Public Art Points Out Pollution During Holiday Celebration

Nov 21, 2014

Andrea Polli's Particle Falls was displayed in two other cities before being moved to Pittsburgh for the holiday season.
Credit Heinz Endowments

As revilers traipse around downtown looking at holiday lights Friday night and through the rest of the holiday season, the Breathe Project hopes they will take a few moments to learn a little bit about the region’s air quality.

The work titled Particle Falls is being projected on the façade of the Benedum Center on Penn Avenue. Its cascading lights give viewers a real-time look at how much pollution is in the air above their heads. To be more specific, it measures the fine particulate mater in the air.

“It measures the seemingly invisible through a light scattering technique, and it beams it up in terms of intensity and magnitude on a big outside wall,” said Phil Johnson, director of the Heinz Endowments-supported Breath Project.

“People should know that this is part of their life and their environment,” Johnson said. “If we’re truly going to be the most livable, workable and playable city in the country, we can’t be in the worst 10 percent [for] air quality standards.”

The project springs from the mind of artist and University of New Mexico Associate Professor Andrea Polli.  It uses the data produced by a nephelometer, which employs a beam of light and measures how much of it is scattered by the fine particles in the air.

The work has already been displayed in other cities and will be packed up and moved out of Pittsburgh at the end of December.

Johnson said the focus is on the material in the air that is smaller than 2.5 micrometers. This so-called PM2.5 is believed to be responsible for several maladies because of its ability to sink so deep into the human lung.

Johnson said volunteers will be on hand while the display is lit to explain what the art is depicting. There will also be events run by sporadically throughout the month by local scientists.

90.5 WESA's Julian Routh contributed to this report.