Weather Engines. The poetics, politics and technologies of the environment

Weather Engines, which opened at Onassis Stegi and the National Observatory of Athens a couple of weeks ago, is looking at the climate crisis through the prisms of social justice, technology and the weather.

Afroditi Psarra and Audrey Briot, Listening Space, 2019. Waiting for satellites

Paky Vlassopoulou, To Love the Hibiscus, You Must First Love the Monsoon, 2022. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

The title of the exhibition intrigued me. The word “Weather” looks simple enough to delineate. Weather doesn’t have the gravitas nor the long-term aura of the word “climate”. It is local, volatile and immediate. The exhibition, however, reminds us that the weather crosses borders and that its appearance in conversations is now fraught with anxieties. Because the weather directly affects our bodies, it makes us physically aware of the state of emergency in which the Earth is today.

Now the word “Engines” has even more depth. The first engine is the weather itself: it is a life-sustaining system, a dynamic organism, a complex combination of temperature, humidity, wind speed, air pressure, light and a reflection of how the Earth functions as a breathing body made of interconnected ecosystems. The other “Engines” are the technologies that humanity has deployed over time to control and modify the weather and, increasingly, the whole planet itself. While weather patterns have been disrupted -sometimes irreversibly- by technologies reliant on extractivism, these same technologies are now hailed as saviours that can protect the planet through weather manipulation.

Thomas Wrede, Rhonegletscher II, 2018

The Weather Engines exhibition and associated events are just as complex and rich as the questions they aim to investigate.

I’ve visited countless exhibitions dedicated to technology and the ecological crisis. Weather Engines stands out from the crowded art landscape. Mostly because it zooms in on three crucial issues. The first one is the political dimensions of an increasingly anthropogenic weather (see the previous story: Cold Cases. How temperature is used to assert violence on racialised people.) The second is its critical but balanced perspective on geoengineering: an unbridled intertwining of weather and technology is frightening but indigenous resistance, artistic poetry and a rising desire to thrive on something else than pure capitalism suggest that our uncertain future doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. And then there’s the artworks, in particular the ones that move beyond the human perspective and explore what changes in weather and climate look like from the point of view of what to most of us looks like modest forms of life: the insects, the fungi, even pollen, mist and microplankton.

Here’s a selection of artworks:

Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, Proxy Climates (detail), 2019

Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, Proxy Climates, 2019. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias 0451

Pollen is a climate proxy, an element that provides indirect records of the Earth’s climate. Since pollen grains rarely rot, they are well preserved in the sediment layers. When viewed under a microscope, tiny pollen grains from different plants have distinctive appearances. Looking at them, scientists can infer what types of plants were growing when the sediment was deposited. From there, interpretations can be made about the past climate of a particular area and how it changed over time.

Since 2019 Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan have been collecting pollen grains from regions in the process of desertification, starting with the Oltenian Sahara in Southern Romania, and extending their research to Italy, Spain, Serbia, Greece. The collected pollen particles are then identified and presented in the shape of geological core samples.

Proxy Climates is an ever-expanding archive that explores how plant biodiversity is being slowly eroded in many regions of the world. It aims to both preserve the genetic material of vanishing flora and to become a possible scientific resource for future paleoclimatic studies.

Sybille Neumeyer, souvenirs entomologiques #1: odonata / weathering data, 2020

Sybille Neumeyer, souvenirs entomologiques #1: odonata / weathering data, 2020. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

Following recent studies related to the massive decline in insect populations, these highly sensitive organisms have become ambassadors for biodiversity, local ecological managers and living biomarkers for climate change.

Operating at the intersection of meteorology and biology, and exploring both knowledge-based on technology and on collaborative indigenous practices, Sybille Neumeyer‘s “souvenirs entomologiques #1: odonata / weathering data” is a video essay accompanied by a wooden frame containing dragonflies specimens from museums. The specimens pinned on the board invite us to consider how museum insects collections can be relevant in these times of crisis. The video, however, looks at how technologies to monitor insect populations can influence and shape insects and how greater consideration of alternate sets of knowledge, cultural values, colonial histories can help reframe insect observation as a practice of care.

HYPERCOMF, Marine Caves and Benthic Terrazzo, 2021

HYPERCOMF, Marine Caves and Benthic Terrazzo, 2021

HYPERCOMF, Marine Caves and Benthic Terrazzo, 2021. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

HYPERCOMF, Marine Caves and Benthic Terrazzo, 2021

Several endemic marine species use marine caves as a refuge. The varying intensity levels of light penetrating them create several distinct ecological zones -from light to absolute dark- in each cave. Darker interiors provide ideal conditions for sciaphilic (shade-loving) organisms but they also attract an increasing number of invasive species that can alter the biodiversity of the ecosystems. If that were not enough, the dark habitats are also threatened by (micro) plastic pollution and by the intensification of human activity close to their entrances.

Artist team Hypercomf collaborated with marine biologist Markos Digenis on a project that communicates the perceptual and practical problems encountered in marine ecosystem preservation.

Wandering the shores of Chania, Crete, the artists collected plastic scraps to include in “Benthic Terrazzo”. This series of floor mosaics is inspired by the traditional Venetian terrazzo, a type of material that mixes lime (or cement) with the waste from the processing of marble and other stones. In HYPERCOMF’s version of the composite material, marine pollutants, such as plastic objects, microplastics, nets and ropes, replace part of the concrete and sand mixture. The technique adopted by the artists is scalable and ensures that anyone can give a second life to the notoriously hard to recycle marine plastics.

By inviting the subject of the ocean inside our terrestrial homes, the project blurs the borders between sea caves and human terrestrial dwellings. It also evokes the slow flooding of human coastal habitats by rising sea levels which will bring man-made pollutants back into the human home.

Felipe Castelblanco, Rio Arriba [Upriver], 2020

Felipe Castelblanco, Rio Arriba [Upriver], 2020

Felipe Castelblanco, Rio Arriba [Upriver], 2020. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

Rio Arriba [Upriver] takes the viewer on a journey along the Putumayo River. The images follow the flow of the river, going upstream from the Siona people’s territory in the lower Amazon at 300 meters above sea level to that of the Quillacinga in the highlands of the Colombian Andes at 3,000 meters above sea level.

The film essay unravels a landscape made of soils, air, clouds and fires. The different types of clouds that appear are particularly fascinating: some are formed by mist, some by fire, others by aerial (and toxic) fumigations against illicit coca farming. And as always, indigenous communities all along the rivers attempt to protect these non-human forms of life and resist extractivist ambitions and other forms of colonial mentality.

Rio Arriba [Upriver] unfolds realities and experiences that are miles away from our own. Yet, by suggesting spiritualities and landscapes that are beyond the realm of visibility, the film manages to draw us into local disputes and the dramatic resonances they have on the whole planet.

Kat Austen, Time to Break Down (Echoes of the Palaeoplasticene), 2021. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

Kat Austen, Time to Break Down (Echoes of the Palaeoplasticene), 2021. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

From the deepest sea and onto the highest peaks, from the Arctic sea ice to remote deserts, what we call “nature” is now inexorably contaminated with plastic.

Plastics can require 500 years or more to decompose which forces us to confront timescales so vast that they are beyond our human experience.

Time to Break Down (Echoes of the Palaeoplasticene) propels us back to a speculative past where plastic-based fungi evolved naturally. Impervious to seasons and any change in ecosystems, the small pink plastic mushrooms outlast the surrounding flora and fauna.

The plastic fungi look at anthropogenic petrochemical ecologies and legacies affecting the more than human world but they also conjure current and future ecosystems. Today already, certain types of fungus, worms and all sorts of microorganisms are able to digest plastic waste. How much will organisms and ecosystems adapt to plastic omnipresence in the coming decades?

“Time to Break Down (Echoes of the Palaeoplasticene)” balances the cheerful and the depressing with flair. On the one hand, the work reminds us that some organisms in our environment are evolving to cope with the toxic conditions we throw at them. One the other hand, my heart sinks at the idea that the non-human world might once again have to clean up the mess we leave behind.

No animals were harmed in the making of this artwork. In fact, the artist made sure that the six-week installation of the objects in the garden of the National Observatory of Athens, located on top of the Hill of the Nymphs and facing the Acropolis, will not affect the living surroundings.

More images and artworks from the exhibition:

Kent Chan, Heat Waves, 2021

Matthias Fritsch, Mycelium Garden, 2022. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

Matthias Fritsch, Mycelium Garden, 2022. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

GEOCINEMA (Asia Bazdyrieva and Solveig Qu Suess), Making of Earths, 2021

Afroditi Psarra and Audrey Briot, Listening Space, 2019. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

Jussi Parikka and Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Seed, Image, Ground, 2020

DESIGN_EARTH, The Planet After Geoengineering, 2021. Photo: Stelios Tzetzias

The Weather Engines, an exhibition curated by Daphne Dragona & Jussi Parikka, remains open until 15 May at Onassis Stegi and at the National Observatory of Athens.

Previously: Cold Cases. How temperature is used to assert violence on racialised people.