Weather Suits for Cities – Stage 1, Omaha, Nebraska
A. Data Collecting:
I had the chance to give this project a first run in Omaha, NE, during a 2-month residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Omaha is a typical example of the horrors of urban sprawl found in the western part of this country. Omaha couldn’t have been more different than being on the Cape. Having no car in such a car-saturated, car-centric city was a strange reality to begin my project.
For all that I felt was wrong with the urban development and the over-dependence on the car (a sort of bus system did exist, I should say), Omaha was a perfect place to begin addressing the question: How is weather experienced in a city? How is it contextualized in the daily chores of Omahans? Is the reality that we live in a human-induced age of climate change baring any relevance to that daily interaction and understanding of weather? When does a person living in Omaha actually notice weather, aside during the commute from the burbs to the office and the lunch hour where workers seem to eagerly escape from the frigid AC- environments inside?
I decided to begin the project by doing the only thing I could do, which was go outside and walk the streets. Everyday, I would program my weather equipment to measure weather in intervals of 30 seconds or so as I explored this new environment. As I was walking around, I would look for weather beacons, stationary objects that indicate some sort of visible reaction to the weather (ex: flags or trees). When I came back from my walks, I sketched out maps of the routes I had taken, what I had recorded and, most importantly, what sort of thoughts, observations and questions popped up in my head about weather as I was walking.
However, I soon found that this approach had some problems. Given that I was one of the only pedestrians around and given that I had weather equipment dangling from my sides, it didn’t take long for the cops to take an interest in what I was doing. I realized that in this day-and-age, walking around in any city with visible equipment invariably invites other connotations I don’t want the work to go towards. I’m not interested in this ‘portable weather device’ to be a platform for a performance nor to even invite that kind of interpretation.
The second thing that came up was the lack of a constant in the data I gathered. My data interpretation is always a partnership between my own observations which are compared and added to data I get from local weather stations. For this partnership to work, there has to be a level of consistency in my own data collecting – be that in form of a stationary place where I record data everyday or in taking the reading at the same time everyday. The problem with these walks was that the data was too locally specific – interesting in bringing up thoughts and ideas, but not useable in comparing it with data from local weather stations. In other words, I could only use the numbers to understand a very locally, specific, tiny weather phenomena with no useable numbers to connect to larger data, which would help me see my local observations as part of a larger context.
The third problem had to do with finding reliable weather beacons. Weather beacons are visually manifestations of the cause-and-effect of weather. Visual clues that function as an entry point into the larger, hidden system interactions that make up weather. The most obvious weather beacon is a flag, for example. While Omaha is awash with American flags, each one of them would be blowing this way or that way, responding to local wind turbulence. I, therefore, couldn’t use them to measure the actual wind direction. Aside from flags, I had problems finding other weather beacons. On the Cape, I used sound, bird behavior, wave height and current to help me ‘read’ visually the effects of weather. I hope that in time I will find more of them in an urban environment, so that I can begin to use the actual, physical environment more directly to read weather.
Despite these problems, there was something these walks brought that no weather instrument could. Much of weather observing feels to me like a type of ‘listening’ rather than actual looking. Part of that has to do with the fact that weather is completely invisible – the things you do see are merely reactions of a system that makes up weather. You see the branches of a tree swerving, as a result of wind currents flowing through it. This ‘listening’ comes about after spending a lot of time in an environment in which you notice more and more things. Your mind begins to differentiate better and better what sort of elements are constants, what are the occasional freaks and what are the real oddities in an environment.
After this initial start, I made a few changes to the data collecting process. I set up a permanent weather station on the roof of the Bemis Center. It was high enough to be able to see a good chunk of sky as well as giving me visibility to some of the highest flags in Omaha. Data was collected twice a day. I also continued my walks through Omaha, which were used as a way to mentally contextualize the information I gathered from the roof.