PRINT January 2017


James Bridle’s Cloud Index

Screen capture from James Bridle’s Cloud Index, 2016, interactive website,

ALMOST TWO DECADES into the twenty-first century, we still haven’t found a language for the amorphous streams of data that constitute the internet; faced with the seemingly infinite complexity of information, we resort to vague abstractions such as ether, portal, air, or, often, cloud. Such terminology reveals that we think of our information as if it lived elsewhere, floating free from specific cultural or political contexts—as if it is not really real. In fact, of course, data is quite the opposite, more tangible, even, than most solid objects. Not only is it part of a vast infrastructure that encircles the globe, stored in massive brick-and-mortar facilities and transported through wires and cables, but its role in shaping the world around us—in molding our chosen truth—is profound.

British artist James Bridle explores precisely this interconnection between intangible systems and our material sociopolitical reality in Cloud Index, 2016, an online artwork he describes as “a system for predicting voting results based on the weather . . . a forecast for possible futures.” In this work, commissioned by Serpentine Galleries in London and presented permanently on the website, Bridle has created an interactive digital platform that explores possible correspondences between weather patterns in the UK and public opinion on the European Union referendum. Based on an algorithmic analysis of past weather and polling data, the index allows users to set a hypothetical weather pattern and predict the referendum results that might correspond with it, or vice versa. Having been launched after the Brexit vote, the platform offers users a glimpse of alternative results, a chance to project alternative realities. With equal poetry and precision, Bridle inspires us to draw conclusions from his arbitrary hypothesis. Indeed, the difference between pure data science and algorithm-based art lies in this sort of ever-shifting whimsy, much like clouds themselves.

Online, Bridle presents the project in three separate parts, each on an individual web page, which he respectively labels “Proposition,” “Technology,” and “History.” In the first, a pixelated background reveals a map of Britain. The viewer/participant can click to change the percentage of votes to grant victory to either the Leave or Remain campaign, and Bridle’s algorithm automatically produces a simulated satellite image of the corresponding cloud cover over the UK. By giving the user the illusion of control, the artist makes us complicit in the projected outcome.

In the technology section, Bridle reveals the inner workings of his project, citing the specific computer programs and data sources he used to construct it. The artist began with a compilation of more than fifteen thousand satellite images of weather patterns. He then used a neural network algorithm (developed to recognize patterns in immense quantities of data) to compare these images to six years of polling data. Eventually, the network “learned” not only to recognize correlations between images and data, but also to create new cloud structures based on predicted political scenarios—a universe of alternate futures, as fickle as the wind.

The third part of the piece is a text by Bridle, in which he delivers an equally speculative and convincing history of “cloud thinking,” ranging from the development of the photophone to the latest efforts in weather control by rain-cloud seeding. This essay is a scientific, anthropological, and spiritual account of the progress of our weather technology and its resounding impact on our climate—both ecologically and sociopolitically. Yet it is simultaneously a satire of itself, aware of the absurdity of its central correlation, which parodies the ways in which, in our data-driven world, claims to truth are often justified by murky numbers. Finally, Bridle maps this trajectory onto the literal language of data, seeding the metaphor itself until it bursts apart and dissolves into rain, describing the internet as “a single, vast, planetary weather system.”

Himali Singh Soin is an artist and writer based in London and New Delhi.