In 2019 the english artist James Bridle realized for the BBC New Ways of Seeing, a four-part radio show that esamine “how technology is changing visual culture”. The reference is excellent: the author looks at John Berger’s 1972 television format Ways of Seeing, where the famous art critic proposed new perspectives in the reading of artworks. The programme wanted to prove that this operation is influenced by social and political aspects.
The first episode of Bridle’s show, called Invisible Networks, begins with a story about how the internet and the so-called real world are closely connected on a material level. “People used to laugh about other people that would think that “The Cloud” – in the digital internet sense- had anything to do with real clouds, or the weather”, told Hito Steyerl. But when a big hurricane hit New York, knocking out many of the cloud services there, the tables were turned. The weather phenomenon and its doppelganger suddenly, and momentarily, met face to face.
Thinking the technology is something really complicated. We are aware of the thousand of hardware that support our necessities, but they are or so close or so far away that we no longer pay attention to them. And what about the softwares? We are so concerned about whether they work, so that we do not have to give up services that are now essential, than we are about how they actually work.
On a perceptual level, the technology is ubiquitous but invisible. What are the consequences of this cognitive bias? James Bridle wonders in a 2019 Guardian article about how can we “understand a world in which the most powerful technologies of our time are so hard to see that most of us aren’t even aware of them?”.
Starts from these reflections “Songs of the Sky. Photography & the Cloud”, on view until 21 April at the C/O Berlin. The exhibition title is an tribute to Alfred Stieglitz’s work “Songs of the Sky”, become famous as Equivalents. Not a random choice: this series, realized during 1920s, is in fact a collection of more than 200 photographies of clouds. Images that paved the way to abstraction for a medium that had been traditionally associated with the depiction of reality.
About a hundred years later, the real cloud become a computer cloud, with one of those curious but not uncommon linguistic parallels between the natural world and the virtual world.
The Berlin show is a survey on photography in the age of big data, focusing on cloud-computing technology and their consequences on climate change and geopolitics.
Songs of the Sky investigates the material aspects of the digital revolution, questioning the capitalist myth of the immateriality of new technology.
Almut Linde’s work presents a sea of clouds in front of a blue sky, an apparently ideal image that has in reality an industrial origin and that reveals to us the environmental cost of our everyday technologies.
Particularly interesting is Noa Jansma’s research on the transformation of natural phenomena to exploitable resources. In Buycloud the young artist decides to literally sell natural clouds. We read on her site: “Recent studies claim that with rising emissions, cumulus clouds will disappear in 100-150 years. This will lead to an 8ºC increase in global temperature. Catastrophic for the planet but beneficial for the cloud market; after all, every market fundaments on supply and demand. The purchase of a cloud becomes a poetic but stable investment.”
Also, Fragmentin’s work explores the tendency to instrumentalise nature, investigating the human desire to control meteorological phenomena.
Trevor Paglen continues his reflections about artificial vision and seeing machines in his Clouds series, which draws parallels to Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents. The artist and geographer explores new visual geographies in which machines have an increasingly important position, sometimes leaving the humans out of the loop.
More poetic is instead Cloud Face, of the artists duo Shinseungback Kimyonghun: in this work an AI recognizes a series of clouds’ images as faces.
In the creases of technology and in the uncontrolled spaces of system errors, for a moment the machine becomes a little more human, apparently replicating the timeless game of lying on a lawn and trying to recognize familiar shapes in the clouds.
With these and others artworks, including Evan Roth’s, Mario Santamarìa’s, Raphael Dallaporta’s and Adrian Sauer’s, to name but a few, Songs of the Sky proposes an uncomfortable and complex reflection on the contemporary image, on its nature and on the infrastructures of sharing and archiving in which it is irrevocably involved. Reflecting on what photography is today cannot be separated from these questions, and in the meanders of these reflections we can glimpse the real physiognomy of the world we live in, and the future we are building.