Collapse: Clouds of Affective Dust

Jondi Keane
School of Communications and Creative Arts, Deakin University
Pia Ednie-Brown
School of Architecture and Design, RMIT University
Reference the essay: Keane, Jondi and Pia Ednie-Brown. “Collapse: Clouds of Affective Dust.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 1, edited by Lanfranco Aceti, Paul Thomas, and Edward Colless. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: May 15, 2017
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: 978-1-906897-62-8


This essay looks beyond the metaphor of ‘the cloud’ as simply a way of describing a mode of data storage. In fact, this is just one of many systems and activities that are encompassed by the metaphor. While the cloud might at first seem indicative of a loss of material presence, as important things are sucked into data storage, our argument insists on the cloud’s inextricability from both very concrete matters and from collapses inherent to the concrete. The essay explores various forms of such collapses, wherein the fallout throws up a cloud of ‘affective dust’ that offers access to future potential. A series of examples are employed to demonstrate how collapse might operate as a specific technique within creative practice. In particular, the focus is on Arakawa and Gin’s Bioscleave House, proposing that in its design, this environment attempts to incorporate a perpetual collapse that resituates domestic habitation within a cloud of affective dust.


Affect, architecture, art, metaphor, cloud, data storage, collapse


Metaphors are powerful tools for understanding through analogy. By combining difference with similarity, particularities can be clarified. Arguably, culturally predominant metaphors like ‘the cloud’ point to something constitutive of the culture at that time, as their predominance arises based on the degree to which they resonate with not just one or two, but many diverse situations that come together to characterize an era or a particular version of it. In this sense, metaphors like ‘the cloud’ become something like signals of ‘zeitgeist.’ One familiar aspect of the cloud is its use as a term to describe a mode of data storage. However, as this is just one of many systems and activities that pertain to the metaphor, an understanding of this broader meaning requires exploring the operative significance of other, adjacent types of cloud.

Clouds of Affective Dust

On September 11, 2001, the collapse of the World Trade Center produced a cloud of smoke and dust. Images of this event were reproduced rapidly and spat into another cloud: the data cloud, saturating the atmosphere with its affects. Here were two types of cloud: one obviously material, and one metaphorical. There was, however, a more broadly encompassing cloud to speak of.

The event involved a resonance between multiple collapses: the collapse of a building, of security, of the immunity of a dominant political power, and of personal lives and families. Many different kinds of apparently solid formations were thrown into motion on open-ended trajectories. This multitude of simultaneous collapses resonated powerfully to produce a suspenseful cloud that was not just pulverized airborne concrete, nor just a fluffy metaphor, but traversed both abstractly: it was a relational swarm of potentiality, or a cloud of affective dust.

Why call this potentiality a cloud? And why risk confusing it with that commonly used metaphor, or with the material event of a physical cloud of dust? As Darren Tofts’ essay in this volume points out, because the cloud wants to be both, but hasn’t resolved how:

The metaphor of the cloud does indeed want it both ways. It wants to be ethereal and material at the same time. As illustrations of it demonstrate it is figurative of the idea of vapor as other-thereness, but images its groundedness in the solidity of location (not on my computer, but others elsewhere, somewhere else). [1]

As Tofts implies, there is a problem at work in this wanting, and an act of sophistry in resting the ‘groundedness’ of the cloud in terms of “the solidity of location.” It is possible that an attention to the geographic location of storage devices could tell an interesting story, but this approach skips over the heart of the matter. The materiality of the cloud lies, like a sleeping dog, in its capacity to shift and alter the course of events through affective impact—and, more abstractly, in its potentiality. The cloud is both material and ethereal, physical and metaphorical in the same gesture, but always in passing. The systems of highly connected data storage—which we call ‘the cloud’—bring enormous potential with them. If we only think about the material actuality of this ‘cloud’ in terms of some ‘location,’ we have missed its actual, pressing material impact.

Events of considerable intensity such as the 9/11 attacks make this clearer, for who would ever imagine that the action of ‘the cloud’ in saturating us with circulating images was immaterial? The horrific cascade of images, film, and data that ‘the cloud’ made possible came from a place that was no more directly experienced for most of us than all those movies made in New York whose fictions have moved and touched us. Who cares where or on what devices these movies are stored? What matters is how they touch us. The 9/11 attacks, however, were not fictional, and as such, their material, affective impact was all the more exponential. The affective dust—the cloud of potential (even if seized in horror)—was both immense and manifestly actualized in every tear, shudder, and racing heartbeat.

However, the immaterial materiality of ‘the cloud’ has something to offer us in the way we imagine the reality of all manner of things—even those with apparently solid and actual boundaries. Every object and thing, as it eventfully exists, is part of a cloud of potential. Sometimes this cloud is scarcely noticeable, but it is always part of the thing or event, its impact, and its meaningful consequences. As much as the cloud itself is always passing, it gets into the grain of things in ongoing ways, much like the dust of the World Trade Center, found miles away under wardrobes, ingrained in the clothes worn on the day, and embedded in the lungs of the traumatized. What Jane Bennett calls “thing-power” could be understood as the ‘call of the cloud’—which is more or less powerfully present (or audible, perhaps) among different things and their given situations. [2]

The nature of clouds is that they are always in the process of simultaneously forming and collapsing. Collapses may not always be so apparently obvious as they were in the 9/11 attacks, but they are always in play, just as the cloud of potential is always billowing. Destruction and creation go hand-in-hand.

Moreover, artifacts can be designed to have processes of collapse built into their operative engagements, eliciting clouds of affective dust. We have chosen a particularly pushy artifact—Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s Bioscleave House—as a lens through which we will flesh this out. A series of examples, also by Arakawa and Gins, will first be discussed, leading us to the house. When we encounter the work of Arakawa and Gins, habitualized perception is disrupted. That is, our habits of perception collapse in such a way that processes of reconfiguration or reassembly are prompted, even if perpetually belied. Arakawa and Gins deploy architecture as a research device for reconfiguring the joining and separating of body and environment by collapsing and reconfiguring sensory boundaries, modalities of engagement, and daily practices. This amounts to a self-sustaining collapse built directly and indirectly into physical artifacts. Their work generates a cloud of affective dust in a manner that offers a complex, expanded path into the prevailing metaphor of the cloud.

Arakawa, a painter and protégé of Duchamp, began working with the important American poet Madeline Gins in a collaborative and transdisciplinary way from 1963 onwards. The Guggenheim Museum held a major retrospective of their work in 1997. In the epigram of their Guggenheim catalogue, they state, “if each person must invent herself further out of what she has at her disposal, we should at least have readily available a reference guide to all that a person can possibly rally to the cause of being a person.” [3] Their work becomes just such a “reference guide,” offering ways to understand and deploy the generative potential of clouds of affective dust. They developed this guide through their voracious appetites for research, their turn towards the built environment as a daily research device, their dogged determination to build questions in a 360-degree manner, and their ability to redirect desired ends through a certain amount of indirectness. [4] In all these ways, they worked with affective dust for half a century.

Arakawa and Gins: Approaching Atmospheric Intricacy

Arakawa and Gins’s experimental practice approaches the cloud by encouraging a disintegration that leads to productive reassembly, a move they would call “atmospheric intricateness.” [5] Their particular disposition towards reinvention is articulated through filigree entanglements of concepts, percepts, and affects, such as tentativeness, cleaving (to join and to separate), blank, fiction of place, sited awareness, landing sites, critical resemblances, parlaying indirectness, procedural architecture, crisis ethics, and ultimately an “organism-that-persons, which is the first step on the path to the architectural body” (that is, a codetermining body-environment). [6] These evocative and hard-to-locate concepts of process encourage the dismantling of habitual configurations that in turn lead to the reassembly of deregulated and reconfigurable modes of sensing, thinking, and feeling. Their concept of “atmospheric intricateness” offers a precise description of the cloud of affective dust as an open structure of possible relations. This open structure operates as a mechanism for reinventing techniques for perceiving and acting. Two of their major works explicitly include dismantling and reassembly sequences, structures, programs, and puzzles: The Mechanism of Meaning (1963–1973) and The Bridge of Reversible Destiny/The Process in Question (1973–1989). [7]

The Mechanism of Meaning is a series of 82 painting puzzles organized into 16 sections. The first eight sections are aimed at the dismantling or ‘neutralization of subjectivity,’ while the last eight sections optimize the reconfigurable potential of ‘reassembling’ once habitual modes of sensing, processing, learning, and knowing are loosened from their moorings. These collapses are gentle, in that they function more like puzzles or koans (Zen tasks) that implicate both how one solves a problem and how the problem is proposed. Through confronting the contradictions between perceptual and conceptual processing, they offer us challenges that are simultaneously embodied, sensory, spatial, and linguistic.

Figure 1. Arakawa and Gins, The Mechanism of Meaning: 1.1 Neutralisation of Subjectivity, 1963-1973. Photograph by Sally Ritts. © Estate of Madeline Gins. Used with permission.
Figure 1. Arakawa and Gins, The Mechanism of Meaning: 1.1 Neutralisation of Subjectivity, 1963-1973. Photograph by Sally Ritts. © Estate of Madeline Gins. Used with permission.

Figure 2. Arakawa and Gins, The Mechanism of Meaning: 3.4 Presentation of Ambiguous Zones, 1963-1973. Photograph by Sally Ritts. © Estate of Madeline Gins. Used with permission.
Figure 2. Arakawa and Gins, The Mechanism of Meaning: 3.4 Presentation of Ambiguous Zones, 1963-1973. Photograph by Sally Ritts. © Estate of Madeline Gins. Used with permission.

The first half of The Mechanism of Meaning embodied cognitive processes set against each other to demonstrate the habitual nature of these processes and to provide an experience of what it feels like, for example, when the way in which you perceive something conflicts with your habitual understanding of that thing. One comes face to face with the rules and logic of self-organization. Once the bare abstractions of these rules are understood and the turbulence caused by confronting one’s own automaticity subsides, it becomes possible to interact with and reconfigure these rules (that is, to self-organize again). In situations where conflicts arise, the default tendency is to move towards unity and unified experience, even at the expense of one’s own rules (both conscious to the person and at the unconscious or autonomic level of the organism). The Mechanism of Meaning actively works to undo or disrupt this very tendency.

The latter half of the series prompts movement across scales of action and across modes of sensing, offered as a process through which reassembly can take place. It is important to note that in encouraging a process of reassembly, Arakawa and Gins do not propose a particular path of change. Where the coordination of thinking, feeling, and sensing shifts and disrupts established modes of engagement and understanding, a new form can emerge. This form, however, is much like a cloud whose specific shape can be modeled but not entirely anticipated.

Bridge of Reversible Destiny/The Process in Question consists of scale models and plans for a bridge to be built in Epinal, France. Where the Mechanism of Meaning operates as body-sized puzzles in close proximity, The Bridge is an immersive environment that enlarges the field of engagement and is relentless in its attempt to activate body-wide modes of processing. The layered steel mesh of The Bridge construction allows no respite from the situational, nor the possibility of retreating to a safe viewing distance. As one heads to the middle of the bridge and arrives at the ‘Helen Keller Reading Room,’ all efforts to orient oneself through language or by perceiving standardized features are disrupted. There is a marked contrast between the process of reassembly that occurs in The Bridge and that which occurs in The Mechanism of Meaning. The dismantling process is drawn out in The Bridge, accounting for 12 of its 20 rooms. It is only at room 12, the ‘Planet’s Cry,’ that a reassembly project is initiated.

The means through which this attenuated dismantling and reassembling occurs are complex. For example, the layered mesh disrupts the way distance and surface might be perceived and processed through the coordination of the senses. In order to perceive the features of this environment, one must readjust—take apart—the component senses, and determine the degree to which they had been interacting and coordinating as a perceptual system. Later in the sequence of rooms is a space in which the bird’s-eye view of the room has been produced as a wire frame drawing and placed on the wall of that room. This means that a person is given the view from two positions in the room simultaneously: one from the person’s current position, and one from the top of the room looking down (a view that also transforms under movement because it is itself a physical object). This is an entirely different exercise: we move from a situation in which perception is challenged in the first part of the sequence to become a more re-configurative and comparative way of deploying perceptual and conceptual processing. The difference between the two is the difference between becoming aware of a habit and realizing that once a habit is gone (dismantled), many other behaviors are possible.

The trajectory of this approach, which involves attenuating and dilating the types of change and the pace of connections within and across the body-environment, goes even further in Arakawa and Gins’s larger-scale built work. This is true, for example, of their Reversible Destiny Park in Yoro, as well as the Ubiquitous Site at Nagi, both in Japan. Their approach settles into a long-term encounter and program in the Bioscleave House, a laboratory residence for “daily research” built on Long Island, NY. [8]

The design of the Bioscleave House’s built environment is tactical in that it is set up to actively shift the pace of one’s familiar movements and the tempo of one’s processes of perception such that one can re-enter these processes differently, encouraging a reassembly. The Mechanism of Meaning, as discussed earlier, prompts a related opportunity for re-assembly or self-reorganization. In the cases of The Bridge and the Reversible Destiny Park, one’s movement radically shifts the conditions under which one holds perception and orientation together. However, in the Bioscleave House,because it is a residence and not a short-term engagement with an artwork, puzzle, or novel terrain, Arakawa and Gins understood that the habitual patterns of sensing in this built context become aligned with the patterns of habitation. Therefore, when one disentangles and disintegrates perception within a residence, a more deeply imprinted complex of ideas, beliefs, activities, and perceptual constructs are challenged.

Consequently, Bioscleave House asks questions of its visitors as they go about their daily routines of living. These questions concern another set of routines or habitual actions, such as determining size, scale, distance, and the level and direction of light. This kind of architectural design operates in stark contrast to the standardized architectural cues that assume and reinforce habits of perception, effectively allowing our sensoria to sleep. The critical difference here is that the use of the built environment to question the constructs on which habitation relies allows those constructs to collapse, and in turn allows the body-environment relationship to reassemble and form new alliances. This “process in question,” to borrow from the title of their The Bridge project, is one that requires experimentation from both the designers and the resident researchers, entangling even more tightly the relationship between things and the process through which one engages with those things (attends, perceives, selects, decides [analyses, interprets], and judges). The cloud of affective dust generated by the Bioscleave House permeates deeply into a domestic environment that de-habituates habitation, inviting an emergent self-reinvention.

Figure 3. Arakawa + Gins, Bioscleave House (Lifespan Extending Villa), 2008. Interior, kitchen, living area, study. Photograph by Jose Luis Perez-Griffo Viqueira. © Estate of Madeline Gins, 2008. Used with permission.
Figure 3. Arakawa + Gins, Bioscleave House (Lifespan Extending Villa), 2008. Interior, kitchen, living area, study. Photograph by Jose Luis Perez-Griffo Viqueira. © Estate of Madeline Gins, 2008. Used with permission.

Conclusion: Tending to Collapse

Figure 4. Pia Ednie-Brown, Interior panorama Bioscleave House, 2013. Photograph by Pia Ednie-Brown. © Pia Ednie-Brown, 2013. Used with permission.
Figure 4. Pia Ednie-Brown, Interior panorama Bioscleave House, 2013. Photograph by Pia Ednie-Brown. © Pia Ednie-Brown, 2013. Used with permission.

By focusing on a built environment that incorporates the production of a cloud of affective dust into its design, we propose that the material and ideational aspects of the cloud are inextricable. In turn, this inextricability suggests that, rather than being envisaged as a suspended puff of vapor, the cloud might be productively imagined as dust thrown up by multiple collapses. Not simply a metaphor of molecular affects or a physical model of dispersion, affective dust is an image of the unanticipated ways in which the processes of collapse disrupt systems, realms, and regimes at all levels of existence.

Like the perpetual collapses built into the program of the Bioscleave House, the prevalence of the (data) cloud metaphor possibly signals the degree to which circulatory and connective capacities are powering the turbine velocity at which collapses are churned over—resisting the settling of dust, or the resettlement of habit and ritual. Clouds of affective dust appear more explicitly as a constituent element of culture, and could almost be given a daily indicator rating as is done for fire, ultraviolet light, or smog.

If the stability or validity of a structure (whether an actual building or a coherent organization system) is judged by how well it stands up to questioning, then a built environment constructed to ask questions is a very unstable, cloud-like environment—difficult to navigate, negotiate, and fully comprehend. This is partly because it refuses to cohere, and partly because the collapse it seeks to generate cannot be controlled, but only negotiated and taken for what it is: potential. In this sense, the Bioscleave House offers an opportunity to research practices that absorb and incorporate the generative potential embedded in that multifarious thing we call ‘the cloud.’

References and Notes

[1] Darren Tofts, “‘… but the clouds…’ Being a Valediction Permitting Mourning, in Three Stages of Decline,” in Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics, ed. Lanfranco Aceti and Paul Thomas (Boston, MA: Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 2015).

[2] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Matter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 2-6.

[3] Michael Govan, compiler, Reversible Destiny – Arakawa / Gins – We Have Decided Not to Die. Exhibition Catalogue (New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Soho, 1997), epigram.

[4] Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, “Vital Contextualising Information,” in INTERFACES: Architecture Against Death/ Architecture Contre la Mort, double issue, v.2, n. 21/22, Paris: College of Holy Cross and Paris University 7 Dennis Diderot (2003): 20.

[5] Ibid., 25.

[6] Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, Architectural Body (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 2.

[7] See images in Michael Govan, compiler, Reversible Destiny – Arakawa and Gins – We Have Decided Not to Die. The Mechanism of Meaning: 54-109 and Bridge of Reversible Destiny/The Process in Question: 124-133.

[8] Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body, 95-100.

Author Biographies

Pia Ednie-Brown is an architectural theorist and creative practitioner with a BA from the University of Western Australia and a PhD from RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia). She is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT. She has a creative research practice, onomatopoeia(, and has edited two books: Plastic Green: Designing for environmental transformation (RMIT Press, 2009), and The Innovation Imperative: Architectures of Vitality (Wiley, 2013).

Jondi Keane is an arts practitioner, critical thinker, and Senior Lecturer and Associate Head of School (Technology and Environments) at Deakin University. Over more than three decades, he has exhibited, performed, and published in the US, UK, Europe, and Australia ( He has published in a range of interdisciplinary journals including Ecological Psychology, Janus Head, Interfaces, and Studies in Material Thinking. Recent creative works include PAN & ZOOM, a performative-installation in Performing Mobilities in Melbourne. His research interests are focused through contemporary art practices, collaboration, experimental architecture, and enactive theories of cognition, informing the way interdisciplinary inquiries address collective concerns.