The Human Sensor: Making the Invisible Visible

Breathe. Breathe deeply. Breathe in, breathe out. With each breath in, breathe in peace, tranquillity and calm. With each breath out, release tension, anxiety and pain. Let your mind be still, and your body relax, with an ever-present focus on your breath.

Such words and ideas may sound very familiar, and take you to a place of calm. Or they might sound completely foreign and a flight of fancy. The truth is, precious few of us in our daily lives ever consider our breathing outside of an escapist yoga class. But how many fewer of us, when we think about our breathing, take a moment to consider what might be in the air that we are breathing, and how that might be affecting us?

Air pollution is without doubt one of the biggest problems faced by the world’s cities. As estimated by the World Health Organisation, air pollution exposure causes 7 million premature deaths each year – one in eight of all global deaths. Whilst a significant number of these deaths occur in China (where there are estimated 4,000 premature deaths each day caused by air pollution) and India (where the non-smoking populace has a 30% lower lung capacity), Europe isn’t nearly as clean as it could be. A report from the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) says pollution is now the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, responsible for more than 430,000 premature deaths.

Closer to home, the picture remains grim. Manchester is the second most polluted city in the UK, and one of the most polluted cities in Europe. In Greater Manchester, the annual mortality estimate is over 1,000. But what actually are the pollutants that are causing all this damage?

One of the most significant is PM 2.5 , which is particulate matter condensed in air with a diameter smaller than 2.5μm (mainly sulphates, nitrates and carbon). These are nasty mixtures of combustion particles, metals and sulphates, and at less than 5% the diameter of a human hair, they can penetrate deep into the lungs. They have been linked to heart disease and lung cancer, and cause an estimated 29,000 premature deaths in the UK.

In addition, nitrogen compounds such as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO 2 ) form from the combustion process in vehicles. Long term exposure to NO 2 reduces lung capacity and lowers resistance to respiratory infection. The UK fails to meet the EU air quality standards for this pollutant, and exposure to NO 2 results in an estimated 23,500 premature deaths across the country.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution is the biggest public health problem faced by the developed world. But as we walk through busy streets, we never consider these effects. Apart from the odd stench of fumes from a bus or a lorry that we might notice, the fine particulates are undetectable to our senses and invisible to us. The cold statistics and hard science don’t relate to our daily experience. If we perhaps were more actively aware of how serious a problem this is, we might feel more inclined to drive less, or take more walks in the park, or simply avoid the busy streets. So how can we be more acutely aware of the science in our daily lives?

One way of connecting ourselves to certain issues and facts is through art. Music, dance and painting have all deeply emotionally resonated with us for millennia, in ways which science cannot. So scientific, socially conscious art could pave the way forward.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 23.02.54In collaboration with Manchester European City of Science, the non-profit organisation Invisible Dust have commissioned the artist Kasia Molga to create a show in the streets of Manchester that brings this issue out into the open. Called the ‘Human Sensor’, dancers will wear futuristic suits that light up in different colours depending on what they are breathing, making tangible the effects of poor air quality.

These live performances take place across the 23rd-29th July, with the launch at 7:30pm on no.70 Oxford Road (formerly the Cornerhouse). Invisible Dust are also hosting an information space there, open from 23–29 July, 1–5pm weekends and 1–9pm weekdays with free drop-in talks and workshops every day.

If you want to bring yourself into the present, become more aware of your surroundings and the world around you, then focus on your breathing. But remember there is more to the world around us than what we see.

Guest post by: Carl Thomas

Learn more about the project here:

invisible dust

Human Sensor




2 thoughts on “The Human Sensor: Making the Invisible Visible”

  1. Intriguing live performance last night in two distinct parts. First we followed on foot the human sensor dancers along urban streets busy with traffic and people. Secondly we arrived in a quiet town square. There the dancers utilised the space in front of a video screen which was showing information about air pollution, please see the blog above. A loud breathing pattern was constantly echoing across the square. Most of the dancers white costumes had flashing lights as they were breathing. The costumes gave the dancers a rather limited range of possible movements. Might it be more effective, obvious and clear to the public, to have dance costumes with real size human anatomically looking lungs inflating and deflating on the dancers chests and backs, indicating air pollution levels? Finally, with relief we left the warm town air behind and took the train out to the cooler and cleaner Peak District.

  2. Fascinating post. I assume that PM2.5s are too small to filter out, and removing NO2 would also be impractical, so if you live or work in a polluted area then there isn’t much you can do about it. I guess it affects pets as well – I wonder if there are breeds of dog that are particularly tolerant or insensitive?

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