Particle Falls Shows There’s Something in the Air at Night

Particle Falls

Photo ©2013 Greg Benson

September 4, 2013 - Philadelphia, PA

CHF brings limited-time digital-media installation, visualizing air quality, to Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), a research institution, library, and museum, will launch Particle Falls, an ambitious digital-media installation that provides a real-time visualization of particulate pollution as a measure of air quality, on September 26, 2013.

Presented in conjunction with the Sensing Change exhibit currently on display at the CHF Museum, Particle Falls will be projected onto the facade of the Wilma Theater (265 South Broad Street) and will be visible after 7:00 p.m. each night, rain or shine, through December 1, 2013. When projected, “falls” of blue light are overlaid with spots of fiery color that emerge and crackle to represent the presence of fine particulate matter, as detected by a nearby air monitor called a nephelometer. Fewer bright spots over the falls mean fewer particles in the air.

Particle Falls was conceived and designed by digital-media artist Andrea Polli, associate professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. Philadelphia is the second city to host the public artwork, which made its debut in San Jose, California. Polli explains the project’s genesis: “Air is invisible. We can’t see it or touch it, so we don’t give it much thought. But it’s important to become more aware of what’s happening with our air, and to talk about it. As an artist, I felt the best way to promote this dialogue was to take air pollution, something negative, and present it as a thing of beauty. I wanted to create a place that was beautiful and enjoyable to visit, but also to present particulate pollution, which is very problematic.”

“The larger Sensing Change exhibit asks us to see our environment—its vitality and vulnerability—with fresh eyes. Particle Falls contributes to this goal in a wonderfully dynamic way,” added Elizabeth McDonnell, co-curator of the Sensing Change exhibit. “We felt it was important to bring the installation to a busy transportation corridor in Philadelphia like Broad Street, as we wanted to engage many different communities in the conversations started by Sensing Change. How can we connect to our local environments differently when something generally so invisible as the quality of our air becomes visible on the front of the Wilma Theater for us all to see?”

Particle Falls will kick off with a reception and panel discussion on the intersection between art, science, and the media on Thursday, September 26, starting at 7:30 p.m.—just after the installation is turned on for the first time. Featuring Polli and Youngmoo Kim, director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, the panel is free with registration. To register for the event, and for more information about Particle Falls, visit


About Particle Falls

Particle Falls is a real-time visualization of air-quality data. On a background of falling blue light, spots of bright, fiery color emerge and crackle, representing the presence of fine particulate matter in the air. Fewer bright spots over the falls mean fewer particles in the air. This dynamic public-art installation is part of CHF’s art exhibit and related programming, Sensing Change.

CHF gratefully acknowledges Particle Falls project support from the Daniel Dietrich Foundation, Public Health Fund, and U.S. Trust. The following organizations also helped make Particle Falls possible: Air Management Services, Applied Video Technology, Avenue of the Arts, Post Brothers, the Wilma Theater, and the following City of Philadelphia agencies: the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy; the PhillyRising Collaborative Office of the Managing Director; and the Streets Department.

About Andrea Polli

Andrea Polli is a digital-media artist whose work merges art, science, and technology to address how natural and man-made systems are connected. Since 1999 Polli has focused on environmental-science issues in her work and has collaborated extensively with atmospheric scientists. Most recently Polli worked with scientists to develop systems for understanding climate through sound using sonification, a process by which data is translated into sound. 

Find Andrea Polli at her website,

About Sensing Change

With art inspired by scientific investigations, historical accounts, and direct observations of the natural world, Sensing Change invites us to explore and respond to both daily shifts in our environment and long-term climate change. Guests may wish to see the artwork in person by visiting the Hach Gallery at the CHF Museum, engage in a First Friday program or community outreach event, or participate online via the website and social-media platforms.

Sensing Change is on view through May 2, 2014, at the CHF Museum, 315 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia’s Old City. The museum’s operating hours are Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.; First Fridays, 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.

About CHF

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is a collections-based nonprofit organization that preserves the history and heritage of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences and technologies. The collections are used to create a body of original scholarship that illuminates chemistry’s role in shaping society. In bridging science with the humanities, arts, and social sciences, CHF is committed to building a vibrant, international community of scholars; creating a rich source of traditional and emerging media; expanding the reach of our museum; and engaging the broader society through inventive public events.

Media Contact:

Jill Ivey

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