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B.C. group building 'breathing' sculpture mimicking real-time air quality

A B.C. group of engineers is building a giant shape-shifting, origami sculpture that allows people to "breathe" with polluted towns and cities on the other side of the world. Why? To "evoke people's empathy."
When air takes shape
An installation described as a 'breathing sculpture' will draw on air quality data from around the world and invite people to breathe along.

What if you could breathe with people suffering under chocked skies a province or continent away? Would it make you care more? 

Every year, the World Health Organization estimates 6.7 million people die an early death due to air pollution.

The staggering figure has helped galvanize Colleen Qiu and a handful of B.C. engineers to offer the public, scientists and politicians a way to recognize that suffering — in the form of an eight-foot-tall “breathing” sculpture.

The origami-like structure is made up of folding fabric panels and manipulated by springs attached to motors. When they move, the whole structure “flows, expands and contracts” into abstract patterns — all based on the current air quality of a chosen place in the world. 

Qiu, who is working on the When Air Takes Shape project as the vice-chair of the Vancouver-based non-profit Activism Through Technology and Art (ATTA), says the group of engineers is looking to travel across B.C. with the installation in the summer of 2023.

“You’ll be invited to breathe with the structure,” said Qiu.

By day, a transportation analyst looking to push people toward sustainable ways of getting around, Qui says air quality often gets overlooked until it’s too late. 

“Even though we are using it every day, it's sort of invisible to us,” she said. “People in Vancouver, we think, ‘Oh, we don’t really have air quality issues.’”

“We think bringing it to the public in a visual way, and also making it artistic, would evoke people's empathy.”

When people approach the structure, they will be able to punch in a city or town anywhere around the world, either through a tablet or on their phone by scanning a QR code.

The dirtier the air, the more violently the sculpture will convulse. The idea, said Qiu, is to compare two places on the planet and understand what other people are going through.

But it’s not just about reminding people of the differences between a smoggy Beijing, a wildfire-choked Kelowna, or a bluebird day in Vancouver.

By tapping into the digital air quality network OpenAQ, Qiu says she also hopes the “shape-shifting” sculpture will help people understand that even within a city, the air we breathe can change drastically. 

“If you are near [the] Downtown Eastside and you're near industrial areas, and you're a resident with lower income, you are more heavily impacted by air quality,” she said, pointing to past research. 

Outside of political conventions and scientific conferences — where Qiu says they want to showcase the structure to people who can directly impact policies and research around air quality — they hope to set up the interactive sculpture at art and children’s festivals across B.C.

So far, the group has received seed funding from the Government of Canada, and has reached its initial $3,500 target in a Kickstarter campaign. If they raise a little more money through one of their “stretch goals,” Qiu said they’ll be able to add more lighting and projections to the installation, and display it to more people in more places. 

Already, she says, communities across B.C., Alberta and Europe are clamouring to host the breathing sculpture.