Introduction to Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics: An Analysis of Individual Components in Larger Systems

Lanfranco Aceti
Director of Arts Administration
Boston University
Reference this essay: Aceti, Lanfranco. "Introduction to Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics: An Analysis of Individual Components in Larger Systems." 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

Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics via a collection of essays reflects upon the relationship between the small and the very large. Offering varied perspectives and conceptual approaches, this carefully curated collection analyzes the complexity of contemporary society specific to aesthetic endeavors which use scientific and digital frameworks as a means of relevant expression and critical examination. This volume inspired by aesthetic, intellectual paradigms, and scientific interpretations of the words ‘cloud’ and ‘molecular’ presents conceptualizations which are not solely related and restricted to scientific and aesthetic endeavors but also to a socio-political understanding of reality and its visual representation.

Emerging from a conversation between Lanfranco Aceti, Director of Operational and Curatorial Research and Editor in Chief of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (MIT Press) and Paul Thomas, the director of the Transdisciplinary Imaging Conference, this thematic collection of essay was conceived as a contemporary aesthetic survey of the words cloud and molecular. The initial exchange between Aceti and Thomas lead to two different events: 1) a conference that took place at the Pera Museum in Istanbul from June 26 to June 28, 2014, under the aegis of Sabanci University and Kasa Gallery; and 2) an exhibition titled The Small Infinite at the John Hansard Gallery, curated by Lanfranco Aceti and Vince Dziekan, which explored aesthetic interpretations of the relationship between representations of the infinitesimally small and immense grandiosity. “‘The Small Infinite’ looked at how minuscule blocks of material, time and emotion can build up to a totality and, likewise, how we can zoom in ad infinitum from the wide world to its constituent parts.” [1]

In writing this introduction, my mind has gone back over and over again to the events that have taken place in Istanbul, and Turkey more generally, since the conference days. As personal vicissitudes intertwine with larger schema, the observance and subsequent distraction of their movements as collective swarms of molecules, animals, or people allows us to all too easily discount or totally ignore the individual role each contributor plays. It is like observing a sky full of clouds within which we recognize the larger patterns but are somehow unwilling or unable to gain a deeper understanding of the single minute parts and of the forces that affect them.

The process of writing and recording, as well as my own editorial work as Editor in Chief of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, is rooted in a vision of historical documentation of these minute elements and their flux, which are aggregated in the form of editorial projects in order to cast a structure and present an interpretation of reality.

This approach has made me question for a while now the role of the artist as a single molecule in relationship to the larger swarms, the even larger historical events, and the infinitely larger times of existence. I used to give a quote to my students in Istanbul, during my semester lectures in visual culture on the role of the artist and social engagement, that would point to and engage with a concept of the artist as the embodiment of these forces.

“Almost all good artists are being worked through with forces they’re not quite aware of.” [2]

Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics offers a view of these forces through a variety of perspectives on ethical, scientific, aesthetic, and social issues. The book is also a reflection of two small events, a conference and an exhibition. Within the larger scope and scale of various historical contexts, these events anticipated and embodied issues that would become more apparent, and complex as time passed, thus actively shaping perceptions into contemporary historical facts. This was a process that rendered visible, at least to my mind, the complicated intertwining of relationships and networks, as well as unveiled some of the visible and invisible forces which shape actions, decisions, thoughts, and ultimately aesthetic approaches.

This is a time in which the processes of exploitation, the collapsing of empires and the striking back of forces which have been unleashed by greed, self-interest, and lust for power allow human creative analyses to extrapolate meaning through metaphorical and allegorical paradigms inspired, in this particular book, by molecular, chemical, and cloud networks as a way of seeking harmony within chaos, beauty within horror, meaning within the meaningless.

“These products of our hands and minds, beautiful molecules, appeal directly to the mind.” [3]

When we created this call for a conference, which in Istanbul had its magical moments of collegial engagements, discussions and hopes, somehow I already knew that the unfolding of events was leading to complex international upheavals. It was for this reason that my own presentation and interventions focused on the attempt to unveil the allegorical nature of both the cloud and the molecular, beyond the representation of the individual as a small part of the whole. By reading the post-postsocietal context and the post-postInternet comments (if we are in a post-postmodern era) of the essay I started to write in 2014, “Wet Me: Cupio Dissolvi ad Nubes et Lumina,” I find that it anticipated trends and disruptions. It also sought to re-imagine the way in which these unknown forces work through humanity, in order to uncover a framework which would allow an understanding of the role of the individual in the larger scale of events both plausible and implausible.

The use of Anthony Wiener as an allegorical dantesque lonza [4] in the essay “Wet Me: Cupio Dissolvi ad Nubes et Lumina” in response to Darren Tofts' keynote foreshadowed themes of post-post society and rather strangely the re-appearance of the ‘Wiener’ in the 2016 presidential elections of the United States of America. As if it were a sexual disease, never gotten rid of and always reappearing, Wiener symbolizes the sleaziness of elites incapable of reforming; always ready to control the sexual life of others while themselves engaging in those condemned actions as well as any other worst possible behaviors.

In order to understand these globalized societies, their construction, the inner workings and their faltering, perhaps there is no other better opportunity than referring to the historical usages of metaphors that the words chemistry, molecular, or cloud have developed across multiple art forms to represent life’s events. Primo Levi’s writings delineate the possibility of this understanding via the metaphor as a way to embody a sensation into reality. “There is an immense patrimony of metaphors that the writer can take from the chemistry of today and yesterday, which those who have not frequented the laboratory and factory know only approximately.” [5]

This book is a collection of metaphors, scientific theories, and approaches but is also conceived as a precursor to notions that may move beyond a social perception of relational aesthetics which appears to eliminate individuality from the processes of creation and representation of the larger entity of the dēmos. “Moreover, politics in its strict sense never presupposes a reified subject or predefined group of individuals such as the proletariat, the poor, or minorities. On the contrary, the only possible subject of politics is the people or the dēmos, i.e. the supplementary part of every account of the population. Those who have no name, who remain invisible and inaudible, can only penetrate the police order via a mode of subjectivization that transforms the aesthetic coordinates of the community by implementing the universal presupposition of politics: we are all equal.” [6]

The equality and diversity of the “universal presupposition” [7] of politics is actually coming apart since this assumption has faltered in the moment in which the divide between the community and “politics in its strict sense” [8] has transitioned the equality into the difference of the community. The impossibility of equality and the rise of difference is embedded within the community itself via forms of exploitation that have rendered the community alien from the statal institutions which are supposed to represent it, different from that portion of the community that governs it, which has become so small to have rendered itself politically irrelevant. The masses, despite the attempt to financially buyout elections, can shake and have shaken institutional structures which were supposed to be eternal and instead have showed, both within the US and the EU, an institutional fragility directly proportional to the level of alienation of the masses of commodified and deprived individuals that constitute them. This is also the fragility of the elites exposed to the winds of a radioactive populism, a legitimized response to failed democracies transformed into oligarchies and verging on pre-dictatorships, which is now, depending on personal or collective ideological stances, contaminating or cleansing the well. Therefore, the contrast is between the failure of subjectivization and the radical objectification which has transformed the community into uncontrollable singular citizens no longer bound or related to the idea of the body politic if not in opposition to it. The individual—no longer part of the people even when described with the label of populism—has been alienated from the community by a financial divide and a process of commodification. It is a process of alienation that has afforded the individual the freedom to aggregate and disaggregate according to personal whims, trajectories, thoughts, and itches. The new molecular existence of the alienated individual, with its cloud-like aggregations, imagined, real or virtual, provides the opportunity for a new aesthetic reconsideration of society and of all those who operate within it.

“This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution.” [9]

The problem of apportionment and the relationship between the parts to the whole is a fascinating aspect of this metaphorical molecular observation at an individual level in which, suddenly, radioactive and free to aggregate and disaggregate without bounds, bonds and ideological restrictions, the individual is again the protagonist of events and histories.

It is as if with the acquired freedom there is no longer a process of apportionment and a construction that requires an acknowledgment of self-evident facts positioned at the basis of “the distribution of the sensible.” If self-evident facts fail, because of post-truths or because of their inherent propagandistic nature as mouthpieces of the body politic, then the distribution of the sensible is no longer possible. There is no apportionment that can be done because it is impossible to recognize the existence of something in common in the form of self-evident facts—since what is self-evident and what is a fact for one side is not necessarily factual or self-evident for the other side. What also collapses is the possibility, without commonly shared facts that individuals and the body politic can agree upon, to delimit and partition roles, spaces, and times.

The impotency of the participation of the individual, restricted from engaging within a democratic model, as well as the impossibility of the individual to take part in the distribution of resources generates a landscape in which the cloud is no longer; and the single molecule takes the form of water raining down as part of an entirely new status and new cycle.

“And even in the case of documentary machines producing minor information as disambiguous counter-information” as rain drops or electric bolts arriving from objectified and freed individuals one should not, if not at one’s own peril, “reject them because of suspicion of ideology. There are situations where artists have to take a stance, produce a singular truth against the truth of identity as well as against the relativism of ambiguity in the art field.” [10]

It is the role of the individual, in its various forms of engagement and disentanglement, that the book Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics hints at. The introduction provides a political context, disconnected perhaps from the scientific elements that compose its sections but nevertheless, as in Levi’s approach, are heavily influenced by it.

“In this text, Levi highlights the interdependence of scientific and philosophical discourses, blurs the genres of autobiography and fiction, and relentlessly points to the impossibility of arriving at the elemental or the pure in any field.” [11]

The connection and disconnection of people, the apportioning and appropriation of parts, as infinitesimally small may they be, are framed in the construction of a personal narrative which, although invisible and inaudible, still exists with its inherent disruptive possibility of being uncovered and discovered. There is no longer need to follow Jacques Rancière’s approach to a collective subjectivization in order to be rendered visible. The opposite is actually possible, therefore betraying Michele Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari’s approaches, and stepping into a blessed objectivization which, by seeking invisibility, post-truth, disaggregation, chaos, and separation, offers the space for a new threatening identity. This is not the identity of the minority, classically conceived as neatly enclosed within its own operational ghetto delineated by the nation state and bent to the processes of subjectivization/subjugation enforced by the body politic. The identity is constructed as a forced revolutionary independence that is the imposed consequence of the carving out of the individual from the community, as an alienated and unrecognizable element, an objectivized individual ‘which’ was once part of the whole, but now is with nothing left to lose and to participate in, and therefore free to have or to be, or perhaps both.

References and Notes

[1] Paul Carey-Kent, “The Small Infinite,” Frieze, September 16, 2014, (accessed January 14, 2017).

[2] Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography (New York: First Mariner Books, 2000), 285.

[3] Roald Hoffmann, “Molecular Beauty,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 202.

[4] Sally Mussetter, “Dante’s Three Beasts and the Imago ‘Trinitatis’,” Dante Studieswith the Annual Report of the Dante Society 95 (1977): 39.

[5] Primo Levi, “Chemistry Lessons,” The Wilson Quarterly 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1989): 217.

[6] Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), xiii.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 7.

[10] Gerald Raunig, “Singers, Cynics, Molecular Mice: The Political Aesthetics of Contemporary Activism,” Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 7 (2014): 69.

[11] Natasha V. Chang, “Chemical Contaminations: Allegory and Alterity in Primo Levi's ‘Il sistema periodico’,” Italica 83, no. 3/4 (Fall - Winter, 2006): 543.

Author Biography

Lanfranco Aceti works as an artist, curator, and academic. He is the director of Arts Administration at Boston University. He has done a range of exhibitions and public space interventions at renowned international venues including Tate Modern, MoMA, and the ICA London among others. He is Editor in Chief of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (The MIT Press, Leonardo journal), for which he has edited more than twelve volumes. He has lectured internationally at prestigious institutions such as Yale, Harvard, RCA, Goldsmiths, and Central Saint Martins. He is currently curating public performances and interventions on the White House sidewalk and at Documenta14 as well as exhibiting his own performance and works of art at the 2017 Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art.