Review of Weather as Medium: Toward a Meteorological Art
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018
280 pp., illus. 50 b&w, 18 col. Trade, $37.00
“You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows” sang Bob Dylan in one of the most famous examples of rock lyrics, perhaps also in ways that becomes a suitably quotable snippet in the context of environmental arts. The climate scale of a disaster that is not merely looming in the future but already enveloped the contemporary planetary politics is itself one natural continuation for this line of thought that also demands its own scale of activism. Yet, as must be quickly pointed out, weather and climate are not of the same scale, and Dylan’s itself perhaps somewhat different lineage of thought about politics must anyway be updated: You might actually need a climate scientist to tell which way, with a certain degree of certainty, the wind will blow, the ocean streams flow, and the arctic ice melt.
Janine Randerson’s Weather as Medium: Toward a Meteorological Art is, to say the least, a timely addition to the past years’ of discussion of media, art, ecology, and the Anthropocene. Randerson’s book navigates through some of the most important examples of contemporary art of environmental elements from ice to wind, atmospheres to toxic cultures of political irresponsibility. It addresses “meteorological art” as “social encounters with live weather” echoing also the experiential dimension of environmental scales. Randerson writes with her artist hat on, too, acknowledging that “the weather is a co-performer in my art making and writing, along with meterological scientists, activists, and indigenous stakeholders.” Resonating with past years of environmental media theory, Randerson’s choice is however to build on the idea of weather as medium: “a vibrant site of exchange” hinting at an understanding of media as more of a wordly condition than about specifics of technical media which however, one can claim, play a key role in the scientific epistemology of weather and climate. For Randerson, the task of environmental, meteorological arts then “politicizes and contests the same weather data that drives the technosciences.” In other words, while acknowledging the centrality of media of environmental sciences, the book also argues that the arts is a key context where politics takes place.
The book is less focused on tackling technoscientific media. The author's social encounters with environmental arts tease out the experiential aspects that address otherwise large scale patterns in experienced sites and situations, affects and perceptions. Addressing experience, the book nods towards “environmental posthumanities” that is also inclusive of for example indigenous cosmologies and activism, resonating for example with such posthuman scholarship of past year’s as Rosi Braidotti’s work.
Weather as Medium includes several fascinating projects and historical anecdotes that are described throughout the book’s chapters. Shitao’s Comments on Painting (1710-1717) presents the case for “cloud in landscape painting [as] a means of understanding the universe”, including particular ink techniques that interact with air and silk. Len Lye’s 1960 Wind Wand would then stand as a counterpoint in more recent art contexts for observing materials and movement, including the ephemerality of air. Hans Haacke’s weather work is another good example of earlier work that fits into the idea that environmental events are staged, examined, investigated in multiple art methods from the gallery to earth arts. In many ways, Haacke’s notes related to Weather Systems are a core manual for the ways in which non-human environmental evens are an agential part of art making. Hence, besides Condensation Cube (1963-1965) also Ice Stick (1964-1966) stands out. These works as well as for example Latai Taumoepeau’s performance i-Land X-isle that performs a form of frozen ice torture with the artist’s body “bound by a rope to a 2 tonne block of ice”. As one can observe, the recently widely discussed Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch (London version) has multiple precedents in the “genre” of melting ice.
Even Leonardo da Vinci’s work has interesting traits to be picked up: A Deluge (circa 1517-1518) works as part of the media archaeology of aesthetics of hydrology. John Constable’s early 19th century “skying” experiments are one way of recording the weather in painting. Of more recent work, Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene gets a deserved mention, too. Multiple other examples are also summarised as examples of meteorological art, with the implication (familiar from Bruno Latour’s work) that aesthetics plays a core role in visualising “matters of concerns” (not just matters of fact). In general, the theoretical influences range from Latour and Braidotti’s posthuman theory to Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt to Elizabeth Povinelli and for example some new materialist theorisation.
Latour’s role in the book is central. However, one can also point to some issues in Latour’s approach to “parliament of things” and whether this nod to (liberal?) parliamentary politics of negotiation risks missing some of the aspects of political and economic issues in environmental contexts. A reference to “we” as the audience of many of the artistic projects might sweep under the carpet the uneven geopolitical distribution of waste that characterises the Anthropocene not as a species level period but one that imposes a bloodier, heavier weight on women and people of colour, both in the global South and in the endocolonial context of the poor in the North. Weather as Medium is strongly contextualised in indigenous knowledge and practices that offers excellent insight to the issues, but the idea that environmental arts is often about “raising awareness” could be discussed and problematized in more detail. Similarly, one can ask if there is a danger of levelling climatological arts to include in the same register rather different contexts of art making – from the indigenous artists to “blockbuster” contemporary arts professionals who are integrated into the industry circuits of biennales and galleries. This implies that not all of contemporary art is in its own right progressive in contexts where raising awareness might be a necessary but in itself insufficient form of aesthetic activism. This is also where more theoretical development could be useful in forming a sense of aesthetics as more than activating a cognitive sense of responsibility for an undefined “we”.
All in all, Randerson’s Weather as Medium is a very useful compendium of projects that offers insights to some of the most significant work that tackle with the intensities of weather and climate. The book’s choice of projects is interesting and in general, it offers a lot of ways to continue developing this highly important body of art methods and theoretical knowledge that also offers a lot to the field of environmental humanities from the creative practice side of things.