5th International Conference

Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges

Interdisciplinary Creativity in Arts and Technology

Hybrid - Corfu/Online, May 12-13, 2023

‘This Place Has Its Own Air’: A Proof of Concept for Urban Air Quality Data Visceralisation
Date and Time: 12/05/2023 (11:30-12:45)
Location: Online
Polina Zioga, Catherine M. Weir
Keywords: Air Quality, Environmental Pollution, Data Visceralisation, Data-Driven Video-Installation

This paper presents ‘This Place Has Its Own Air’, a data-driven video-installation and proof of concept for urban air quality data visceralisation. Its title is based on the seminal memoir The Living Mountain (1977) by Nan Shepherd, and is concerned with the effect of the city’s air (man-made polluted environment) on the body. The video-installation uses the real-time air quality data of the city where it is presented, to create an evocative visualisation of the bodily experience; enabling viewers to have a real-time glimpse of the air they breathe and reflect on the need for reducing the pollution of their environment.

The quality of the air we breathe, and the air pollution of our environment, are inextricably linked. Air pollutants can spread across long distances and are principally the products of combustion from space heating, power generation, or from motor vehicle traffic. They are monitored and regulated using human health- and environmentally-based criteria for setting permissible levels, as they can cause both short- and long-term negative health effects. In UK and in Scotland, air quality information, such as real-time data, are used to forecast pollution, and are made freely available to the public, often accompanied by health advice and recommended actions for short-term exposure to air pollution. However, despite the improvements in the air quality in recent years, air pollution remains the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK.

Objective & Methods: 
The project’s title is based on the seminal memoir The Living Mountain (1977) by Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), a Scottish Modernist writer and poet, born in Aberdeenshire. In her work, Shepherd was concerned with the effect of the mountain (natural environment) on the body, and the bodily experience of being in the world (nature). Similarly, our data-driven video-installation is concerned with the effect of the city’s air (man-made polluted environment) on the body. It involves the projection of a live animated moving image that is being processed and rendered using the real-time air quality data of the city where it is presented, to create an evocative visualisation of the bodily experience (visceralisation). To achieve this, digital medical images of the human body are used to construct an animated environment that is ambiguous in terms of its origin; and which expands and contracts, as if breathing, following the human adult respiratory rate. The urban air quality data are acquired using the OpenWeather Air Quality API, obtaining hourly readings of the levels of the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and the fine particles (PM2.5 and PM10), which are the two types of pollutants primarily produced by motor vehicle traffic. Then, the real-time digital processing of the air quality data is performed by a custom software program written in Processing. The levels of the pollutants are scaled and used to control in real-time elements of the live animated moving image. They are mapped to RGB colour values, based on the UK AIR Daily Air Quality Index, which is divided into four bands, from low, to moderate, high, and very high; and generate a real-time colour filter, shifting from cooler to warmer tints. While a particle system appears and overlays different parts of the image, as the concentration of hazardous pollutants rises and falls throughout the day.
The final output, which is silent and designed to have immediacy for presentation in a transient space with a limited dwell time, aims at a ‘meaning-making’ of the environmental themes, which are central to its concept. The man-made intervention (pollution) to the natural environment (air) affects the human bodily experience (breathing), which in turn can prompt a new man-made intervention (reduction of pollution). The resulting video is designed to be displayed on a large vertical screen in a central public building, thus serving as visceralisation of the city’s real-time air quality data.

The aim of the project is to create an evocative visualisation of the air pollution effect on the body, in order to aesthetically immerse the audiences, promote their critical engagement, and increase the awareness of the need for reducing the environmental pollution. The video-installation will give the city’s residents, and passers-by a real-time glimpse of the air they breathe, evident through the changing colour and the presence of particles in the animated moving image that correspond to the real-time pollutant levels. As a result, the audience is immersed in an evocative imagery that prompts them to reflect on the vital need for reducing the air pollution of their environment, and in the longer-term consider the actions they can take to achieve this change.

Polina Zioga

Dr Polina Zioga is a hybrid artist, director of the Interactive Filmmaking Lab, and Advisory Board Member of the ‘Interactive Film and Media Journal’. Her Ph.D. research, entitled ‘Live Brain-Computer Cinema Performance’, was included in the Top-Ranked LABS Abstracts 2017 by Leonardo, and led to ‘Enheduanna - A Manifesto of Falling’, awarded with the NEON Organization Grant for Performance Production. Zioga’s work has been presented and published worldwide including: high-impact journals, books, international conferences, and invited talks; art exhibitions, video-art and film festivals. She has written for ‘The Conversation’, and has appeared on ‘The Guardian’ technology podcast and the ‘TechWorld’. 

Catherine M. Weir

Dr Catherine M. Weir is visual artist, researcher, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art. Working with photography, data, and code, her research draws on elements of the natural world to reflect on humanity’s relationship to the nonhuman, and the implications of her media’s increasing convergence for photographic practice and theory. In 2014, she was awarded a full Arts and Humanities Research Council studentship to support her Ph.D. research, ‘The Digital Index’. Her digital and photographic works have been featured in exhibitions at galleries nationally, including The Royal Scottish Academy, Street Level Photoworks, and The Victoria and Albert Museum.

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