On 4th March, 2017, the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum presented The Weather War, a special commissioned exhibition produced by curator Kaimei Olsson Wang and the Swedish artists duo Bigert & Bergström. This was the artistic duo’s first large scale solo exhibition in Asia.
The Weather War is a documentary/art film created by Bigert & Bergström in 2012, depicting B&B’s travel in the American most tornado affected states with their imaginary machine sculpture to stop the tornado. Taking the vantage point from the film, the exhibition shows several of the artistic duo’s most recent climate related art works. Focusing on man’s attempts of atmospheric control through various geo-engineering techniques, the exhibition walks the audience through three different thematic zones: The Storm, The Drought and The Freeze. Finally, the exhibition invites the audience to enter the history of the weather through a new installation entitled Inside the Weather – a Synoptic Battlefield. Total of 30 artworks will use 1500 square meters museum space in two floors.
Bigert & Bergström are the brand name of Sweden’s earth system art. For more then 30 years, they have been working on weather-related art projects. They approach the to the climate issue through scientific researches, historical facts and geo-engineering experiments expressed with their aesthetic imaginations. With films, land art, performance art, installations, sculptures, photography and text, they seek to expand the concept of art beyond the white walls of museums. In the conjunction between art, technology and nature, their artworks cast a humanistic light on scientific research and comment on scientific and social topics discussed in the contemporary society.
Photos: Li Zhenhua
On The Weather War, Shanghai, and the Performance Climate Activism by Bigert & Bergström
by Sverker Sörlin, 2017
Published in "Bigert & Bergström: The Weather War." Edited by Wang Kaimei. Shanghai: Minsheng Art Museum, 2017, 41-47. Exhibition catalogue.
In 1930 Robert Millikan, 1923 Nobel Laureate in Physics, proposed that it was no risk that humanity could do real harm to anything as gigantic as the earth: “One may sleep in peace with the consciousness that the Creator has put some fool-proof elements into his handiwork, and that man is powerless to do it any titanic physical damage.” He may have gotten most of his physics right, but this was plain wrong, although it may have seemed right then. In the era of the Anthropocene – regardless whether it started in 1945, in the Industrial Revolution, in the global European expansion of the Renaissance, or with the Neolithic Revolution ten thousand years ago – we believe on the contrary that humanity is increasingly shaping and terraforming the planet.
Much of it must be called “titanic damage”. The evidence is overwhelming. The debate is rather about what it means. Should humanity keep doing this? Is there reason to stop? Could we progress differently, with less titanic damage? Should we seek peace with the Earth? If so, are we at war? And if so, are we also at war with the weather?
Weather is part of the Earth and has always been. It was part of what humans thought they couldn’t impact on, let alone destroy. Now they do, but in ways that did not intend.
Before much thought was spent on the possibility of weather control it was a matter of sheer knowledge. Meteorology as a field of knowledge has a baptismal myth that is directly related to war. On 14 November 1854 in the Black Sea, the French and British fleets suffered devastating loss against the Russians in the Crimean war because of a severe storm that unexpectedly hit. The storm was known, it had hit France, its direction was East. Barometric readings confirmed that the storm had passed across Europe the days before, and Urban Leverrier, director of the Paris Observatory, noted that with a telegraph line from Vienna to Crimea, intelligence could have been passed on and the disaster could have been avoided.
The weather front met the war front from the very outset. The ‘front’ concept in weather became the hallmark of the Norwegian ‘Bergen’ school of meteorology, headed by Vilhelm Bjerknes. The Bergen school had its breakthrough at the time of the First World War when the front war cut Europe into pieces, and millions of bodies too. When air fighters started flying and poison gas started drifting it was essential to know where the winds blew.
That was just the beginning. Next step was to control the effects of weather. In 1927, shortly before Millikan’s dictum, the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It undertook research on human survival in harsh weather conditions. Most of the funding, especially in the late 1930s and the war years came from the US military. The Fatigue Lab tested what came to be called environmental physiology or medicine. How do outside conditions impact on performance, for example in tropical heat and humidity or in the cold and dark of the Arctic? HFL research was largely self-experimental. Scientists took off to experience high altitude in the Andes, went into cold rooms and ran on treadmills. They also sent troops to extreme climates to test combat food, clothes and equipment. Weather was a factor when war was moving to extreme geographies, especially the Arctic, a likely theater of a Third World War. Winning future wars was to defeat the effect of weather.
Soon enough an even bolder idea came up: perhaps we could change the weather and use it? This was mostly applied to agriculture as a means of combating drought through seeding clouds with dry ice or silver iodide. Weather easily scaled to climate. John von Neumann, the Hungarian mathematician and computer visionary at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, made his name as a hard-nosed Cold Warrior discussing seriously the strategic possibilities of making a “new ice age”, melting the Greenland ice sheet and reversing the Gulf Stream. In an article in Fortune (1955), he praised the potential of what he called “climate control”: “What power over our environment, over all nature, is implied!”
Von Neumann thought he had a strategic reason. That the Soviet Union was planning to block the Bering Strait to manipulate climate was for many years in the late 1950s and 1960s considered a realistic assumption in NATO war planning circles. Computer-based environmental predictions were engineered into the Cold War scenario planning that became the hallmark of RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, with climate as a main factor. RAND scientists suggested blackening polar ice sheets to increase the world’s temperature by preventing energy from radiating out. In what for a moment seemed like a science fiction playground of climate change speculation scientists also proposed dropping nuclear bombs on ice sheets to make them slide into the ocean creating tsunamis and over the long term induce wide spread arctic temperatures as the reflective areas of the earth’s surface might extend.
The ambition to artificially speed up Arctic thawing changed quickly as it became seen as a not unrealistic possibility that humans might indeed melt the ice sheets and reverse the Gulf Stream without any military intervention at all. Now the war on weather is, therefore, mostly to try and revert what humans do to it, rather than to change it deliberately into something else.
Bigert & Bergström, the Swedish earth systems art brand, sensed the storm coming. Their first fascination with weather and climate came as they just left art school in the 1990s. Their trajectory started even earlier. Erik Bergström, father of Bergström, worked on glaciers north of the Arctic Circle. Sten Yngström, uncle of Bigert, worked as a scientist on the Aurora Borealis. The geophysical interest was there from the beginning, climate and change was a childhood concern.
Bigert & Bergström have ‘verticalized’ land art and connected it with volcanoes, salt columns, and springs underneath, and bio-, cryo-, and atmospheres above. They travel through geophysical media in a Humboldtian earth elevators, space shuttles, and time machines. Earth itself is a time-space machine, and Bigert & Bergström pursue a transformed version of Earth art, emphasizing that Earth is more than land: it starts deep down, in deep time, it reaches high up and into future time.
Exposure is a word that speaks to much of their work, just as Alexander von Humboldt exposed himself to the elements that he also measured with sophisticated instruments as he climbed Chimborazo and sensed the ground trembling when the Andean earthquakes hit.
Human exposure to heat, cold, wind, moist was a theme of the Climate Chambers project in the 1990s, putting weather and individual sensory systems in contact with each other. It was also a critical meta-comment to the idea that climate determines ‘civilization’, famously argued by Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington in Civilization and Climate (1915), an idea that held sway until the Second World War when it was buried in disrepute.
Exposure then gradually reversed in their work. Ultimately, it is the world that is exposed – to the forces of the human. Thus, the world we live in is increasingly our own responsibility. Do we take that responsibility? Their works are activist gestures. They seeded clouds in the film installation If You Don’t Like the Weather, Change It (2007). In the project The Freeze (2015) they did the opposite to what von Neumann argued and instead put reflective cover on the melting glacier top of the Kebnekaise, (still) the highest mountain in Sweden. If the military project was to decrease albedo, geoengineering victory in the Arctic battle field, B&B sided with civic forces all around the world who try to rescue their glaciers and preserve the cryosphere which is under even more acute pressure than the biosphere.
In ‘The Storm’ (2012) they phantasized the devices that have been invented to put a halt to storms, such as the ‘Cloudbuster’ invented in 1953 by the infamous Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, otherwise known for his cubic meter sized libido-enhancing ‘Orgone’ box (neither worked very well), or the Tornado Diverter, inspired by Russian scientist Vladimir Pudov, of which they made a full scale replica which they took into the field.
Technology is an intermediary layer between humans and climate and one that their geoengineering performances also bring to exposure. Without the technologies humans would not be able to control weather. But most technologies are futile, so far Millikan was right. It is when billions of people and companies use them that the unintentional climate change takes place: the motor car, the stove, the factory engine, the fossil fuel infrastructures.
The preventive gadgets, the Cloudbuster, the Tornado Diverter, the reflective glacier cover, they are also technologies, but futile. The same is true of the desalinization plants that start dotting the world where freshwater is getting ever scarcer, as shown in The Drought (2013). B&B envision a heating Earth where the entire atmosphere is evaporating, as once did that of Venus, whose surface is now the hottest place in the solar system.
The war metaphor is a double edged sword. War on Cancer. War on Poverty. War on Terror. As if the word ‘War’ is invoked precisely about menaces and evils that it is hard to think would ever be defeated. Interestingly all these wars are wars against ourselves. Not ‘the better angels of our nature’, rather their adversaries: the least empathetic and least ingenious versions of ourselves and our societies.
The ‘War on weather’ is a similarly endless and futile battle. Behind all fascination with technology and the visual language – often strikingly beautiful, seductive, alluring – of science and understanding that B&B employ, what they find is a hypocritical void. There is nothing there. If there is anything, it is just more futility.
Bigert & Bergström’s earth systems oeuvre is a discrete statement about choices that societies need to make. Continue to produce ever more sophisticated seeders, converters, busters, covers – or opt out of the vicious cycle of devices? So far what we produce is a human comedy of technologies, a choreography of fools, for fools, fooling only ourselves.
Does it matter if the ice is gone? Does it matter if drought expands? Does it matter if storms batter us more frequently?
Technology doesn’t give the answer. Only we can. With our values, based on what we experience, remember and share. Our fear that something cherished might be gone. That ice we always had, those seasons we learned to cherish. Putting band aid on the glacier is an act of care. Nature is no technology. Neither are we. We are sensing natures.
SVERKER SÖRLIN is a Professor of Environmental History and a co-founder of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. He is a co-author, with Paul Warde and Libby Robin, of The Environment – a History (forthcoming with Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD) and The Anthropocene: An Essay on the Age of Humans (Stockholm: Weyler, 2017; in Swedish).
 Robert Millikan, “Alleged Sins of Science,” Scribner’s Magazine, 87(2), 1930, pp. 119-30, reprinted in Millikan, Science and the New Civilization (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930), quotation on p. 59.
 John von Neumann, “Can We Survive Technology?”, Fortune June 1955, reprinted in von Neumann, Collected Works, vol. 6: Theory of Games, Astrophysics, Hydrodynamics and Meteorology (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 504-519, quotations on 513-514.
 Christopher Jacob Hamblyn, Arming Mother Nature : The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 138.
 Hamblyn, Arming Mother Nature, 158-162.