Pittsburgh Art Places


Penn Avenue side of the Benedum Center, between 7th and 8th Street

Related Links


air quality, LED, technology, pollution, Breathe Project, particulates

Artwork Type

Interactive, Light, New Media, Projection, Temporary

Particle Falls


Andrea Polli


Commissioning Entity The Heinz Endowments' Breathe Project
ADA Services Particle Falls can be viewed from the sidewalk on Penn Avenue, closest to Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

Particle Falls is an artwork and visualization of real-time air quality data. It was installed at the 700 block of Penn Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh from November 16 to December 31, 2014. The work was only seen from dusk until midnight. 

How Does It Work?
The artwork on the Benedum Center facade told passerbys about the air. The animation was generated by translating real-time particulate data from the surrounding air on Penn Avenue into imagery using specialized computer software designed by the artist. The particulate sensing was done using a nephelometer, a scientific instrument that takes in air samples and gathers data about the concentration of fine particulate pollution. This data was interpreted by a computer program that created the visualization of the particles in bursts of bright color over a background of falling blue light. The more dots of color, the more particles detected in the air. The visualization updated with new air data every 15 seconds.

Particulate Matter 101
Fine particulate matter, also known as soot,is a form of air pollution that occurs year-round. It is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets, the smallest measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter—just 1/30th the width of a human hair. Fine particulate matter is dangerous to your health because it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and enter your bloodstream. Toxic gases also can “hitchhike” into your body on fine particles. Sources of particle pollution in Pittsburgh include cars, trucks, buses, trains, barges, construction equipment, coke-making and other industrial facilities, power plants, and residential wood burning.

Your Health On Particles
Pittsburgh ranks in the worst 10 percent of U.S. cities for average annual particle pollution. Fine particle pollution—at levels measured in our region today—is linked to a long list of serious health problems from cradle to grave. These include asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, adverse birth outcomes—and even premature death. Exposures here in Downtown can be especially acute; the rows of tall buildings create an urban canyon that traps air pollution right where you breathe.

Seeing Is Breathing
Particle Falls is a dramatic public work that raises awareness of the presence and impact of particle pollution. The responses of Particle Falls are often unexpected and chaotic, reflecting the unpredictable nature of local wind patterns and real-time changes in particle concentrations in the surrounding air. Notice what happens to Particle Falls when a bus or truck comes along. Compare that to a passing bike. How about an idling car? Or compare the number of particles on a clear day versus a hazy day. This work emphasizes the fragile and unstable nature of our Earth’s atmosphere and the human role in increasing that instability.

Let’s Clear The Air
Don’t like what you’re breathing? We all have the power to demand that our political leaders and health regulators take the strongest possible actions to control pollution. Concerns about air quality in Pittsburgh can be voiced to the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-ACHD or www.achd.net. For more information about air quality in Pittsburgh and how you can take action for cleaner air, visit www.breatheproject.org.


Andrea Polli (b. 1968) is an artist working at the intersection of art, science and technology whose practice includes media installation, public interventions, curating and directing art and community projects and writing. She has been creating media and technology artworks related to environmental science issues since 1999, when she first began collaborating with atmospheric scientists on sound and data sonification projects. Among other organizations, she has worked with the NASA/Goddard Institute Climate Research Group in New York City, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and AirNow. She holds a doctorate in practice-led research from the University of Plymouth in the UK. Her latest book is Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change and the Poles on Intellect Press.

In her research and practice, she experiments with performance, interactive and web art, digital broadcasting and mobile media. She is focused on participatory media, and her practice often includes workshops or other activities designed to engage the public with ideas and concepts at various levels. She believes in the importance of many levels of interdisciplinary collaboration and has created collaborative situations for very large groups, small teams, or pairs of individuals. Through her work as a resident at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York and in creating the Open Source Learning Community at UNM, she has become increasingly committed to open source practice and concepts to aid collaboration, in project development and in teaching and mentoring.

She has received a Master of Fine Arts in Time Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD in Computing, Communications and Electronics from the University of Plymouth, UK. In 2000, she was voted Teacher of the Year at Columbia College in Chicago in recognition of her work connecting students to the wider community through collaborative projects.   These projects included performances and exhibitions at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and a large scale public art project connecting 5 neighborhood arts organizations with live web streaming, an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center and six billboards.   Pause. was featured as the Millennium Community Artwork for Illinois and funded by The Mid Atlantic Arts Council and Ameritech.

Polli is currently an Associate Professor of Art and Ecology with appointments in the College of Fine Arts and School of Engineering at the University of New Mexico.  She holds the Mesa Del Sol Endowed Chair of Digital Media and directs the Social Media Workgroup, a lab at the University's Center for Advanced Research Computing.


Production Team
Particle Falls was originally produced in San Jose, CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Partners working on the project include: meteorologist Tim Dye, artist Chuck Varga, Ryan Romero and other students in Andrea Polli’s research laboratory at the University of New Mexico, and The Social Media Workgroup. Thanks to MetOne instruments for particulate monitoring equipment and calibration. 

Eric Geusz - Programming and other technical assistance

Jared Rendon-Trompak - technical assistance

Additional thanks to Peter Leeman, Eric Lipsky, and The Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies at Carnegie Mellon University for their assistance in Pittsburgh.  

This installation is sponsored by The Breathe Project with production support from Flyspace Productions and the Office of Public Art.