Air Quality+ Artworks: Air Transformed Wearables and the physical burden of air pollution
Air Transformed comprises two series of wearable objects based on open air quality data from Sheffield that communicate, in different ways, the physical burden of air pollution on the human body.
The first set of objects, Seeing Air, comprises three pairs of glasses with multiple lenses. Each pair of glasses represents the average air pollution level on a different day in Sheffield, with each lens representing a different pollutant (nitrogen dioxide, small particulates and large particulates). The relative levels of each pollutant are communicated by means of patterns etched on to the perspex lenses: the larger and more obtrusive the patterns, the worse the air quality and so the ‘cloudier’ the vision of the wearer.
The second set of objects, Touching Air, comprises three necklaces made of perspex segments of different textures. Each necklace represents a week’s worth of data on large particulate (PM10) levels, divided into 28 six-hour periods corresponding to morning, afternoon, evening and night of each day. The segments range in size from small to large and in texture from completely smooth to extremely spiky and sharp to touch; the larger and spikier the segment, the higher the particulate levels were at the time. By running the fingers over each necklace, it’s possible for the wearer to literally feel how the air quality changed over the course of each week. The necklaces sit heavily on the chest, evoking the physical burden that air pollution places on the heart and lungs. Each segment is also colour-coded by particulate level band, providing visual as well as tactile feedback.
The Artists’ Experiences
The Air Quality+ cultural commission was a rare opportunity to work with data in a truly creative way. I am a data researcher and I usually work on more traditional data visualisations and infographics. For this commission I very much enjoyed working with data with a view to creating non-traditional items – glasses and necklaces – that are not normally associated with data at all.
From the start, we wanted to develop innovative systems for transforming data into physical forms and this was something we worked hard to achieve: for example, the size, number of divisions and roundness/sharpness of spikes on every necklace segment is precisely calibrated, based on the PM10 levels in micrograms per cubic metre. The absolute values are also etched somewhere on every necklace segment and glasses lens. Though the objects are intricate, nothing is ornamental: everything is richly encoded with data.
On a personal level, I grew up very near Sheffield in a town with similarly bad air, so air quality is a topic close to my heart. I’m very happy the Air Quality+ project is starting an important conversation about it in the city.
It was great to have an opportunity to explore working with data in such a creative fashion: it’s a rare opportunity, and definitely one that doesn’t happen often in a commercial setting. Having this opportunity to explore some of our less-conventional ideas of how to display data has pushed forward my creative practice and has offered me a chance to experiment with materials (laser-cutting and in general working in 3D space to create objects) that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with otherwise.