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Particle Falls presents an invisible reality 

Breathe, just breathe

If you find yourself standing at the corner of Brevard and 9th Street or gazing off into the distance on your commute via I-77 near exit 3B, you'll discover that UNC-Charlotte's Center City Building is projecting the image of a waterfall. But don't let the sight, which can be tranquil and soothing amongst the city's canopy of buildings, fool you. In a quick glance the footage can go fiery red with balls of yellow, orange and red disrupting the calming flow that you might associate with vacations and white noise. The installation, called Particle Falls, is projecting air pollution detected in Uptown Charlotte. It's something to remember, the next time you take a breath of not-so-fresh air.

Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls installation at UNC-Charlotte Center City. (Photo by Crista Cammaroto)
  • Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls installation at UNC-Charlotte Center City. (Photo by Crista Cammaroto)

The installation comes as a partnership between UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture and Clean Air Carolina and continues through April 23, when there will be a culmination viewing party of Particle Falls footage. As one of the biggest components of UNC-Charlotte's third annual Keeping Watch series, which includes arts and science oriented exhibits, public art and events, it places an emphasis on air quality. The other part of this year's initiative, running through May, will focus on the importance of tree canopys.

On March 18, a group exhibit opens at Projective Eye Gallery. It will feature more info on Particle Falls, as well as art by five artists. Works include a large-scale aged tree photograph by local artist Linda Foard Roberts and California-based Jed Berk's techie and interactive "Blubber Bots." In the context of Keeping Watch on Air, Berk explains how the robotic inflatables are fitting. "They're very much effected by the environment and what I mean by environment is the space and air around them," he says. "Even the idea of a draft or someone walking by effects them greatly." The "Blubber Bots" are also affected by light and visitors are encouraged to use cell phone flashlights to stimulate movements that can be sporadic, as in the case with Particle Falls and traffic patterns.

Jed Berk’s “Blubber Bots”
  • Jed Berk’s “Blubber Bots”

The Particle Falls installation, created by Andrea Polli — an Albuquerque-based artist who teaches art and ecology at the University of New Mexico — back in 2008 in San Jose, Calif., was commissioned as a public art project on an 18-foot tall building in an overlooked corner of the city's concrete jungle. With the goal to reinvigorate that forgotten urban spot, she incorporated natural elements — a waterfall, to be specific — that could attract onlookers while sending a powerful message back at them. And what's better to dampen their spirits than the power of air pollution? We don't see it (not normally anyways), so it doesn't pose an immediate threat to most of us who go about our day-to-day lives in disregard to its existence. The installation, which has already touched down in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, has surprised Polli.

"What I had been seeing a lot and what I had been focusing on was the pollution from vehicles, specifically fossil fuel burning vehicles and especially diesel vehicles. A lot of times what you expect to see and what you see is a diesel bus or truck pulls up near the instrument and you see a major change, but it was pretty shocking in Pittsburgh, Penn. and Logan, Utah. There were some days when it was just high level the whole day," Polli says. Part of these results, Polli believes, were mixed between industrial pollution and geographic issues like inversions (the result of surrounding hills and mountains and valley-like dips that trap air).

"So, you higher level of pollutants for extended period of times, sometimes a day, sometimes a week," says Polli, who has worked on projects related to meteorological and atmospheric sciences since the early '90s. Her interest in weather models led to sonification oriented projects, as well as those that used weather instrumentation via collaborations with meteorologists and atmospheric scientific data tracked from correspondents in New Deli, Switzerland, Los Angeles and New York.

But as climate began changing on shorter-time scales, Polli adapted her work to include climate models. Particulate pollution became easier to track as air quality monitoring improved and new instrumentation became available.

So, how does it all work? For Particle Falls, Polli uses a nephelometer, an instrument that takes in air samples in order to collect data on pollution. Then, she uses a computer program to project the particulate data visually as dots and bursts of color over the blue backdrop. The visualization updates with new air data in real time.

Terry Lansdell of Clean Air Coalition explains that while Charlotte's air pollution is showing signs of improvement, it's far from clean. Ranked as one of the top 25 most polluted cities in America in 2014, it managed to meet an old pollutant level measurement this past year for the first time in two decades.

"We want to try to promote the fact that this beautiful thing they're seeing is a representative of some very dangerous activity in our atmosphere and in the air we are breathing," says Lansdell, who found Polli's work fascinating and reached out to her in order to bring the installation to Charlotte.

"I think Particle Falls has been a good way for people who already know about the air quality issues to kind of help with their advocacy," says Polli, who views herself first and foremost an artist. When asked if she considers herself a scientist or advocate, she proclaims, "I understand and I'm interested in and want to learn as much as I can about science, but I'm definitely not a scientist. I could see myself as an advocate, but I think there's such dedication in being a real activist and I feel like I'm playing a role, but it's more of a supporting role to the work that activists are actually doing."

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