A big societal change? The hi-tech clothing that changes colour to show air pollution

By Culture24 Reporter | 23 June 2016

Amid air pollution concerns in which the figures seem uniformly grim, a new form of clothing resembling illuminated origami could help

A photo of a person wearing colourful glowing clothing in artist Kasia Molga's Human Sensor
© Nick Harrison
Artist Kasia Molga’s Human Sensor is a design for clothing with colours that change according to the pollution on the streets its wearer walks down. The materials respond according to readings collected by scientists two hours before the reading is made. And if the wearer stops breathing, it won’t light up at all.

“I realised that my own body is the best sensor for the environmental changes around me,” says Molga, who is concerned that the public might have been made immune to environmental change by the bleak warnings of climate predictions, and has worked with the likes of the Wellcome Trust to make scientific data more human and intense.

“The act of breathing is a very intimate action – an interface which connects our inner bodies to the outside.”

A photo of a person wearing colourful glowing clothing in artist Kasia Molga's Human Sensor
© Nick Harrison
Invisible Dust, the collective which aims to turn complex statistics and data into something markedly more tangible, will be presenting a series of performances across Manchester City Centre as part of Molga’s work, choreographed by the artist and reflecting how commuters are affected by air quality.

They coincide with Manchester’s year as European City of Science, taking place while the city hosts the EuroScience Open Forum gathering.

“We have been raising awareness about dangerously high levels of air pollution for nearly ten years,” says Alice Sharp, the group’s Curator.

“I’m very happy the message is finally hitting home. The world is beginning to wake up to this environmental challenge.”

A photo of a person wearing colourful glowing clothing in artist Kasia Molga's Human Sensor
© Nick Harrison
Manchester’s air was inevitably polluted by the Industrial Revolution, but has since been at the centre of numerous clean air initiatives. In London, invisible toxins are said to cause 9,400 deaths a year, and the global count suggests 80 percent of the world’s urban population is breathing dangerously high levels of air pollution.

The European Environment Agency says poisoned air is the single largest environmental health risk across the continent, making the costumes – laser cut from recycled acrylic polymer with a textile overlay, creating an origami effect – a striking visual and educational invention.

“It has helped my team think about their research in different ways,” says Professor Frank Kelly, an Invisible Dust collaborator since 2010 in between his roles at Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College London.

“Working with artists enables our research into the impacts of air pollution on health as it has helps us communicate to much wider audiences. The development of high tech clothing is one of the next big societal changes and here it is being used in a really positive way – making dangerous air pollutants visible.”

The costume wearers will lead walks around the streets, culminating in a dance at Sadler’s Yard, the public square which opened last December.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to see science in Manchester

Museum of Science and Industry
Uncover Manchester's industrial past and learn about the fascinating stories of the people who contributed to the history and science of a city that helped shape the modern world. Located on the site of the world's oldest surviving passenger railway station and only minutes from the city centre.

Manchester Museum
Encounter Manchester Museum’s assortment of treasures from the natural world and the many cultures it is home to. Visitor favourites include dinosaurs, mummies and live amphibians and reptiles.

Greater Manchester Police Museum and Archives
See where Manchester’s criminals were charged and fingerprinted. The Crime Room invites you into the world of forgery and forensic science.
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