While we can see the rhythm of traffic or the churning clouds from factory smokestacks, the actual levels of pollution in our daily air are less visible. In an ongoing public art project by artist Andrea Polli called “Particle Falls,” a waterfall of light changes colors from blue to flaming reds and yellows based on real time air quality data.
Polli, an associate professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, debuted this digital art installation in San Jose, California, in 2010. Now after cascading through Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, “Particle Falls” is now in Logan, Utah. “Particle Falls” is controlled with a nephelometer, which shoots a light beam into the air to measure the concentration of fine particulate matter, particularly the smallest particle, PM2.5. “Presenting ‘Particle Falls’ in several different places has been an eye-opening experience, highlighting how important context is to air quality,” Polli told Hyperallergic.
“In Detroit and Philadelphia, for example, the particulate monitor [nephelometer] was placed on a busy street near a stoplight,” she explained. “We were able to see the effects of various kinds of buses, seeing real improvement from cleaner air buses for example, and how much more particulate is created by diesel vehicles and idling. However, in Pittsburgh and Logan, Utah, the context was very different.” She noted that the persistence of the high levels in these two cities was due to an inversion effect in winter in Utah, and the presence of industry in urban Pittsburgh.
Now part of the newly launched ARTsySTEM project at Utah State University, which brings together art, science, and math, the tumult of blue light on campus is part of Polli’s work to visualize the daily impact of air pollution. Her previous projects include “Cloud Car” in New York, which was parked at various spots in the city shrouded in mist symbolizing emissions, and “Breather” in Delhi, which consists of an automobile trapped in a bubble surrounded by its own suffocating fumes. A more collaborative project, “Hello, Weather!,” involved five semi-professional weather stations in international community centers that shared data online.
Now through April, the data visualization of the temporary Utah waterfall will be responding to the fluctuating levels of pollution in the surrounding area and representing them with differing concentrations of blue, red, and yellow. It is a strangely beautiful digital stream that is forcing people to confront what they might not want to see.
“Particle Falls” will next go on view February 19, 20, March 19, and April 16 on the side of the Caine Performance Hall at Utah State University (1100 East & 700 North, Logan, Utah).