Imagine Otherwise: Sasha Engelmann on Art and Activism in the Air
About the episode
What do politics, community, and artistic resistance look like beyond the terrestrial? What would happen if we took them to the sky?
In episode 119 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews feminist geographical researcher and practitioner Sasha Engelmann, whose work radically transforms our cultural imaginaries of atmosphere and environment. Foregrounding creative-critical approaches to environmental sensing, Sasha examines the role of art in crafting new narratives of atmospheric politics and aerial life.
In the interview, Sasha and Cathy chat about the transnational politics of atmosphere and breathing in an era of climate devastation, how to creatively adapt interdisciplinary research during a pandemic, and why collaboratively building an atmospheric commons is how Sasha imagines otherwise.
Guest: Sasha Engelmann
Sasha Engelmann is a lecturer in GeoHumanities at the Royal Holloway University of London, where she teaches at the intersection of geography, the arts, and the humanities.
Fascinated by cultural imaginaries of the atmosphere, Sasha examines the role of art in crafting new narratives of atmospheric politics and aerial life. She collaborates with artists and activists to investigate different ways of tracing, monitoring, and engaging with our environments that reach beyond models of capture and enumeration.
Sasha is an active member of the international community Aerocene and a cofounder of the feminist weather sensing project Open Weather.
In her book Sensing Art in the Atmosphere: Elemental Lures and Aerosolar Practices (Routledge, 2020), Sasha traces the potential of artistic, community-driven experiments to amplify our capacities to sense and relate to Earth’s warming atmosphere.
- The aesthetic, military, and social politics of air and atmosphere
- Academic-artistic-activist collaborations
- How COVID-19 is transforming academic research
- Project management across continents
“I am working toward a world in which breathing is neither a dangerous and silent exposure nor a site of violence and oppression.”
— Sasha Engelmann, Imagine Otherwise
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:
What do politics, community and artistic resistance look like beyond the terrestrial? What would happen if we took them to the sky?
My guest today is feminist geographical researcher and practitioner Sasha Engelmann, whose work radically transforms our cultural imaginaries of atmosphere and environment.
Foregrounding creative-critical approaches to environmental sensing, Sasha examines the role of art in creating new narratives of atmospheric politics and aerial life.
In our interview, Sasha and I chat about the transnational politics of atmosphere and breathing in an era of climate devastation, how to creatively adapt interdisciplinary research during a pandemic, and why collaboratively building an atmospheric commons is how Sasha imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach [01:10]:
Thanks so much for being with us, Sasha.
Sasha Engelmann [01:13]:
Thanks for having me, Cathy.
Cathy Hannabach [01:14]:
I would love to start off our conversation today talking about your fabulous new book, which is called Sensing Art in the Atmosphere: Elemental Lures and Aerosolar Practices. Can you give our listeners a little bit of an overview of what is that book all about and what got you so excited about writing it?
Sasha Engelmann [01:32]:
Thanks Cathy? Yeah, so in my book, I pay careful attention to the atmosphere as a material space that holds clouds, winds, particles, animal and plant life, and any number of other entities and substances. But I marry this attention to the materiality of atmosphere with a focus on the political processes, legal frameworks, and cultural imaginaries that are also an equal part of the air.
So for instance, the book begins with a parable about the sky that I used to gaze at while I was a child spending summers on the island of Hvar in Croatia, where my maternal family originates. I used to get completely lost in the cumulonimbus clouds that would hover over the Croatian mainland.
But behind and through these clouds and skies, behind what Megan Prelinger calls a “curtain of transparency,” there were preparations being made for the first use of satellites for remote weapons guidance, which would culminate in NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999.
Sasha Engelmann [02:41]:
As a child growing up on these gorgeous islands, I was lured by phenomena of the air. That is to say, I was profoundly moved by the unique and mystic elements of the Adriatic Sea, but I was also acutely aware the atmosphere was instrumented for particular geopolitical forces and powers.
The notion of elemental lures, which I develop in the book, is my attempt to describe the process by which we are moved or become viscerally aware of some part of our atmospheric commons, perhaps something that we wouldn’t normally have attended to. Yet this awareness is not only of nature or the natural but also the cultural and political forces whose presence is often so ubiquitous as to be invisible.
Sasha Engelmann [03:35]:
Now, while the inspiration for the book originates in my childhood, the majority of the book threads this idea of elemental lures through experiences I have had collaborating with artists and activists over the past six years.
I’ve collaborated in particular with two international artistic communities called Museo Aero Solar and Aerocene, which were initiated by the Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno. In these communities, practitioners make, launch, and fly solar-powered balloon-like sculptures in order to query the feedbacks between global aero mobility, fossil fuel extraction, and advanced capitalism.
These are networks of people who are launching these balloon-like sculptures into the atmosphere and tracking how far they float without using any fossil fuel, helium, or hydrogen gas.
Sasha Engelmann [04:34]:
My book tells stories from these efforts in solar, lighter-than-air floating. These stories help me to bring together multiple senses of atmosphere because, of course, in order to launch and track an air-filled sculpture across Europe, for instance, these communities need to be acutely aware of the material atmosphere and all of its winds, currents, and meteorological systems, as well as the political frameworks, laws, and forms of control that govern the air.
I like to joke that my book is really about getting carried away by the wind and maybe even getting lost, but in doing so learning a lot about the inseparability of nature, culture, and politics.
A key dimension to my book as well is to also show how through art and activism, new worlds and narratives for aerial life can be imagined and enacted.
Cathy Hannabach [05:30]:
It’s such a fascinating thing to study air, because it’s completely ephemeral. It’s something we’re not used to thinking about if we’re not say climate change scientists or something like that. It surrounds us, it’s ubiquitous, it’s absolutely vital to our continued existence on the planet, and yet we don’t focus on it at all.
You told this story about the convergence of that childhood interest in air from a corporeal perspective, a cultural perspective, and then how that connects to the military aspect of it. But how did you make that connection in your life? How did you get from that childhood interest in air as an experience to the scholarly, artistic, and political interest in air as all of these things simultaneously?
Sasha Engelmann [06:20]:
Thank you. What a great question. Yeah. My childhood in Croatia has certainly informed my fascination with air, but I think what also made me so invested in mapping and tracing the air is my lifelong experience of asthma.
I was diagnosed at age two with asthma, and I spent years undergoing treatments, which often involved breathing through a device called a nebulizer for a certain number of hours each day when I was a kid. I remember waking up at night and feeling like my lungs were heavy, not able to accept enough air. My dad would teach me how to count to ten in different languages while I took puffs from inhalers and blew into other contraptions, so that really affected and informed my disposition to air, I think.
Sasha Engelmann [07:14]:
When I was a master’s student in the UK, I began working with a nonprofit arts commissioning organization called Invisible Dust, which at the time was curating a large scale art installation by an artist called Dryden Goodwin. That was specifically about air quality and children’s lung health in inner-city London.
Once I discovered that I could write and think about the air, while also collaborating with artists and participating in political actions, I knew I had found my niche, so to speak.
Cathy Hannabach [07:48]:
Indeed. I’m curious about the process of this project, because you mentioned just a few of the organizations that you work with, a few of the collaborations that you engaged with to write this book. I want to talk more about the management of the project in a minute, but I’m curious about your research and writing process and what kind of lessons you learned over the course of putting this book together and the very extensive research process that it involved. What are lessons that you learned from that, that you’re going to carry over into some of your new projects?
Sasha Engelmann [08:24]:
So from the past six years or so of collaborating with artists and activists, specifically in Museo Aero Solar and Aerocene, these two communities I mentioned earlier, I’ve really gained some perspective and probably also a lot of humility as a researcher and an academic.
Engaging with my colleagues and friends in these communities has really been about finding ways of honoring different forms of knowledge that are not publicized or given prominent place in the art and academic worlds. So in my book, I explicitly quote a lot of unpublished work for this reason. I also foreground the very messy, DIY and experimental practices that are so much a part of projects like Museo Aero Solar and Aerocene, but do not necessarily end up in publications or exhibitions. I also do a lot of work in the book to situate myself and my own politics within this kind of messy, DIY, community-centered practice.
Sasha Engelmann [09:30]:
Going forward, I know I want to extend these learnings about different forms of knowledge and the kind of care we give to different forms of knowledge to get better at also auditing my citation practices and thinking about the economies of voice in hybrid communities. So how different voices are privileged or not, how different voices become strong or not in these communities. And also just further exploring how to showcase humility in academic work when we are so often pushed to act like we know exactly what we’re talking about and to have all the answers.
Cathy Hannabach [10:13]:
I know that is certainly a trend that we’re both trained to do and sometimes struggle to learn how to do, but it is certainly rewarded and shuts out a lot of other kinds of potential collaborations. Definitely.
This month at Ideas on Fire, obviously we’re talking quite a lot about the work of project management. As you mentioned, you’re someone who participates in a lot of very large, collaborative projects, many of which have an international or transnational dimension to them. So I’m sure this is something you deal with quite a bit. I’m curious, what are some of your favorite practices, tools, or approaches for managing these kinds of large, transnational projects and simultaneously making sure that everything is getting done that needs to get done but also everyone is communicating well and feels heard and understood?
Sasha Engelmann [11:05]:
Well, I should start by saying, I don’t want to claim credit for too much. I should be clear that the management of projects like Museo Aero Solar and Aerocene is primarily done by the large, I think almost 70-person team at Studio Tomás Saraceno in Berlin, where the core Aerocene team is based and where there is almost two decades worth of history on managing international artistic projects.
However, I do often lead on subprojects within the Aerocene community, especially related to pedagogy and environmental sensing. At the moment, for example, I’m managing a team of earth scientists, electronic engineers, computer scientists, and geographers who are working with me on prototyping air quality sensing platforms that might be attached to Aerocene’s sculptures in order to create new datasets on key industrial air toxins.
This is a transnational project because we are collaborating with anthropologist Deborah Estrin, and cartographer/Aerocene community member Joaquín Ezcurra in Buenos Aires to formulate the desired outcomes for these air pollution sensing devices and also make plans for working more directly with underserved communities in Argentina.
Sasha Engelmann [12:33]:
Across this and other projects, to answer your question, I feel very strongly about careful practices of translation—not only between languages but between disciplines, histories, and political locations. I’ve been in too many projects where it was not clear enough what was at stake for everyone at the table, which often led to professional and personal issues.
So I spend a lot of time in meetings on what is actually important to everyone, which is not necessarily what is encapsulated in the research questions or objectives at the core of a project. And if there is a gap between what is at stake and what is embedded intellectually in the project aims, then I find that a useful learning stage on the step towards reformatting the questions, so that they actually motivate collaborators.
Sasha Engelmann [13:36]:
In doing this, I find myself referring very often recently to the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research’s lab handbook, which has loads of amazing and concrete strategies for things like facilitating meetings, building trust and solidarity, nurturing humility in the lab team, etc. So I’d like to make a huge shout out to Max Liboiron and the CLEAR team for making such an illuminating and inspiring handbook for collaborative research.
Cathy Hannabach [14:11]:
Obviously we are living in a different era than a lot of the projects that we’re working on started in. How has COVID-19 and the broader structures that is involved in the broader shifts that it’s caused in our world changed the way that you manage projects or collaborate on projects with other people?
Sasha Engelmann [14:33]:
I will answer this by way of a story if you don’t mind, Cathy.
Cathy Hannabach [14:37]:
Sasha Engelmann [14:39]:
In the past year, working together with my good friend and collaborator, Sophie Dyer, I launched a new transnational and also trans-spheric project called Open Weather. In Open Weather, we are probing the porous relationships between our bodies, local atmospheres, and weather systems using amateur radio, open data, and feminist approaches to environmental sensing.
We want to build new and diverse communities around weather sensing and satellite image decoding that look critically and carefully at the power axes embedded in the remote sensing of the earth.
Sasha Engelmann [15:21]:
The COVID-19 pandemic occurred just as Sophie and I were due to go on a residency together to make leaps and bounds on the project. So we did a few things that not only saved the project but really helped us cope with the terrifying weeks of a lockdown that we experienced.
Both of us set up a satellite ground station on our balconies in Northwest and Southeast London, respectively. This involved scrambling to get materials for radio antennas before the mail slowed. We managed this somehow and we began holding daily satellite signal decoding sessions from our balconies.
Sasha Engelmann [16:05]:
When I say satellite signal decoding, I mean using an antenna to capture the transmission of an orbiting satellite and translating or extracting information from it.
However, our satellite signal decoding sessions during the lockdown were quite unusual. They often involved us straining to hold our antennas away from our buildings to catch the faint signals of weather satellites as they passed over London for only a few minutes at a time. After recording these faint signals, we could then use free software to decode them into images.
So we began building an archive of weather images produced under the conditions of lockdown. These images were not the very smooth, high-resolution images you might expect from a satellite. Rather, because of the constraints of our equipment, our balconies and our urban environments, the images we received were very, very grainy, noisy, and porous.
Sasha Engelmann [17:11]:
Our bodies and our radio environments were literally adding interference and gaps into these images of the earth from space. Observing these qualities in our images led us to produce a livestreamed performance that took place from our balconies. The performance was called Open Work, Second Body, and in it, we explored our process of weathering the COVID-19 pandemic by extending our awareness into trans-scalar weather systems.
In many ways, then, COVID-19 completely reformatted my and Sophie’s style of collaborating. But part of what I’ve learned from this is that there is a power in present remoteness. In other words, allocating time to do things simultaneously and/or in sync might feel strange at first, but it actually provides a sort of hinge for sharing ideas and/or progressing a project.
Sasha Engelmann [18:12]:
I also truly and sincerely recommend setting up a satellite ground station on your balcony or in your garden as a tactic for enduring and weathering the atmospheres of COVID-19. To make a shameless plug to you, Cathy, and whomever may listen to this podcast, if you want to know how to set up a satellite ground station, you can find a DIY satellite ground station guide that Sophie and I coauthored on the community science platform Public Lab, which walks you through the steps and the process of setting up your own station to decode satellite signals.
Cathy Hannabach [18:49]:
That is so fascinating both from a collaboration perspective and how that shifted the way that you work with others remotely, but also the fact that you got completely different images than you would have or that you had planned to get through your residency.
In many ways, the way that you imaged was fundamentally shifted by lockdown. You would’ve gotten a completely different picture and understanding and probably analysis of what you were studying had this taken place in the original residency format.
Sasha Engelmann [19:23]:
Completely. Yeah. And it’s really interesting because most radio amateurs who know how to do this sort of thing, they would never think to try to decode satellite signals from their balconies. It just would not be something that you would do.
Also, one really cool thing was that we also discovered how for Sophie, when she stood barefoot on her metal balcony, she would receive more of the image more clearly than when she was not barefoot.
Cathy Hannabach [19:52]:
Sasha Engelmann [19:52]:
So we kind of discovered all these different, strange, quirky facts and embodied gestures doing this in a place that you normally wouldn’t think to do it.
Cathy Hannabach [20:05]:
I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of post-COVID analysis of how this changed all of our research processes and for many, many years and probably decades to come. But this is a really interesting entry into the real-time analysis of how this is changing our lives, our work, our research, and our bodies in really fascinating ways.
Sasha Engelmann [20:30]:
Yeah. Because COVID-19 does invite us to think about our breathing spaces and our local atmospheres, it also invites us to think about atmospheres far greater than what we normally attend to. So this practice of attending to the local and thinking about our bodies and using our bodies as an extension of our antennas. But then reaching out and viewing weather systems that were sweeping across Europe. This not only symbolized but enacted the condition that we were experiencing living under COVID at the time.
Cathy Hannabach [21:10]:
I would love to go back to something that you mentioned briefly that’s both in your book and I know is a project that you’ve been a part of in other contexts as well, which is Aerocene. January of this year was a big moment for the Aerocene project. I know some of our listeners are very excited to hear a little bit more about that project and about what happened in January. Can you tell our listeners what the Aerocene project is all about and what happened in January of this year?
Sasha Engelmann [21:42]:
Of course. So, as I’ve mentioned briefly, Aerocene is a project that queries these links or feedback between fossil fuel extraction, air mobility, and capitalism. In practice, Aerocene involves designing, testing, and moving with solar lighter-than-air sculptures that look very much like hot air balloons but are instead powered entirely by the sun.
Aerocene sculptures are usually made from very thin, dark, ripstop fabric so that when the sun warms their surfaces, the air warms up inside and becomes less dense than the air outside, generating lift.
The proposition of Aerocene is that we can challenge regimes of fossil fuel extraction not by multiplying the number of batteries and circuits that we use but by focusing on minimalist climatological application—in other words, harnessing the energy already circulating in the air.
Sasha Engelmann [22:50]:
The January event you referred to was called Aerocene Pacha. It was an action led by artist Tomás Saraceno, who founded the Aerocene project in 2015.
Aerocene Pacha was quite different, however, from other Aerocene actions because it was part of a global art initiative called Connect, BTS, funded by the famous Korean pop band BTS, otherwise known as the Bangtan Boys.
The Aerocene Pacha team traveled to Jujuy, Argentina, set up temporary camps there, and did several experiments, which resulted in the first autonomous air travel with the human-carrying DOAEC Aerocene sculpture, which was piloted by an Argentine school teacher named Leticia Marques.
I was watching the event from afar, and I remember how the Leticia launched from the salty landscape and rose to over 270 meters in altitude as the winds blew her body and this giant sculpture together across the sands.
Sasha Engelmann [24:10]:
This was significant because very few people in history have attempted to pilot a balloon-like aircraft without using any carbon-based fuel or helium gas. Indeed, the Aerocene team is now registering several records that were achieved in that event, which include altitude records for purely solar, aerostatic flight, among several others.
Now, I mentioned earlier that Aerocene tries to move away from reliance on batteries and circuits. This aerostatic, solar-powered flight had important significance because it was carried out in solidarity with Indigenous communities from Tres Pozos, Pozo Colorado, and Inti Killa among others.
For these communities, the extraction of lithium in the Salinas Grandes of Argentina puts local livelihoods and traditions in grave danger. As many will already know, lithium is a reactive element prized for its capacity to make currents flow through rechargeable batteries and, paradoxically, to calm flows of excitable neurotransmitters in the human brain. But the industrial extraction of lithium has many dire consequences for landscapes and for people.
Sasha Engelmann [25:34]:
During the Aerocene Pacha action, the sculpture carried a collectively written message that read “el agua y la vida valen más que el litio” or “water and life are worth more than lithium.”
Representatives from Indigenous communities who were involved in the action, including Verónica Chavez from Tres Pozos, have also since traveled to Buenos Aries to be part of Aerocene Pacha documentary screenings, where thousands of young Argentine BTS fans have been enthusiastically flocking as well.
What is interesting about this action is not only its symbolic meaning and the message it sent about lithium extraction and other ways of moving and sensing the atmosphere, but also that it has since sparked a growing, albeit very unusual, coalition between local environmental and Indigenous activists, BTS fans, and Aerocene practitioners in Argentina.
Cathy Hannabach [26:36]:
That’s just so cool for many reasons, but I think the collaboration element, the solidary element that you ended on there, is one of the most fascinating. I mean, these are not, as you point out, necessarily groups that get together on a lot of projects, even if they’re not inherently antagonistic to each other.
It also, I think, demonstrates how something that’s deeply local—lithium extraction and the very local and regionally specific effects that that has on individual communities, individual landscapes, and individual pieces of land—also connects to these broader atmospheric goals, as you might put it, about broader patterns of fossil fuel extraction, global politics, global economics, and alternatives to capitalism. So it’s this really interesting kind of project that brings together all of these different realms.
Sasha Engelmann [27:35]:
Yes, it really is. I think it is also especially important that this action lifted a human because previous Aerocene actions were really about floating human-free or smaller scale Aerocene sculptures through the atmosphere to collect data, or to make images of the earth from the atmosphere, or to perform a different relationship to the air then is performed by a fuel-burning craft.
To lift a human is both deeply symbolic and also extremely challenging. In order to get permission to launch a human into the atmosphere with a solar powered, aerostatic craft, you have to go through loads of permission forms and legal frameworks and also find a human who is a licensed aerostatic pilot who is willing to do that.
It brings together a lot of different kinds of work about how we enter the atmosphere and what is allowed to enter the atmosphere with a degree of risk about a kind of unusual experiment, or a kind of experiment that doesn’t usually happen, as far as we’re used to.
Sasha Engelmann [28:57]:
So the flight of Leticia was a really, really powerful experience and it was very powerful to watch even from afar. I think it’s unique and very interesting how this event has also catalyzed a very young community of people in Argentina. A lot of BTS fans, as I mentioned, are now really invested in the Aerocene project and attending events and joining forums and taking action. This is very, very interesting as a model for political work.
Cathy Hannabach [29:31]:
So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, that really gets at the heart of that big why behind all of these projects you do. So I will ask you what is a giant question, but I think an important one and one we don’t get enough opportunities to ask and answer for each other. What kind of world are you working toward? What kind of world do you want?
Sasha Engelmann [29:56]:
I am working toward a world in which breathing is neither a dangerous and silent exposure nor a site of violence and oppression. I’m also working for a world in which equity is a given, not a sometimes selected tactic or approach.
I’m also very much imagining a world in which we see ourselves in every change in the weather and thus collectively work toward the weather that we on this planet can endure and perhaps even flourish in.
Cathy Hannabach [30:30]:
Thank you so much for being with us today, Sasha, and sharing all of these really fascinating ways that you imagine and create otherwise.
Sasha Engelmann [30:39]:
Thank you for having me, Cathy. It’s been really fun.
Cathy Hannabach [30:46]:
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.
You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people in projects we discussed on the show.