Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Morning Glory

If I hadn't been so busy at work I might have tried to get to the Aubin & Wills Literary Salon this evening, where Travis Elborough was talking about his seaside book Wish You Were Here and Gavin Pretor-Pinney was due to discuss The Wavewatchers' Companion. Never mind - I was actually at the seaside watching the waves last week, and although I've not yet got round to either of these books, I did have Gavin Pretor-Pinney's earlier bestseller The Cloudspotter's Guide with me.  You can read various reviews and articles online that tell the story of The Cloud Appreciation Society, which Pretor-Pinney founded in 2004, and the writing and design of The Cloudspotter's Guide, rejected by 28 publishers before becoming a runaway bestseller.  The book is not a cultural history, although there are references to clouds in the work of Mantegna and Correggio, Kalidasa and Thoreau.  Keen not to be seen as too highbrow, the author describes himself wondering through the Tate's American Sublime exhibition with the catalogue upside down (his point being that the skyscapes in Bierstadt and Church are as important as the landscapes).  His sense of humour did grow on me - it is hard to resist the comparison of strato-cumulus, 'always in transition', with 'the pop singer Cher at the height of her costume-changing stage routines'.  One species of this cloud, the Morning Glory, is likened to Cher 'in the brass armour bikini and gold Viking helmet she wore on the sleeve of her 1979 album Take Me Home'.  This is a long way from Hubert Damisch and A Theory of /Cloud/, I thought, as I read this, but then Damisch was interested in the painted signifier, Pretor-Pinney in explaining and celebrating the real thing.

Altocumulus stratiformus translucidus I believe
(but feel free to correct me if I've got it wrong...)

The Cloudspotter's Guide includes a brief description of the Cloud Harp, an instrument designed by Nicolas Reeves that responds to the shape of the clouds above it (see video clip below), and in the chapter on stratus there is an account of the Blur Building, designed by Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio for the 2002 Swiss Expo, which took the form of a cloud floating on the surface of Lake Neuch√Ętel.  The design for this consisted of a metal skeleton covered with 31,400 high-pressure water jets controlled by computer which took account of temperature, humidity and prevailing winds.  'By responding dynamically to the constant changing atmospheric conditions, the system ensured there was always enough fog to envelop the structure, but not so much as to cause a nuisance downwind.'  Artificial clouds and the manipulation of weather for military ends are the depressing subject of the book's penultimate chapter.  A 1996 report for the US government, Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025, describes a future in which an enemy can be hit with fog, rain, storms and lightning, and where clouds are controlled through nanotechnology and are able to communicate with each other.  After this it is a relief to turn to the final chapter, where Gavin Pretor-Pinney travels to a small town near the Gulf of Carpentaria in search of the Morning Glory (the cloud he likened to Cher in her brass bikini).  There he meets the glider pilots who surf this magnificent roll of cloud as it heads inland, and is taken up himself to see the morning sun cascading 'down the cloud's face, casting long shadows along the ripples of its surface.  The undulations gently rose up with the progress of the wave, before disappearing over the crest.'

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