TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2017

PERFECT STORMS: ED ATKINS AND THE SCIENCE OF WEATHER SIMULATION

Ed Atkins, Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 12 minutes 50 seconds.

TO WATCH a great many Ed Atkins videos over a short period of time is to become somewhat desensitized to the theoretical-poetic verbiage that often flows through their soundtracks. Eloquently phrased yet hard to follow, these soliloquies at times come across as almost parodic pastiches of decades of Chris Marker–style voice-overs in the field of video art. All that intelligent reflection to the beat of ever-changing associative splicing: Does anyone ever really listen, really give it the attention it seems to demand? Still, some of his phrases stick. They stick because they come across as signature phrases, constantly repeated and as catchy as pop refrains. And just like refrains, they underscore some of the more significant realities produced in these works. Here’s one example:

I don’t want to hear any news on the radio about the weather on the weekend. Talk about that.

This rejection of weather reports, repeated throughout the looped video Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013, is voiced by one of Atkins’s well-known computer-generated characters, a long-haired male being whose skin, facial expressions, and gestures are rendered with impressive detail. And, like many of Atkins’s avatars, he is a sensitive type, his emotional states very much in evidence. Each rejection of a weekend weather report is followed by a melancholic reminiscence:

Once upon a time a couple of people were alive who were friends of mine. The weathers, the weathers they lived in! Christ, the sun on those Saturdays.

On first appearance, this might seem to evoke an all-too-familiar cultural trope. Here is a fully formed simulacral person trapped inside a world of ever-increasing algorithmic perfection and evidently nursing the trauma of separation from a world where sunlight falls on real, nonreplicable bodies that live for a while, enjoy some good times, and die. It is a realm marked by, among other things, changing weather, which provides a subject for endless forecasting and speculation about everything from the catastrophe of failing harvests to the risk of a bad hair day. In other words, a world of real consequences, where nerve cells vibrate to each tiny change in the environment.

On closer look, it becomes clear that there is no shortage of weather in the synthetic world of Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths either. There is wind, for instance, or something reminiscent of wind: We know it is there, because it makes the protagonist’s abundant and emphatically computer-created hair move about in a variety of ways. Sometimes it moves the way hair moves underwater and sometimes in ways that lack any recognizable real-world parallel. There is also constantly changing light: sudden blinding flashes, passing layers of rainbowlike shimmers and reflections, dramatic shifts in color and hue. Cloudy blurs coalesce at random, only to transform abruptly into the crisp whiteness of the Apple design universe. Just like the wind, the light also seems to follow some kind of autonomous machine logic: To look for natural-law sources makes little sense. Yet weather it is, in all its apparent contingency and power. This is a climate where subtitles cast dark shadows, where brown liquid spills from the sky in elegant splashes and where a single, perfect water droplet hovers in bright-white midair, briefly framing a diamond in free fall. And it appears to be genuinely “lived in,” profoundly impacting the protagonist’s actions and behaviors. The question is only what sort of life it is and how it compares with life in other, more familiar weather systems. Given the recurrence of similar forms of life across a number of Atkins’s works, it might in fact deserve something akin to a weather report of its own.

In the video-game industry, realistic weather is notoriously hard to produce, a bête noire akin to the field’s other perennial challenge: hair. A guide to digital hair care advises that while a procedure called “alpha blending” is usually required to get soft feathery edges, it can also cause sorting problems, i.e., problems with the algorithm that lists elements in a certain order, so as to facilitate the use of other algorithms.1 “Tangle problems,” in other words. Atkins, for his part, repeatedly lets curtains of visibly detangled but perhaps not optimally soft hair swipe across the screen. But while hair is just one among many endlessly perfectible details, weather is a more critical feature, fundamental to the ideals of game immersion. It is the element that can make the difference between a game environment that’s simply navigable and one that’s genuinely habitable—that is, an ecosphere in which “the represented species . . . have available to them all of the resources they would require if they actually existed,” as one paper on the topic notes.2 For this to appear to be the case, the player must above all get a sense of things happening beyond her immediate range of vision, and nothing conveys this better than the dynamics of weather patterns. If you have sun, it implies that it must be raining somewhere.3 And since weather also works as a conduit for signaling other types of changes—in mood, say, or narrative—some researchers have even suggested using it as a discreet way of alerting deeply immersed players to critical events outside the game world itself: a real-world snowstorm, say, for which one might need to get up and prepare.4

Inevitably, however, weather simulation comes up against the traditional dilemmas of realism. The calculating power that allows you to simulate the random behavior of raindrops, for instance—to give each its own shape, speed, angle, light refraction, and reflective properties—is an industry ideal, exploited to great effect in a game like Driveclub. Yet too many too-perfect details can make your ecosphere appear creepily, glaringly contrived. Hence game designers are generally advised to limit their most intensive rendering efforts to a few key elements. Such dilemmas do not, however, apply to the environments in Atkins’s work. His many references to a world of simulation (e.g., a description of his characters as “cadavers” inhabiting a world composed only of signs) are also undone, over and over again. The emphatically nonnatural but habitable weather systems see to that. If there is snow in his work, it is never exactly snow: In Even Pricks, 2013, some kind of white stuff keeps falling, or whirling, in the most artificial of design interiors. It thrives in all sorts of colored light, and frosts the catalogue of imposing text fonts that regularly appear in the landscape, dusting such briefly monumentalized message fragments as “this season” or “almost always.” In the air, this “snow” often looks like pixels. On the ground, it appears chalky rather than crystalline. Yet its behavior is similar enough to other weather phenomena to suggest that what we are exposed to in this work, as well as in numerous others, is a fully developed, inhabited world—where atmospheric conditions also have an aural component. There are regular bursts of music, brief snippets of familiar hits, or notes from a lone instrument. There are swishes, beeps, clicks, claps, sighs, and pops that underscore the rhythmic nature of the climatic patterns. And underneath it all, there is more often than not the quiet hum of a work environment—perhaps that of the studio producing this very world. Just like in realistic weather simulations, all this conveys a sense of things happening beyond the immediate horizon of vision, of background operations that may or may not be commensurable with whatever else is going on, of a general indefinite moodiness. The more time you spend with these works, the more they seem to suggest new ways of imagining intra-machine existence.

Ed Atkins, Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 12 minutes 50 seconds.

ATKINS’S PROTAGONISTS are trapped behind screens, but in ways that differ from the experiences of most digitally created characters. In Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths as well as several other works, such as Happy Birthday!!!, 2014, and Or Tears, of Course, 2013, the screen is a somewhat dirty, glassy surface, a limit that they see from inside their machine reality. In one instance, a character facing us repeatedly touches the screen, instantly producing changes in lighting and atmosphere, just as we touch the smudged screens of our devices and make things happen. Perhaps from the character’s point of view, these are actually screens behind which we are enclosed. Whatever. What matters is that few things better signal the computational nature of Atkins’s environments than this reverse positioning of the touch-sensitive screen. No longer the hallowed display surface of new media culture, a sometimes transparent and sometimes emphatically visible interface between our world and the realm of simulation, the splattered pane is just one screen among many, and as such more akin to a physical divider in space, gesturing toward the existence of multiple dimensionalities of machine activity of varying degrees of accessibility—some seen, some only heard, and some just vaguely sensed.

If this is a fantasy deftly enacted in works of art, it proceeds from intuitions that may be grounded in fact. Digital technologies are often described as a series of “abstraction layers”: The term points to the operational distinctions between (for instance) fiber-optic cables, computer protocols, and software, as well as to our very limited comprehension of how such layers interact with one another. In addition, a profusion of recent writings suggest that there are forms of thinking and sensing proper to algorithmic operations, modes of existence that have nothing in common with human thought and experience. The most radical such theory is probably Luciana Parisi’s concept of contagious architecture, which moves beyond long-conventional models that use algorithms as generative components in the type of form-finding and pattern-making processes most famously associated with so-called blob architectures. In Parisi’s view, such interactions between computation and environmental information may not be sufficient to explain “the mode of extension produced by the ingression of computation into culture.”5 She points to a stranger and more alien idea: New realities may actually emerge within the algorithmic processes themselves. If most approaches to digital construction focus on the idiosyncratic shapes that can now be precisely calculated and built, Parisi zeroes in on the fact that algorithms also produce incalculable quantities of data that impact the function of algorithmic procedures. Contingency or randomness, gaps and blind spots are immanent features of formal systems, as they attempt to invent axioms and rules. That incomputable quantities are part and parcel of computational reality means programs have to contend with phenomena that cannot be fully comprehended or compressed by totalities, whether you call that totality machine, mind, or body.6 And this is why Parisi describes such events as aesthetic experiences at work within machine operation itself, as algorithmic forms of sensing.

In fact, theories that ascribe sensing, experience, and meaning-making to computation seem to be all around us, informing very different understandings of digital culture. Mark B. N. Hansen suggests that the microscopic time gaps between data that are key to computing may be compared to the half-second delay between neuronal activation and conscious perception in the human brain. Digital media could therefore be seen to operate on a precognitive level. They are sensing, rather than perceiving, and their default mode is therefore a sort of restless vibratory anticipation—a “peripheral ‘calculative ambience’” directed toward the not-yet-known.7 And then there is Yuk Hui’s claim that digital objects produce a form of non-human semantics in their evolving interaction with their algorithmic milieu, or Anna Munster’s discussion of how networks experience what it “feels like” to be a network.8

Ideas such as these are based on extensive technical and scientific knowledge, while drawing as well on the philosophical work of Heidegger, A. N. Whitehead, and Gilbert Simondon, among others. But they are also related to everyday intuitions concerning technologies that seem to sense and anticipate our every move and to occasion cumulative, random-seeming social, political, and economic effects. Weather may in fact be an especially useful point of reference in trying to come to grips with these phenomena. To speak, as Hansen does, of a “peripheral ‘calculative ambience’” is perhaps also to evoke the vague sense of foreboding, the indelibly predictive mind-set that characterizes our relation to the weather. And if algorithms have to contend with contingencies and randomness that transform their identity and function, this resonates with the complexity that characterizes weather systems, famously exemplified by the so-called butterfly effect, according to which initially small differences—for example, the beating of a butterfly’s wing at one moment rather than another—can have vastly magnified consequences that elude calculation or prediction.

Inside the screen realities of Atkins’s work, a similar sense of tense background anticipation reigns, thanks to that reality’s most marked feature: constant atmospheric change combined with almost imperceptible abstract processes of spatial layering. But the unnerving part is not that more seems to go on than meets the eye: It is rather that the digital climates produce atmospheres that may be intensely felt, yet for which we have no good description. We may know how we feel about starry skies, but what about starry skies that appear indistinguishable from illuminated specks of dust on some screen surface? The moods in these works simply surpass us. This may be an immersive world, but one thing seems clear: It is not ours to live in.

Ed Atkins, Even Pricks, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 10 seconds.

IT IS PERHAPS INEVITABLE that discussions of Atkins’s work tend to focus on his human-looking avatars, and the ways in which the sentiments they seem to express reflect familiar forms of human experience: love, shame, desire, humiliation, fear, ambivalence. This is the case even (or especially) when the characters’ emotional discourse seems vested in the tools of their digital fabrication. “Real-time fur simulators, real-time fracture, rigid body solvers, complete interactivity, terrific polygon counts,” as the protagonist in Us Dead Talk Love, 2012, puts it, a note of desperation in his voice. Bodily discharge flows freely; sexual organs are helplessly, abjectly on display. This carnal presence is at once their claim on humanity and the measure of their alienation. And it is perhaps only natural that we tend to do our best to ignore or downplay the many ways in which this slim bridge to our world is also constantly dismantled or closed off. Sometimes, though, it can hardly escape our attention, as when the skin of a character is shown as a texture map, perhaps to be further perfected by a ZBrush human-skin alpha-brush tool. Or when a head suddenly becomes a so-called poly group, a set of polyhedrons separated from a 3-D-animated skeleton, so that this particular body part can be sculpted in more detail. At this point, you see the empty hollow of the still-talking head, tilted to the side and viewed from the cutoff neck: just your basic temperamental digital object, in perfect accord with all the other digital components of the scene, each of which seems to have its own affective range. A changing color, an inserted subtitle, a simulated cloud of smoke, a passing shadow, or a pen making a mark is inevitably accompanied by sounds that emphasize the fact that each of these things is a distinct, animate entity—abstract-looking, perhaps, but in this environment also fully actual and real.

Strangely enough, the peculiarity of these environments is never more in evidence than when 3-D animation alternates with, or is supplanted by, more traditionally “nature-oriented” visual sources, such as photography and film. In the context of a digital animation, real-world footage might seem to signal a return to human territories, but here it generally adds to the expressive register of computational weathers. In Death Mask 3, 2011, there are sea, sky, mountains, plants, animals, and an endless emphasis on meteorological effects: thickening fog, flickering sunlight. Death Mask 2: The Scent, 2010, pays endless, loving attention to a big round durian fruit, visually aligned with the back of a human head in a strategy somewhat reminiscent of Irving Penn’s fetishizing isolation of banal or disgusting objects. In both works, the photographic or cinematographic materials are also emphatically digital objects, animate in ways that exceed filmic motion. They undergo incessant technical self-transformation, with software-driven changes in sharpness, focus, coloring, framing, placement, duration, and sound effects. And they interact with vibrantly synthetic color planes and a host of other digitally generated elements, to the point where the beings and atmospheres of the natural world appear as if continuous with the purely computational climate patterns. The weather known by most of us as a more or less familiar, more or less regular register of occurrences and transitions, now truly appears as lived abstraction: that is, as real phenomena, whose mode of becoming radically exceeds our horizon of experience. These, of course, are the climates we are currently living in.

The weather has always been the ultimate metaphor; in social situations, we instantly reach for it as the most readily available token of consensus or sharing. Yet as our general understanding of climatic effects changes, their metaphorical import follows suit. The emergence of cloud computing seems, for instance, to have produced new ways of talking about the weather. Critical awareness of that cloud—described by Tung-Hui Hu as a complex pooling of network power and a multibillion-dollar industry that is presented as a single virtual object9—is increasing, and spurring more imagination across the natural/technical divide. It provides a resonant background for John Durham Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds (2015), a description of natural elements as a media system, and it fuels art projects such as J. R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud, 2016, and Sean Snyder’s Cloud Sediment (Gstaad), 2015–16. Cloud imaginaries are perhaps the ultimate transfiguration of contemporary power, media meteorology its inevitable deconstruction.

But cloud metaphors are also present at more local, technical levels: The use of “point clouds” promises the ultimate in bouncy digital hair, since such three-dimensional coordinate systems can mimic the behavior of all those unseen individual strands underneath the hair’s surface.10 As with weather simulation, it is all about accounting for the ambiguous background presence of the unseen. And if Atkins’s weather systems have a metaphorical address, it is less the big infrastructures of cloud computing than the many and diverse efforts to align computing with complexity and ambiguity, whether in the development of robot emotions for the service industries or in the coordination and capture of affect in social media and other online activity. To understand such enterprises in meteorological terms is to glimpse not just well-known features of the economies of speculation and forecasting, but also the accumulating realms of unknowability within calculative rationality. To watch a lot of Ed Atkins videos in rapid succession is also to notice a tendency: the gradual disappearance, in his more recent productions, of the reassuring presence of the intelligent voice-over. Increasingly, the weather reigns supreme, with its disquieting abstract powers. It is, in so many ways, the sign of things to come.

“Ed Atkins: Old Food,” organized by the Berliner Festspiele, is on view at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, through December 10.

Ina Blom is a professor in the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas at the University of Oslo and Wigeland Visiting Professor in the department of art history at the University of Chicago.

NOTES

1. “Hair Technique,” Polycount Wiki, last modified June 26, 2017, wiki.polycount.com/wiki/HairTechnique.

2. Matt Barton, “How’s the Weather: Simulating Weather in Virtual Environments,” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 8, no. 1 (September 2008), gamestudies.org/0801/articles/barton.

3. Ibid.

4. Dale Patterson and Scott Roberts, “Reality Reaching into Games—Weather as a Dynamic Link to Real-World Streams of Information,” in Serious Games: Second Joint International Conference, JCSG 2016, Brisbane, QLD, Australia, September 26–27, 2016, Proceedings, ed. Tim Marsh et al. (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016), 169–80.

5. Luciana Parisi, Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), xi.

6. Ibid., ix–x.

7. Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 186.

8. Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); and Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

9. Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), ix–x.

10. Sebastian Anthony, “Researchers Finally Crack Realistic, Real-Time Rendered Hair in Video Games,” ExtremeTech, May 28, 2013, www.extremetech.com/extreme/156862-researchers-finally-crack-realistic-real-time-rendered-hair-in-video-games.