The Earth Archive: Necrotopoligies and other elements
Updated: May 27, 2020
In the previous post I floated a speculative ‘Earth Archive’ adaptable for convening different scientific, cultural and social/political histographies. I'm going to elaborate on features and potential usages here, but this is obviously a work in progress to sketch out potential contents and ideas. There are obvious significant omissions of many kinds. Any advice or critiques will be gratefully received ---> We consider our Earth Archive as something that draws together both objects of reference and reuse across scientific, cultural, political, economic, material and technological domains. Primarily the archive is a resource to make artworks both speculative, nascent and actual but will have other uses. We can concatenate from our archive constructions, composts, atmospherics, assemblages and other gatherings of idea, history, culture and matter derived from the following elements:
Object 1: Material topographies Matter the literal stuff of climate are an obvious candidate for accession to our Earth Archive: weather; wetness; oceans; heat; fires; geological laminations; ice floes; living (and dead) things of all types; atmospheres; systems; particulates, carbon and molecular forms. Following Karen Barad’s agential realism, we think beyond conceiving these elements as static objects but rather consider forces, cascades and linkages that unfold climate change as something that thrums across different scales, modalities of matter, culture and politics. To illustrate this strange topological aggregate, we might refer to the carbon cycle (as materialising data member Jonathan Mackenzie does here). The carbon cycle as a set of material and cultural differentiations (“naturalcultural phenomena” as Barad would have it) manifests through a global biogeochemical movement that threads all manner of living and inert forms and links with a politics of extraction and exploitation at vertiginous scales. From the carbonic elements of our molecular DNA, gaseous minerals, to the ghostly necropoli of animal and vegative fossil fuel deposits, the carbon cycle does not just describe a natural process of energy exchange but a figure of entanglement that disposes of a world of separate objects. So, materiality in the sense that we might find in our archive is both, every object and thing that exists within the spheres of the Earth, but also an awareness of their interdependence as things constituted by iterative relationality. One thread of the materializing data project has focused on producing physical and screen based renderings of these Necrotopologies* including models of atmospheric carbon girdling the Earth.
“Carbon Girdles” Isovolume 3D data output from climate model outputs showing CO2 concentration global view.
Object 2: Climate as idea While it’s tempting to consider climate purely in material terms we also need to understand climate as an object of knowledge, a construct entangled with the above and assembled from physics, chemistry, simulations, measurements etc. and via other older knowledge systems and observations. So, to pursue the analogy of an Earth Archive, we submit the ‘idea’ of climate in its own right. We can think of this as a particular situated historical and contemporary concept arising from scientific knowledge practices from 1800 to the current moment, inclusive of data collection and measurement, sensing technologies, simulations such as climate models, scientific images, future scenario modelling and so forth. But also Indigenous knowledge systems and their acute understanding of local biological diversity, ecologies and culture, as vital approaches to developing sustainable relations with the planet.
Integrated within and overlapping these elements we can conceive of:
Object 3: Situating climate data Climate data is representative of both natural processes but also scientific, social, political and colonial histories through time. This ‘archive within an archive’ enables us to conceive climate information as threaded with alternative histories of social and political power alongside records of the deformations of the Earths atmospheres, interactions and material impingements. For example, and as shown by Stefan Brönnimann and Jeannine Wintzer (2018), climate data sets reveal power relations through their geographic distribution through time. This is particularly evident in the distributions (and accompanying lacunae) of colonial era meteorological weather stations across nation states. This is an issue of politics and ethics but also has important ramifications into the current era as information from some of these resources still make up part of the climate data records used today within climate modelling and other environmental resources. This inequality of spatial coverage (alongside other inequalities) injects uncertainties into contemporary action on environmental change when these global data sets are downscaled locally producing a boomerang effect that impacts on the original areas of colonial expansion. In this aspect we can conceive of the Earth’s atmosphere as an additional geo-spatial area of colonial expansion deformed through international treaties often designed to serve opportunistic political and expansionist agendas unrelated to climate change per se (Carey, 2012). Other climate data sets describe patterns of trade representative of global economic forces inadvertently revealing geo-spatial topologies of inequality and carbon production. The Materialising Data project has been exploring, modelling and developing objects and screen based artworks from the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR)*** which tracks the three major greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, CH4, and N2O) for all world countries from 1970 until 2017. EDGAR gathers a wide range of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) but we have focused on shipping and flying to draw out the geospatial and material distribution of GHG via these activities to explore both the impact of this activity on our environment but also critically and physically image the relationship between global economic forces and GHG concentrations. A post on this EDGAR work researched by Gavin Baily will be updating this work soon.
Additionally while climate models play a vital role in producing knowledge of our changing environment it goes without saying that mathematical models are first and foremost mathematical models which operate within specific epistemic regimes. The world is messy, therefore any legibility of the real models allow/disallow is always hedged by uncertainties and contingency bringing a certain amount of epistemic friction about what is/is not represented in the data, or what cannot be captured or which falls outside of the knowledge frameworks that produce the models.
Object 4: Climate mediums Any conception of climate within our putative Earth Archive also needs understanding of it as cultural-scientific hybrid. Climate was never simply a project of quantification and knowledge production as the systems revealed through observation and measurement requires mediation for comprehension and mediums. Inevitably this brings interpretation, subjectivity and the imagination to the production of artefacts that articulate climate change.
These ‘climate mediums’ are both aesthetic and affective devices in the experiential registers they develop and also scientific as they derive from data driven practices. As noted by Birgit Schneider and Thomas Nocke (2014) the emergence of the idea of ‘climate’ in the 1800s went hand-in-hand with the development of a set of rich visual languages that underpinned statistical attempts to understand the weather. Humboldt’s isotherms for example were informed by his appreciation of landscape painting as a means to develop an aesthetic unity of nature (Kwa, 2007). The conflation of the pictorial with the quantified persists to this day in visual climate model outputs that go beyond explanations of data to dramatize the effects of climate change using colour schemes and other aesthetic modalities including animation “that reveals as much about the emotional trajectories of form as it does about the climate phenomena under examination” (Houser, 2016). Alongside these cultural-scientific hybrids we of course include the rich histories of visual art that have long found ways to make tangible the Earth’s exhalation of atmospheres and climates and we will follow this up in another post. We can also conceive of climate mediums as being the material records of environmental change present in the natural environment (described as proxy data in climate science) . Geological forms, moraines, tree rings, ice core, rivulets, mineral stains and other sedimentary presences write physical records into the world and operate as naturally occurring forms of data. Dietmar Offenhuber has a term for these ‘autographic visualisations’ (2019).
Object 5: Climate politics Politics in the raw, possible utopias as outcomes of the present or otherwise. To be continued.
References Barad, K. (2007), Meeting the Universe Halfway, Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press. Brönnimann, S. and Wintzer, J. (2018), “Climate data empathy”. In: WIREs Climate Change, 2019;10:e559. Carey, M. (2012) Climate and history: a critical review of historical climatology and climate change historiography”. In: WIREs Climate Change, 3:233–249. Houser, H. (2016) “Climate Visualizations: Making Data Experiential”. In: The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, (eds. Heise, Christensen, Niemann), London: Routledge. Kwa , C. (2005) “Alexander von Humboldt's invention of the natural landscape”. In: The European Legacy. 10:2, 149-162. Offenhuber, D. (2019), “Autographic Visualization: Data by Proxy — Material Traces as Autographic Visualizations”. In: IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings of InfoVis 2019). Schneider, B. and Thomas Nocke, T. (2014) “Image Politics of Climate Change: Introduction”. In: The Image Politics of Climate Change, (eds. Schneider, Nocke), Transcript-Verlag. Notes
*Necrotopologies is a riff on Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics.
***Data sourced from EDGAR Crippa et al. (2019) (https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2904/JRC_DATASET_EDGAR).