Can thoughts in themselves seem solid and tangible, accumulate and become atmospheric? What can be said about feeling something in the air?
The Enquiry is a collective of Dublin-based artists and curators — Jeanette Doyle, Jennie Guy, Emer Lynch, Deborah Madden and Claire Walsh — who curate live events around ideas of immateriality and dematerialised art practices.
The following text describes elements of the group’s recent research which culminated in an event at the AC Institute, New York, on 10 April 2019. Selected works containing ideas of atmosphere, visibility and surveillance, were presented in the darkened space to a live audience.
Deborah Madden, Here, There, 2019, audio
Sarah Forrest, Again, it objects, 2016, video
Daisy Lafarge, falsification air, 2017, poem
David Fagan, Yeah! 1, 2014, video
Salvatore of Lucan, That Snake Conor Cusack, 2016, Fan video for Girl Band’s song ‘That Snake Conor Cusack’ from their 2012 EP ‘France 98’
Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries, Please Mistake Me For Nobody, 2017, video animation
Jennie Guy, Fahrenheit 451 [Book Drop; Train Gaze; Running Man; Book People], 2016, videos
Daisy Lafarge, grid air, 2017, poem
Jessica Ramm, Cloud Release, 2014, video
David Fagan, Yeah! 2, 2014, sculpture, multiples
The themed sections below reflect the format of the event.
In The Faraway Nearby (2013), Rebecca Solnit connects climate with fiction as she recounts the story of the origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The famous monster was conceived during a period of strange weather caused by the aftermath of a massive volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 1815. Clouds of volcanic ash were propelled into the upper atmosphere, obscuring the sun. Snow fell in June, candles burned all day in the regular darkness and 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer. Records from the time describe a latent sense of doom in the air.
Shelley famously implied that the idea for the story came to her that summer in a waking dream while she was staying in Geneva with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and her half sister Claire Clairmont. Confined indoors because of the strange weather, the group told each other ghost stories and talked about the scientific possibilities of bringing the dead back to life. In this dark atmosphere, both material and immaterial, the image of the monster emerged: ‘I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy half vital motion.’ 
 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, H. Colburn and R. Bentley, London, 1831, pp.10
In The Inhuman:Reflections on Time (1988), Jean-François Lyotard describes the immaterial as the barely perceptible difference between registers: the difference, for example, between the same note generated by a violin as opposed to a flute or piano, or between the same colour in pastel as opposed to watercolour or oil. In relation to imagery; the intangible but material difference between the same digital image printed on a page, projected on a screen or displayed on a monitor. The immaterial, he writes, is ‘nuance’ and ‘timbre’, locatable in the minutiae of difference.  While Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s examples of volcanic eruptions and wild stormy weather defines the ‘sublime’ within our comprehension of vastness, for Lyotard, the sublime is situated within this minutiae of nuance and timbre, within the immaterial. Lyotard’s description is as follows: ‘Nuance or timbre are the distress and despair of the exact division and thus the clear composition of sounds and colours according to graded scales and harmonic temperaments.’
 Lyotard, The Inhuman:Reflections on Time, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp.142
We took what was economically possible and materially slight with us from Dublin to New York: digital files of the video and sound works, printouts of Daisy Lafarges’ poems and a set of instructions to recreate David Fagan’s sculpture with plastic cups and alcohol.
It was imagery of a volcanic eruption in Jeanette Doyle’s video, Rough, that first prompted us to think about smoke, fire, air and the immaterial and material properties of atmospheres. The event took place in the context of Doyle’s solo exhibition at the AC Institute with Rough playing on the back wall of the room as visitors arrived, its volcanic presence setting a scene.
The gallery has no windows and the walls, ceiling and carpet are black. Deborah Madden had created an audio work with pieced together fragments of discussions we’d had in Jeanette’s flat in the preceding months. It played in the room as visitors gathered. A sonic composition of private interactions - it captured the fleeting process of our thinking together and rematerialised the setting of our evenings at Jeanette’s on the other side of the Atlantic.
During the event we moved freely through the darkened space carrying tablets and phones. In sequence, the video works were projected onto the walls and played on tablets and monitors, moving imagery around the room. We read Daisy’s poems using our phones’ torch light. Though the invitation to use their own phone lights was extended to the audience for better visibility, most opted to remain in the dark.
‘what can I pass on, you ask,
about methods of detecting the air?
it has become so habitual
I am not sure where to begin.’ 
Air has substance and colour in Flann O’Briens’s 1966 novel The Third Policeman (1967). Narrated by a nameless self-professed expert on the fictional philosopher de Selby, the book is interlaced with footnotes detailing his outlandish musings. One such footnote presents de Selby’s theory that night is caused by the accumulation of black air: ‘Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.’ 
In her essay Atmospheric Attunements (2011), Kathleen Stewart analyses the charged atmospheres of everyday life, describing scenes in which the sense of something happening becomes tactile.
From a poem on bees, to Reagan’s election in the US, to a scene in a strip club described by a bouncer:
‘…these cases of ‘atmospheric attunements’, she writes, ‘are meant to suggest something of the plasticity and density of lived compositions.’ 
In another example, she describes a fictional female character in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (2001) who has developed an acute sensory attunement to the atmospherics of her house. We’re told an accumulation of many years worrying about her children, husband and sister combined with the countless hours she spends upstairs in bed suffering migraines are the causes of this acute sensitivity, described as, ‘a tentacular awareness that reached out from the dimness and moved through the house, unseen and all-knowing… The indistinct murmur of voices heard through a carpeted floor surpassed in clarity a typed-up transcript; a conversation that penetrated a wall, or better, two walls, came stripped of all but its essential twists and nuances… She lay in the dark and knew everything.’ 
 Extract from falsification air by Daisy Lafarge, Sad Press, 2017
 Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, Flamingo, London, 2001 [first published 1967], pp.10
 Kathleen Stewart, ‘Atmospheric Attunements’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume 29, 2011, pp.44
‘Earth is an intrinsically flammable planet owing to its cover of carbon-rich vegetation, seasonally dry climates, atmospheric oxygen, and widespread lightning and volcanic ignitions.’ 
Just days before the event at AC Institute, an issue of the journal Public 58 entitled Smoke: Figures, Genres, Forms was discovered by a member of our group on the shelves of a well-known New York bookshop. The quote above, taken from a Wikipedia entry on wildfire, appears in one of the essays ‘On Fire’. In it, authors Yaniya Lee and Rosie Aiello explain that they are attracted to fire:
‘…because it has the capacity to lend lie to human certainties, that of the map, of the measurement, of the document, of the deed, of the border, because fire respatializes our built environment; because fire is demonic.’ 
 Rosa Aiello, Nataleah Hunter-Young and Michael Litwack, eds., ‘Smoke: Figures, Genres, Forms’, Public 58, Volume 29, Number 58, December 2018, pp.169
On the back cover of Smoke: Figures, Genres, Forms, the editors outline that this issue intends to address the ‘formal and conceptual challenges that smoke poses to received understandings of visuality, connection, place, duration, violence and solidarity. Bringing together artists, scholars, and writers, Public 58 invites readers to consider how thinking with smoke may open otherwise ecologies and habitable atmospheres of collective existence.’ 
Among its contents is an extract from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric:
‘In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh My God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.’ 
 Ibid., pp.168
 Ibid., pp.77
‘Is smoke fires’ memory?’ 
Fahrenheit 451—the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns—is the title of the 1953 dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury. In it he presents a future American society where books are outlawed and ‘firemen’ burn any that are found. When the traditional role of the firefighters becomes obsolete due to new technology that has made buildings inflammable, they instead become officers of society’s peace of mind. Their specific purpose is burning books, which were condemned as sources of confusing and depressing thoughts that only complicated people’s lives.
In this bookless world, Drifters emerge in secret. A group of former intellectuals, each Drifter has memorised a book should the day arrive when society comes to an end and is forced to rebuild itself anew, leaving survivors to embrace the literature of the past in mapping out new ways to live.
Fire also permeates Octavia E. Butler’s visions of the future in her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, set in the US between 2024 and 2026. All over the country, communities of this future world are destroyed by fires caused by a mixture of climatic drought and arson. The ‘Pyros’ who set the fires, are people addicted to a drug called pyro, or ‘ro’, that makes setting fires feel ‘better than sex’. 
Four tablets screen a video series by Jennie Guy, featuring edited clips of the 1996 film adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. All four play the first video in sync. At the beginning of the second video one tablet screen goes blank. When the third video begins another tablet cuts out until, finally, we are left with one working tablet. Now solo, it plays the final scene of the film in which the Drifters walk through a wood in the snow reciting the poetry and prose they’ve memorised.
 Ibid., pp.9
 Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower,Grand Central Publishing, New York,1993, pp.111
‘On the first Sunday of 1969 Robert Barry went to Central Park with four capsules of radioactive material in his pocket. He had ordered them from a scientific supply catalog, choosing an isotope of his namesake, barium-133, the only one of twenty-two known isotopes of the element that does not dangerously decay within seconds or minutes. He walked to the Great Lawn behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, in two locations there, inconspicuously buried the capsules. He then snapped a quick photograph at each of the sites, leaving behind what he called 0.5 Microcurie Radiation Installation.
With a half-life of slightly more than ten years, the barium isotopes continue to decay. So unless they have been unearthed, they are emitting a faint but charged bit of energy, like an invisible signal from a dying star, unbeknownst to the ballplayers, dog walkers, and picnickers on the grass above.’ 
 Peter Eleey, ‘Thursday’, The Quick and the Dead, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2009, pp.31
‘it became clear we were dealing with a wild
material, which was itself
flippant. it was also inadvisable
to walk without purpose, though flowers
retained their crude narrative and birds
in the coppiced wood wagged on like always.’ 
In May 2017, artists Candice Lin and Patrick Staff presented an exhibition as cloud entitled ‘Lesbian Gulls, Dead Zones, Sweat and T’ at Human Resources gallery, Los Angeles. Visitors to the show were invited to ‘lose the illusion of their bodily boundaries and float within the influence of a hormonal mist.’  A framed wooden structure in a hexagonal layout was placed in the centre of the room; a reference to the chemical compound of benzene, part of a phyto-hormonal change that occurs during the aromatisation of certain plants. An exploration of botanical knowledge and chemistry, the installation became ‘a “slow forming cloud” that proposed both a cross-pollination and infection between bodies, ecosystems, and institutions.’ 
 Extract from grid air by Daisy Lafarge, Sad Press, 2017
 ‘A slow forming cloud: Candice Lin + Patrick Staff’s LESBIAN GULLS, DEAD ZONES, SWEAT AND T.’, aqnb, 23 May 2017
‘In 1992, Hamad Butt suspended nine sealed glass spheres containing chlorine gas from the centre of the roof of the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. The spheres hung together in groups of three, like snapshots from the swing of a pendulum, creating the illusion of movement and a sense that the glass might shatter at any moment and release the toxic gas within. On one end of the gallery were installed ladders whose rungs were glass cylinders containing iodine in a vacuum and an infra-red heating unit. A timer turned the heating unit on and off so that the iodine transformed back and forth from gas to solid.
‘In the texts written whilst creating these works, Butt wrote of his desire to explore what he called “apprehensions”: the “seizure and arresting of perceptions” which we “anticipate by fear to the point of understanding”. Apprehensions come after the biochemical processes corresponding to anxiety or stress. Fear and unease, Butt wrote, are “understood, made comfortable, apprehended by the language that takes hold of this quality of experience”. He wanted to convey the apprehensions caused by the spread of AIDS—“We cannot respond to this epidemic without fear and confusion, without aching to know why”—but knew that for the artist to “legislate, so to speak, for the order of apprehending AIDS and the fear of AIDS… enjoins one to ironise the privileged role of the eye”. These apprehensions, at once so intangible and so consequential to those who acquire HIV, cannot be shown in a picture or described in writing. They are something more diffuse: a sense of poison in the air, of latent toxicity in the atmosphere, of fragile protection giving way.
‘A year after Butt died of AIDS-related illness in 1994, FAMILIARS was exhibited at the Tate in the group exhibition RITES OF PASSAGE (1995). Foster, who Butt had asked to publish his writings posthumously, remembers how for years the Tate refused to acquire Familiars for its permanent collection when it was offered to them by Butt’s brother Jamal. Foster is certain that this wasn’t due to institutional homophobia, rather, it came from a worry about ‘how to preserve the toxic chemicals’. Museums preserve objects, not atmospheres; things, not terrors. Butt, he remembers, took the risk less seriously: he used to sleep with the glass vessels under his bed.’ 
 Kevin Brazil, ‘The Uses of Queer Art’, The White Review, October 2018
The event at AC Institute was kindly supported by Culture Ireland
Jeanette Doyle is an artist and practice-based PhD researcher with the Graduate School for Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM), Dublin. Doyle’s research topic is the relationship between dematerialisation and the immaterial.
Jennie Guy is an artist, curator and educator based. She is manager of programme and operation of Fire Station Artists’ Studios in Dublin and is currently curating a series of public art commissions in counties Dublin and Wicklow.
Emer Lynch is an independent curator. Recent projects include Tables and chairs and other people, Lynders Mobile Home Park, Dublin as part of Resort Revelations II, and Foaming at the Mouth, Dublin and Amsterdam, co-curated with Tracy Hanna.
Deborah Madden is a curator, writer and artist. She is an editor of Critical Bastards Magazine, assistant curator to the Irish pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale and former acting curator of Project Arts Centre, Dublin.
Claire Walsh is assistant curator at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, and was guest co-editor of MAP with Suzanne van der Lingen throughout 2016.