The Stuff In Between

Stephanie Weber

In the vein of classic arguments that consider material as synecdoche for era, Patrick Poulin, in his essay “Plasticity and Fragility” published in Esse 65: Fragile, makes the case that the most suitable physical analogue for the contemporary age is plastic. Poulin calls upon two critical precedents to structure this claim: Walter Benjamin’s treatise on glass in “Experience and Poverty” (1933) and Peter Sloterdijk’s diagnosis of the advent of the contemporary condition as congruent with the deployment of chemical weapons in the First World War. Crucially, both touchpoints revolve around characterizations of these transparent materials—glass and gas—in terms of a thing that we might call their “atmosphere.” 

In “Experience and Poverty,” Benjamin famously suggested that objects made of glass have no “aura,” which he defined as a quality contained by art and missing from mechanically reproduced objects; for him, a thing’s aura is drawn from its particularity: its unique position in time, space, and cultural context. Benjamin’s conception of aura also has a phenomenological quality; to experience nature, he wrote, is “to breathe the aura”1 1 - Walter Benjamin in Gernot Böhme, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017), 45. of a mountain or branch. Because of this characterization, philosopher Gernot Böhme takes up Benjamin’s “aura” in his pioneering theoretical classification of “atmosphere.” Noting that atmosphere, though not fully theorized, is often used in aesthetic discourse, Böhme suggests that “its substitute representative in theory” is Benjamin’s “aura” and concludes that “to perceive aura is to absorb it into one’s bodily state of being. What is perceived is an indeterminate spatially extended quality of feeling.”2 2 - Gernot Böhme, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017), 47.

Sloterdijk diagnoses the contemporary age as an “atmospheric” one, arguing that since the first use of chemical warfare, “atmo-terrorism” has replaced other forms of conflict—in this formulation, an environment, rather than an individual body, is attacked. “Atmosphere,” for Sloterdijk, is defined in this sense as a material, a surrounding quality that is literally breathed and felt against skin. Spaces where air quality is not as obviously manipulated are, in Sloterdijk’s view, still “atmospheric.” He writes that air-conditioned apartments and sports stadiums—in which audiences are surrounded by the palpable energy of collective participation—are both spheres defined by ambient sensory experience that is always felt but rarely consciously interpreted.  Whether theorized or not, “atmosphere” is omnipresent in casual speech and communicative enough that, as Böhme notes, it can be successfully invoked to describe a litany of aesthetic experiences.

As a result, the term, often used synonymously with “aura” or “ambience,” is recurrent in discourse about art, though there is a certain vagueness clouding the concept itself.

I suggest that there is a generative commonality in the ways that people talk about this experiential, surrounding quality of aesthetics. Various words are used to conjure this “thing” that exists or occurs in the ambient space between viewer and artwork; “aura” and “atmosphere” certainly appear throughout the pages of Esse, along with “feeling” and “mood” (humeur), but all seem to point toward something very similar—a quality beyond materiality that is nonetheless felt, and an idea beyond language that nonetheless communicates.

In order to suggest that this concept and its multiple names are necessarily composite and multilayered, I take cues from the emerging interdisciplinary study of “atmosphere.” The field is, at its core, hybrid, informed by overlapping insights drawn from affect theory, geography, and phenomenology. References to aura and atmosphere in the pages of Esse are similarly diverse in meaning and conceptual justification. Like the theorists of this budding field, I find meaning at the points of intersection, drawing in disparate connections to make sense of a disparate concept.

Being In

Böhme, perhaps the best-known theorist of atmosphere, has located the concept somewhere between the subjective experience of environments by those in them and observable states of physical places.3 3 - Gernot Böhme, Atmospheric Architectures: The Aesthetics of Felt Spaces,ed. and trans. A. Chr. Engels-Schwarzpaul (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). More recently, other prominent theorists have brought in additional connections to define atmospheres, drawing from the interaction of things such as the colour and brightness of light or the strength and sources of scent, as well as temperature, moisture level, ambient noise, and expected behaviour.

Tasked with finding art that toys with atmosphere, it might be most obvious to turn first, then, to installation work that alters the physical qualities—the observable, measurable states—of a room. In her review of Gregor Schneider’s installation Süßer duft in Esse 66: Disappearance, which is written almost like a travel narrative, Héloïse Lauraire is attentive predominantly to qualities of the air as she narrates her progression through the piece. Süßer duft, as Lauraire describes it, consists of a labyrinth of successive chambers meant to be traversed alone. Schneider has choreographed a sequence in which viewers (perhaps, more accurately, participants), navigate their way from corridor to door to antechamber to open gallery space, encountering, at each new spatial threshold, a disorienting sensory alteration. In one space, a room with a low ceiling is “dimly lit by an orange lamp”; in another, the door locks behind those who enter, who find themselves trapped beneath “intense and overwhelming light”; and in the space immediately succeeding that, the temperature rises as the light disappears, plunging the room into complete blackness. Throughout the exhibit, an overwhelmingly “sweet and acrid smell” presses in upon the viewer: “It fills our lungs and impregnates our nostrils,” writes Lauraire—“insufferable, it magnifies the contrasts that saturate our senses.”

The thing produced by Sußer duft could be called an “induced atmosphere,” a choreographed experience fully designed by its artist, in which the participant is expected to progress through the series of spaces, feeling imposed sensations in each one. A parallel idea can be found in architecture: a designer might attempt to enforce the “feeling” of a space by controlling how and where light enters or which spaces feel vast and which feel cocooning, as well as engineering the air itself through cooling, heating, or purifying. Architect Mark Wigley, writing about the built environment, points to atmosphere as both décor and structure, which together constitute a “swirling climate of intangible effects” formed by the complex interplay of “sound, light, heat, smell and moisture.”4 4 - Mark Wigley, “The Architecture of Atmosphere,” Constructing Atmospheres: Daidalos 68 (1998): 18. He writes that buildings, in essence, are “a kind of device for producing a particular atmosphere within another one.”5 5 - Ibid., 24. Böhme similarly suggests that structural space can be designed to invoke a certain “atmosphere,” but that this is rarely, if ever, a straightforward process: atmosphere is capricious, he argues, and so it tends to elude intention as parts of it are composed of the unplanned palimpsest of history, use, and associations.6 6 - Böhme, Atmospheric Architectures.

How Art Feels

It is not necessary for installation art to directly alter scent or temperature to conjure the descriptor “atmospheric.” Think, for example, of how the term “atmospheric perspective” is commonly used by historians studying landscape paintings to describe artists’ strategy of summoning a sense of distance in parts of a canvas through changes in saturation and value. This method also, often, imparts something further on a painting: a scene of a town awash in a hazy warm light might take on an additional sense of pleasant nostalgia, produced entirely by the manipulation of colour and tone. This use of “atmosphere,” as a quality of “mood” or “vibe,” is a common one in casual conversation; a speaker might describe the atmosphere of a place as hostile and paranoid, or relaxed and easy. The atmosphere of a painting or sculpture is, certainly, formed of a quality different from the scent or temperature of installation art, as the viewer does not literally breathe in its air. Something, however, ties the ideas together—even a piece of “induced” installation art, beyond the corporeal reaction of shivering, or sweating, or disgust, conjures a certain feeling—an emotion that can also be evoked by other artistic interventions. Perhaps the “atmosphere” of art is most accurately distinguished by its affective capacity?

Caterina Albano, writing in Esse 62: Fear II, uses the term “atmosphere” to explore this immaterial affective quality, which she argues is conjured through the medium of film. The essay is structured around the idea of the “uncanny,” and Albano writes about depictions of the domestic that belie a sense of threatening anxiety. Central to this thesis is Freud’s idea of the das Unheimliche (put simply, the familiar made strange, or the unfamiliar that is eerily recognizable), and Freud’s classification of the category as a “quality of feeling” is also summoned—in this essay, this quality becomes an aspect of aesthetic “sensibility.” The artworks in Albano’s text are unsettling, and function on the level that they affect the viewer psychologically; the films, in Albano’s terms, “‘stick’ through their disturbing presence.” In this essay, however, the term “atmosphere” is used only once. It is “the apparent ordinariness of the exterior” of the domestic facades that appear in Gregor Schneider’s two-channel film Die Familie Schneider (2004) that “[disguise] a sinister atmosphere.” Schneider’s manipulation of atmosphere is, this time, distinctly emotional: the pieces prompt the viewer to feel a sense of discomfort, even fear, by raising something that is able to be present without being explicitly represented. To attend to its specific use in the text, however, atmosphere is only used when it is an element that has been, as Albano terms it, “disguised.” It is not just a “mood” but an idea that lingers in the background, hidden but omnipresent.

Atmospheres beyond Control

The fact that atmosphere can be invoked in visual art without alteration of the sensorial qualities of viewers’ surroundings makes clear that it can be generated by a non-physical communication between artist and audience. In this interaction, an artist summons a mood or “vibe,” such as the uncanny one drawn out by Schneider, and the viewer, taken in by enveloping feeling of the piece, somehow knows to feel that emotion. There is, then, a social dimension to atmosphere, one distinguished by an established interpersonal connection. This helps to explain why colloquial mentions of the term describe a state that incorporates an entire space and its inhabitants. For example, geographer Ben Anderson, writing on historical uses of “atmosphere,” points to an 1856 speech made by Karl Marx at the anniversary of the People’s Paper. Here, Marx refers to a “revolutionary atmosphere” among his listeners, a “20,000-pound force” that is “enveloping and pressing” European society “from all sides.”7 7 - Ben Anderson, “Affective Atmospheres,” Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2009): 77. This instance makes clear that, at least in popular usage, an atmosphere is not just palpable and perceptible at an individual level, but also communally experienced and interpersonally transmitted, even when it is not a measurable condition of the temperature or air pressure.

Patrice Loubier’s discussion of “celebration” in Esse 67: Killjoy is an engagement with this collective dimension of atmosphere; Loubier, writing in French, uses the term “ambiance” to describe the state that emerges naturally from a shared experience, felt simultaneously by members of a gathered group. The fact that Bernard Schütze, in his translation into English, uses “atmosphere” as a direct parallel demonstrates that the two terms are often treated as effectively synonymous. Elsewhere in the essay, “the festive” is defined as “behaviour, mood, or atmosphere,” and is manifest in “convivial and enthusiastic atmospheres.” Loubier works from an essentially atmospheric definition of “the festive” as “collective ritualized transport.” Vital here for “atmosphere” or “ambiance” is this action of transportation: the thing that bridges the divide between an experience that is or is not celebratory is a movement from individual, disparate states into a single, shared condition.

Importantly, in Loubier’s essay, atmosphere is given a distinct agency. The festive need not be structured, Loubier stresses, but occurs anytime a “joyous atmosphere” emerges. It is, indeed, “so much more ‘transporting’ and authentic” when “it emerges in circumstances where it is neither foreseen nor sought after.” Beyond the intention of any one participant, an atmosphere can shift in tone, affecting everyone it involves. It can also linger in the aftermath of an event—Loubier speaks of an “end of party” atmosphere evoked by an installation consisting of the scattered refuse left behind after an event, and a melancholic, “‘no future’ atmosphere” wherein echoes of a party—its disco-ball lighting and wired microphones—change in meaning and feeling with the recent departure of its partygoers. Loubier also speaks of a “trash atmosphere” that arises from collective caricature and mockery: he casts the 2008 performance Le Carnaval, presented by the collective Les Fermières Obsédées, as an “attack on celebration,” though he argues that “celebration” nonetheless survived the performers’ “assault” on it, materialized in the collective amusement that arose despite their disdain for the traditional customs of processions. Effectively, in the performance events that Loubier describes, atmosphere is not imposed by an authorial artistic voice but erupts spontaneously from assemblages of people. It also exists without human presence: elements of it will linger even after celebrators no longer exercise an active role in creating it.

The idea at the centre of atmosphere, which lies in the commonalities between overlapping uses of the term, remains nebulous. There is still no single definition of atmosphere that captures all of its attendant ideas and associations, but the concept’s shifting vagueness, like the haziness of an “atmospheric” landscape painting, is central to its function.

Discussions of atmosphere continue to carry meanings that vary from person to person and space to space, but nonetheless there is a cohesive, universally experienced “something” that sits slightly beyond descriptive definitions, speaking between people and, more importantly, being felt.

As artists increasingly turn their gaze toward the disastrous effects of impending climate catastrophe, atmosphere in art writing picks up additional meanings and associations related to environmental changes in the layer of matter that envelops this planet. The indeterminacy of the concept is useful here, in that it is able to hold these multitudinous meanings, shifting between the political and the emotive and communicating a complex interplay that includes air quality, affective emotion, and collective experience; an environmental usage might carry with it both the literal effects in temperature and weather occurrences brought on by these changes and a communal feeling of anxiety and increasing urgency. The definition of atmosphere will always evade conclusiveness, but I suggest that it is precisely for its indeterminacy that its essential ambiguity should be preserved.

A writer and researcher based in Calgary, Alberta, Stephanie Weber holds an MA (2020) in art history from Concordia University focused on Canadian visual culture and publishes on topics surrounding the social and material histories of architecture and the built environment. She is also an arts and heritage professional, and has worked in an archival and curatorial capacity at galleries and museums across Canada.

Links to the articles cited: Patrick Poulin Héloïse Lauraire Caterina Albano Patrice Loubier

Gregor Schneider, Les Fermières Obsédées, Stephanie Weber

Suggested Reading