Making our air visible

Categories: ASC, Blog

Why This Matters: The temporary installment combines art and science to visualize the impact pollution has on air quality.

By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

When we look outside and see a crystal clear Carolina blue sky, we’re not necessarily seeing what’s really in the air.

The conundrum presented Terry Landsell, program director for Clean Air Carolina, with a challenge: To somehow make the air visible.

It’s why Clean Air Carolina, in partnership with the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture and the university’s “Keeping Watch” initiative, decided to bring the temporary interactive public artwork “Particle Falls” to Charlotte. A Cultural Project Grant from ASC also supports the project.

Designed by artist and scientist Andrea Polli, the animated light projection of real-time air quality data is intended to raise awareness of the presence and impact of particle pollution in North Carolina communities. It was launched March 4 on UNC Charlotte Center City building western façade adjacent to the First Ward Park and will continue to be visible at sunset each night through April 23.

"Particle Falls." Photo credit: Clean Air Carolina.
“Particle Falls.” Photo credit: Clean Air Carolina.

The animation is generated by the translation of real-time particulate matter data from the surrounding air into imagery through the use of specialized computer software created by Polli. The imagery will also be displayed on a screen inside the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City.

“It is an attempt to make real what we take for granted,” Landsell said. “‘Particle Falls’ forces us in a most beautiful way, to see the air we breathe and to make the connection to the life we live.”

It does so by effectively connecting “the complexities of air pollution and climate change to policy makers and the general public,” said Polli, who is also professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico.

“People need to feel and understand the importance of air pollution,” she said. “‘Particle Falls’ makes the invisible visible in an extraordinary way.”

The public artwork has been displayed in several cities across the U.S. It was most recently featured in Paris during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2015.

In its passive state, the 60-x-20-foot display’s waterfall is blue, which indicates the air is clear. When idling cars, trucks and buses – and even people smoking – are nearby, the cascade changes to a dynamic, fiery hue.

Passersby might not immediately make the connection between something they may perceive as beautiful and the reality of dirty air.

“Once they do have that ‘aha’ moment, it really is impactful,” Landsell said. “That direct correlation between our behavior and our environment will come.”

Poor air quality can exacerbate health issues such as heart and lung diseases and asthma, the latter of which is a leading cause of absenteeism from school for local students, Landsell said.

“When we can monitor and make real what is in the air, we have a better chance of controlling our own health outcomes,” he said.

For years, Charlotte consistently ranked among the top 25 worst cities for air quality, Landsell said. Recent regulations and standards have dramatically improved the city’s standing.

“So we have to say and state confidently that air quality in Charlotte and in North Carolina is improving,” he said. “Are we done? Absolutely not.”

“Particle Falls” will provide insight on how Charlotte can stay on the right track. Carolina Air will work with scientists to analyze the data collected by the project’s software over its eight-week run.

It will also force us “to see the air we breathe and to make the connection to the life we live,” Landsell said.

Want to See It?

“Particle Falls,” an animated light projection of real-time air quality, will be on display at sunset each night through April 23 on the west wall of the UNC Charlotte Center City building, 320 E. 9th St. Organizations and groups interested in viewing parties can email Terry Landsell, program director for Clean Air Carolina, at For more information, including a nightly sunset chart, visit Use #particlefallsclt if posting on social media.