Atmospheric Cartography (MRes Thesis)

A scientific instrument for measuring air quality

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

atmospheric cartography (new)
noun phrase
• (mental or physical) spatiotemporal schema of an atmosphere
• the act of systematically mapping changes in atmospheric phenomena

Atmosphere physically arises from air, but can also denote a mood; the words ‘air’ and ‘aura’ are both used to express an affective space-time. So atmosphere brings together material and affective or meteorological and emotional aspects, but this combination alone does not define it. Atmosphere is both immersive and transcendent, palpable and elusive. It is a paradoxical concept that we depend on to breathe and perceive, move and belong.

Air is the ‘phenomenological mediator’ for atmosphere (Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos 2016, 154), itself an ‘heuristic’ for countless phenomena: gases, particles, vibrations, etc. (Choy 2012, 12). Like an ocean, air is always transitioning kinetically and compositionally, globally and molecularly, due to weather movements and other material flows including anthropogenic effluence.

Air’s qualities, like its breathability, vary across space and time. Maps of atmosphere trace differences in aerial intra-actions. From palpable variations in air, partitions between atmospheres emerge. Unlike geopolitical borders on land maps, these partitions are never fixed but take form as they are felt and sensed by networks of bodies and devices. In other words, such partitions in air exist not a priori but through being experienced.

Atmosphere thus sustains ecological relations via networks within and beyond human experiences of the world – this is its ecological connectivity. What I call ‘atmospheric cartography’ is an umbrella category of multidisciplinary practices that break away from land-based maps (Choy 2012, 28) and move towards more appropriate ways of articulating variations in the airspaces that immerse and connect us. I posit this ‘us’ or ‘self’ (cartographer, navigator or that which is mapped) as a transient, posthuman notion, focusing on the ‘perspectival nature of knowledge’ (Bignall & Braidotti 2018, 2).

The focus is narrowed down to four case studies; my methodology involves interviewing two artists and two scientists. These expert practitioners map variations in airspaces using different sensory techniques: remote technologies, 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 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.

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