A Can of Air, or: C.S.I. Duchamp

In 1919, artist Marcel Duchamp purchased a 50cc glass ampoule filled with Paris air as a souvenir for a friend; the sealed glass object was later exhibited as a readymade art piece called 50 cc of Paris Air.

[Image: Marcel Duchamp, 50 cc of Paris Air (1919), courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art].

For his 2008 “olfactory reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House,” architect and preservation theorist Jorge Otero-Pailos sought to create a perfume that would accurately reproduce the smell of the Glass House, complete with period leathers, the barest hint of then-trendy aftershaves, and the pervasive scent of cigar smoke from an era of heavy nicotine use.

This experimentally reproduced internal atmosphere could then be exhibited—that is, dispersed—or even bottled and sold as a kind of diaphanous historical artifact.

Elsewhere, historian David Gissen has proposed that an “indoor air archive” be developed. While writing his dissertation, Gissen writes, he “lamented the fact that we had no archive of indoor air, as we do for all other manner of indoor elements of the built environment—furniture, designed objects, fashion.”

The specific content of the air of the interiors of the past is lost to us—its bio-physical make-up is gone; we really can’t study it with a full range of analytical methods. But I wondered… what if we archived our current indoor urban atmosphere for the historian of the future? (…) What if we made urban core samples of the air inside buildings and then stored them like we do with core samples from the North Pole or Antarctica?

All of these projects came to mind when reading last night about an ongoing murder trial in the U.S. state of Florida, where a 25-year old woman, named Casey Anthony, has been accused of killing her daughter.

Substantial weight has been placed on a bizarre, and by no means uncontroversial, piece of evidence: a “can of air” from the interior of Anthony’s car, where the dead girl’s corpse had allegedly been stored.

[Image: Empty tin can photographed by Sun Ladder, courtesy of Wikipedia].

To create this atmospheric artifact, forensic investigators used a syringe to extract air from a sealed can in which fabric samples from Anthony’s car were held. That air was then tested against a database of controlled decomposition smells taken from the so-called Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (otherwise known as the “Outdoor Research Facility,” where human bodies are left to decay in a series of carefully monitored spatial conditions, taking landscape architecture to new, gonzo heights).

There, off-gassing chemicals from these decomposing human corpses are themselves captured and stored inside “hoods” that have been mounted over the deteriorating remains; the resulting gaseous records are later archived in a nationally important database for forensic research and investigation.

In a nutshell, then, as Popular Science explains, the technique used in the Casey Anthony trial “involves trapping air—in this case, air from Casey Anthony’s car—in a can for later extraction in a laboratory, where it is put through tests for the telltale signs of human [de]composition.”

I’ve often thought that Marcel Duchamp barely missed inventing the bottled water industry with his 50 cc of Paris Air project—suggesting, in the process, that the bottled water industry is, in fact, the world’s largest and most wasteful network of readymade art objects—but who knew that Duchamp would also loosely anticipate the emerging field of internal atmospheric forensics, deployed as evidence in a U.S. murder case?

If the “can of air” from Casey Anthony’s trial holds up in court, prepare to see controlled atmospheric sampling coming soon to a crime scene near you—and perhaps people like Jorge Otero-Pailos and David Gissen called upon as expert witnesses.

(Read more at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

7 thoughts on “A Can of Air, or: C.S.I. Duchamp”

  1. Hmmm – this is giving me ideas. Perhaps I could capture some Paris air and market it through a worldwide chain of 'oxygen bars'. Perhaps there could be some captured in famous restaurants, some from boulangeries and maybe even one from the Metro system for the adventurous.

  2. I seem to recall the Stasi kept an archive of sealed glass jars with rags inside containing the scents of known political dissidents.

  3. It pre-existed Duchamp's purchase and designation as art


    (does one still need to append the slyly juxtaposed punctuation to indicate no actual anger was expended in the typing of this post?)

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