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‘We weren’t aiming for subtlety’: artist Vasilisa Forbes on her anti-pollution billboard campaign

‘We weren’t aiming for subtlety’: artist Vasilisa Forbes on her anti-pollution billboard campaign
Kyson East

Artist and campaigner Vasilisa Forbes is fighting air pollution with an anarchic billboard campaign across the city. She told Time Out why.

‘I’ve called London home since 1996, when I toddled off an Aeroflot flight and into a tiny, top-floor, one-room flat overlooking a busy main road in Tooting. The quality of the air was not my biggest concern: I was too busy collecting Crazy Bones. But now that I’m 24, almost out of the ‘young person’ age bracket and nearly old enough to start having vague thoughts about my own hypothetical sprogs, I’m so frustrated about London’s air pollution that I’ve started a city-wide billboard campaign.

This summer, partnering with my graphic designer pal Claire Matthews, photographer Terry Paul and a wild bunch of like-minded anti-pollution volunteers via sites such as Reddit, I started the ‘Clean Air Now’ group. Thanks to a blunder by the company that provided billboards for an art project of mine called Waxchick, we were miraculously given a bunch of free billboards across London to use as we wished. So the 20-foot-high #warondiesel posters hit London streets, with more arriving in new parts of town this week (west London, we’re coming for you).

Images of our teenage eco--gang, menacingly clad in masks and black leather, had exactly the kind of anarchic, movie--style feeling I’d dreamed of creating. The posters from the film ‘Kidulthood’ were a key inspiration. We were tired of seeing lame anti-pollution posters with disgruntled cyclists and irritated yummy mummies on suburban streets. Instead we wanted to showcase our reality: ambitious, empowered and multicultural inner-city kids from a strong, vibrant mix of communities, all believing in our right for a breath of fresh air – and too young and too broke to afford to escape the city.  

Bearing slogans such as ‘Clean air is a human right’ and ‘Air pollution kills more people than HIV’, we weren’t aiming for subtlety. London’s air crisis is already way too far out of control.

Vasilisa Forbes and #warondiesel Clean Air Now billboardPhoto: Kyson East

‘Seventy percent of London teenagers aren’t aware how bad the city’s air is’

How much do you know about the air you’re breathing? Thanks to the sheer deadliness of our air-toxin levels, campaigning for transparency and awareness has never been more important. Seventy percent of London teenagers aren’t aware how bad the city’s air is. This ‘invisible’ problem sometimes struggles to get a look in against all the other challenges that London faces. And against the loud, exciting advertising of energy companies sponsoring major city events, most anti-air pollution campaigns have no chance – especially when they’ve got no voice angled at young people moving into the adult world.

I’ve heard that at a recent conference, a young engineer stood up and suggested, ‘Instead of tackling air pollution, why not just create better pollution masks?’ If the next generation really thinks this way, then our work is madly necessary. Outdated environmental campaigns are still talking timidly to parents and teachers, and of course it’s the older generation of politicians who’ll have to take the first steps towards change. But that won’t happen until the Londoners of tomorrow get angry, and start to take control of the air they breathe every day.’

Find out more at www.cleanairnow.org.uk, and discover five ways to reduce your exposure to air pollution.

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