Myriad Couplings: Towards an Information Aesthetics of Climate Change

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Tom Corby
Centre for Research in Education, Art and Media (CREAM), University of Westminster

There is much to be said about the complex issues surrounding the use of (mostly carbon fuelled) electronic technologies. This paper is not the place for that discussion but I would like to start by briefly exploring Felix Guattari’s ideas concerning the role of the arts, science and technology in environmental discourse as described in The Three Ecologies [1] and his final book Chaosmosis.[2]

Borrowing the term ecosophy from Arnold Naess, Guattari produces an analysis of ecological disaster based on a critique of a radically decentered, all-encompassing capitalism.[3] This Integrated World Capitalism (IWC), fueled by the media and telecommunications networks treats nature as a limitless resource to be exploited in the provision of products and services of which there is no real need. A perverted use of technology and science operating at the bequest of IWC contributes to a machinic enslavement of the world’s resources, destroying the natural environment, polluting and infantilizing social relations and producing a passive “mass media subjectivity” that smothers impulses to engage in socially meaningful activity.[4]

Guattari’s critique of techno-science however is not dismal. He proposes that responses to environmental degradation will become increasingly reliant on technological interventions and cautions that ‘media fatalism’[5] will undermine the necessary use of technology to develop global solutions to the environmental issues we face.

Additionally (and importantly for our discussion), Guattari proposes that aesthetic practice acting in concert with science and technology offers the most productive response to environmental disaster. For Guattari: “Computerization in particular has unleashed the potential for new forms of ‘exchange’ of value, new collective negotiations, [encompassing] the whole future of research and artistic production.”[6]

It is important to note that Guattari refuses what he describes as “archaizing, folkloristic tendencies” [7] that reinforce binary conceptions of humanity and technology as separate from nature. He develops a nuanced scheme, which frames ecology as complex interrelation of interacting social, mental and natural registers within which technology is irreversibly embedded. This “machinic ecology”[8] not only has the potential to regenerate the “Amazonian lung”[9] but in conjunction with the arts develop transversal practices that can mobilise required social change. Affected producing assemblages (social, political, aesthetic and disciplinary) resulting from these practices enable changes in “mental ecologies” that recuperate human subjectivity from the dimming effects of consumer culture and lead to changes in the manner in which humans relate to the natural environment.

Guattari hasn’t got much to say about what form these practices might take. However if he was still alive, it’s not beyond the bounds of reason to propose that they would involve a creative engagement with technologies that map or raise consciousness of climate change.

In 2009 with my long-term collaborators Gavin Baily and Jonathan Mackensie, a project was initiated with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to explore how the data it derives from its research in the Polar Regions could be redeployed in public forms. The project involves working with the BAS scientists Nathan Cunningham, an expert in circumpolar data, and Claire Tancell, a specialist in the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem. BAS has given us access to a mixture of live and archived of data sources and oceanic models of the of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) from which we derive the behavioural and ecological character of a number of large-scale installation projects (figs 1, 2) including Coriolis Drift (figs. 3, 4) which I will discuss here.

Fig 1. Southern Ocean Study # 2.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 1. Southern Ocean Study # 2.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 2. Southern Ocean Study # 2.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 2. Southern Ocean Study # 2.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 3. Southern Ocean Study # 1.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 3. Southern Ocean Study # 1.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 4. Southern Ocean Study # 1.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Fig 4. Southern Ocean Study # 1.0, photograph Sarah Bagshaw

Before detailing this work it would be useful to summarise the key role this particular stretch of water plays in regulating the ecological balance of the region and by extension the Earth as a whole.

The ACC is the stretch of water described by Jack London in Make Westing to which he memorably “pledged his immortal soul” as his ship “ran before a gale of cyclonic fury”.[10] It is the dominant current of the Southern Ocean and the only sea mass that entirely circles the Earth’s girth bridging the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Its currents are driven by whipping westerly winds that function to buffer Antarctica’s ice sheets from warm water, thus protecting their structural integrity and ultimately preserving the albedo effect of the region.[11]

The ACC also operates as a huge carbon sink; the Southern Ocean alone absorbs 15% of the Earth’s carbon emissions. Recent research has shown that carbon saturation of the ocean caused by climate change and changes in levels of ozone has damaged the marine organisms that provide the mechanisms for it to sequester carbon. Increased acidification through this process impacts on plankton and visa versa, ultimately driving up temperatures through a causal chain that leads to ice sheet melt at a local level. These geochemical interactions also impact on the ecological matrix of entire planet writ large as the ACC functions as a dynamo that interactively adjusts the temperatures of the Earth’s oceans. Thus increases in the temperature of the Southern Ocean percolate out to other regions with significant knock-on affects for global temperatures, weather and ecosystem balance.[12]

As a floor-projected work, Coriolis Drift (fig. 5) situates audiences as integrated elements in a tidal and geochemical system that attempts to model and draw attention to some of these dynamics. The climate models used in the work are mathematical expressions of westerly wind and tidal information and include salinity, temperature and other ecosystem data such as acidity. The data is publicly available and comes as a NetCDF file,[13] which we edit and overlay with vector and particle systems to enhance the patterning effect of the systemic interactions in the data.

Fig 5. Coriolis Drift, installation design

Fig 5. Coriolis Drift, installation design

Audience numbers and other variables are tracked and used to trigger “tipping points” that change the behavioral dynamics of the project, and make visible different forms of data. For example, this might involve emphasizing temperature or salinity/acidification data, or “mashing” environmental data with text conversations streamed in real time from Internet chat rooms, debating anthropogenic climate change. Thus the physical presence of the audience situates them as agents of change in a natural system. Or to put it another way, audience relations with the work are staged as a complex interplay between informational, social and material patterns and are metaphoric of the human impact on the environment.

The project frames human relations with the environment as a series of interacting technological, social and natural systems. This sensibility to social and ecological patterning or interdependencies is sympathetic too and draws inspiration from the cybernetically inflected work of Gregory Bateson. Only the briefest summary of his ideas can be given here, but in a series of arguments developed over many years he produces a relational account of ecology as an aggregation of nested interacting systems.[14]

The medium of these interactions is “information” which for Bateson encompasses not merely the communicational flux of humanity but all forms of message exchange between naturally occurring entities such as animals, microscopic bacteria, larger scale meteorological systems and socially constructed institutions, concepts and practices. To borrow from Charlton:

[A system might include] cells plants, animal groups of evolving species, ecosystems – or artists […] in interaction with their surroundings […] linked by circular or more complex pathways or flows of information […] the circulatory, immunological and sensory systems of an organism, the news media informing society, the symbiotic chemical processes of soil organisms and trees […] information consists of news of difference […] a change in environment, movement of another organism, growth in the system itself, a verbal message, a shift in rhythm, […] coded in various ways […] neural impulses reporting “hot” about your fingertip to your brain, a chemical message penetrating the membrane of a cell, a warning shout coded in English language, a smell of fox alarming a grazing rabbit, a fall in popularity coded as questionnaire responses influencing a government’s spin doctors.[15]

Information then is the currency of exchange that circulates in recursive loops between the relational parts of a system. This enables its constituent entities to compare their before-and-after states, and in response enable structural change or a rebalancing. Climate change for example, can be considered a structural adjustment in the Earth’s ecosystem the “news of difference” that multiple environmental feedback indicators are signalling back to us to reign in carbon emissions, change our behaviour, and rethink our political institutions. “In the pronoun we, I of course include the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.”[16]

Bateson was well aware of climate change arguing that only a renewed conception of social, ecological and aesthetic relations can mitigate its effects. Cultural practice is crucial for Bateson as “aesthetic computation”, or an approach “with a special emphasis upon patterns and the modulation of patterns”[17] enables recognition of the beauty of the patterning of the ecological world as a bio-social process under-pinned by information flows.

SUMMARY

Bateson, like Guattari, describes an ecology of interactions between material and immaterial systems of all types. Both argue that attempts to broker new subjectivities around climate change require an aesthetics that enable us link and integrate the emotional shapes of our lives with the interdependent fabric of ecologies to which we are ultimately subject.

The work in progress discussed here describes one possible response to this by combining data, space, material and image in an affective assemblage that hybridises a cultural form that is both fictive and scientific. Furthermore, in making visible the patterns produced by ecological interactions in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current it prototypes an aesthetic of biotic, recursive relationships, underpinned by a sensibility to the myriad couplings between the subcomponents of natural materials, forces and human behaviour.


ENDNOTES

1. First published in 1989, there are 2 versions referred to in this text, I use (a) and (b) to distinguish between them.
2. Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (Sydney: Power Publications, 2006).
3. Felix Guattari (a), The Three Ecologies (London: Continuum, 2008): 22.
4. ibid. 23.
5. Felix Guattari (b), “The Three Ecologies” in Techno-Ecologies, New Formations, no. 8 (Summer 1989): 131-147.
6. ibid. 146.
7. ibid. 140.
8. ibid. 146.
9. ibid. 146.
10. Jack London, “Make Westing”, first published in Sunset Magazine (April, 1909) http://www.literaturecollection.com/a/london/149/ (accessed on 15th February 2010).
11. The Albedo effect accounts for how snow covered surfaces in the Polar regions reflect back the Sun’s energy. As the Polar oceans lose ice, more sunlight is absorbed by the darker surface areas, leading to temperature increases and further ice loss.
12. Andrew Constable, Susan Doust, Southern Ocean Sentinel – an international program to assess climate change impacts on marine ecosystems: report of an international Workshop, Hobart, (April 2009), ACE CRC, Commonwealth of Australia, and WWF-Australia.
13. Network Common Data Form is a software library used to enable access to scientific climate data used in climate modelling.
14. Of Bateson’s later works the most relevant for this discussion include: Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999). And with his daughter the posthumously published: Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (London: Bantam Books, 1988).
15. Noel Charlton, Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth (New York: Suny): 71.
16. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2002): 4.
17. Gregory Bateson, Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Bessie Books): 257.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The British Antarctic Survey for scientific input, and Jonathan Mackenzie and Gavin Baily for technical input into this paper; Dr Peg Rawes from University College London for helpful comments; Sarah Bagshaw for her photography work.