Giorgia Lupi visualises the tiny, invisible bits of plastic floating in the air around us

An interactive experience with Google Arts & Culture, Plastic Air allows visitors to click on airborne plastic particles to find out their chemical composition and where they might have come from.

Date
22 April 2021

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Pentagram partner and data visualisation master Giorgia Lupi has worked with Google Arts & Culture on a beautiful yet alarming new project about airborne microplastics, titled Plastic Air. Visitors to the interactive digital experience are shown a sea of multicoloured shapes floating across the screen, which they can select to reveal their chemical composition and what household items they might have come from. For example, hover over a little orange triangle and you’ll find out it’s polystyrene and probably came from plastic cutlery; or a little squiggle of thread, made from polyester and likely to be from an old sweater. You can also click to carry out certain everyday activities – eat some candy, drink a latte, buy new underwear –  and watch in horror as detritus from that activity disintegrates into particles and is thrown into the ether, adding even more junk to the atmosphere.

Lupi tells It’s Nice That it was an interesting project to embark on, because the field of research into microplastics is still nascent. “We’re just beginning to understand the pervasiveness of these particles in the air, and their impacts on both human and ecological health,” she explains. So, the designer and her team – Talia Cotton and Phil Cox – started out by learning as much as they could about the subject, reading research papers and studies measuring airborne microplastics in inner-city Paris versus the Grand Canyon National Park, for instance. They also interviewed researchers at the forefront of the sector, “which was critical for us to start to understand the opportunities and challenges of communicating this really specific issue to a broad audience,” Lupi adds.

The next challenge was visualising microplastics, which is an abstract problem in itself, Lupi explains, because “you literally can’t see them, giving new resonance to the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Unlike things like climate change or waste disposal, there aren’t clear impacts you can point to that people intuitively understand”. The designer soon realised in order to draw attention to the problem, the team needed to “viscerally narrate the process of plastic disposition, and make vivid for people the reality that once plastic is in the air, it’s with us forever”. Thus came the idea of “reconnecting” these particles with their source: linking otherwise random bits of plastic in the air with everyday items such as water bottles, coffee cups, nylon fabrics, pacifiers, car bumpers, etc, to make it more real and relatable for visitors. “When you actually stop to think that these common items are contributing to this type of pollution, it becomes much more urgent,” she says.

At odds with the worrying and gross nature of the topic is the design of the site, which is beautiful. “We actually did design the site to be beautiful, even though the problem of microplastics isn’t,” Lupi explains. “Our ultimate goal was to raise awareness that microplastic disposition is happening, and at ever increasing rates. To achieve that goal, we wanted to provide a mesmerising experience that would appeal to a wide audience. We didn’t want to ‘alarm’ just for the sake of it, as we know from our previous work you can’t just tell people that something is bad and hope they believe it. You have to show them in an interesting way, and make it real.” This approach also makes people stay a little longer, and dig into the content, so hopefully the information is accessible, enjoyable, and stays with people.

There are around 40 objects for visitors to find, while they can also play around with the environment – set it to rain or snow, or see the changes in an urban setting versus a remote one. All this is based on real scientific data derived from academic research. You can also base your experience in the present, or future, the latter of which shows that on our current trajectory there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in the air by 2050. Lupi concludes: “We added these parameters to show how this is not a monolithic problem, that microplastics are directly connected to human activity and environmental factors.”

Plastic Air is launched for Earth Day, and is part of Heartbeat of the Earth, Google’s partnership with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that features a series of climate experiments with artists.

GalleryGiorgia Lupi / Pentagram: Plastic Air (Copyright © Google Arts & Culture, 2021)

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Giorgia Lupi / Pentagram: Plastic Air (Copyright © Google Arts & Culture, 2021)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, now overseeing the website’s daily editorial output. Contact her with stories, pitches and tips relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

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