issues that the data represents.

“I want the piece to bring more attention to various social and environmental issues by producing potent experiences through music,” he says.

The song is a part of Foo’s “Data-Driven DJ” project, which is a series of music experiments that combine data, algorithms and borrowed sounds.

Foo says the goal of the project is to explore new experiences around consuming data, beyond written and visual forms.

To date, there are four tracks in the projects with more expected this year.

Data such as brain waves and income stats in the New York subway system have been used to create musical pieces.

“I believe things like charts, graphs, articles and reports are important for conveying information, but I believe music helps with producing immediate emotional responses to information,” he says.

“I think we sometimes forget that charts and graphs often represent real people with real and complex problems. I believe music can help improve empathy by creating shared visceral and immersive experiences,” he adds.

Foo says he likes to choose human data that translates well into intimate experiences and benefits from having an emotional component.

“For example, in the song about brain waves, I wanted the listener to feel uncomfortable during the part that represented the seizure, since the person who was having the seizure was likely uncomfortable as well,” he says.

Visual art is another area of Foo’s work, with works examining the connection between people and cities.

His project “Cities of You,” inspired by the Italo Calvino novel “Invisible Cities,” envisions people as imaginary cities.

He has also published an illustrated book “Continuous City” that explores imagined landscapes and topographies for New York, told through a series of conversations and paintings.

Foo says he loves living in New York as he believes that when a diversity of people live in the same place, you can see social patterns that might be representative of the world as a whole.

“In general, I am fascinated with how people interact and create relationships, so cities are great for observing that on a large scale,” he says.

“I really like New York in this way because it has a very diverse population, which can result in either increased understanding or conflict between its people, perhaps a microcosm of the world as a whole.”

Foo says although he identifies himself as an artist, his education and professional career have mostly revolved around computer science.

But recently he started to combine the two worlds together, and has received positive results.

“In fact, I don’t remember the original inspiration for being an artist. I remember doing art from as early on as I can remember,” he says.

Foo says working with new media art it is hard to find mentors and traditional avenues for showing his work.

But he is also faced with a traditional problem that almost all artists face at certain times: money.

Foo, however, is still determined to do what he really wants, as the past has taught him lessons.

“My biggest failures have come from work that I did for others and not myself. Those were very critical lessons for me since now I only work on projects that I truly enjoy,” he says.

“This not only makes me generally happier, but I think also produces better and more honest work.”

To listen to “Air Play” and other music pieces based on data and charts, visit To discover Foo’s other art projects, check


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