Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Atmospheric Futures
Location British Museum - Anthropology Library
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Jerry Zee (University of California, Davis) email
  • Dehlia Hannah (Arizona State University) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Timothy Choy (University of California, Davis)
Discussant Anne Sophie Witzke (Aarhus University)

Short Abstract

This panel tracks practices of arts and sciences of climatic imagination to explore the slow perceptibilities of atmospheric change. What capacities and instruments make diffuse, planetary changes sensible? What poetics and visibilities manifest a future of risk and possibility?

Long Abstract

This panel addresses the overlapping imaginative dimensions of climatic arts and sciences. It considers not only how, in contemporary life, meteorological and climatic processes take shape in aesthetic and knowledge practices, but also how climatic and meteorological phenomena assert themselves into sensing and sensory practices. We explore how the encounter of climatic and aesthetic-epistemological worlds creates diverse spaces and opportunities for posing the questions of living in a changing atmosphere. How might such arts and sciences expand our collective capacities for imagining dangerous, endangered and hopeful futures?

Questions of time and imagination suffuse our attempts to understand and grapple with near- and long-term ecological transformation. Indeed, meteorological phenomena at various scales increasingly challenge our temporal sensibilities, eliciting techniques for coordinating human scale with the various moving extra-human temporalities of weather and climate that press into and reshape human time and existence. Between the slow perceptibility of climate change and the speed of spectacular weather events, papers in this panel explore the entanglement of temporalities in contemporary and coming atmospheres.

Together, these papers compose a materialist imagination to grapple with the possibility of other worlds. Imagination, we maintain, is a material process entangled with the properties and futures of a changing planet. What politics of habitation, affect, and embodiment can emerge? How do material practices of climatic imagination tease apart the different temporalities at stake in open and power-laden relations among people, infrastructures, and nature? How do they aim to establish the capacities necessary to think and inhabit changed atmospheres?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Breathing. Keeling's Curve and the Anthropogenic Hypothesis

Author: Jerome Whitington (National University of Singapore)  email

Short Abstract

While vision has been an organizing metaphor and dominating source of technological enhancement for modern science, in Dave Keeling's recounting of his development of CO2 measurement techniques, the essential metaphor is that of breathing.

Long Abstract

Dave Keeling is widely regarded as a central figure in climate change science during the latter half of the 20th century. In particular, he argued for and developed one of the central pillars of the anthropogenic hypothesis of global climate change, namely the measurement of global carbon dioxide levels known as the Keeling Curve. Since 1960, when Keeling first published systematic data documenting a rise in global CO2 levels, Earth's biospheric processes have been modeled in excruciating detail--with a remarkable degree of predictive capacity for such a chaotic system. While vision has been an organizing metaphor and dominating source of technological enhancement for modern science, in Dave Keeling's recounting of his development of CO2 measurement techniques, the essential metaphor is that of breathing. He experienced the continuous measurement of atmospheric CO2 as the Earth breathing. This experience also finds a mathematical expression in the decomposition of wave-forms that describe the patterns, permutations and fluctuations of atmospheric CO2 levels on diurnal, annual, decadal and trans-millennial cycles. Connecting with Joseph Fourier's treatment of sinusoidal waves, necessary for his original speculation on the 'temperature of the terrestrial sphere and interplanetary space,' it might be said that listening to the patterns of Earth breathing is a constitutive experience in the discovery of anthropogenic climate change.

Forecasting air pollution as worldmaking

Author: Nerea Calvillo (University of Warwick)  email

Short Abstract

The air it is built as a matter of concern through maps and visualisations, so artistic and design practices can contribute to expand scientific notions of the air and the toxic, to recognize other modes of knowledge production and to transform forecasts in speculative forms of worldmaking.

Long Abstract

Making the atmosphere visible has been, since Boyle, a scientific endeavour to better understand the climate and more lately, climate change, involving sensing instruments, experimental bodies and institutional networks. Since the late 80s air pollution maps and visualisations have become essential tools to render the air accountable to governments and citizens. And yet, visualisations of the air, air pollution and other topics related to climate change have had difficulties in addressing citizen's and policy maker's imagination.

This paper unfolds how the air it is built as a matter of concern through the devices that render it visible. By describing some existing maps and models of Madrid´s air, including some visualisations developed by this author through collaborative research in non-academic contexts, different aerial material-social-political landscapes of the city will emerge, according to what, who and how describes these aerial conditions. Drawing mostly on science and technology studies and non-representational cartography literature, it attempts to provide three preliminary contributions: to acknowledge the role of maps and visualisations in the production of airscapes; to recognize how air pollution is becoming part of weather forecast and distances from climate change concerns, and to detect how air pollution maps condition our daily practices in the urban space.

To conclude, the paper proposes that artistic and design practices and projects can contribute to expand scientific notions of the air and the toxic, to recognize other modes of knowledge production, alternative strategies to engage with the air and, eventually, to produce its public image through atmospheric imaginaries.

Intake: Particulate Phasings and the Condensable Atmosphere

Author: Jerry Zee (University of California, Davis)  email

Short Abstract

I consider artistic enactment of the atmosphere in China as a fully condensable thing, a substantial mix containing and passing through the bodies and architectures of the contemporary city. I ask into thinking of atmospheric embroilments as the site of possible and sometimes dangerous condensations.

Long Abstract

In 2013, the Beijing city government announced a short-lived collaboration with experimental art and design house, the Danish Studio Roosegarde, to install devices in the city's parks, that would collect ambient particulate matter with low-power electromagnets, carving out pockets of clear air in the city's infamously dense atmosphere. These towers aimed to generate not only moments of clarity in conditioned airspace - absence as aesthetic environmental intervention - but also, with its store of collected atmospheric carbon, to create diamonds, each pressed out of a determinate volume of the city's sky. While the project remains in the waiting room of state red tape, Chinese commodity and art projects have emerged in recent years that have not simply noted the air pollution in the city as an assault on urban life, but indeed, to materialize the atmosphere as a dispersed solid, one that could be collected through filters, machines, and the human respiratory apparatus.

In this paper, I consider this artistic enactment of the atmosphere as a fully condensable thing, not simply the medium of city life in three dimensions, but as a substantial mix containing and passing through the bodies and architectures of the contemporary city. I ask into the atmosphere and a politics of suspensions, thinking of atmospheric embroilments as the site of possible and sometimes dangerous condensations. As these programs rework the sky into a warren of nested interiors and exteriors I ask into the possibilities of altered life in solid air, in China and beyond.

Weather and Climate Anti-skyscapes and Anti-soundscapes: Artistic, scientific, and public engagements

Author: James Fleming (Colby College)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the ways artists and scientists are apprehending weather and climate in new ways using anti-skyscapes and anti-soundscapes. It also provides new modes of public engagement with environmental threats and possibilities.

Long Abstract

Skyscapes —views of the sky or artistic depictions of it — are often strikingly beautiful, evanescent, and colorful, but anti-skyscapes can be gloomy, menacing, and increasingly, in the case of climate change, invisible. Soundscapes — melodious or noisy - occur in the realm of weather and climate, exclusively within the thin shell of atmosphere, ocean, and land surface surrounding the planet. Are there also weather and climate anti-soundscapes? How are they changing and how can they be made audible? How can the public engage with them? This paper examines the concepts of anti-skyscapes and anti-soundscapes and how recent collaborations between artists and environmental scientists are making previously invisible and inaudible aerial threats perceptible.

The Anthropocene as aesthetic practice - new artistic imaginaries in the hybrid spaces of art-science collaboration

Author: Line Marie Thorsen (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper asks how practices of art-science collaborations, engaged with issues related to climate change and the Anthropocene, may be understood as hybrid forms from a point of view that affirms the importance of aesthetic experiences in making sense of new atmospheric entanglements?

Long Abstract

In recent years, still more cross-disciplinary initiatives emerge to grapple with the multifarious issues related to climate change, global ecology and the Anthropocene. At least in Euro-American contexts, such initiatives tend to be driven by new forms of art-sciences collaboration. They include, for instance, the Anthropocene Monument, Anthropocene Project, and Aerocene. Despite important differences, these projects have at least two things in common: first, they aim at cross-disciplinary experimentation in order to articulate new vocabularies and imaginaries centered on ecological issues as 'matters-of-concern'. Second, they forefront artistic engagement in the effort to imagine alternative futures.

Based on fieldwork done in the context of the three above-mentioned Anthropocene initiatives, this paper asks how different artistic endeavors manoeuvre the various disciplinary landscapes and imaginable futures in order to shape these into new experiences based on reworking visual and other representational strategies? How may artists' engagement be understood in this hybrid space of multiple forms and disciplines?

I'll suggest that the aesthetic philosophy of John Dewey offers a valuable vantage point for approaching these settings, not as art or science, or art-sciences, but as exactly 'aesthetic practices'. Dewey's resistance towards purified notions of art, aesthetics, and society seems more relevant than ever. Importantly, it may open up for appreciating hybrid projects such as these - and many related ones crossing the art-science boundary - from a point of view that affirms the importance of aesthetic experiences in making sense of new atmospheric entanglements, while remaining productively open-ended as to their (cross-)disciplinary, material and imaginative forms.

Making Climates Present: The Atmospheric Imaginaries of Klaus Schafler and Karolina Sobecka

Author: David Stentiford (Stanford University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper tracks the sociotechnical imaginaries of two contemporary artists, Klaus Schafler and Karolina Sobecka, each experimenting with global systems, working through novel modes of atmospheric intervention. It considers the relationships between models, experience, and atmospheric artifice.

Long Abstract

"You can't study global systems experimentally," writes Paul Edwards: "they are too huge and complex." For this, one needs models. And models we have. Commenting on the pervasiveness and affective significance of such knowledge infrastructures, Wendy Chun recently emphasized the material embededness of imaginaries within climate models. If relationships to climates, to atmospheres, and to weather are now overdertermined, in large part, by the artifice and horizons of "hypo-real" models, Chun asks, ". . . how can we inhabit the world that technology has built?" In response to Chun's provocation, this paper tracks the sociotechnical imaginaries of two contemporary artists, Klaus Schafler and Karolina Sobecka, each experimenting with global climate systems, working through novel modes of atmospheric intervention. I consider their distinct art practices as modes of climate engineering that open questions about the knowledges produced through climate experimentation. I think with Edwards and Chun to read their art as "model inversions," ones that bracket knowable futures to recast the apparatus of engagement.

A Year Without a Winter: A Collective Thought Experiment

Author: Dehlia Hannah (Arizona State University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper presents an ongoing research and curatorial project called A Year Without a Winter (2015-2018) that uses historical scientific and literary narrative to reframe contemporary imaginaries of climate change by performing a collective thought experiment.

Long Abstract

This paper presents a project that uses historical and literary narrative to reframe contemporary imaginaries of climate change. On the bicentennial of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), the project calls foregrounds the environmental conditions of the novel's conception. 1816 is remembered as the 'year without a summer,' a year of unseasonal cold swept over much of the northern hemisphere, causing famine, epidemics and political upheaval. Inspired by this atmosphere of sublime terror, Shelley and her companions weathered the storms in playful competition to tell the best horror story. We now know that the summer of 1816 initiated a three-year episode of global cooling caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora on April 10, 1815. The largest volcanic eruption in human history, Tambora spewed ash and sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and disturbing weather patterns. We now confront the fearsome prospect of A Year Without a Winter—a future in which the luxury of escaping to warm climes is transfigured into a nightmare of global seasonal arrhythmia, and volcanic eruptions inspire perhaps Promethian ambitions to cool our rapidly warming planet. In recognition of the profound cultural responses to a climate crisis endured two centuries ago, A Year Without a Winter takes the years 2016-2018 as a period in which to reflect critically on our past, present and possible climate futures. The project assembles artists, scholars and publics to perform a collective thought experiment—a fictional, yet all too real, scenario of climate change.

Snout Sensorship: Ice Measurements, Emotional Imaginings, and an Anthropologist's Confusion with Glaciology

Author: Georgina Drew (University of Adelaide)  email

Short Abstract

Disagreement over the health of Himalayan glaciers persists with a subset of scholars contending that the region's ice masses are fine, and may even be surging. This paper ponders over these debates while examining the materiality, emotions, and imaginings of Himalayan glacial melt.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on an anthropologist's confusion with a section of the glacial science coming out of South Asia. In particular, it ponders over counterintuitive presentations at three environmental conferences over seven years (2009-2015) as well as the publications opposing the 2007 IPCC predictions of the loss of Himalayan glaciers by 2035. At issue is the materiality of glacial terminus points, known as "snouts", and their validity as a predictor for the health of glacial systems. Several Indian glaciologists provide select examples of glaciers that have recently surged, and others that have barely moved, to suggest that the wellbeing of the Himalayan glaciers is far better than projected. These statements are a point of consternation given that the same presentations often discuss the thinning of these ice masses and the growing degree of cracks and contaminants that are breaking down the integrity of their structures. I use the confusion as a point of engagement to examine the materiality of these glaciers, the emotions and imaginings to which they are tied, and the sensorial nature of the images that are used to comfort those fearful of Himalayan climate change impacts. I contrast this with the ways that some scholars use similar images to create a picture of alarm. Rather than determining who is correct, the point is to highlight the materialist imaginations of ice as a predictor of climate futures. These imaginings are important to engage because they can be influential to the policy responses taken up by government.

Meteorology in a Time of Uncertain Weather: Forecasting the Future in Bangladesh

Author: Dilshanie Perera (Stanford University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how meteorologists in Bangladesh imagine multiple futures including the daily production of weather and those of the longer term in which weather turns catastrophic. It will examine strategies by which weather is rendered predictable and moments in which it becomes uncertain.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the atmospheric futures of Bangladesh, a country heralded in contemporary debates as the epicenter of climate change but also viewed as historically plagued by cyclones, monsoon rains, and riverine flooding. Uncertain ecologies have long been a problem of environmental governance in Bengal as successive regimes developed stabilizing infrastructures and predictive mechanisms to secure the deltaic landscape. In a place where disaster is tied to seasonal weather and is always already part of the everyday, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department is an institution tasked with making sense of atmospheric uncertainty. It is the only bureaucratic arm of the state that never sleeps: data coming in from regional weather stations is analyzed around the clock, forecasts must be communicated to the public, and scientific expertise is constantly sought by other branches of government, farmers, insurance companies, and NGOs, among others. Based on ethnographic work at the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, this paper seeks to analyze the predicament that state meteorologists find themselves in as they negotiate the temporalities of the near-future, which involve the daily production and prediction of weather, and those of longer-term possible futures in which weather turns catastrophic. This paper examines strategies by which weather is domesticated, how it is rendered as a techno-scientific object, how it becomes a political concern, and the modes by which it exceeds meteorological knowing. In doing so, it argues that different attempts to harness weather through data and forecasting imagine potential futures and associated risks in competing and sometimes contradictory ways.

Snowpiercer: Planetary Futures and the End of Capitalism

Author: Ralph Litzinger (Duke University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper addresses the 2013 film, Snowpiercer. An imaginary of a capitalist order in a frozen post-climate change world, the film explores the control of time, the disciplining of space, and the destructive power of rebellion. It is also about alternative planetary futures after capitalism.

Long Abstract

A massive climatic event leaves the last of humanity endlessly circulating a frozen planet of ice on a high-speed train. Inside, the remnants of humanity are divided into the wealthy and the poor. The post-apocalyptic precariat, consigned to the back of the train and dependent on the distribution of a dubious food source, rise up against the masters who control the front of the train and eventually destroy the train and all the passengers except two. This paper argues that Snowpiercer, well received by left-leaning cultural critics, is at once about the failure to control and temper the effects of global warming and climate change and about the failure of capitalism to provide meaning alternatives to our current planetary predicament. But it is also a powerful, image-driven, affective, and visually evocative imaginary of life after the eco-apocalypse, about the meanings of life and death in the era of the Anthropocene, about what kinds of world can be imagined and created in the aftermath of almost total human destruction. This paper reads this film against an emergent archive of recent texts that attempt to offer alternative materialist readings of the conflicted temporalities and spatial imaginings of the Anthropocene present. I engage questions of how we live in multiple capitalist worlds today and the conditions that must be created to remake the world, and imagine alternative planetary future.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.