Capturing Chaos: A Climate Scientist and Performance Artist Discuss Why They Recreate Weather Events

Once a subject of small talk, strange weather has evolved into a matter of urgent concern, with apocalyptic undertones. Sculptor, performance artist, and Yale School of Art assistant professor Aki Sasamoto has recently been reproducing various weather events at small scale; the Japanese artist says these experiments help her inhabit the space between chaos and control. In a 2020 performance at St. Mark’s Church in Lower Manhattan, Sasamoto used props to act out various weather events that served as metaphors for aging and transition. Climate scientist Nick Lutsko, an assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, similarly makes models of various weather events, though by different means and for the purpose of understanding climate patterns. To compare notes on their respective approaches to re-creating weather, the two met on Zoom, where they discussed their shared fascination with the elusiveness of extreme events.

Nick Lutsko I got into meteorology and atmospheric science because I’m interested in climate change. People often think about climate change in terms of increases in mean climates, but most of the damage is done by extreme events. These events tend to be rare and often unique, so they can be tricky to understand. Lately, I’ve been studying weather on exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system. The awesome James Webb telescope that was launched in 2021 is going to give us completely new insights into exoplanets, where people are searching for evidence of life in other solar systems. For me, it’s also a new opportunity to study weather under weird conditions. I’ve been looking at tidal-locked planets, which are planets that always show the same face to their host star. These planets always have one warm side and one cold side, the same way the moon has a dark side.

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Aki Sasamoto I started working with the weather a few years ago, when I made a series of kinetic sculptures powered by the wind. I’m primarily a performance artist, but at the time, I was pregnant, and I couldn’t perform. So I wanted to make objects that perform. I used phase transition [the process of changing from one physical state to another] to get objects to perform for me. Kinetic sculptures are often something that you just plug in, but I wanted to harness the environment rather than use a motor. That’s when I started to get interested in weather patterns, because as you circulate air or heat, the patterns can be unpredictable, yet are still the product of a system. My background is in structured improv, and I thought, weather patterns are basically structured improv, since it is difficult to predict the near future even with a certain understanding of patterns.

Lutsko Weather is all about this combination of chaos and predictability. You can count on it being warmer during the day than at night; or warmer in summer than it is in winter. And yet, there are often unexpected events. I wonder how you think about balancing structure against disorder.

Sasamoto I’ve always been interested in that dichotomy of chaos and control. It’s a big part of choreography: when you choreograph, you have to understand the macro view, or the structure of the piece, as well as the performers’ bodily experiences. It’s impossible to perfectly regulate even the best dancers: your body can be different depending on the day. The weather is like that too.

A bar with two wooden stools is staged outdoors. On a TV screen, a Japanese woman is doing a demonstration that involves a glass orb.
Aki Sasamoto: Weather Bar, 2021, site-specific video installation at the Okayama Art Summit, 2022.

Lutsko When you perform, does it feel chaotic for you? Or are you trying to create chaos for the audience?

Sasamoto I’m not trying to create chaos, but I do like to perform the same piece in iterations. If two weeks pass between performances, my body might change—as a woman, my body can feel very different depending on where the moon is. I don’t write down my concepts and I don’t have scripts, but I do repeat performances. It’s like the difference between storytelling and story writing: in the storytelling, things change, although the story is the same. If I perform the same piece when I’m 20, and then 30, and then 40, it should be different each time, like when you read a book again 10 years later, and different things stand out to you. That’s what fascinates me about repetition.

Lutsko I’m the complete opposite. I’m often looking for patterns, so when things are changing a lot, it makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes, I’m worried it means I don’t understand very well whatever system I’m studying.

Sasamoto Weather predictions are based on understandings of the past data, but that data is always growing, right?

Lutsko Totally. But if I’m trying to understand a weather event and I don’t have many previous examples, then I get worried. This happens often with extreme events, and these are what do the most damage. If I have, say, 20 events, and they’re all a little different, but they also have a lot of similarities, then I might have enough data to feel comfortable making predictions or saying something general about these types of events. If I study some extreme event and I only have one example, then I may very well predict the next one incorrectly. Here in California, we just had a huge bomb cyclone and an atmospheric river. There’s a lot of work to do to understand the system and to make better predictions next time.

Sasamoto A lot of commentary around these extreme events seems to center on how human activity creates the conditions for these kinds of disastrous weather, that maybe if we had remained nomadic and didn’t rely on electricity or something like that, the weather would be less disastrous.

Lutsko There’s a lot of interest these days in what we call attribution. Some people want to say that human activities made the storm, say, 15 percent worse. But I always feel nervous about those claims. People often do this with hurricanes, but we have only a few strong hurricanes each year, so I feel worried we don’t have enough data.

Sasamoto Japan has had earthquakes and typhoons for a long time. Making my piece Weather Bar [2021], I got really interested in the wind and how finicky it can be. I wanted to make a whiskey glass spin forever on a table, but it was difficult to create the tornado: I contained it in a vessel that had to be a certain shape, and then pumped in wind, which had to be very precise. I experimented a lot with making various weather phenomena in my studio. I tried making a cloud in a jar by changing the internal pressure.

I was pregnant at the time, and so was dealing with climate change in my body: I was changing in shape, in feel, in temperature. Everything was fluctuating and unpredictable. Having kids and becoming middle-aged was a big new chapter in my life, so it dawned on me to make a piece about phase transition, which both clouds and wind undergo.

At the time, I couldn’t drink, even before I became pregnant, because of my kidneys. And I loved drinking, so I was longing for a bar. Sometimes, I’d go to happy hour at a sports bar and watch the big screens. I thought I’d sum up these ideas in a weather forecast video that also talked about aging, and screen it at the bar I re-created for the installation, where a whiskey glass spins and spins.

Lutsko I was recently reading about the history of weather, and found out that in the 1600s, people were doing experiments with things like glass bowls: they’d heat up the air inside, then measure pressure, which is how they established there was some kind of relationship between temperature and pressure. They thought, maybe that’s what’s going on in our atmosphere. Or they’d add water, then change the temperature and watch as it condensed; then they thought, maybe that’s what clouds are. I wonder if you’ve read about that, because your experiments seem so similar to theirs.

Sasamoto No, I haven’t read about that! But I was watching public lectures with various scientists, and I was fascinated by their laboratories. When I saw some of the devices they use to visualize weather patterns, I got inspired, because they can be so sculptural.

I used to hang out at Yale’s School of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, and there, I became interested in how scientists create conditions for their experiments, especially in engineering.

Lutsko That’s like what Bruno Latour wrote about: that the instruments we use to conduct experiments are also participants. When modeling weather, one of the biggest uncertainties is phase transitions and clouds. So there’s a kind of give-and-take between picking answers that make realistic-looking models and simulations, and giving the system the freedom to evolve on its own and give interesting answers.

Sasamoto I was thinking about the laboratory, and also wind, with Sink or Float [2022], which I showed at the most recent Venice Biennale. I made an airflow table that enabled things to move in a chaotic manner that depended on the geometry of the object: I would float snail shells, which have clockwise spirals, and they’d always spin counterclockwise. Then I put a feather in, and it would spin the opposite way. Each object performed the same wind differently.

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Lutsko That piece makes me think of dust, which, if you zoom out far enough, gives a kind of materiality to airflows. There are these incredible satellite photos taken off the coast of West Africa, where you see the dust flying off the Sahara. You can use that to track the air masses. Similarly, your piece allows us to see the airflow as we watch how these objects are being carried by it.

Various sandwich ingredients, like lettuce, tomato, and ham, are written on a white board with a dozen snail shells stuck to it.
View of Aki Sasamoto’s installation Sink or Float, 2022, dimensions variable, at the Venice Biennale, 2022.

Sasamoto I wonder about your relationship to metaphor. In literature or film or art, weather events are often associated with particular emotions.

Lutsko I think of what I do as a set of boxes nested within each other, because the climate system and the atmosphere are so complicated that we can’t study them in totality. We can’t examine every molecule in the atmosphere, so we have to simplifythings to get to the essence of the phenomena that we’re interested in. Distilling these complex systems into a few simple principles or a couple equations is so fun. Then, once you feel like you understand something through the most basic metaphor, or at the simplest level, from there, you can start to work back up to other levels of complexity. And you try to see if what you thought you understood about the system still works.

Sasamoto And do you have emotions you associate with particular weather phenomena?

Lutsko I guess I would say the strongest emotional connection I have comes from finding that feeling of elegance when, say, you have this elaborate set of boxes, and you manage to figure out the physics in a way that works really well. It’s so satisfying.

Sasamoto I think I’ve met your kind before, in the laboratory…

Lutsko I’d like to ask about the title Phase Transition. I wonder what connection you make between phase transition and weather: do you think about passing weather and daily life, like how it can be stormy one day, and calm the next?

Sasamoto I’m more focused on age: teenage versus middle age versus old age. It’s amazing how the same bodily material can behave so differently. As my body changes, I feel like I’ve started to really understand scientific ideas that I only knew in theory before, since they are actually happening to me.

I’ve also become really interested in supercritical fluids, which can be liquid and gas at the same time. I wonder, what does that feel like? My work is often about thresholds, not dichotomies. So I wanted to create an environment based around that critical point. Entering middle age was really confusing: when I moved to the United States, I was gay, but then later in life, I found myself with a straight dude, having a kid. I came out of the closet as a teenager, and then I found myself going back in, and
I didn’t understand. It felt like a phase transition for real.  

—Moderated by Emily Watlington


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