Skip to Content

Amy Balkin (USA)

The Atmosphere: A Guide

People have long sought to understand, map, and occupy Earth’s atmosphere. The Atmosphere: A Guide depicts instances of human influences on the sky and the accumulated traces left there—whether chemical,narrative, spatial, or political. How do science, social attitudes, economics, and politics intersect in the atmosphere? The intangibility of the atmosphere, and much of its composition of gases, makes it appear resilient and forgiving of anthropogenic damage.However, the future state of the atmosphere is altered by how people understand, consider, and act upon it in the present.

Current and historic visions of the atmosphere frame our relationship to it and send ripples forward, affecting the rights of future generations to a habitable climate. Which atmosphere is it? The biogeochemical cycle or the geopolitical arena? Global commons or militarized space? Does the difficulty of human flight within, or occupation of, the atmosphere mean it remains a space for projection and speculation? A space of indeterminacy?

The Atmosphere: A Guide is a poster essay visualizing some ways humans “occupy” present, past, and future atmospheres. Visually drawing on the format of the Cloud Code Chart, whose rows of thumbnail illustrations provide a basic introduction for the identification of clouds, the Guide is organized by layer, each horizontal band representing a segment of the atmosphere from sea level to the exosphere. It charts some atmospheric politics: The small blocks of image and text chart instances of history or politics affecting the given atmospheric layer and marking their downward trending influences. As an essay, The Atmosphere: A Guide attempts to build an argument for another atmosphere.

This project, which emerges out of process oriented “artist research,” dovetails with another project that I’ve been working on since 2004. Public Smog is an effort to create a clean-air park in the existing atmosphere. Both projects are concerned with anthropogenic impacts on the atmosphere, a turbulent sphere that collects the residues of all human activity, from farming to politics, and is the site of ongoing human fascination. My research for the Guide included interviews conducted with atmospheric scientists and climate researchers at University of California, Berkeley, and field recording and photography at a weather balloon launch facility in Oakland, California.

Amy Balkin


Amy Balkin’s projects propose a reconstituted commons, created by reconsidering legal borders and systems, working for environmental justice, and equitable sharing of pooled resources in the context of climate change. These projects include Public Smog, a clean-airpark; a collaborative collection open to contributors, A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting; and This is the Public Domain, an ongoing effort to create a permanent international commons. She was a collaborator on Invisible-5 (2006), an environmental justice audio tour of California’s Interstate-5 freeway corridor. Her works and project documentation have been included in the exhibitions Rights of Nature (2015), Nottingham Contemporary, England;DUMP! (2015), Kunsthal Aarhus, Denmark; Anthropocene Monument (2014), Les Abattoirs, Toulouse, France; dOCUMENTA (13) (2012),Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany; Public Works: Artists Interventions 1970s, currently on view at Mills College Art Museum,Oakland, California; Globale: Infosphere (2015), ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany; and the forthcoming Sublime, Centre Pompidou-Metz, France. Her work has been included in the recent publications Art in the Anthropocene, eds. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), Materiality, ed. Petra Lange-Berndt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015), and Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics, eds. Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten J. Swenson (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).She received an M.F.A. from Stanford University  and a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Back to top