Cloudscrying: Finding Meaning in Clouds
Are.na user Noa Mori writes on finding meaning in clouds, followed by an exclusive Q&A.
By Noa Mori
Clouds might be nonbinary icons. They are neither liquid nor gas. Gasses diffuse, liquids flow. Clouds do both and neither. They ride with the air, are resting sites for droplets, and become visible through solid ice crystals and the dust particles they form on. They trouble the idea of “phase changes,” a metaphor so fundamental, based in the very matter of stuff. Clouds have taught me that there is no fixed destination but a continual flowing back and forth. But clouds, too, make foggy metaphors.
Cloud scrying is one of the first forms of divination I engaged in: lying down in the grass, watching stories take and lose shape in the sky. Reflecting on my cloud obsession, my friend Jacob said that my research is a process of finding meaning in finding meaning in clouds. My research into cloud scrying is itself an act of cloud scrying.
I’ve been looking for many things in clouds: a subject, a muse, an elemental medium, a psychic friend. The title of this channel, “cloudscrying,” can also be read as “clouds crying.” There is something in the mishmash of subjectivity and agency that I’ve been very drawn to.
In my process of researching clouds, it’s been a joy to realize how many artists and writers I love have had eras of contemplating and making with the clouds. Anne Carson’s lecture, “on the history of sky writing” is a wry personification of the sky. She speaks as the clouds, the sky’s body and voice incarnate. She says that perhaps becoming the clouds was a defensive measure. Everybody loves clouds.
"I gave them to believe that I, the clouds, could be reduced to a typology. It was hard work. I had to replace the shapeless caprice of my atmospheres with 4 basic cloud types. I had to edit the indecipherably fluid filigree of my language into a dry as dust classification system replete with Latin terminology. And beyond that, I had to be flirtatious. If you bring a concept or category up close enough to the human mind to be very attractive and then wisp it away to be out of reach, it becomes erotic. Flirting is not in my nature, but who would be bothered doing science if it wasn't erotic?"
— Anne Carson, On The History Of Sky Writing
This excerpt speaks to the eroticism I’ve been experiencing in my inability to know clouds. The clouds are so close but I can never touch them. Even if I were to try, they would no longer be clouds but a fog blurring my vision.
The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji, by Masanao Abe.
In the late 1920s, Japanese physicist Masanao Abe sought to answer a question: “what kind of a thing is a cloud?” He set up an observatory with a view of Mount Fuji and spent 15 years recording the clouds as they shifted around the mountain, becoming an embodiment of the atmosphere. From photographs and videos, he created diagrams documenting the clouds not as single moments but tracking their motion as well.
In response to his question, Sadie Plant asks: “what kind of a cloud is a thing?” While science aims to break things down to their core components to understand – to essentialize – them, perhaps essence is about looking at the space around and beside.
In the 1930s to 1950s, psychoanalyst and physician Wilhelm Reich developed cloudbusters, devices to control the weather by harnessing orgone. Orgone is fundamental life energy, its name derived from “orgasm” and “organism.”
Kate Bush, Cloudbusting. Directed by Julian Doyle.
This is a still from Kate Bush’s music video for her song “Cloudbusting,” which is told through the eyes of Wilhelm Reich’s son experiencing his father’s incarceration for his work with orgone.
While cloudbusting was dismissed as pseudoscience by the scientific community, clouds continue to exceed measurement and present one of the greatest challenges in modeling climate change.
We don’t know how clouds will influence the already changing state of our climate. Clouds can affect the local climate to make places hotter or cooler, either trapping heat below or reflecting sunlight away. Their formation is affected by moisture, topography, and temperature, conditions that themselves are changing.
Cloud seeding is a process of releasing particles — typically silver iodide – into the atmosphere to shift the location of clouds. The particles are sites for ice crystals to form, as they might on dust kicked up around the atmosphere.
UAE Cloudseeding. Bryon Denton / NY Times.
Cloud geoengineering exposes the atmospheric intimacy of distant locales. Clouds do not appear out of “thin air” but are conjured and redirected. The presence of a cloud in one location signals its absence in another. Cloud seeding in the United Arab Emirates draws moisture from neighboring areas. Geopolitics on the ground extends into the atmosphere, creating multiplanar logics of resource allocation and governance.
And not all clouds are made of the same stuff. I recently visited a mountain in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania where decades of zinc smelting released so much sulfur dioxide and zinc oxide into the air that the entire forest on the mountain beside the factory died. The soil was so lifeless that fallen trees did not decay but dried out like driftwood.
Our Interview With Noa:
Noa Mori is an artist, designer, and writer interested in diasporic, entangled practices of mythmaking and worldbuilding in response to environmental and post-colonial grief. They are currently in the Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Fine Arts (MLA/MFA) at the University of Pennsylvania. Recently, they’ve been thinking a lot about the co-construction of race and nature, magic, geotrauma, and the earth as an archive.
Can you elaborate on your process of 'cloud scrying'?
I'm interested in the many ways meaning is constructed. By 'cloud scrying,' I'm talking about the systems designed to make sense of the clouds. In "knowing," scientific method is overly prioritized as a system of meaning-making. Science is an infrastructure with nodal connections, standardized methods, and entire communities created to verify and cross-reference data. I'm interested in the slip ups that undermine pursuits for objectivity and expose the very infrastructures we use to think with.
Research is also a process of following interests and connections, informed somewhat by experiences and narratives, but also how these feelings change and mutate as they move through our flesh beings! It's a divine and unknowable process. To study the clouds is to write an autobiography.
What do you think clouds might say about us, if they could observe human behavior?
I think clouds could help us see ourselves as not so separate from other beings. Trying to even pin down the edge of a cloud exposes the futility of making things into things. At what point is a cloud a cloud? When is it a fog or a mist or the air itself? Clouds might be a bit disturbed by the predominance of binary thinking, but I think they'd have some grace for us. I'd like to think the clouds are not particularly judgemental.
If you could have a conversation with a cloud, what would you ask?
I might ask how it feels to be the subject of so much admiration, speculation, and projection of others' desires. I'd love to know what (if anything) clouds desire.
What would your cloud be made of?
I learned of the three classical states of matter as early as elementary school. But recently I’ve learned that there are many theoretical forms that matter can take: plasma, strange matter, superfluids, time crystals, superionic ice, dark matter. I'm so curious what kind of clouds might exist on planets with other laws of physics! There is so much to learn about planetary atmospheres by observing clouds. It's dizzying to think of all the possible clouds that might be.
Do you think we can find messages or signals in clouds?
Of course! There is so much to learn if we listen to what is with us. Not just in the clouds, but in all phenomena. I think that being with the clouds is as much about becoming attuned to sensation as it is about receiving a coherently formed message or signal. At some point, maybe those things become the same.
What’s your favorite type of cloud and why?
The wispy ones! They feel so string-like and delicate, yet they're holding on together in the sky. I've always loved looking at strands of a puff coming apart, like pulling a piece of cotton candy off the stick. The strands start to sway and respond more to the air.