Project Sky+ by Karolina Sobecka

Pick of the Week #98

sobecka6This week’s pick is Project Sky+ by Karolina Sobecka, a geoengineering and philosophical project about collecting and drinking the water from clouds. Described as a ‘personal device for Thinking Like a Cloud’, Sobecka attaches mesh wings to a weather balloon which collects water into a container. These cloud samples are analyzed for microorganisms and ingested by the experimental subject.

Sobecka is an artist from Poland who studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and CalArts. Her work seeks to “engage public spaces and explore our interactions with the world”.(Dream The End) She is the founder and creative director of Flightphase, an art and design studio based in Brooklyn.

Alpha-ville spoke to Karolina about her drinkable clouds.

“The objective of Project Sky+, ‘Thinking Like a Cloud’, was developed after Aldo Leopold’s land ethics motto ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’. It describes an ability to appreciate the interconnectedness of things over space and time, to see the long view rather than just the immediate demands. Today the perspective of a cloud might be even more apt than that of a mountain in representing systems thinking. The clouds have long served myth-makers, philosophers and scientists as the face and the boundary markers of the forces shaping our world. Today their ephemerality and complexity embodies the essence of dynamical interconnected systems.”

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“Most of my work has to do with how we relate to technology and to ‘nature’, and geoengineering is a really interesting lens for looking at that, an index of our faith in technology.  Clouds have always been the ‘things to think with’, in myths, philosophies, literature and in science (for example Descartes wrote something to the effect of that if he can explain clouds he can explain everything, since they are such an epitome of the ephemeral).  It’s interesting to look at the metaphors we use the clouds for, and the kind of world-views they indicate.

My cloud machines are conversation starters that aim to draw attention to the pressing environmental issues, and to an individual’s role in effecting change.  Part of the project is an experimental documentary which contextualizes these devices and provides information and perspectives from experts in their fields, so I get to have really interesting conversations with climate scientists, microbiologists, geoengineers, ecologists, etc.”

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“I was really fascinated by all the instruments that measure and sample clouds in various ways, and looked at a lot of meteorological instruments.  When I was looking for the way to sample clouds from a weather balloon, I found the ‘Standard Fog Collector’, an official instrument for sampling fog (which was also adapted as a DIY way of collecting drink water in areas with little precipitation).  It is a mesh fabric on which the moisture in the air can condense.  I’m using the same kind of mesh, fitted on 2 wings on my collector, from which the water flows down into a container.”
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“The human microbiome (the organisms that make up 95 percent of cells in our bodies), and its effect on our identity and behaviour are really fascinating, and we are just starting to learn about it.  In my project by adding a cloud’s microbiome to our own, we can become part-cloud, which might be a little more than just a metaphor. To my disappointment it appears that there’s no actual ‘cloud microbe’ — a microbe whose primary habitat are the clouds, but how our identity is formed and how it affects the way in which we relate to the world around us is definitely far from clear.”

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“The phrase ‘inexact science’ kept coming up during my research, and the longer I work on this project the more apparent it is how incomplete our knowledge is about clouds, about microbes, and about the interconnectedness of everything in general.  Microbes in the atmosphere are especially difficult to study: people have been trying to study them for a long time (for example Charles Lindbergh designed a ‘Sky Hook’ with which both he and Amelia Earhart sampled the air from their planes), but the new techniques for sampling and analyzing DNA  and the interest in microbial ecologies  are making these studies a lot more fruitful and exciting.  Planes don’t fly very high, so nobody really knows how high the biosphere actually extends.  Balloons can go up to near space (to over 120,000 ft).  Although they’re difficult to control and might seem a ‘romantic’ and low-tech type of vehicle, they are actually a very good option for studying high altitudes.

I’m also collaborating with Genspace in Brooklyn on designing a sterile sampling mechanism that would open and close at a high altitude, so as not to sample everything on the way up and down.  It would not collect water but only the cloud droplets nuclei — dust and microbes, which afterwards will be analyzed in the lab.”

Karolina’s website can be found here.