Portraits of Air: Pittsburghers Use Filters to Create Pollution Art

  • Ben Weaver is among a group of Pittsburgh residents taking "Portraits of Air" by hanging air filters around their homes and workplaces. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

  • One filter hangs along a balcony on Mulberry Way, an alley used heavily by trucks making deliveries to nearby business in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

August 29, 2013

Ben Weaver’s office in Pittsburgh overlooks an alley. You can hear the hum of a few air conditioning units, and the traffic on a nearby street. Weaver describes the space as on “the business end” of a cluster of bordering storefronts.

"It’s a couple blocks from a few restaurants, as well as a furniture store and some general light industrial use. We get a lot of trucks that come down the alley. It’s not the nicest place to hang out," says Weaver, community programs and technology coordinator at Pittsburgh Cares, a nonprofit that supports volunteering in the city.

Still, when the office gets hectic, the staff meets on the balcony. On nice days, they grill outside. And in about nine months, the small white air filter hung on the balcony with magnets will give them a rough idea of what they’re breathing out there, like it or not.

"Our building is corrugated metal, so it actually sticks pretty well," says Weaver, taking the filter down for a closer look.

The filter is one of about 100 distributed throughout the Pittsburgh region by Detroit artist Susan Goethel Campbell. Her project “Portraits of Air: Pittsburgh” seeks to make visible the issue of air quality in Pittsburgh. It will culminate next summer with a gallery exhibit Downtown.

"As a visual artist, I have always been fascinated with the sky," says Campbell, who has worked with filter art around the world since 2009.

It all began when Cambell started taking photos of storms coming in over the Great Lakes in Michigan. Then, she grew fascinated with the industrial plumes and the discoloration of the Detroit sky in summertime.

"They’re both stunning and somewhat horrifying, and as an artist, I’m interested in this conflict of beauty," she says.

Campbell documented what she describes as a yellowish haze over the corner of Detroit which houses the auto industry. She thought it was strange and beautiful, and she wondered: "How do I bring this back to the public? How do I get people to pay more attention to the air?"

This summer, with the launch "Portraits of Air: Pittsburgh," she is realizing a new focus on communities with a history of air quality issues. At the Three Rivers Arts Festival, held Downtown in June, Pittsburgh residents picked up air filters to install around their homes or workplaces, in spots they felt might be susceptible to poor air—a kitchen window, a parking garage.

"One person put their filter on the front porch, on the back of a metal chair and made the comment that ‘this is where they relax.' They were wondering if it was okay to be relaxing there," says Campbell, who is keeping a photo blog of the filters' locations.

Over the course of nine months, the filters will collect airborne particulates—smoke from stoves, particles from car fumes, or simply smudges of dust. It’s not a scientific measurement. Campbell’s project is more about triggering thoughts and conversation, she says.

"I think sometimes we look to others or institutions or government to say ‘this is where the air is dirty.’ I think we have a lot of information as a public we can bring to the table," says Campbell.

Though the air in Pittsburgh has improved over the past decade, it’s still ranked by the American Lung Association as among the most polluted air in the United States in terms of both ozone and particle pollution.

Next summer as part of the 2014 Three Rivers Arts Festival, the air filters now dotting people’s porches, living rooms, and elsewhere around the city will be tacked to the walls of an art gallery Downtown. By then, many will likely show a patina of grey or even orange.

From there, Campbell says, the exhibition will be about visitors discovering the disconcerting beauty of these impressions, and about discussing how the colors came to be.

To participate in the project, Pittsburgh residents can email artist Susan Goethel Campbell for a filter.