Atmospheric Cartography (MRes Thesis)

A scientific instrument for measuring air quality

Atmospheric cartography: Articulating Ecological Connectivity in Air, art–research project, Royal College of Art 2018-19.

atmospheric cartography (new) 

  • (mental or physical) spatiotemporal schema of atmospheric conditions 
  • the act of systematically mapping changes in atmospheric phenomena  

Air is an ‘heuristic’ for countless phenomena (Choy 2011, 12), encompassing gasses and particles but also vibrations and, metaphorically, emotions. Air’s sensible qualities, like its breathability or familiarity, vary across space and time, creating uncanny pockets and partitions known as atmospheres. Immersive and transcendent, palpable and elusive, atmospheres are emergent events formed through air’s transient variations within the medium itself. Whether a layer around a planet or the interiority of a building, ‘the atmosphere’ denotes the air that moves through and characterizes how a particular place is experienced.

Through palpable variations in air, then, partitions between atmospheres arise. Unlike geopolitical borders on land-centric maps, these partitions are not fixed in place by patriarchal colonizing projects (although they are often impacted by such forces). Instead, the atmospheric counterparts of geopolitical borders take form as fluid interfaces of contiguous contrasts sensed by networks of bodies and devices. I mean ‘interface’ as a process of becoming together that originated within fluid dynamics and now has correlates in new media as well as the liminal zones between elemental bodies (see Maxwell in Hookway 2014, 66).

Of course, top-down territoriality in all senses of the word still informs the norms of projects to cartographically represent airspaces today, including analyses of ‘air quality’ (read: breathability). The latter is a case in point: air quality euphemistically implies goodness or badness to inhere in air itself, rather than the relations with/in it (Sabin 2019). The term is an abstraction that separates breather and breathed. Here there be monsters! The atmospheric is indeed globally, molecularly and culturally permeated with late industrial violences, yet here is an opportunity to mediatize as a form of remediation, unencumbered by grand narratives (or maybe more relational ones).

The ‘stuff’ above the ground is volumetric and transcendental. Airspaces hold us within unknowably vast webs of relations, and this is a fundamental condition of becoming together. There can be no ‘interstice’ between the breathing subject and the substance intravenously sustaining them (Irigaray 1983, 79). Earth’s atmosphere, with its solar-powered mobilities, gives us the weather-season-climate spectrum and implicated aerobiological processes of photosynthesis, pollination, and respiration – to state the important obvious.

The question of how to parse and durationally observe the mobilities, relationalities, temporalities and rifts of air is still open to interpretation. How to map suspension? How to pinpoint something before the dust settles? Latency is already a variable in longitudinal, quantitative studies, from geographic information systems illustrating climate predictions to biomonitoring ambient pollutant levels via a species’ survival rates year on year. But how do we then position variegating subjectivities as inhabitants of those spacetimes, who weather those conditions from unique perspectives, raising different sets of concerns? How do we apply discourses about ‘thicker’ temporalities and perspectival relations to the practice of mapping the air?

In my master’s thesis, I proposed ‘atmospheric cartography’ as a placeholder for reconnecting existing and future multi- or post-disciplinary practices that dare to break away from the longer tradition of territorial maps (Choy 2011, 28) in order to move towards more subject-specific, time-based, motion-sensitive and experiential media for sensing and articulating embodied knowledges of airspaces. In the thesis, the focus is narrowed down to four case studies; my methodology involved interviewing two artists and two scientists. These expert practitioners map variations in airspaces in and around London using different sensing/sensory techniques: remote techno-scientific devices, ecosystem monitoring, collaborative ‘smellwalks’, and embodied observation of light. Instead of dividing arts and sciences into two binary categories, I let go of dichotomous assumptions and analyse the interview material by way of inventing a spectrum, from ‘perceived objectivity’ to ‘perceived subjectivity’, which shows how the four approaches interrelate and complement one another.

Air has no fixed borders, so it seems fitting that atmospheric cartography should conflate (lit. ‘blow together’) epistemological fields and related notions of subject(ivity) and object(ivity). I carry this kind of atmospheric thinking into future projects that also attempt to reconcile specificities of material spacetime coordinates and affective accounts of life in the troposphere.

Research Interests: breath, phenomenology, embodiment, multi-species storytelling, entanglement, atmosphere, new materialisms, sensory maps, first-person geographies, citizen-science, cultural climatology.