Particle Falls - Andrea Polli and Chuck Varga
San José, USA, 2010

Funders / Commissioners: Public Art Agency

Cost: USD100,000

Cost Details: USD65,000 in addition to the artists’ time VIK USD10,000 and loan of the nephelometer by MetOne VIK USD25,000.

Duration: Temporary

Location Details: AT&T Building facade, downtown San José, CA., USA.

Date of Delivery: Completed. Installed June – October 2010.

Medium: Installation

Dimensions / Technical Specs: Nephelometer, light projection for visualisation of the data, panel with information regarding the work and the issue of local air pollution, website to provide online real-time visualisation.

Funding Sources: Local Government

Themes: Atmosphere

Author: Jodi Newcombe

Particle Falls was a temporary public art installation visualising small particulate matter air pollution (specifically that of PM2.5) in downtown San José; it did this in real time via the changing scale of a laser light cascade on the side of a city building. The brighter and stronger the waterfall of blue light appeared, the greater the presence of PM2.5 in the air. The work was developed in partnership with Sonoma Technology Incorporated and the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) AIRNow program, which shares live air pollution data throughout the United States and parts of Canada. The work aimed to raise awareness amongst the public about air pollution and thereby encourage behavioural change. The work was also accompanied by a real-time web visualisation.



Education, Social Activation/Debate and Health and Well-being: Raising awareness about environmental pollution in San José was a key aim of the work. Artist China Blue Wong, when writing about Particle Falls during the period of its presentation, reported that:

Santa Clara County received a failing grade for air quality in the American Lung Association’s 2009 State of the Air Report and currently surpasses unhealthy short-term pollution particles [on] a yearly average of 11 days, the 24th highest level in the US. The number of people that airborne particulate pollution kills each year has tripled in California.


Air Quality: The work intended to draw attention to the way in which humans impact the environment, specifically, the way in which human activity can impair air quality.

Outcomes & Impacts


Innovation/Risk (Conceptual and Technical):  The project involved installing a particulate monitor and contributing the data to the AIRNow data aggregator. Since this was the first time an independent citizen had contributed data to this national system, Particle Falls served as a model for future projects by the artists and others.

Environmental and Social

Air Quality: Consistent with San José’s sustainability aims, Particle Falls showed how humans impact upon the environment, by using a nephelometer to measure the quantity of PM2.5 in the air and generating real-time visualisations of this data. The work was positioned in a transport corridor and was sensitive enough to respond to the pollution of a passing truck or even a pedestrian smoking a cigarette. The work had the capacity, if installed over a longer period of time, to demonstrate how a public works project like a light rail project would improve the quality of life for the people living in San José, i.e, by reducing particulate matter and improving air quality.


What consideration went in to the selection of materials? Was an effort made to source materials that were more sensitive to the environment?

The materials/equipment are specialised. The nephelometer is a state-of-the-art technology that had just been developed when the piece was first shown in 2010, and the outdoor conditions and current available technology required a high power projector, so there were no alternatives. There has been some development of low-power, high visibility laser video projectors, and this may be commercially available soon.

Was any effort made to measure the environmental impacts of the construction and maintenance of the work? In terms of energy use in operation and construction?

While we tapped into existing outdoor power lines in San José, it would be possible to run the equipment on solar or other alternative energy sources.

And in terms of travel during the construction phase?

We did as much remote communication as possible, but did need to visit the site.

And in terms of embodied energy and other lifecycle impacts of the materials used?

The projector was purchased by San José for future use in projects, other equipment is also still in use.

Was there any innovation in the use of materials or processes that were more environmentally friendly than the alternatives?

The environmental measuring device used [i.e., the nephelometer] is a new innovation in particulate pollution science.

Is the environmental footprint of the work in keeping with the aims and intent of the artwork?

This can alway be improved, e.g., if the electricity used was coming from a renewable source. At the time there were not alternatives on site in San José, although it was discussed.


“Particle Falls.” 2010 01SJ Biennial: Build Your Own World. (accessed March 22, 2012).

Polli, Andrea. “Particle Falls.” Video presentation. (accessed March 21, 2012).

Polli, Andrea. “Particle Falls: How is My Air?” Real-time visualisation. (accessed March 22, 2012).

Polli, Andrea and Tim Dye. Interview by author, March 22, 2012.

Polli, Andrea. Interview by Veronica Tello, 13 July, 2013.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. AirNow. (accessed March 22, 2012).

This database is developed by the National Institute for Experimental Arts (NIEA) at COFA, UNSW in association with the City of Sydney and Carbon Arts as part of the Australian Research Council ARC linkage project Curating Cities.