The invisible motes in Charlotte’s air can have a deadly effect: Once inhaled, tiny, solid particles and liquid droplets can work their way deeply into lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Thousands of Americans with heart or lung disease die prematurely each year because of fine particles 1/20th the width of a human hair, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Symptoms range from eye irritation to asthma and heart attacks.
Andrea Polli doesn’t just marry science and art to bring particles to life. She plasters the side of a 12-story uptown building with them.
On Friday night, Polli was to open her “Particle Falls” installation. It’s a computer-generated animation, projected on the west wall of UNC Charlotte Center City and visible nightly from points around uptown, of what looks like a cascading stream of blue light.
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An instrument called a nephelometer simultaneously detects, in real time, fine particles in the air. They appear as white specks falling with the blue light. When concentrations are heavy, the particles become an angry yellow, like sparks against a blue flame.
“People kind of take a deep breath” when they first see it, Polli said this week. “I think some are sort of mortified to see levels so high.”
The advocacy group Clean Air Carolina was to host an opening reception Friday and will use the installation as a teaching tool. UNCC’s College of Arts + Architecture and the Arts & Science Council will cosponsor its eight-week run, partnering with UNCC’s “Keeping Watch on Air” initiative.
“The neat thing is that it makes visible something we struggle to make people aware of all the time,” said Mecklenburg County air quality director Leslie Rhodes.
So small they can be seen only through an electron microscope, fine particles measure 2.5 microns or less. They’re produced by combustion sources such as car engines, power plants and fireplaces.
Mecklenburg County is within federal healthy-air standards for fine particles. Concentrations have dropped since 2001 as a crackdown on power plant emissions and federal vehicle standards took effect, Rhodes said.
Since debuting in San Jose, Calif., in 2009, “Particles Falls” has been presented in cities in the U.S. and Europe, most recently in Paris during the United Nations climate change conference in December.
Polli is a professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, where she holds an endowed chair in digital media. She recently worked on a project to turn climate data into sound.
“I’m interested in raising awareness of environmental issues by using technologies, but using them thoughtfully – looking at the emotional quality of that data,” Polli said.
UNCC Center City is at 320 E. 9th St. Its Projective Eye Gallery will host a reception for “Keeping Watch on Air,” including a talk by Polli and works by five other artists, on March 18.