Years ago, our streets were a sea of bicycles. Now the two wheelers that Beijingers were so quick to abandon, in favor gas guzzlers, could help stem the pollution that occasionally plagues China’s capital.
At least that’s what thousands of viewers thought when they clicked on a YouTube video made by British-born, Beijing-based artist and inventor Matt Hope.
In the clip (shot this past winter, when toxic PM2.5 levels broke records), he showcases a dinky bike with a bulky, extraterrestrial looking mask attached to it. The bicycle also features a filtration system that is powered by the rider’s pedaling—a process that elicits sizzling sparks and zaps from the back wheel, as the contraption picks up speed. Despite its zany appearance, the bike’s mask and filter provide clean air for the cyclist.
The video went viral, and soon local and international media outlets — from China Daily to Reuters — were dropping by Hope’s studio (located in the Caochangdi art district, near the city’s Fifth Ring Road). Their stories and news clips detailed how Hope’s “breathing bike” worked.
But anyone assuming that Hope had created a miracle machine is sorely mistaken. In a recent telephone interview he told us why his bike works better as social commentary rather than as personal transportation or a pollution fix.
Your friend Angus McDougal, who heads up a local cycling club called The Big Dirty, told us he likes your bike because “it's a ridiculous response to a ridiculous situation.” Why might he think that, and do you agree?
I really think people wearing masks or using filters for pollution is absurd, because all they have to do is stop burning coal and rubbish, and then you wouldn’t have this problem.
Really? Much of the online community took your bike quite seriously, praising it as an impressive invention.
I certainly didn’t mean to make something like that as a product. Someone could go out and put an air filter on a bike, it’s really not hard to do. I could make another one tomorrow. I did it more to point out our pollution problem, and partly to make fun of myself at the same time for wearing such a big, ridiculous mask.
It’s not really made for mass production, it’s not really practical. We should just try to make the air cleaner rather than filtering it.
So using your bike would just be a superficial solution?
Yeah, it’s like trying to stop your kid from looking at pornography. You either shouldn’t have the material in the first place, or you should think of another way to deal with the issue.
But what would be a viable alternative? You said China should stop burning coal. But last year we interviewed Murray Mortson, the CEO of a clean coal company called Airborne. He told us: "70 percent of all the energy in China for power generation comes from coal; without it, 70 percent of the lights and heat would have to be turned off."
My breathing bike is not a viable product, nor is it a solution to China's air quality or transport dilemma. They need to stop burning coal. Filtering your own air supply does nothing to clean the air as a whole. China is very inefficient. Too much energy is lost through bad insulation and archaic technology like two-stroke truck engines. Right now, China operates like a museum of 300 years of world technology, both redundant and ultra modern, fighting to share the same space.
But your bike’s design is seen as a modern success — taking in dirty air, filtering it clean, and releasing it. Tell us more about its inner workings.
It uses a well-known air cleaning process that employs high voltage, which is powered by the pedaling. With that voltage, the dust particles in the filter become electrically charged, are energized, and subsequently become attracted to a cleaning plate. Coal-fired power stations actually use this process to clean the air in the industrialized world, which is why I chose to use it. That was my inspiratio n— everywhere I go, I see coal being stored, transported or burned.
You told China Daily that you made the filtration system out of old parts lying around in your studio. What did those parts used to be?
I needed a gauze or metal mesh to hold some of the dangerous parts of the filtration system in. So I used one of those IKEA wastepaper bins. In essence, I was using readymade products like that, and mixing them with industrial parts. The bike itself was from Walmart. It cost 180 RMB, the cheapest bike I could find. Those components are all very cheap, very mass produced, and are no doubt big sources of pollution themselves. People have a desire for very cheap things that you can buy quickly and use quickly. So it made sense to use those together.
You have an interesting sense of irony — using mass produced products, from a coal burning factory, to build an air cleaning bike, that you don’t think should be mass produced…
Yeah. I consider it to be a cultural success, not a success as a product.
A version of this article appears in the September 2013 issue of the Beijinger
Photos courtesy of Matt Hope