Clouds, from both sides

June 8, 2013

In this project the clouds are photographed simultaneously from the ground looking up, and from a satellite looking down.

While a satellite passes over our geo-location, we take a photograph looking towards the satellite. We record an observation of the clouds from the perspective of a human experience. Later we download the satellite’s image and the cloud analysis. The two pairs of observations and images are displayed together.

The participants in the project come from different backgrounds, including writers, climate scientists, artists, art&tech curators, geo-engineers, weathermen, students and participants in cloud workshops.

The project is shown as video installation, photography installation and a book.

Here are images from an observation from June 14, 2013, in Brooklyn, NY.

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The satellite images are taken by MODIS imager and the meteorological analysis is done by CERES instruments on Aqua and Terra satellites. Here’s the link to the overflight schedule: http://oceandata.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/cgi/overpass_pred. NASA uploads the images a few hours after the overflight and they can be found here.

Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) is on-going NASA climatological experiment from Earth orbit. The CERES are scientific satellite instruments, part of the NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), designed to measure both solar-reflected and Earth-emitted radiation from the top of the atmosphere (TOA) to the Earth’s surface. Cloud properties are determined using simultaneous measurements by other EOS instruments such as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Results from the CERES and other NASA missions, such as the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE), could lead to a better understanding of the role of clouds and the energy cycle in global climate change.

There’s no image without a point of view. This project represents two ways of knowing, a scientific narrative, and a personal narrative.

An analogy for how these two views complement each other is the practice of ‘ground truthing’ used in the fields of ‘cartography, meteorology, analysis of aerial photographs, satellite imagery and other techniques in which data are gathered at a distance’. ‘Ground truth’ is human observation confirming information gathered by a technical apparathus: ‘a process in which a pixel on a satellite image is compared to what is there in reality (at the present time) in order to verify the contents of the pixel on the image.’ In weather observations, particularly ones related to the cloud coverage, the human observation is still more accurate than the observations gathered from instruments alone.

The satellite view represents a view from the ‘outside’, looking down, a perspective of sovereigns over nature (after all we’re used to the idea that if something is looking back at us when we look up, it’s omnipotent). In Ecology Without Nature, Timothy Morton proposes that an ecological criticism must be ‘divested of the bifurcation of nature and civilization’, or the idea that nature exists as something that sustains civilization, but exists outside of, and separate from, civilization. He writes: ‘Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.’ Instead, Morton proposes the term ‘mesh’ to refer to interconnectedness of everything: ‘The mesh has no central position that privileges any one form of being over others, and thereby erases definitive interior and exterior boundaries of beings. […]All beings are said to relate to each other in a totalizing open system.’ Using Morton’s terminology, the human observer’s report is a report form within the ‘mesh. It describes a unique moment in time and space stamped by a particular formation of clouds, from a perspective informed by the individual history of the observer. The ‘mesh’ itself, argues Morton, can ‘never be perceived directly.’

Morton uses a term ‘strange strangers’ for beings unable to be completely comprehended and labeled. Within the mesh, all beings become ‘strange strangers’, as the defining boundaries between them are dissolving. The more we describe the clouds the more we end up describing everything else. The more we know about an entity, the stranger and harder to define it becomes. A person’s observation of an environment is as much an image of the observer and his or her connections to the environment: a climate scientists view of clouds will be different than a poet’s or a school teacher’s.

Cheryl Foster describes these two dimensions of experience of nature as ‘narrative’ and ‘ambient’, the second one being the “more powerful and enduring experience [that] resists direct or clear expression in discursive prose,” while the first one, prevalent in our culture, “privileges natural history and the frameworks of science for understanding and seeing what nature reveals through its surface. The depth of time beneath the formal and perceptual features cannot be seen by the naive eye and thus must be understood, rather than observed, as directly influencing the perceptual surface. Through a grasp of previously present processes we can read the natural environment as the offspring of its progenitors and see its perceptual features as manifestations of those progenitors.”
Neither approach in isolation gives us a full picture, constitutes full knowledge, argues Foster.

As Diane Ackerman writes, the sky is “the one visual constant in all our lives, a complex backdrop to our every venture, thought, and emotion. Yet we tend to think of it as invisible — an absence, not a substance. Though we move through air’s glassy fathoms, we rarely picture it as the thick heavy arena it is. []We say ‘light as air,’ but there is nothing lightweight about our atmosphere, which weighs 5,000 trillion tons. Only a clench as stubborn as gravity’s could hold it to the earth; otherwise it would simply float away and seep into the cornerless expanse of space.”

The following questions are suggestions for the observer when making the observation.
What is the sky color? What is the percentage of the cloud coverage? What is the felt temperature, humidity and wind? What is the height of the clouds (low, mid or high)? What is the percentage of coverage of each layer of the clouds? What species of clouds do you see at each layer? Are they transparent, translucent or opaque? Are there any visible contrails? What is the ground cover and conditions? What effect do the clouds are having on the environment? What do you think these cloud formations are a manifestation of? What do you think is the history of the air mass that manifests in the clouds? Can they tell you anything about the past or the future? What do they make you think of or how do they make you feel? What is your location and why are you there? How does it feel to know something is looking back at you? Do you think clouds in these two images will look similar?