Part 2: Earth imaginaries and critical data
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Still from black carbon plume animation derived from NASA MODIS satellite data (Tom Corby/Gavin Baily, 2017-18), an ongoing collation and documentation of the atmospheric effects of climate change.
Part 2 of 3: Earth imaginaries and critical data
What is required are artistic rhetorics that convene global and local, the material and social within perhaps not integrated or seamless representational contexts but ‘assemblages’ that articulate the multi-scalar, shifts in geographic, atmospheric, temporal material, social and political. So, we need to go beyond ‘think global, act local’ to act, think and represent the global and local as an integrated hybrid of an interconnective (and collective) iconography. In effect contextually dense representations or narrations of climate change that are spatially, materially and for that matter epistemologically diverse (in the full and narrow sense of the word) and which allow for readings and contributions from different perspectives.
Climate change is a planetary phenomenon involving complex interactions between material, energy, social, cultural and political components, the impacts are global and local and all scales in-between. These manifest across huge scalar, systemic and spatial domains which thread the Earth’s ‘spheres: lithosphere (solid Earth), atmosphere (gaseous envelope), hydrosphere (liquid water), and cryosphere (frozen water).
I’ve argued elsewhere that data offers new ways to represent these phenomena by being able to capture hidden dimensions, patterns and activities in forms that other artistic media such as moving image, sculpture or photography on their own cannot. Climate data particularly, provides insights into a range of invisible phenomena describing vast geological timescales, complex interdependencies, atmospheres, biotics and other planetary inscriptions (Corby 2008, 2010, 2012). These assets represent both a material and critical historiography of the planet as they articulate not only these natural systems both past, present and future, but as reasoned by Livingstone (1992) imprints of economic, cultural, political and social formations. The data that captures (or otherwise as the social, political and cultural aspects are not accounted for in climate modelling) these phenomena I argue, provide a means to develop cultural imaginaries of our changing planet that encourage an aesthetic and critical sensibility towards our connectivity with it and our non-human companions (atmospheres, oceans, the microscopic, other life forms etc.). These data systems also present epistemic and creative challenges in how they flatten and fail to account for different or alternative modes of knowing, relations between things, and experiences of the world.
I’m going to develop a number of threads from this perspective that touch on how wider environmental representations have been considered in the past, before returning to the idea of data and its affordances in the context of representations of climate change in the next post. I wish to start with the figure of the ‘planetary’ as this is the closest thing, we possess of a connected global imaginary that is cultural in its formations outside of contemporary climate model representations which are domain constrained in a disciplinary sense to science.
The planetary as a popular cultural form emerged in the late 1960s, concretely expressed via the ‘Earth Rise’ imagery resulting from the Apollo 8 space mission and the later ‘blue marble’ ‘Whole Earth’ images taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. Both images became emblematic of a shift towards wider ecological consciousness symbolic of a planetary unity and sense of Earthly fragility that impacted significantly on 1960s counterculture and a wider environmental turn. As argued by Rawes in the arts this is exemplified by the ‘relational ecologies’ of artists such as Agnes Denes and architect and system theorist Buckminster Fuller amongst many others (Rawes, 2013).
Within the contemporary context of climate change these planetary aesthetics have fallen out of favor critiqued as distanced from local impacts (Cosgrove, 2001) and overly universalizing (Jasanoff, 2010). It is argued that for our representations and engagements to be effective they need to be localised and specific (Sheppard, 2012) and a number of notable artistic responses have been developed that do this which I won’t rehearse here for space reasons but I will point you in the direction of the relational ecologies of Tim Collins and Reiko Goto as an example of thoughtful and powerful artistic interventions.
Within these important debates however, I feel something is missing that gestures to how the global and local and entangled. What is required are artistic rhetorics that convene global and local, the material and social within perhaps not integrated or seamless representational contexts but ‘assemblages’ that articulate the multi-scalar, shifts in geographic, atmospheric, temporal material, social and political. So, we need to go beyond ‘think global, act local’ to act, think and represent the global and local as an integrated hybrid of an interconnective (and collective) iconography. In effect contextually dense representations or narrations of climate change that are spatially, materially and for that matter epistemologically diverse (in the full and narrow sense of the word) and which allow for readings and contributions from different perspectives.
So how to do this?
As we’ve discussed previously climate is a construct given to us from science, it’s effects although painfully visibly real are caused by largely invisible phenomena. We gain access to these things from global instrumentation, synthetic models and vast data inventories. One approach to practicing and representing these hybrid global/local forms therefore is to draw upon the capacity of these data for capturing the interconnected geographic, temporal, material and scalar forces at work in our anthropogentically remodelled climate.
However, in doing so we need a more generous conception of data than is commonly understood or a different framing. It is no surprise that techno-deterministic accounts of data describe it as ‘the new oil’. We need to distance ourselves from even metaphoric descriptions of fossil fuel, let alone much of the uncritical take up of data as an emerging medium of choice in the visual arts and we need to be wary of the reductive capacity of the numeric to flatten however seductive the patterning. One way of doing this is to rethink this information as a material historiography of the planet and its systems, an ‘Earth archive'; that can be repurposed within artistic practices, as recontextualized and critically reimagined material. This technological 'archive' like all informational gatherings still represents a 'world view', that obscures our relations with our environment as much as illuminate it, but also offers opportunities to engage with omissions (and emissions) and produce critically informed climate models and data in ways that scientists often feel they can't due to external political pressures.
So beyond a methodological approach that seeks to work with the potential of climate data to reveal the changes in our environment, we require better data epistemologies that relocate it as a relational, affective, material and social form that needs to unfold contextually as I have been arguing in my writing in various ways since 2005, and via art-making with Gavin Baily and Jonathan Mackenzie since the mid-1990s. Context in this setting is everything and I’ll be pursuing this in the next post.
Tom Corby, February 2, 2020
Corby T, (2005), Network Art: Practices and Positions, London: Routledge.
Corby T. (2008), “Landscapes of feeling arenas of action: information visualisation as art practice”. In: Leonardo: Art Science and Technology, 41 (5). pp. 460-467, October 2008.
Corby T. (2010), “Myriad Couplings: Towards an Information Aesthetics of Climate Change”. In: Media N: Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition.
Corby T. (2011), “Systemness: towards a data aesthetics of climate change”. In: Far field: digital culture, climate change and the Poles. Intellect Press, pp. 237-250.
Corby, T. (2015). From un‑data to ‘un‑visualization, Transforming Data: Creative and Critical Directions in the Arts and Humanities, unpublished paper, University of Westminster, 24 October 2015.
Cosgrove D. (2001), Apollo’s eye: A cartographic genealogy of the earth in the western
imagination. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jasanoff, S. (2010), “A new climate for society”. In Theory, Culture and Society 27 233–53.
Rawes, P, (2013), Relational Architectural Ecologies: Architecture, Nature, and Subjectivity, London: Routledge.
Sheppard, S. (2012), Visualizing Climate Change. London: Routledge, 2012.