The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project today launches artist Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls, a captivating digital-media installation that provides a real-time visualization of air quality.
At a time of year when Downtown Pittsburgh is aglow with holiday lights that raise our spirits, the dazzling lights of Particle Falls are designed to raise public awareness about one of the city’s persistent challenges — air pollution.
Particle Falls, a video projection measuring approximately 60 feet by 20 feet, will illuminate the Benedum Center façade in the 700 block of Penn Avenue at Tito Way after dusk each night through Dec. 31. The projection features cascading “falls” of blue light overlaid with spots of color that represent fine particulate matter in the air detected in real-time by a monitor across the street. Fine particulate matter, also known as soot, is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that measure just 1/30th the width of a human hair. More bright spots over the falls indicate more particles in the air.
“Pittsburgh ranks among the worst 10 percent of U.S. cities for average annual particle pollution, and our region lags far behind most areas in attaining federal standards,” said Phil Johnson, interim director of the Endowments’ Environment Program and director of the Breathe Project, a broad-based coalition working to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. “We felt it was important to bring Particle Falls to a busy Downtown corridor to engage the community in conversation about this problem and how we can work together toward solutions.”
Sources of fine particle pollution in the Pittsburgh region include cars, trucks, buses, trains, barges, construction, industrial facilities, power plants and residential wood burning. It is linked to a long list of serious health problems from cradle to grave, including asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, adverse birth outcomes and even premature death. Exposures in Downtown Pittsburgh can be especially acute, as the rows of tall buildings create an urban canyon that traps air pollution.
Particle Falls was conceived and designed by digital-media pioneer Andrea Polli, associate professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. Pittsburgh is the fourth city to host the temporary public artwork, made possible by a $62,500 grant from The Heinz Endowments. The artwork made its debut in 2008 in San Jose, Calif. Pittsburgh is the first city to use the air quality data generated by the installation for research through a partnership with scientists at the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Production support is being provided by the Office of Public Art and Flyspace Productions.
“It’s important to become more aware of what’s happening with our air, and to talk about it,” Polli said. “As an artist, I felt the best way to promote this dialogue was to take air pollution, something negative, and present it as a thing of beauty. I wanted to create a place that was beautiful and enjoyable to visit, but also to present particulate pollution, which is very problematic.”
Particle Falls will be open until midnight, rain or shine, through New Year’s Eve. The Office of Public Art will be on-site Tuesday and Friday evenings from 6 to 7 p.m. to provide interpretation of the artwork. Please note Particle Falls will be closed on Nov. 27 and Dec. 24-25.
On Dec. 13 from 4 to 6 p.m., an artist lecture and panel discussion will be held at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Polli will talk about the process and technology behind Particle Falls and then join a panel discussion about air quality and public health. This event is made possible with the assistance of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. To register for this free event, visit publicartpittsburgh.org or call 412-391-2060, ext. 237.
For more information about the project and related events, visit pittsburghartplaces.org/particlefalls.