The Art to Float in Beijing

Xiaowei Wang
Sibel Deren Guler
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Introduction by Ali Fujino

Throughout time, there has been, what I refer to, as “the force of great ideas…” They can be big or small in nature, but to qualify, they must evolve from the unique vision of an individual who has the ability to put them into action. FLOAT Beijing is one of these great ideas, a participatory design, mapping and open source data visualization project using air quality sensing kites.

I came across this project in one of my weekly passes reviewing stories of kites on the internet.

Text from the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

Xiaowei Wang (MLA ’13, communications/space design, a master’s candidate in landscape architecture at the Harvard School of Graduate Design) has created a public art event that is also a pollution monitoring project for notoriously smog-ridden Beijing. Wang and her collaborator, Deren Guler, a master’s candidate in tangible interaction design, the Computational Design Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, took advantage of the tradition and beauty of kite flying in China to enlist kite enthusiasts in Beijing in mapping air quality measures. Their FLOAT Beijing project also created a constellation of twinkling indicator lights in the city’s night sky.

Part of the project was a series of community workshops to teach local residents how to assemble tiny air quality sensors to attach to the kites. There were group kite flights after the workshops with the sensor modules attached. The modules logged data and had visible LED lights which indicated the air quality levels: pink for poor, green for healthy.

The following interview was conductcted with Xiaowei Wang and Sibel Deren Guler.

What is FLOAT Beijing?

FLOAT Beijing is an interactive, community driven art project that uses kitemaking and kite flying to activate dialogue, map and record air quality in Beijing, China. FLOAT Beijing uses local knowledge sharing, public kite flying and creativity to address an urgent ecological, environmental and social urban issue.

Why kites and why air quality?

Urban air quality is a serious issue that affects rapidly industrializing cities globally, and within Beijing as the capital of China, it is an issue kept quiet by the government under fear of criticism and protest from the public. At the same time, there is ample opportunity to use cheap, easily accessible microcontroller technology for grassroots air quality mapping. We see the pairing of microcontroller technology and the traditional art of kite flying as an immense opportunity to give local residents the ability to understand urban air quality.

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