By ksobecka


utopia (n.)
1551, from Modern Latin Utopia, literally “nowhere,” coined by Thomas More (and used as title of his book, 1516, about an imaginary island enjoying the utmost perfection in legal, social, and political systems), from Greek ou “not” + topos “place”. Extended to any perfect place by 1610s.


This 1987 IBM advertisement depicts a fractal landscape image created by IBM physicist Dr. Richard Voss. The text in the ad discusses IBM’s approach of intellectual freedom coupled with technological support.

Shadows and other signs of life

“Shadows and other signs of life” is a title of an Andy Warhol book I just saw on someone’s coffee table, reminded me of these images I came accross when grabbing Abu Dhabi textures.



which reminded me of a project from a while ago that looked at humans revealed in much more detail by shadows when shot from outer space, but I couldn’t find it, only this post:

Shadows are often edited out of the satellite images used for GIS and maps because they obscure what’s really there. They can be edited out fairly easily because, like clouds, they are always moving and images of the same area from different times of day can be easily combined filling in the shadow area with the pixels from anther time. Shadows and clouds are alike in this way, having to do with obscuring and revealing, light and darkness, and are signs of life of a sort, as much as stillness is a sign of death, the change connoting metabolic cycle of the planet as opposed to bionic inertness.

Ice Nucleation

Pseudomonas syringae is well known for its ice-nucleating properties. This ability to freeze water at higher than normal temperatures helps the bacteria get on the ground from the clouds – by inducing precipitation. Humans have been trying to induce precipitation since the 1940s to this day using much the same mechanism – except the ice nucleating agent in this case is the chemical Silver Iodide, which when sprayed into clouds freezes cloud droplets which then fall to the ground. Pseudomonas are a better ice nucleator, and are commonly used in production of artificial snow or ice rinks, but not – as far as I know – sprayed into clouds. Other bacteria have an ability to do the opposite – act as ‘antifreeze’ by lowering the freezing point of water. The genes for these two proteins were engineered into one bacteria by an iGem team in 2011. The team’s project also proposed to engineer a genetic switch to turn on either of the genes by some outside input. We will be building on their project to create a switch which would introduce even more control over bacteria’s time of transit in the atmosphere.


The plasmid with the inaZ gene (used by the iGem team) was inserted into e. coli bacteria, which is safe to use in a lab, and saved for future use. Plasmids are circular pieces of DNA that can be inserted into the bacteria. In higher organisms the DNA inserted into a cell would be integrated into its host genome. But bacteria have one circular chromosome and the plasmids we’re introducing are not integrated into its genome but float freely in the cell. Our synthesized DNA will also be inserted as a plasmid into the bacteria.

We did the ice nucleation test at Genspace (with the help of Will, Julie and Blacki). We prepared a negative control of e. coli bacteria without the gene, and followed iGem’s protocol:
An overnight preculture was inoculated at an initial OD of 0.1 in 15mL medium, and grown for 5 hours at 37°C. Cells were spun down and resuspended in 1 mL filtered water, after which they were washed twice with 1mL filtered water. The ODs of the resulting cell suspensions were determined and all cells were diluted to the same OD of 10. In the meanwhile, a cooling bath was prepared to a temperature around -10°C, and clean, plastic tubes filled with 5mL filtered water were put in the chilled bath to create supercooled water. The same amount of INP-expressing or control cells were added to the 5mL supercooled water and checked for ice nucleating activity.

Addition of bacteria expressing INP to supercooled water induced ice crystallization earlier than with addition of bacteria without the INP gene. We discovered that the difference between the two is fairly narrow and getting a nice result of water turning into ice as if by magic requires precise control of the temperature of the water, and it took us a few tries to try to demonstrate it. For example in the first try I took the tubes out of the cooling bath a few minutes before adding the bacteria, and the water didn’t freeze in either sample. But after putting the samples in the cooling bath again, one with INP froze after a few minutes while the control remained liquid.

iceNucleation from amateurhuman on Vimeo.

iceNucleation control from amateurhuman on Vimeo.

Here’s our supercooled water turned into ice with the help of the bacteria.


And the plasmid map of the plasmid containing inaZ gene. It is prepared using synthetic biology tools that attempt to standardize biotechnology techniques, approaching biology with an engineering mindset.

Screenshot 2015-07-21 10.38.38

Pseudomonas syringae produces a protein on its surface which promotes water molecules to crystallize into ice at temperatures higher than normal. The bacteria is associated with all the environments in hydrological cycle, including being well adapted to the atmosphere. Its role in controlling precipitation patterns and potentially in energy budget, physiochemical processes of the atmosphere and hydrological cycle are just beginning to be mapped out. But ice nucleation has been linked to inducing precipitation since scientists at GE (including Bernard Vonnegut, brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) used silver iodide in 1946 to successfully precipitate a cloud – literally creating a hole in it by freezing those droplets to let them fall down to the ground. GM at the time was tasked with research in weather modification. Today silver iodide is a standard agent used in cloud seeding: “approximately 50,000 kg are used for cloud seeding annually, each seeding experiment consuming 10–50 grams.” Kurt Vonnegut, who also worked at GM at the time – in the PR department, was inspired by these experiments to predicate his next novel, Cat’s Cradle, on an invention of a substance (Ice-Nine) which could freeze water at room temperature, which led to the Earth freezing over.

GE research scientists Irving Langmuir, Bernard Vonnegut, and Vincent Schaefer are seeding a snow cloud:



The ice nucleating gene has been of interest to scientists for a long time, partly because it is responsible for early frost causing substantial damages in agriculture. In 1987 Pseudomonas syringae with the ice-nucleating gene snipped out through genetic engineering was tested on a field of potatoes – a very first field trial of any GMO. The trial sparked a long-lasting debate on safety and remifications of genetic modification.

Berkeley plant scientists under direction of Steven Lindow spraying a field of potatoes with ice-minus, a genetically engineered version of Pseudomonas syringae that prevents frost, in 1987.


As a member of atmospheric microbiome, Pseudomonas syringae deserves special attention. It thrives in the clouds, with high resistance to UV, cold and salinity, and with an ability to utilize air pollutants as nutrients. It is found in all habitats associated with the water cycle. Its size, buoyant density and surface properties determine its high capacity to remain aloft in the air. Studies have shown that the bacteria not only passively travel in the clouds, but are also metabolically active there and might effect the physicochemical properties of the atmosphere. In particular, P. syringae’s ability to induce clouds to form and precipitate might influence solar radiation balance and hydrologic cycle.

Plants are the most important source of microorganisms in outdoor air. The studies of plant-bacteria interactions developed into what became a new field of aerobioogy in the 1900, when American farmers started planting a new hardy crop: Crimean variety of winter wheat released by scientists from the US Department of Agriculture. The wheat monoculture spread from Mexico to Canada creating what was termed the ‘grain belt.’ This plant monoculture was devastated by epidemics of stem rust caused by a pathogenic microorganism which – as it turned out – travelled through the air for many miles. To control the epidemic, a fleet of planes was deployed sampling the atmosphere at all altitudes to map out the organisms’ presence in the air. These samplings demonstrated that microorganisms are present and common at altitudes of clouds and beyond.

Covering the landscape with particular vegetation thus creates conditions for proliferation of microorganisms that favor it, which in turn might have an effect on the processes in the atmosphere and even subsequently affect the climate.

To support our cloud bacteria we are preparing a plant that would nurture and amplify it when it is on the earth’s surface. The plant will be based on a red clover, which is already present in most temperate environments around the globe, thrives in most soils and, as nitrogen fixer, is already mixed in with many crop plants.

LOS and politics of verticality

I came across Eyal Weizman’s articles on politics of veticality when preparing for doing Picture Sky in Israel. Weizman is an architect by training, based in Tel Aviv and one of his projects involved research into urban planning and architectural layouts of Israeli’s occupation settlements, “purpose-built settlements perched on its hilltops, overlooking long-established Palestinian lowland communities.”
He writes: “The government wanted to resettle the mountain and architects needed to learn how to build there, so the Ministry of Housing came up with guidelines that promoted the use of topography for the establishment of observation points. These were new urban typologies that maximized the potential of the mountain and made use of the precise morphology of the topography. Basically, if you look at the master plans of the settlements, the roads retrace the topographical lines that we charted on maps, so that each settlement takes the exact form of the mountain summit and is built around it as a ring that overlooks all directions.”

He describes how 3d reliefs of the terrain were created from stereoscopic images taken by low flying aircraft equipped with a rig of stereo cameras, and says he found it fascinating “how a methodology of design so clearly relied on a technical apparatus – the stereoscopic images became the primary tool with which topographical lines were charted on maps and then provided the slate for the design work itself. The desire to map the West Bank immediately after the occupation showed clearly that you don’t just map things – mapping is an act of proprietorship.”

LOS and politics of visibility

I came across Christina Williamson’s research on visibility as a factor in state formation. Her research “focuses on the internal mechanisms of how landscape is turned into territory by examining political change through the lens of visibility. Visibility and the role of landscape are seldom taken into account in studies on state formation in antiquity. This research will investigate landmark sites and their commanding views as organizing principles, using as case study the renowned city of Pergamon, in Asia Minor (Western Turkey). The working hypothesis is that as it developed into a kingdom in the Hellenistic period, Pergamon became the centripetal focus of a visual network of power constructed from local sacred, heroic, and military landscapes.”


The first time I failed at explaining this project I was in rural Connecticut, in pitch dark stumbling through someone’s property, a small patch of forest between a swamp and a few houses set back from the dark and narrow road. I was looking for the Cloud Machine, which, according to it’s GPS tracker, had crash-landed somewhere there. As soon as I finally caught the white styrofoam box in the beam of my flashlight – stuck between tree branches some fifty feet above me – I was blinded by a search light of an approaching man and escorted to my car. The property owner was not a trusting type and certainly not one to take some art explanation about cloud-making as an excuse for intrusion on his property. The police officers who arrived soon after weren’t convinced either.

FAA requires proper signage on weather balloon payloads. Identifying the package as harmless and a scientific instrument is the key information to get across to someone who finds it.

What had started me on the project that had brought me to Connecticut was a quote by Rene Descartes that I came across some time earlier. If I can explain clouds, Descartes said, I can explain everything. With that in mind, I decided to take up clouds as the object of investigation, which would presumably lead to my understanding of everything.

This led to an attempt at making a cloud, and eventually to making the Cloud Machine, a tactical device that could be deployed to create situations for rethinking our impact on nature.

Searching for instruction on cloud making, I found proposals outlining not only methods for making clouds, but for making brighter, more reflective clouds: my introduction to geo-engineering. The method of ‘cloud brightening’ was one of the schemes for intentionally intervening in climate to counteract global warming.


The recipe for making a cloud is deceptively simple: take some water vapor, add to it tiny particles onto which the water droplets can condense (called Cloud Condensation Nuclei or CCN), put it in conditions that would make the water vapor condense (for example by lifting the air into higher altitude where it expands and cools). That’s it. If there are more particles in the air, the cloud droplets will be smaller, and will scattered more light thus making the cloud more ‘reflective.’


The Cloud Machine is a personal device for atmospheric modification. It consists of cloud-making gear sent up into the atmosphere in a weather-balloon payload. It disperses CCN (salt) and water vapor at preprogrammed altitudes. Moisture in the air condenses into cloud droplets around the CCN, forming into small temporary clouds. After the balloon bursts, the payload descends on a parachute, and thanks to its GPS tracker can be later recovered.

Predicted (pink) and actual (yellow) trajectory of the Cloud Machine. IMG_3392

I soon realized that what is interesting about a Cloud Machine – and about geo-engineering – is the fact that the cloud and the machine are trading places in our collective imagination. The nature was now conceived as finite, describable by science, no longer inspiring the air of mystery and power it once used to, and which now became the provenance of the machine. Technology was becoming the other to the human society, it had the air of the irresistible power, something we both fear and are fascinated by. David Nye calls it the contemporary sublime noting it embodies the contradiction of “simultaneously evoking individual insignificance and powerlessness and being the corollary to and expansion of human power. An extension and affirmation of reason and an expression of a crushing, omnipotent force outside the self.”

Descartes dreamed of understanding of the physics of the atmosphere and of its affect – the sense of wonder it evokes in humans. But geoengineering represents a complexity of a different order, a complexity that includes the social systems as an inescapable part of the natural systems. With that in mind I changed the focus of my project: if I can explain geo-engineering, I thought, I can explain everything.

My Cloud Machine in Connecticut was eventually recovered by an employee of a tree service company who was allowed to collect it – which required climbing up the tree without spiking it, a complicating factor due to the fact that the tree was on a nature preserve, and by law couldn’t be disturbed. (I should also note that I got a permission to look for the Machine from a friendly woman who answered the door when I arrived at the property. Her husband was unfortunately still suspicious when he arrived later.)
The ensuing situation brought up questions that were a proxy of some of the issues I was beginning to see raised in the discussions surrounding climate engineering proposals: controversy around the legality of intentionally changing the atmosphere (on any scale), suspicion of private interest in the name of the public good, confusion regarding the science behind it, unpredictability of the outcomes, inadequate regulations, to name a few.

The project turned into a series of ongoing explorations and interventions structured as workshops and events where participants learn about clouds, climate, and our relationship to nature and technology through hands-on experiences of creating a reality which interacts with, and tests boundaries of, existing systems, social and cultural assumptions, norms and regulations.

My second device, a Cloud Collector, is also sent into the atmosphere on a weather ballon. Clouds condense on its wings and flow into the sample container, which is recovered after the payload returns to the surface. The cloud samples are ingested by volunteers, and examined for microbial life. Clouds teem with microbes, and while it is not clear yet whether they can be understood as an atmospheric biome, it has been suggested that they might play a role in the atmosphere similar to that microbiomes play in other superorganisms, such as humans – responsible for processes considered intrinsic to their host. The volunteers keep track of their transformation by doing a daily self-observation.




Two kinds of broth for growing the bacteria IMG_9952 2

The objective of the project, Thinking Like a Cloud, is inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic motto: ‘thinking like a mountain’. It describes an ability to appreciate the interconnectedness of things over space and time, to see the long view rather than just the immediate demands.

Cloud ingestion and structured attention are my ‘outside-in’ model of social change.


Observation is also the method of another project, called Clouds From Both Sides. In this project the clouds are photographed simultaneously from the ground looking up, and from a satellite looking down. Done while a satellite passes over our geo-location, we take a photograph looking towards the satellite, and record an observation from the perspective of a human experience – a ‘ground truth.’ The image generated by the satellite’s is later downloaded and the pair of the photographs are displayed together.


PictureSky is an iteration of the project in which the image of the sky is crowdsourced from a group of multiple observers who are positioned at GPS coordinates that form the points of a grid. At the moment of the satellite flyover, they take photographs looking directly up. The images are then stitched together to form a single large image, opposite to the one taken by the satellite.

The crowd becomes a very large sensor, a distributed eye, looking up at the sky, a large, crowdsourced socio-technological apparatus, that comes together to create and image in a participatory and performative action that results in a grid but is at the same time accumulation of messy contextual personal experiences. As opposed to the single photograph, this is a networked perspective. The single image looking down and the mosaic of images looking up can represent not only two opposite visual perspectives, but a model of vertical power relationships and social change approaches: top-down versus bottom-up.


As many thinkers have pointed out, the ability to see the Earth from space was influential in shaping our concepts of ourselves in nature. “Landscape” is a portion of a land which the eye can comprehend at a glance, and as a form is linked closely with social, cultural perceptions of the natural world. This definition of the landscape depends on the frame to mark out the difference between what you see from the unseen. Thanks to ubiquity of satellite imagery, our conceptual frame has been widening and now includes all Earth as seen from space. Such image is a pictorial reinforcement of the concept of nature as comprehensible by scientific description, as finite.

Slavoy Zizek uses the metaphor of meteorology to point out the philosophical necessity of the limit to perspective. He compares the early meteorology and its practice of looking towards the finite horizon beyond which lies the unknown, to the modern satellite meteorology which gives us an image of a global, self-enclosed mechanism and an illusion of completeness of our knowledge about it. “The crucial point is that ‘meaning’ can emerge only within such a finite horizon: weather phenomena can be experienced and conceived as ‘meaningful’ only in so far as there is a Beyond out of which these phenomena emerge,” Zizek writes. “The paradox is that although this traditional ‘closed’ universe confronts us with unpredictable catastrophes which seem to emerge ‘out of nowhere’, it none the less provides a sense of ontological ‘safety’, of dwelling within a self-enclosed finite circle of meaning where things (natural phenomena) in a way ‘speakto us’, address us.”

Density of trees in US

From the NASA Earth Observatory, the density of trees in the US.

Compared to the grain belt before the spread of rust epidemics:


fluid states

Margaret Cohen attempts to “delineate concepts at the intersection of modernity’s epistemology and aesthetics that take on particular clarity from the perspective of the maritime world” in her essay Fluid States. In the introduction, she writes: “From the mid-19th through the end of the 20th century, the great cultural theorists delineated a geography of modernity that was primarily land-based. The focus of Marx, Benjamin, or Foucault on terra firma, on territorialized spaces like the nation state, the city, the colony, the home, and the factory, would have surprised Hegel and, indeed, his early-modern predecessors, who lived with a keen awareness of the waterways of global capitalism. Today the history of cross-ocean travel is once more spilling over from the specialized purview of maritime historians and sailors. While narratives of human struggles with the sea’s most inhospitable waters, like Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, Alfred Lansing’s Shackleton, and Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, attract a general public, scholars in the university are organizing the regions of the world’s oceans into new interdisciplinary paradigms such as Atlantic Studies or the recent Oceans Connect project at Duke University.”?
Many humanists and scholars are attempting today to do the same – delineate some concepts at the intersection of epistemology and aesthetics – from the perspective of atmospheric studies. “I seek to leverage these forays into aerology as a way to critique the cultural imaginary of immateriality at the heart of the “dream of absolute communication and universal contact” inherent in the promotion of new media. I propose a meteorology of the media to assist media scholars in redirecting media studies towards considering questions of (im)mediacy,(im)materiality, and (in)visibility in the context of technical innovation and the production of new mediated forms of living,” writes Stephen Groening in Towards the Meteorology of the Media
Silvia Benedito writes: Peter Sloterdijk claims that the present context of atmospheric disruption, and the correspondent collective alertness, calls for a meteorological turn in design, environmental aesthetics, and cultural theory.