One Saturday in May I took a drive from Tempe back to my parent’s house in Phoenix. The 101 freeway cuts through an indian reservation and farmland that is largely open and undeveloped so there’s space to see the famous Big Sky of the desert Southwest. That particular day, the clouds were amazing and abundant: high, puffy and endless.
It reminded me of one of my favorite paintings in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, called “Sky Above Clouds IV” by Georgia O’Keefe. The painting itself is massive (supposedly the size of the artist’s garage floor, and as large as she could possibly work) and, I think, seeks to capture exactly the kind of sky I was witnessing.
I think many people in my generation are worried about the kind of world we’ll pass on to our children, due to uncertain (extreme?) effects of climate change. The concept of diminishing baselines is something I read about in Jon Moallem’s book, Wild Ones, which was described in the context of how scientists have been counting, measuring and recording butterfly populations over the past century. The diligence with which scientists are recording butterfly species and numbers has gotten more and more precise as the actual populations and diversity of butterfly species have gone down in equal measure. So, each generation perceives that there are the same number of butterflies simply because we are comparing the present to the immediate past, rather than present populations from over a hundred years ago. We don’t want to accept that the actual ecological presence of butterflies is decreasing.
This kind of biological lowered expectations is terrifying and sad. There’s also not a whole lot we can do about it (read Wild Ones, you’ll feel better). But technology is helping us to communicate with our future selves in more meaningful ways than ever before.
So back to that drive – I had the thought – what if this beautiful big sky is something that disappears as the atmosphere changes during global warming? What if the sky that I see is already somehow less than even what Georgia O’Keefe was trying to record over 50 years ago?
How might we capture that sky and the feeling of existing beneath it in a digital way? What if a giant video projection of a software program could move and change the clouds as you walk towards it (or scroll downwards on a device). The movement would be very slow to capture the magnitude of the clouds, and the shapes of the clouds are random and allowed to overlap.
I see a small act of digital preservation hoping to capture the EMOTION of that sky, which speaks to us on a deeply human, almost spiritual level.