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“American Sky,” a talk on Robert Watts, David Behrman, and Bob Diamond’s “Cloud Music” (1974-79) at CAA 2017

My paper “American Sky” was accepted to a panel on “The Meteorological Impulse in Art,” co-chaired by Ellen Tani and John Tyson, at the February 2017 College Art Association Conference in New York City.

 

Cloud Music (1974-79), installation at Smithsonian American Art Museum

Abstract: American Sky

Cloud Music (1974-1979) is an interactive audiovisual installation by Fluxus artist Robert Watts, engineer Bob Diamond, and composer David Behrman. By analyzing the clouds’ movements and converting this data into a real-time musical composition, Cloud Music is an early instance of artistic data sonification. However, in its recent installation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), the camera was aimed at the airspace above the U.S. Capitol, an iconic scene of national identity that has acquired an aura of threat and anxiety in the wake of 9/11.

This paper uses the SAAM installation an opportunity to examine how its aesthetic condensation of cloud-watching and paranoia, atmospheric and political surveillance, meteorology and ideology, gives shape not only to the formless vicissitudes of the weather, but also to the seemingly unrepresentable contours of 21st century control society. First situating the work within an abbreviated history of cloud watching in modern visual media—from abstract painting (Dove) to classical cinema (Fellini, Riefenstahl) to new media (Arcangel, Bridle), I demonstrate how Cloud Music anticipates contemporary practices that adopt surveillance as subject, medium, and/or logic. By reversing, dispersing, even vaporizing the panoptic eye-of-power into an enveloping cloud of sound, I argue, Cloud Music stages the historical shift from a disciplinary model of surveillance towards a more nebulous, but nonetheless totalizing network of control. In doing so, Cloud Music also raises difficult questions regarding the political viability of aesthetic responses to analog information (clouds) in our digital present (the Cloud).