Episode 1: The Outset

open-weather with Alison Scott

Episode 1: The Outset

If you prefer an alternative format you can listen to Alison reading Episode 1 on Soundcloud.

Before embarking on any activity or project, it’s customary to assess the conditions on the ground, to familiarise yourself with the context, or, pay attention to the weather. It helps to know and feel out where you stand: where you are, what you’re looking at, what the climate is. There are tools around to assist, to indicate, and to guide. On Calton Hill at Collective, you may have seen some of them before, though now they are shrouded. A sundial on the facade of a domed building, an observatory repurposed as a gallery. The remnants of deep earth thermometers. The stories of lightning struck clocks. Glimpses of histories entangled in empire, warmer climes, bodies who were put to work. Monuments to Enlightenment figures dedicated to mapping and measurement, at all costs.

But mainly the weather is known here by its erosive effect—on brick, visitor numbers, plants, puddles, leaky roofs, sandbags. Now, the architecture primarily tracks systems other than stars, other than astronomy. These are the rhythms of an art organisation, tourism, wind, rain. The daytime interactions and pleasantries. The site becomes weather infrastructure: bodies move around and with it, in it, on it, through it, are entwined in its structure and rhythm. And so, with this view, the astronomical observatory becomes a weather observatory. It’s only possible to see the night sky, the planets and stars, once the sun has set and the heat of the day is gone, if you can see past clouds and smog. That is, when the gallery is shut or before it was ever open: in the night, or the brief window in which it could fulfill its astronomical role. But the weather is as much ‘out there’ as it is ‘here’. Looking at the dark sky, could I have mistaken a weather satellite for a star, at one point or another? Could, as some believe, the moon tell me it’s about to rain?

There are other tools you will have used too, tools you are. You may have felt some of them. Hair that blows in the wind, that frosts up. Skin that burns in sun or wind, eczema that stings in rain, eyes that squint at the sun. Jacket on, jacket off. A finger licked and held up to the wind is an indicator of direction. Knowledge the body holds, as it performs the weather.

“you are the season, the day, the minute; your subjecthood: fulfilled and exhausted by it -> you become a barometer.”[1]

Since the pandemic heightened the distance between my own body and this sandstone architecture—and time became even more acutely marked by seasonal change, daily rhythms of night, day, rain and shine—for me the location of a proposed weather station became dispersed: now we seem discrete observers, receivers, apparatuses, and devices ourselves. Dispersed receptors, enduring particular oppressive conditions: a body’s sense-impressions of course are specific to a location, as likewise a barometer reads an immediate, localised atmospheric pressure.

Mediation is a secondary process and is aided by the presence of other sensing bodies, with differing attunement. In 1839, following a pattern of thought laid by 18th and 19th century naval and military officers-cum-meteorologists, John Ruskin considered the notion of a ‘vast machine’: a panoptic system simultaneously knowing the state of the weather everywhere on the earth. Contemporary climate historian Paul Edwards posits that this machine, a network of active agents, is now largely complete:

“...constructed from components—satellites, instantaneous telecommunications, and computers—that Ruskin could scarcely have imagined…. [which] serve countless human ends, from agriculture, shipping, insurance, and war, to whether you are going to need an umbrella in the morning.”[2]

The globalised, networked ‘vast machine’ pursues an image of a future weather in its capturing of the present, for human ends and aiding extraction: the weather forecaster and their client has a context, institution, agenda. They measure, control, and contribute to atmospheric conditions that can sustain or deplete life.

*

“There’s an umbrella

by the door, not for yesterday but for the weather

that’s here. I say weather but I mean

a form of governing that deals out death

and names it living.” [3]

*

Our weathers are individuated with different social, economic, historical, geographical and political contexts, that are communal but unequal, under the interconnected global system of weather.

It is at the juncture between the technological and the sensational, the embodied and the networked, that the collaborative work of Sophie Dyer and Sasha Engelmann sits. Using the simple apparatus of antennas, computers, and their bodies, Sophie and Sasha’s exploration of amateur radio and open source software combines critical and poetic strategies with the process of decoding weather satellite images.

[NOAA 18 on January 24th 2021 from Stuttgart, Germany. Captured by FamSchä and shared in the open-weather archive.]

These images have none of the familiar isobars, or symbols of clouds and suns of televised weather maps, but they do show other markers of data processing and encoding. By establishing a direct radio link between a satellite transmission and an antenna held in a hand, Sophie and Sasha encounter mediated distribution networks, specifically the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce) satellite fleet. In doing so, they also extend the sensorial capabilities of their bodies. Bypassing some of the terms and aesthetic regimes in which images are otherwise made public or allowed to speak, their work resists the power of the ‘vast machine’ by setting up an alternate relationship to its infrastructure. Open-weather disrupts the cycle of received information circulated, or obscured, that builds towards our planetary imagaries. With an approach that embraces feminist tactics, they assert process and noise, favouring the fragmented localised image over the panoptic ‘view from nowhere’—and its ties to militarism, capitalism, colonialism and supremacy. This is an practice that Lisa Parks (following Donna Haraway) might call:

“a contradictory position of embodied objectivity that ‘privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing.’”[4]

Open-weather asserts a politics of location: choosing to reproduce satellite weather images as a ‘nowcast’ rather than a forecast, the project is situated in many embodied presents, and their images can be seen as documentation of instances of body-satellite connection.

In the last year Sophie and Sasha made an explicit public invitation to participate by publishing an easy-to-follow, open access guide to weather satellite image decoding. The DIY Satellite Ground Station Guide, and the ‘open-weather feminist handbook’ outline and manifest the of principles that guide their work. These resources form an invitation to join the construction of transformative ‘webbed connections’, to find atmospheric kin despite an unequal, uneven medium.

It is within this spirit of co-authorship and collaboration that our work together will unfold. As I attempt to decode satellite images and contribute to open-weather—grappling with new software and equipment—guided by Sophie and Sasha—reflections on the process of getting to know their work through embodied participation will gather here in these written episodes.

[1] Roland Barthes, The Preparation of The Novel, trans. Kate Briggs (Columbia University Press, 2011) p43

[2] Paul N Edwards, A Vast Machine (MIT Press, 2010) p431

[3] Extract from: Claudia Rankine, Weather, (New York Times, 2020) [link to full text]

[4] Donna Haraway Simians, Cyborgs, and Women p188 (Routledge, 1991) quoted in Lisa Parks Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Duke University Press, 2005)

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