Light up: Science meets public art

photograph courtesy Clean Air Carolina

stroll through downtown after dark this month might lead you to a bright, amorphous shower of light projected onto the side of the building at 14 E. Hargett St. “Particle Falls transforms an urban setting into a rainforest waterfall that becomes a fireball,” says artist Andrea Polli. Glowy and colorful, the changing streaks of light are more than beautiful – they actually reflect the amount of air pollution present.

The innovative public art installation is the work of Clean Air Carolina and other local partners who sought out New Mexico-based Polli after she created similar works in Santa Fe and Charlotte. “This artwork has an air-quality sensor at ground level that picks up, in real time, the particulate matter in the air,” explains Heather Brutz, clean transportation program manager at the N.C. State Clean Energy Technology Center. In layman’s terms, Polli says, “particulate pollution” refers to air matter that is “very small but very dangerous to our lungs and hearts.” Detected pollution will be displayed on the side of the building – right across from The Raleigh Times – as specks of light, creating a beautiful but significant spectacle through April 23. “This public art makes the scientific data from the air quality sensor seem much more real,” Brutz says, “and it’s also a beautiful piece of artwork.”

Volunteers will hand out pamphlets “to help passersby understand what they are seeing,” Brutz says. Seeing is believing. “Public works can help people better understand their world,” Polli says. “I hope viewers become more curious to learn about their environment, and also that this can help experts consider how to communicate issues more effectively.” –J.A.