There has been a surge in the research on atmosphere as a phenomenological emergence (Borch, 2014). These atmospheres are mostly architectural (Zumthor, 2012) but also philosophical (Böhme, 1995), sociological (Sloterdijk, 2013), financial (McCormack, 2015), and socioenvironmental (Choy, 2011). Ever since Anderson’s 2009 article on “Affective Atmospheres,” atmospheres are understood as affective emergences, situated between the subject and the object, apprehended phenomenologically and, especially if appropriately constructed, contributing to human well being. Atmospherics, in other words, have managed to generate their own comfortable atmosphere around them.
I would like to warn against this atmospheric comfort and especially the proliferation of benign atmospheric constructions, smoothly establishing a measurability (of well-being, belonging, social cohesion, integration, and so on) that only serves the perpetuation of the very atmosphere. In the companion piece “Withdrawing from atmosphere: An ontology of air partitioning and affective engineering” published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(1): 150-167, I engage in a critique of atmospheres by, first, moving deeper into atmosphere and specifically its main element, that of air and how it is regularly conditioned and partitioned for the preservation of an atmosphere; second, by critiquing the standard phenomenological construction of atmosphere as complicit to the all-containing atmospheric comfort, and introducing instead an atmospheric ontology; and, third, by engaging with international artist Tomás Saraceno’s art practice in order to render the atmospheric ontology tangible and to indicate ways out of the atmosphere. In this text here, I would like to focus on the latter, by expanding on the subtle ways in which Saraceno’s atmospheric installations can shift from the claustrophobic to the exhilaratingly open.
Saraceno’s work is always one of open enclosures, but the amount of openness and closure varies depending on the specific work. His baubles of glass or plastic for example are more closed than open: the air and occasionally some other organic or inorganic material are hermetically partitioned, transparent wombs resembling miniature glasshouses within which an atmosphere emerges, seemingly natural and certainly naturalized (what is more “natural” than air, earth, plants?). This naturalization perfectly conceals the minute engineering that goes into the production of an atmosphere, and allows it to appear natural, invisible, indeed inevitable. This is the first element of atmospheric ontology: partitioning of the air and creation of an artificial distinction between inside and outside, here and there, us and them, this and that side of the partition. Yet, every atmosphere needs a degree of openness: these baubles are transparent. Even when safely ensconced inside, we should be able to imagine, if not observe directly, what lies outside. So the outside slips in—not fully, neither constantly, but just enough. Think of gated communities and the way the outside must be half-glimpsed by gates left ajar, subtly underlying the comfort inside by reminding us of the threat/difference/chaos outside. The outside is employed in the service of atmosphere, in a grand illusion of distinction between inside and outside—as if the air could ever be really partitioned and its leakages corked. But the point of all this is that we need to carry on forgetting the air, and thus allow it to become the main tool of atmospheric engineering. We are to carry on believing that atmospheric partition can offer an immune inside (Sloterdijk, 2004).
But think of Saraceno’s glasshouses again: their immunity is only impressionistic. An atmosphere interrupts but does not protect, throws together but does not cohere. Inside, all is disaggregation: “it creates communities not out of shared interest or free association, but out of identical statistics and unavoidable demographics, an opportunistic weave of vested interests.” (Koolhaas, 2002: 183) An atmosphere cuts through the ontology of elements, isolating them and not allowing them to connect. But it does this on a bed of continuum, agreement, desire. This is the most important characteristic of atmospheric engineering: an atmosphere must dissimulate itself as pure emergence and never show itself to be an engineering feat, for otherwise resistance to it will be cropping up at an uncontrollable rate. An atmosphere dissimulates its engineered provenance and volatility. Shopping malls are built so that one has to walk slowly, cannot easily find the way out, and is bombarded by constant shopping “needs”; add to this the fact that one cannot stage a protest or bask or run or wear a hood or do anything other than what is prescribed; and then add what the customers expect from a shopping mall and how any untoward gesture is seen suspiciously. This is the perfectly engineered atmosphere: when the very bodies police themselves, even in absence of obvious norms. Dissimulation means: no one has engineered the atmosphere, no one has organized the participating bodies to generate it. Nothing has instilled the bodies with the desire to regulate themselves in accordance to the atmospheric bubble. All affects are directed, all desire is owned.
But there is openness in closure. One of Saraceno’s recent projects is his theoretical and actual construction of the elements of the aerocene. The main tool is the rather humble solar balloon. A solar balloon relies on the principle of lighter-than-air constructions that soar merely by virtue of their differential weight to the air around them. Of course, the balloon is filled with air whose lightness is continuously produced within the balloon’s skin by means of solar heat. But the partition is only partly isolating the air; it actually allows the air to circulate freely between inside and outside, constructing a different understanding of inside which is not only contiguous with its outside but, significantly, refillable. This is neither an illusion, nor a dissimulation. There is a shift of focus here, from glass closure to balloon opening. Of course, the opening is not so large that it would annul the enclosure, but enough to bring a different input in atmospherics. No longer an issue of isolation but of aerial withdrawal, the balloon withdraws from the earth while soaring in the air. The balloon’s manufacturing process is indicative: it is a collective effort from various people across the globe collaborating in providing the material and stitching it together. The balloon’s withdrawal is hardly absolute, but its ontology opens up a different line of flight than the previous atmospheric configurations. It opens the path for what Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2013) have seen as the profoundly political responsibility of cultivating alternative affective connections.
Here, withdrawal bears the news of an elemental rupture: there is a way out! One can go higher, can leave this atmosphere for a different one, can forge new affective connections. The balloon soars towards Nieuwenhuis’s space where “there exists an opportunity, or at least a responsibility, to continue resisting and hope that there is such an outside, to think about the possibilities for a politics of the air free from the gravitational political forces that pull us down” (2015: 176). This might sound romanticised but, as Nietzsche (2005: 175) writes, “there is no outside! But we forget this… How lovely it is that we forget!” It is perhaps politically important to forget, to carry on with a different horizon, to believe in phenomenological ruptures. Writing about a different balloon flight, Derek McCormack manages to connect the ontological and the phenomenological in a subtle atmospheric gesture that soars “through a distributed atmospheric field of circulating materials moving at differential rates from which obviously emotional geographies precipitate—narratives of hope, longing, sadness, despair, and joy” (2008: 426). The affect comes through the air and registers symbolically, emotionally and sensorially with the bodies between and in which it circulates. The solar balloon has allowed the emergence of an imaginary continuum of withdrawing affecting and affected bodies to rise into a global, elemental, excessive visibility.
*All images copyrighted by Studio Tomas Saraceno
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