The Shifting Power of Clouds and Molecular Aesthetics


Dr. Paul Thomas
Associate Professor, Director of Fine Art
University of New South Wales, Faculty of Art and Design
Email: p.thomas@unsw.edu.au
Reference this essay: Thomas, Paul. “The Shifting Power of Clouds and Molecular Aesthetics.” 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
https://contemporaryarts.mit.edu/pub/shiftingpowerofclouds



I would like to start this essay by examining the moment in time when clouds inadvertently became metaphors for chaos. The intention is to compare and explore the cloud’s new context as a ubiquitous data archive and distribution process. By using the concept of ‘particles’ or ‘bits’ of data, playing on the metaphorical molecular cloud, this essay will use a theoretical argument to break down the distinctive boundaries between our bodies, the object-world, and clouds. The molecular cloud becomes a new atmospheric formation of rethinking data as a global, and seemingly immaterial, distribution of storage and retrieval; of breathing in and out.

The molecular aesthetics of the data-cloud exist everywhere, and yet nowhere specific. Similar to Wil McCarthy’s self-replicating nano-machines, called “Mycora,” in the novel Bloom, [1]  [2] this particular gateway pulls all the molecular elements together as a singular hyper-object. The cloud provides a new concept of boundless states of “assembly.” As with the protocols of bit torrent files, this reconceptualization is distinct from and beyond materialist, mechanical diagrams and the practices of collage ad remixing or remediation that became characteristic of late twentieth-century and millennial aesthetics. The cloud is not an object, but rather an experience, and its particles are the very building blocks of a molecular aesthetic in which we live, breathe, and act.

The elemental cloud that is the visual manifestation of data is seen as floating turmoil that moves like an unrestricted droplet of color, falling into a glass of water and blossoms. With no containment, the cloud itself is susceptible to all the unpredictable vagaries of the elements that make up the upper atmosphere. The cloud’s shape is ever-changing and unfathomable; a ‘fluxist’ movement of unpredictability.

The cloud as a non-perspectival space was inadvertently brought into focus and defined by Fillipo Brunelleschi in his construction of the peephole device. This device eliminated the nature of the cloud in its construction of a predominantly perspectival understanding of the world. There is a link between the way the cloud has been marginalized in the doctrine of perspective that determines how we see the world, and current understandings of the data-cloud.

In the author’s book Reconfiguring Space, [3] there is a brief description of Brunelleschi’s peephole device that draws from Antonio Manetti’s firsthand experience. In his biography of Brunelleschi, Manetti enables us to see the device’s role in establishing perspective and how clouds are positioned such that they play a minor role. [4] The seer, via a mirrored image of the Baptistery painting, perceives an assimilated view from the doorway of the Duomo. The viewer peers through a hole in the back of the painting, held in one hand, while in front of the painting, a mirror is held at arm’s length in the other. The mirror, which is placed in front of the actual baptistery, creates a seamless image in its reflection with the surrounding architectural space visibly extending beyond the mirror’s edge.

This device had an additional feature that made its effectiveness all the more interesting. This feature was the use of burnished silver to represent sky on the painted panel: “Where the sky had to be represented, that is to say, where the buildings of the painting were free, thus the clouds seen in the silver are carried along by the wind as it blows.” [5]

For Brunelleschi, the clouds are not seen as having contributed to the invention of perspective; instead, we are left to assume that as mere reflections they were superfluous to the construction of true perspectival space. These images of nature—the clouds, the sky—seem trapped within the radiance of the polished silver. This moment in time is significant in that it transforms the way we see the world through measurement. The moment of ignorance precedes the moment of recognition; there is a fine line between these two states. The moment of perspectival recognition cannot be reversed; as the author suggests, “the paradigmatic mathematical theory of single-point perspective is fundamental to the imagining and construction of space in modern times.” [6]

The cloud becomes the ‘other,’ left out of the perspectival equation that was created through the construction of the peephole device: an animated, autonomous blob. This concept is supported by Hurbert Damisch, who writes:

Brunelleschi's experiment reduced /cloud/ to an effect of reflection, a mirror image engineered within the figurative field by dint of a material artifice. But the significance of that reduction is twofold, both rational and symptomatic: it was at once a consequence and evidence of the institution of perspective space as the theoretical space of (re)presentation. [7]

The construction of a quantifiable, theoretical space did not require chance or unpredictability to influence the instigation of determinate boundaries. The idea that the cloud could be a “negentropic vortex,” [8]—a mapped and corporatized space that dealt with ownership, permanency, and certainty—would be the absolute antithesis to the nature of the cloud.

When water vapor in the air is forced to ascend due to its geographic location and physical properties, it transforms from invisible to visible, taking the form of a cloud. As they hover over the earth’s surface, these clouds are observed by painters as nature’s symbolically anti-perspectival acts. These artists attempt to probe and critique the clouds in an effort to comprehend their swirls and vortices, and in doing so, challenge political modes of power and control. During the Middle Ages, social, religious, and political control came from directly above. The structure of a pyramid serves as a model, with religion or the state giving orders directly from the top-most point. This vanishing point of power and control shifted to the horizon following the birth of modern perspective. The vanishing point that is made on the horizon is fictional, an unassailable point of converging lines that, in reality, never converge and therefore cannot be reached. This control has now been metaphorically placed back into the data-cloud as the new peak of the pyramid. Thus, power, information, and energy are now repositioned so that they are hierarchically overhead, and so too is perspective’s vanishing point. This time, ‘perspective’ includes the rogue cloud in its elemental model, incorporating all aspects of the scope of the perspectival view.

The contemporary data-cloud, with its capacity for folding, twisting, swelling, and turbulence, creates the potential for new meanings to be born. The chaos at the cloud’s core now drives the chaos of power. The cloud dominates new interpretations of preexisting data, scrambled by its unpredictable movement, and thus acts as semiautonomous sorting algorithm; a perfect quantum random generator.

The dual process of biosemiotics, [9] between DNA code and analogue RNA proteins, becomes an interchange between atmospheric molecules and our bodies. Drawing breath on a cold day fills the lungs with air—that is, an invisible cloud—that only becomes visible as it is exhaled into the cold air. The molecular cloud and the physical body meet and combine in the act of inhaling and exhaling. The code embedded into our bodies and into the cloud does not fit within a Cartesian space, since it escapes a quantifiable linearity, enabling its own downloads.

William Turner’s series of watercolors depicting clouds (1820–30) demonstrates a coalescence of materials, atmosphere, and thought, creating a molecular aesthetic abstract symbol. The contemporary data-cloud is a crude, subversive metaphor designed to corrupt and change the way power and authority are understood. Releasing its bits of data like rain from the heavens, the appearance of the aesthetic molecular data-cloud as it rises to clear the landmass has the potential for a new conception. Like Lucretius’s atoms in the void, the raindrops as they encounter tiny disturbances in the atmosphere form new matter and meaning.

References and Notes

[1] Wil McCarthy novel, Bloom, can be seen as analogous to the clouds, where a swarm concept becomes a boundless body. The swarm concept is taken to further extremes, where self-replicating nano-bots, called Mycora, have become a swarming, cloud-like entity. P. Thomas, Nanoart: The Immateriality of Art (Bristol: Intellect books, 2013).

[2] The human race has escaped the expanding nano-bot bloom, and people are now referred to as immunities. The Mycora describes itself as occupying “contiguous space” and as being “unpacked.” In one of the final scenes, the Mycora eating through the spaceship take on the image of a human face, stating, “there is a system not just bodies, no, course not. We do not have ‘bodies’ in the sense you probably mean, but there are the complexes which constitute us, and the complexes which support us.” W. McCarthy, Bloom (London: Millennium, 1998), 303.

[3] This section from Thomas’s book, Reconfiguring Space, provides a background to Brunelleschi’s famous peephole device. P. Thomas, Reconfiguring Space (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag, 2009), 14.

[4] In Manetti's biography of Brunelleschi, the account of the perspective panel (peephole device), which is dated around 1413, features in a small but highly significant way. Although written some years after Brunelleschi’s death, the reliability of Manetti’s insights are reflected in the fact that he visited Brunelleschi’s home when he was alive and was also shown the peephole device. Like Brunelleschi, Manetti was interested in geometry and mathematical sciences and could have gleaned much of his information about the device directly from their discussions. Suggesting that Brunelleschi was proud of his perspective panels and glad to show them off, Manetti stated, “I have had it in my hands and seen it many times in my days and can testify to it.” The device had three components. The first of these, as Manetti describes, comprised a “small panel about half a braccia square,’” upon which was a painting of the Baptistery of San Giovanni (adjacent to the front of the cathedral of Florence), “painted with such care and delicacy and with such great precision.”  The second part of the device was a flat mirror held in the other hand to that holding the painting. The third part of this device was the small hole cut into the panel itself: “he had made a hole in the painted panel at that point in the temple of San Giovanni, which is directly opposite the eye of anyone stationed in the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiore.” A. Manetti, The Life of Brunelleschi , trans. C. Englass (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970), 42 - 44.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] P. Thomas, “Reconfiguring  Space,” Ph.D. at the School of Architecture and Fine Arts, Perth, University of Western Australia.

[7] H. Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/ Toward a History of Painting (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 183.

[8] From Philip K. Dicks novel “VALIS (acronym of Vast Active Living Intelligence System, from an American film): A perturbation in the reality field in which a spontaneous self-monitoring negentropic vortex is formed.”

[9] Jasper Hoffmeyer suggests that biosemiotics “is the basis of … self-reference, and thus the basis of life? We shall suggest here that the central feature of living systems allowing for self-reference, and thus the ability to select and respond to differences in their surroundings, is code-duality.”  "Code-Duality and the Semiotics of Nature." Jesper Hoffmeyer and Claus Emmeche, “Code-Duality and the Semiotics of Nature,” Niels Bohr Institutet, http://www.nbi.dk/~emmeche/coPubl/91.JHCE/codedual.html(accessed January 20, 2016).

Author Biography

Dr. Paul Thomas is Associate Professor and Director of the Fine Arts programme at UNSW Art and Design. He initiated and is the co-chair of the Transdisciplinary Imaging Conference series 2010-2016. In 2000 he instigated and was the founding Director of the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth 2002, 2004, and 2007. Thomas is a pioneer of transdisciplinary art practice. His practice led research takes not only inspiration from nanoscience and quantum theory, but actually operates there. Thomas’s current research ‘Quantum Consciousness’ is based on the experiments being conducted by Professor Andrea Morello, Quantum Nanosystems, UNSW, looking at visualizing and sonifying quantum phenomenon in the development of quantum computing. He has exhibited nationally and internationally, and his current publications are Nanoart: The Immateriality of ArtRelive Media Art Histories, co-edited with Sean Cubitt and Interference Strategies and Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics co-edited with Lanfranco Aceti and Edward Colless.