Chris Salter: Atmospheres of Affect
Atmospheres of Affect
(S. 225 – 243)

How does the room think it is?

Chris Salter

Atmospheres of Affect

PDF, 19 Seiten

Atmosphere #1

A screaming comes across the sky.
It has happened before,
but there is nothing to compare it to now.

Thomas Pynchon1

The flash of bombs and the stink of sweat, mud, water and rotting corpses. The dense air is tinted by flashes of gunpowder and permeated by damp frigidness. In the quagmire, the stale, stench-borne air seems almost suddenly to have shifted its state. It becomes infected, contaminated with another scent mixed between pepper and pineapple. Taste contradicts smell – a burnished metal, burning the back of the throat. A ghastly cloud of yellow-green hovers in the air, the result of some 168 tons of chlorine gas released above the trenches of Ypres, France on 22 April, 1915. A colored haze whose potency is quick and brutal leads to the asphyxiation of over 6,000 French troops. “The air,” as Bruno Latour tells us in his story of the incident, “has been made explicit; air has been reconfigured […] air had become public; gas had become a branch of the military; a whole science of atmospheric manipulation had been declared.”2

Atmosphere #2

The room is filled with luminous and aural phantasms. On the wall, a long French text is horizontally stenciled in off-white vinyl letters. The words are barely visible in the hazy darkness, except when I stare at them from a specific angle. As we read fragments of the French with the world behind our back, the room lurches from one color to another – first red, then yellow, blue and white accompanied by an almost silent aural pulse while a thin polyphony of almost unheard string sounds completes this cloudy scenography. Some of the group gathered turn towards the colors emanating from the room. Before us, three colored glass frames suspended from the ceiling, in the direct center of the space, which bifurcate the room in two. Each of the surfaces frames a luminous colored object freely floating in space. Staring intently at the three colors lined up in a row, several in the crowd blink for a second. In the interval, the solid colors suddenly flash for less than a split second before returning to normal.

The room seems to slowly grow dark as the sound shifts from almost unheard vibrations to the swell of a rapid crescendo – a constellation of white noise at a higher decibel level. The colors of the glass turn a sickly green as the room fills with a thick, white haze. I myself begin to walk towards the green suspended glass. The air near the glass is somehow different: thicker and warm as it hits my shoulders. The haze begins to choke the view before me as I reach out to touch the glass. A vibration of seismographic intensity and a powerful burst of cold white light ruptures the room, and what I have thought was a green glass surface before me now vanishes into the thin air.

How does the room think it is?

Architectures made of clouds, steam and light; spaces producing artificial weather; ambiences of threat constructed through the almost impossible to articulate feeling of temperatures, air currents, infrastructural drones, reflections, luminous washes and throbbing vibrations that infect and saturate “non-places” (Augé) like train stations, airports and sterile shopping centers. Atmosphere, that which is impossible to describe or what architectural theorist Mark Wigley calls “some kind of sensuous emission of sound, light, heat, smell and moisture; a swirling climate of intangible effects generated by a stationary object [building].”3

If all that is solid melts into air, to invoke a much too often cited Marx quotation, then the moment of political-social-technical and ecological crisis in which we are immersed provokes an increasing number of artists, designers, architects, scholars and scientists to turn towards the theorization and production of atmospheres; intangible, hard to grasp and hold onto, strange entities that nonetheless do something to us as perceiving subjects in the world. Atmospheres indeed are ontologically puzzling: a surplus, a not really there, an in-between state, a feeling that is somehow nowhere. But what is it about something “in a certain sense indeterminate, diffuse but precisely not indeterminate in relation to its character,” that speaks so strongly to us in our current historical moment?4

As their chief philosopher Gernot Böhme suggests, atmospheres are a fundamental part of a new aesthetics focused on entities that are ontologically indeterminate since “we are not sure whether we should attribute them to the objects or environments from which they proceed or to the subjects who experience them.”5 This is an aesthetics that emphasizes not only blurring between subjects and “objects,” for how can something like a smell or the movement of a 18-Hz acoustic wave be demarcated and bounded spatially-temporally from a “subject” who comes to it as it comes to her. This aesthetics of atmosphere also forges an understanding of “the relation between environmental qualities and human states. This ‘and,’ this in-between, by means of which environmental qualities and states are related, is atmosphere.”6

That a new aesthetics of the phase change and micro-thresholds and limits would pervade the practices of artists and designers who increasingly attend in their work to the movement and transformation of climates, clouds, air, haze, acoustic waves or thermal assemblages seems easy to account for in an age where metastable shifts in the environment portend macro effects, ultimately edging us towards potential annihilation. What is not so obvious, however, is why the interest in producing or making atmospheres that ride on such ontological instability and how such atmospheres enable the production of affect? Atmospheres after all, emanate and radiate not from any singular source, subject or thing but are collectively produced and circulated just as Félix Guattari argues that affects are “installed ‘before’ the circumscription of identities and manifested by unlocatable transferences, unlocatable with regard to their origin as well as with regard to their destination.”7

Spinozist genealogies of affect are well known. We do not know what a body can do; what its capacities are to affect and to be affected by the world. In Moira Gatens’ informed take on the subject, the affects, for Spinoza, result in shifts in corporeal power and intensity. “The awareness of actual bodily modification – the awareness

of things as present – is fundamental to the affects; and this is what makes the definition of the affects overlap with that of imagination.”8 Later, from Spinoza on down through Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari and more recently, the work of many of the contributors to this volume including Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough, Steven Shaviro, Michaela Ott and others, the debate rages on about whether affect is pre- or post-social, pre- or post-cultural, trapped in or liberated from questions of identity and subjectivity or enabled, halted or transformed through the social-technical world of things, processes and entities beyond strictly human acts.

The one common thread snaking through all of these inquiries is the tendency to examine affect mainly through the lens of subjectivity (hence again its roots in Spinoza): its production and for better or worse, its disappearance or alteration. Teresa Brennan began her posthumously published book The Transmission of Affect with the question “Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’?” In arguing that in order to feel an atmosphere, we have to take into “account of physiology as well as the social, psychological factors that generated the atmosphere in the first place,” Brennan positions affect as deeply attuned to the social and psychic world of subjects.9 Anthropologist William Mazzarella makes a similar suggestion when he states “affect points us towards a terrain that is pre-subjective without being pre-social. As such it implies a way of apprehending social life that does not start with the bounded, intentional subject while at the same time foregrounding embodiment and sensuous life.”10

As always, even with that which is indescribable, a gap remains. The first gap is that affect can only be observed through the lens of subjects and objects and through the process of how such objects or environments exert forces and affects onto unsuspecting subjects. Affect finds its landing site on the subject but not necessarily the other way around. The other gap is the tendency to focus on the affect-environment constellation through chiefly spatial modes of thinking. If theorists ranging from Hermann Schmitz, Hubertus Tellenbach, Gernot Böhme, Félix Guattari and Mark Wigley, among others, have theorized atmosphere using spatio-ocular descriptors such as “aura,” “distance,” “halo,” “appearance,” “borders” and “location,” these writers have rarely noted the temporal dynamics that enable such “spheres of presence,” as Böhme calls them. Why then do ontological discourses relating to assemblages, becomings, relations, networks, objects and agencies always ignore the nuances of temporal dynamics or describe such temporalities as anthropologist Georgina Born labels it, as “singular and continuous – a monotemporality”?11

The material energetics of mechanical, chemical and electro-magnetic phenomena that constitute what we call an atmosphere indeed operate over different temporal contours, scales and registers; accelerations/decelerations, crests, explosive suddenness and suspension, shifts in density, repetition or the mixing and combining of such phenomena from the scales of microseconds untold to perception to the milliseconds inherent in grasping a stimulus through the sense organs. These different “temporal qualia,” as the late psychologist Daniel Stern labeled them, are in fact, critical for producing those mainly spatial impressions of unboundedness, unlocalizability and metrics of distance that seem to instantiate the dominant characteristics attributed to the affect that radiates around and through atmospheres. Such temporal scales constitute a meeting: the lived, felt experience of such temporal shapes by a subject and the behavior of the chemical-mechanical-electrical phenomena that constitute an atmosphere in the first place.

The temporal fusion of subject and environment into the broader construct of atmosphere is akin to what Stern argues is the resonance between the temporal contours or “time profiles” of things and the dynamic “vitality effects” brought on in subjects due to these temporal contours.12 While it is indisputable that affect and subjectivity are intertwined with one another, I want to provoke here a slightly different question. What would it mean to examine the question of affect not only through the spatial but also the temporal-material unfolding that constitutes and produces atmospheres rather than through the discreteness and demarcation of subjects/objects in all their various guises and ramifications (production, circulation, diffusion)?

In other words, if we want to approach the subject of the timing of affect we have to forge further with an understanding of affects by way of the temporal strategies and melds that take place between perceiver and environment. This goal seriously takes into account the fact that timings are never mono-temporal but rather, simultaneous, overlapping, crossfading, synchronous or diachronous actions over different scales and contexts.

To explore this question, my intervention in these pages takes as its departure point an artistic environment appropriately entitled Atmosphere realized in 2001 and since presented internationally in various iterations. The installation Atmosphere provides us with a materialized form in which to explore issues of affect through different temporal profiles by way of the installation’s chief elements of haze, light, sound and, occasionally, smell – the gradations, abruptness, acceleration/deceleration, cycling-looping and synchrony/diachrony that takes place among and through these materials. Can we thus examine the “timing,” the temporal nature of affect through the setup and production of aesthetic atmospheres by asking as Deleuze proposes, not what these atmospheres “mean” but how do they function in and over different temporal shapes?

Circulating through all manner of the world…

We are outside on a late afternoon November day. The air is thickened with greyish-lavender clouds that portend snow. The trees are bare with the last leaves of fall clinging to their branches. The chilled, moist air seems to shift as the wind stirs up and minute flakes of snow start falling, populating the sky with millions of frozen particles, like whitish, falling noise. The wind churns up the noise, whipping it around into turbulent eddies, micro-vortexes. Vision begins to dim as the darkness slowly subsumes the last elements of grey in the air, turning it black. A slowly expanding field of blinding white particulate and whistling waves of howling that blankets the steps of space through which we move. How does this scene emanate its qualities of color, cold, moistness, luminosity? What is their phrasing from one temporal moment to the next? What is it about this situation’s qualities, its micro- and macro-textures magnified or made explicit to perception that makes us “feel” differently than any other situation?

In his essay Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of New Aesthetics, Böhme argues that in order to overcome the “ontological unlocalizability” of atmosphere, we need to rightly “liberate” the concept from the subject-object binary. The ontology of things resides in both their primary (the qualities and characteristics that distinguish one thing from another) and secondary qualities (how does the thing exert external effects as part of perception). Thus, the thing is not only its qualities but also its meld between a perceiver meeting it and it meeting the perceiver through the environment/world.

Guattari also suggests as much in his 1990 Ritornellos and Existential Affects when he writes:

[A]ffects circulate, intersect and intertwine themselves through the world, making no distinction or value judgment over human, animal, vegetal, mineral. […] Somewhere, there is hatred, in the same way that, in animist societies, beneficent or nocuous influences circulate through the spirit of ancestors, and, concurrently, of totemic animals, or through the ‘mana’ of a consecrated place, the power of a ritual tattooing, a ceremonial dance, the recounting of a myth, etc.

As he concludes, “affect remains hazy, atmospheric” and yet, at the same time, “perfectly apprehensible to the extent that it is characterized by the existence of threshold effects and reversals in polarity.”13

That different thresholds and limits of affect flow and circulate through objects, sites and practices suggests that affect, like its expression by way of materials and percepts, is in continual movement. Yet, Guattari labeling it as “hazy” suggests that its movement produced through, in and by atmospheres is not altogether clear but cloudy, misty, somewhat opaque. Even the subject who is caught in the intense experience of an atmosphere, of sensing a space that feels “foreboding” or “uncanny” is neither temporally singular nor stable. This “subject” is “no more than a fluctuating intersection, and the consciousness ‘terminal’ of these diverse components of temporalization.”14

Just as there is no clearly bounded subject, no immediately stable “I” that is affected, there is also no clear object demarcated, astray or for itself in the world that acts as the sole origin or site for such affects to land and freeze in their tracks. Atmospheres too, like Deleuze’s and Guattari’s understanding of artistic practice as a bloc of sensations – of percepts and affects – also exist as this bloc, with neither perception or affection situated or lodged at any particular locale or singular moment.


In the same essay on existential affects, Guattari describes a scene in which affect comes back as a repetitive motif. The oncoming twilight brings “the somber red color of my curtain” into a new “existential constellation with nightfall.” The quality of the color, material, texture of the curtain thus shifts from moment to moment within a temporal contour as the darkness of the outside gradually plunges the room itself into a chiaroscuro-like tint of luminous thresholds; from one everyday moment into a new series of moments where the world of the room and beyond both sink into “an irremediable void.”15

What is it about the temporal passage of one state to another (here of color and light), whose complete continuum at every moment is unavailable to perception but whose accumulated gradations over a specified duration nevertheless actually constitute a changed atmosphere – something that was in one state five or ten minutes before has now qualitatively changed into something else? Studying the early life of an infant, Daniel Stern’s 1985 work The Interpersonal World of the Infant offers one potential direction for why affect’s transmission through Guattari’s atmosphere of chiaroscuro twilight invokes such resonance. An infant’s tendencies towards amodal perception, where a percept in one sense modality can be transferred into another, suggests that s/he doesn’t see color or shapes, hear tones, or smell something but instead reaches for “more global qualities of experience” – “shapes, intensities, and temporal patterns.”16 Pulses, rhythms, densities and temporal cycles – do they provide the compositional textures of atmospheres that condition the possibility of shifting qualities, moods and the “sense” of such contexts?

Within the artistic work Atmosphere, one of the chief elements used to generate the shifting sense of “climates” in the actual physical room is water-based haze or fog. That an aesthetic strategy for the artificial creation of an atmosphere rests on the ability to precisely regulate the force of spraying fine glycol or water particles into the air of an environment which quickly condense into an constructed fog might seem both puzzling and, at the same time, self-evident. Such a dense constellation of particles obscures the visual scene, generating a great “cloud of unknowing” by distorting the properties of the scene. Yet, an artificial blanket of haze (far less dense than fog) also creates surfaces in motion; overlapping density gradients that scatter light by bouncing it off minute condensation particles in all directions, continually shifting the optical signal/noise ratio.

Light as a technical medium transforms its state in the presence of haze. Depending on the shape of the lighting instrument’s reflectors and lenses, from an environment filled at first with minimal luminosity emerges saturated reflections and geometries, shapes, forms produced in the interaction between waves and water particles. But if atmospheres can be seen as hovering within a kind of pregnant, latent state, the artificial regulation of gradients of particulate intensity such as fog density and fan speed by way of the internal DMX parameters of the machine provide its producers with the ability to temporally shape an aesthetics of crepuscular effects; a continuum of increasing levels of indistinctness that result in programmed visual degradation.17 To quote the website of Look Solutions, a German-based manufacturer of “high performance fog and haze machines” used for live entertainment situations, “as any lighting professional knows, a good haze is rather important when it comes to creating the proper atmosphere.”18

Artificially produced fog and haze have long functioned as core materials in the quest for artificially produced atmospheres. The great Japanese fog sculptor Fujiko Nakaya’s material since the 1960s has been condensed water droplets, sprayed and scattered at high pressure into rivers, parks, the undersides of bridges, fountains and other public spaces to form masses of undulating, kinetically behaving enveloping air subject to dissipation by way of changing meteorological conditions. Nakaya described her Fog Sculpture for the 1970 Pepsico Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka as “a fog to walk into, to feel and smell, and disappear in.”19 Similarly, architects Diller + Scofidio’s 2002 Blur Building produced an atmosphere of acoustic, visual and tactile wet white noise through the spraying of water from some 31,710 computer controlled nozzles producing a mass of scattered light and water over the border of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland for the 2002 Swiss Expo – an atmosphere that could be described using Niklas Luhmann’s notion of atmosphere as the “surplus of space between place (Stelle) and objects (Objekte) which is ungraspable.”20

Responsible for both the fog technologies used in Nakaya’s and D+S’s works, already as early as 1970 cloud physicist Thomas Mee Jr. described the transformation of an atmosphere through technical means: regulating the size (from 2–40 microns) and amount of suspended water-based droplets or particles through mechanically (and later, computer) controlled nozzles. With millions of droplets suspended in the air, only a “white, hazy substance” becomes available to vision due the human eye’s inability to see the individual particles but only the results of a moving, fluctuating mass: that of scattering light.21

Brian Massumi’s work on Ganzfeld (“total field of vision”) phenomena (2002) also describes the manner in which slowly shifting gradients of haze, fog or light which build upon and overlap with another can lead to increasing states of disorientation. In examining a psychological phenomena in which vision is confronted by a homogeneous, “featureless field,” Massumi describes Ganzfeld experiments from the 1920s-1960s in which strange, inexplicable results occurred in a variety of subjects – “a vacuum of vision” – vision empyting out, suspended, unable to grasp anything. What is more, increasing levels of disorientation in subjects who were exposed to such featureless fields of color or light occurred only after a prolonged exposure resulting in apparent blindness and descriptions of “levels of nothingness.”22

It is not hard to notice contemporary artists who are interested in the transformative potential of atmospheres of increasing obscurity exploring such phenomena as well. In artist Kurt Hentschlaeger’s work Feed (2004), a seated audience is first exposed for twenty minutes to a large projected video image depicting the spatial contortions of 3-D animated characters’ bodies afloat in a gravity-less space. As the image fades, the room grows dark and the thundering subsonic sound increases in amplitude, a mass of thick fog suddenly engulfs the entire room, simultaneously cutting off vision and proprioceptive orientation.

The swirling thickness that reduces vision also silences the flow of time as one moment effortlessly slides like a wave into the next. The atmosphere transitions – it shifts from a locatable and repetitive sense of time with the apparent recurring rhythms and temporal shapes in the image (the bodies continually rising, falling, merging and disintegrating) to a chaotic turbulence of eddies and whorls giving way to extreme retinal afterimages, produced through a battery of ten high-powered stroboscopes, each tuned to a different frequency, which illuminate and reflect off the surging fog.

But fog is not the only element of dazed and vertiginous atmospheres. In artist James Turrell’s colossal installation Aten Reign, premiered within a completed redesigned Guggenheim rotunda in New York in the Summer of 2013, visitors lie underneath a massive upside-down, five-story tall “stack of lampshades viewed from the inside.” The physical structure of Turrell’s work consists of a series of concentric circles outfitted with 1,000 LED strips that cycle through a gradation of complementary colors over a forty-five minute cycle. Turrell’s choice of creating a time profile for the light itself contrasts with some of his earlier indoor installations in which the environment itself remains static and time is given over to human perception as the eye of the viewer gradually opens up to reveal the space itself. In Aten Reign, the total field of vision once again triumphs: the room saturates in extreme colors that are continually modulating, shifting and causing the space of the rotunda itself to undergo transformation – “the submission of a disquieted vision to a field of perception void of objects or planes.”23


As the room fills with haze, the sickly green light projected from the LED strips gradually grows in brightness. The fog that saturates the space itself appears to shift from cold white to a shimmering green fluorescence. This all seems gradual, slow, a time curve that is continuous and monotonic in its shape. But in a split second, this smooth curve of gradual brightness and color intensity is punctured by the sudden and brilliant flash of a xenon strobe, somewhere in the corner of the room. The shocking, fracturing blast seems to be accompanied by a delayed reaction of sound – a thundering yet, intensely short seismic feeling burst. Movement along the smooth curve continues, as the room becomes even harder to perceive – the green LED’s original rectilinear geometry washed out by the brightness and the sudden brutality of the flash – and then, it happens again.

That an atmosphere of haze and fog can be understood as a field of gradual perception with a smooth time profile only makes sense given the time behavior of the condensation nuclei and the water and dust that adhere to such nuclei to form cloud or fog droplets. But not all elements that constitute atmospheres behave in such a continuous manner. The swift, unforeseen flash or burst of light or sound is an aesthetic tactic that disrupts flow and punctures gradient change by reminding us of an ever-lurking discontinuity. The mathematician René Thom, who did his most important work on the sudden breaks or “critical points” of mathematically “well behaved functions” famously claimed that “the primary experience in any receiving of phenomena is discontinuity.”24 The affect produced by a sudden unexpected leap from a chair or the brutal force of a sforzando (literally, “forcing”) accent in a score is hard to grasp. What then do such sudden alterations of the flow of an atmosphere do? Is there affect to a discontinuity in an atmosphere that attempts to give the illusion of continuous change?

Sonically or visually, abrupt temporal shapes serve to break morphologies of continuity. The singular break. A luminous surge that cuts through an existing field. An unanticipated discrete sonic event at an intensity even slightly exceeding the existing amplitudes of a given atmosphere (brightness or loudness intensity, density) serves to shatter the existing flow, rupturing the “mood.” Such breaks in continuity highlight and then carve out a sudden and momentary and transitory new object out of that field, like an impulse response serves to newly excite an already existing space. The rapid attack of a sound leaves acoustic traces, reflections and reverberations that, depending on the size, shape, volume and materials of the room, may quickly dissipate, allowing the atmosphere to re-emerge somehow unscathed or linger, shifting it momentarily until the source fades away.25

Based on an event’s duration, suddenness also creates potential fractures in the duration of perception. A less than 25ms flash of a high-powered strobe in a pitch-black room renders the eye capable of only experiencing a receding afterimage. The flow of time halts, isolating and atomizing the environment. Likewise, the ear cannot distinguish timbral features of a sound if its duration is less than 12ms, leaving hearing with the impression of a click rather than a distinguishable pitch. If acoustic dynamics give us the ability through the physical structure of instruments (percussive membranes and objects, jetté or pizzicato techniques in violin bowing) or electronic circuits to create sudden attacks and transients as well as variable intensities of loudness and (after a given duration) timbre, such capacities are heavily reliant on the time constants of materials and instrumentariums: response times and refresh rates; the tunings and timings inherent in components and circuits; the specific filaments and gasses of lighting instruments; the speed of data transmission.

Discontinuities are not all of the same kind or degree. They are highly contextual, dependent on the atmosphere, technique and the precision of perception. Each technology has its own time constant, based on its material formation and structure. An analog lighting instrument such as a Fresnel or Ellipsoidal, standard issue lighting technologies in live performance settings like theaters and concert halls, can be “bumped” or flashed on and off quickly but due to the ramp or “rise” time of their tungsten bulbs and color temperatures, rarely “go off” completely, always leaving their varying traces to be picked up by perception. These transients, effected by electrical and chemical substrates, leave no possibility to outwit the threshold of perception since the time constant of the technologies themselves sometimes match the “refresh rates” of vision or hearing and, at other times, are behind.


Upon entering the room, a thick drone limply hangs in the air; its quality smothers the environment. At first, the tone’s sonancy lends itself to influence other phenomena in the room – the thick fog that envelops the space seems to be frozen; the ever-shifting intervals between the sudden burst of color in the light seems periodic and predictable; the sense of warm fingers on the body, produced by some kind of hanging infrared heat source, feels constant, unchanging, thermally monotonous. Here, repetition, unending loops, bring about the experience of non-movement, inertia, stasis. But within a specified duration, what seems to be at first monotony becomes trance-like, overtaking the atmosphere with ostinato-propelled fury.

If gradations play on modes of fine grained, gradient change, like almost imperceptible shifts of clouds, colors or fogs while abruptions and transients shatter, if only temporarily, the smooth flow of time in atmospheres, the repetitive cycling of sound, light or heat enables a different kind of affect to be born and circulated. In describing the work of the so-called American “minimalist” composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the Belgian composer and theorist Wim Mertens argues that the continual use of repetition, pulsing and cycling structures in their compositions “displaces attention away from the details of form towards the overall process so that extreme variations on the micro-level may paradoxically produce an impression of immobility.”26 For example, the very slow system of movement and change in composer Terry Riley’s work, according to Mertens, produces the sense of a “vibrating motionless trance.”27

The sense that many atmospheres embody the sense of a kind of hovering, standing state is highly dependent on phase – where the constellation of elements that constitute it is located in time. Tones generated by machines or apparatuses that produce invariant, periodic frequencies and amplitudes almost immediately unfasten themselves from their point of origin, forming standing waves through continual reflections off the architectural surfaces of a given space. Resonances themselves are constructed of oscillating frequencies that can only be perceived as continual lines, without the structural understanding of their own repetition.

Perhaps the hearing system’s inability to perceive change due to the speed of cycling inherent in frequencies is why artists and designers constructing artificial sonic atmospheres always return to the use of sinusoidal waveforms as compositional material. Here, repetition is smeared, not based on distinct, separable units or “cells” of the same structural elements but rather flat lines, without any perceivable change except for the way they interact within the spatial order and architecture of the atmospheres they both bring about and transmit through as a medium.

The invariant, static sense of time produced through a sinusoidal waveform can easily be contrasted with another acoustic phenomena that artists continually harness: the pulsing or beating of two frequencies slightly detuned from each other. Beating as a principle is well known. Two sinusoidals separated in temporal distance by a few cycles per second or Hz from each other, produce continual oscillations through the rising and falling of amplitudes caused by interference between the two waves. Increasing the distance between the waves produces stronger, more pronounced oscillations until the waves drift far apart so that they first enter the so-called critical bands, producing the psychoacoustic effect of “roughness” in human listeners, and second, towards complete and utter separation in two distinctly perceivable tones.

With beating, the continual and periodic change of intensity, sinusoidal pulses have no direction, teleology or indeed, forwards motion. They constitute sonic atmospheres where time seems to stand still and yet, continually vibrates and pulses. If sound under the structure of such repetition can produce varying shapes of intensity, then such structures distinguish acoustic atmospheres from the repetition or cycling of other elements such as light. On the one hand, gaps, breaks and ruptures from bursts of light only yield to vision when the persistence of vision ceases to function. On the other hand, the temporal rate of a flickering stroboscope can increase to the limit where the atmosphere ceases to be fractured by time but instead, becomes constant and flowing, no longer yielding to discontinuity.

The continual motion of bodies, textures, hazes or air caught in the periodic repetition of a stroboscope is temporally fissured due to the strobe’s sharp attack and decay/release times; the gap between the interval. Because of their specific technical modes of existence, stroboscopes utilizing gas discharge lamps can fire in repetition without artifacts of time: no fading trails, wisps or afterglow like described earlier with incandescent technologies can compete with the rapid off and on firing of such an instrument. This clarity of puncture is a far cry from the slow decay and slow attack of incandescent lights bulbs that leave nothing of the bursting, switching intensity that gives an atmosphere generated by a slowly flickering strobe or LED the sense of accelerating, and unending recurrence.

But repetition does not necessarily demand or bring on acceleration. It can also give way to sonic atmospheres of slowness: the crawling ostinatos of Yogyakarta gamelan, the incessant phasing of Ghanaian drumming, the expanding lines of Japanese Gagaku or the periodic percussive strikes that accompany the ritual slowness of Japanese Noh theater – all of these musical forms utilize pulse structures that generate atmospheres of drifting: stasis in motion that captures perception through a kind of temporal phase locking between brain, body and environment. In the case of gamelan, the slowness of motion is based on overlapping phases. The ramp times of such pulses are indeed short – attack times that are just as soon masked by the next attack, the relaxation period quickly disappearing into the next strike of a stick, a mallet and hand in rapid successive order.

It is no secret that the constant and interlocking repetition of motifs, pulses, patterns or rhythms produces atmospheric conditions encouraging entrainment and trance.28 These are atmospheres that, at first sense, seem to consist of an incessant sameness that, while we might call them static, are far from standstill states, producing environments that act as enablers of ecstasy and trance. These states are what Mertens, after the musicologist Ivanka Stoianova, calls “monadic sound intensity”; “where each moment and each sound is a centre in itself.”29

But there is another kind of repetition that resides in and simultaneously produces atmospheres. If the vibrating motionlessness generated by an element like sound or light/image can be continually cycled, bringing forth a frozen time, the smallest variation in a continually recurring figure can also enact the opposite: a sense of creeping but nevertheless forwards motion. A relentless 150-bpm loop that apparently repeats but slowly introduces polyrhythmic interlocking or a growing amplitude within the structure of a perpetual, throbbing repetition brings forth growing change but not necessarily teleological development; difference, which Mertens through Deleuze articulates as repetition as an affirmation of difference.

Atmospheres that use repetition to generate the sense of forwards motion, a growing of intensity, operate in the realm of affects via Deleuze and Guattari’s famous “blocs of sensation”; compounds of percepts and affects that emerge from slowly shifting ostinatos and densities as well as atmospheres where apparent suspension bleeds into motion. Can repetition of a motif or pattern intercut in the interval between with minutely shifting but accumulating difference transform an atmosphere from stasis to swelling intensity and even climax? What does the room think it is?


After the storm, the room goes black. The thrall of noise that previously saturated all space and time subsides, leaving no trace except for the faintest, tiniest pulse barely audible in the thickness of relentless haze. A chase, the term for an on and off sequencing of adjacent lights, begins with one cold white strip of LEDs. The lights go on and off in sequence as the visual chase moves in and out of synchrony with the pulse, giving the impression of time synching up only to slide slightly forwards as it rushes towards the future. An occasional burst of two strobes, each positioned on opposite ends of the room, fuses with the flow of the lights and sound. Yet, at another moment, there seems to be three different, parallel times running throughout the space; temporalities which occasionally lock into step with each other and then, just as suddenly, drift apart to once again maintain their separate identity.

If atmospheres not only consist of the diffusion of unbounded elements through space, then the coming together and then sudden pulling apart of the elements that constitute such environments is also a question of temporal synchrony. Synchronous events are defined as those that lock in step with each other, occurring simultaneously in space and time. The spatial movement of the light sequenced and moving through a space and punctuated by bursts of noise “can stage,” as composer and sound theorist Michel Chion argues, “the meeting of elements of quite different nature.”30

While Chion describes that the audio-visual fusion that occurs when image and sound line up in film (what he calls “syncresis”) gives moving images their phrasing and dynamics, points of synchrony within the different elements which construct atmospheres denote simultaneous phenomena but not necessarily of the same temporal shape and duration. A sudden but singular burst of acoustic noise lasting a millisecond or two may suddenly align with the on and off chase of the light sequence described earlier at only one moment in a forwards flow depending on the nature of its action. Synchrony highlights the parallelism and potential fusion of two disparate events but as a series of discrete moments. This is an anti-Bergsonian time, a chronos consisting of instants drained of the passage of duration and measured only as a series dots and points.

Drift and extended forwards movement of synchronic events or phrases, however, contradicts this monotemporal, chronological approach to temporality. For if affect produced through atmospheres circulates and moves through and in/out of all manner of entities, biological, physical and psychic, it cannot be imagined not only as discrete synchronous points, fracturing time into independent slices but also as something that changes over different phrasing; as something qualified as diachronous.

While synchrony and diachrony refer to Saussure’s argument that the structure of language operates within two different temporal spectrums – at specific points in time (synchrony) and transforming over time (diachrony) – the discussion brings us back to an understanding of atmospheres as consisting of different temporal shapes that may or may not lead anywhere but are not evolving as pure continuous “becomings” lurching forwards with the same rate, tempo or shape. In perceptual psychology research, for example, it is well known that sound shifts and influences the duration and rate of vision. In tests where subjects were exposed to different switching tempos of light and sound sequences, accuracy in identifying the temporal order of some lighting sequence (what comes before or after what) is improved if a sonic event comes slightly before or after the flash of a light. Temporal resolution degrades, however, if sound is inserted in between the flash of a light. Sequencing of diachronous phenomena alters temporal shape within perception leading to affects of projection and illusion.31

This granular understanding of the myriad ways that atmospheres function in terms of their coupling between temporal evolution and affect gives us further handles on describing the operation of Daniel Stern’s meld between the time profiles of an environment and the vitality effects operating in subjective perception. But this notion of such a differentiable diachronous temporality is also found in discussions of what composer and computer musician Curtis Roads has termed “microsound.”

According to Roads, sound increasingly moves from large (supra timescale of months and days) to smaller and smaller temporal shapes (meso, sound objects, micro, sample, subsample), continually decreasing in scale until we reach levels of granularity only accessible to mathematical intuition (the infinitesimal) that lie beyond perception. Through these transitions, one gets different acoustic shapes and phenomena. The scale of the grain gives us the possibility of working with sound as particles and masses, continually evolving textures that the composer Iannis Xenakis described as “a multitude of sounds, seen as a totality.”32 Moving upwards, the scale of a phrase or a sequence that extends over the duration of more than a few seconds (a musical note or sudden and perceivable staccato transient has a duration of between 100 ms to 3000 ms) constructs different kinds of “sound gesture shapes” (Denis Smalley).33

But what do such temporal strata of sonic structures have to do with atmosphere? That synchrony (simultaneity) and diachrony (the evolution of events over time) contaminate each other leads ultimately to what Chion calls “temporal elasticity,” the fact that time is expansive, appearing to speed up and slow down based on shifting points of synchrony of elements or the shifting up or down of time scales in the evolution of a structure, pattern, rhythm or phrase. If an atmosphere undergoes a morphological transition from isolated moments of synchrony between elements to an increasing disjunction where light, sound, smell or other temporally orchestrated materials begin to move out of sync, forming their own temporal scales, then no mono-time can be said to exist.34 There is no overall master clock that couples and interlocks the time of perception to the behavior of multiple intensities that compose an atmosphere. Multiple macro- and micro-times stack on top of each other. The passage of time in the room becomes pliable, rubbery and resilient.


Hovering. Speeding ahead. A burst of suddeness. Slow, gradual tension. A surge forwards. Ongoing repetition. Motifs that recur and return. A fade or relaxation only to crescendo again. These time shapes are characterized and constituted by abruptness, cycling, synchrony and gradation constitute the composition of atmospheres beyond simply their usually understood attributes of spatial diffusion and unboundedness.35 Indeed, given these more nuanced temporal forms, diffuseness in atmosphere does not play out all in the same way or time. So we return to our original premise that affect is not only engendered through processural auras, halos and localities influencing the production of subjects, but also through phase, cycles of repetition that become wrought with slow variation and sudden switches, synchrony and counterpoint of densities, tonalities, textures, timbres, rhythms and durations that are inherent to atmosphere itself. If affects, as Guattari claimed, speak not only to me but “through me” and mark out a place “for mutual becomings,” then these becomings, like the atmosphere of sudden bursts of bombs and the barely perceivable shifts of toxic smell molecules from chlorine gas that flow across the Ypres trenches (to repeat Latour’s narrative that we started with) or the incessant flow of haze, sound and light that takes perception to the edge of vertigo, trance and beyond, are as much the result of timing of affect, when they are, as where they are.

1 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 3.

2 Bruno Latour, “Air,” in: Carolyn A. Jones, ed., Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art (Cambridge: Mass., MIT Press: 2006), p. 105–107. Here Latour refers to Peter Sloterdijk’s argument that the air has been made explicit, compare: Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air (New York: Semiotext/Foreign Agent, 2009), p. 71–109.

3 Mark Wigley, “The Architecture of Atmosphere,” in: Cristina Diaz Moreno, ed., Breathable (Madrid: Rueda, 2009), p. 86–99, here p. 86.

4 Gernot Böhme, “Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics,” in: Moreno, Breathable, p. 28–53, here p. 28.

5 Böhme, “Atmosphere,” p. 29.

6 Ibid.

7 Felix Guattari, “Ritornellos and Existential Affects,” Discourse 12.2. (Spring-Summer 1990): p. 66–81, here p. 66.

8 Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 52.

9 Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 1.

10 William Mazarella, “Affect: What is it Good For?,” in: Saurabh Dube, ed., Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation and Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 291–309, here p. 291.

11 Georgina Born, “Digital Music, Relational Ontologies and Social Forms,” in: Deniz Peters, Gerhard Eckel and Andreas Dorschel, eds., Bodily Expression in Electronic Music: Perspectives on Reclaiming Performativity (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 163–180, here p. 170.

12 Daniel Stern, Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy and Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 7–8.

13 Guattari, “Ritornellos,” p. 66–67.

14 Ibid., p. 69.

15 Ibid., p. 68.

16 Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1985), p. 51.

17 DMX or digital multiplex is a seven bit serial data protocol used to control and communicate with commercial lighting fixtures.

18 Look Solutions website, (retrieved February 25, 2014).

19 Fujiko Nakaya, “Making of ‘Fog’ or Low-Hanging Stratus Cloud,” in: Billy Kluver, Julia Martin, Barbara Rose, eds., Pavilion. Experiments in Art and Technology (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), p 207–223, here p. 207.

20 Martina Löw, Raumsoziologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2000), p. 146 (trans. Chris Salter).

21 Thomas Mee, “Notes and Comments on Clouds and Fog,” in: Kluver et al., Pavilion, p. 224–227.

22 Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 144–147.

23 George Didi-Huberman, “The Fable of the Place,” in: Peter Noever, ed., James Turrell: The Other Horizon (Ostfildern/Ruit: Hatje-Cantz, 2001), p .45–56, here p. 46.

24 René Thom, Semiophysics: A Sketch (Menlo Park: Addison Wesley, 1990), p. 3.

25 See also: Wolfgang Ernst’s text on the “techno-traumatic affect” in this volume.

26 Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music (London: Kahn and Averill, 1983), p. 91.

27 Ibid.

28 See also: Wiebke Trost’s text on “rhythmic entrainment” in this volume.

29 Mertens, American Minimal Music, p. 102.

30 Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 59.

31 See: Chris Salter, Entangled. Technology and the Transformation of Performance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010) for further examples of such cross-modal perceptual issues of temporal versus spatial resolution residing in vision versus hearing.

32 Iannis Xenakis, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, ed. Sharon Kanach (New York: Pendragon Press, 1992), p. 9.

33 See: Curtis Roads, Microsound (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), p. 1–49.

34 See also: Bernd Bösel’s text in this volume.

35 See also: Lone Bertelsen and Andrew Murphie, “An Ethics of Everyday Infinities and Powers: Félix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain,” in: Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 138–157.

  • Kunst
  • Félix Guattari
  • Leiblichkeit
  • Affekte
  • Ästhetik
  • Körper
  • Zeitlichkeit
  • Wahrnehmung
  • Atmosphäre

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Chris Salter

is an artist, Director of the Hexagram Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technology and Associate Professor for Computation Arts at Concordia University (Montreal). His work has been displayed at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Vitra Design Museum, LABoral, Lille300, and Ars Electronica, among many other venues.

Marie-Luise Angerer (Hg.), Bernd Bösel (Hg.), ...: Timing of Affect

Affect, or the process by which emotions come to be embodied, is a burgeoning area of interest in both the humanities and the sciences. For »Timing of Affect«, Marie-Luise Angerer, Bernd Bösel, and Michaela Ott have assembled leading scholars to explore the temporal aspects of affect through the perspectives of philosophy, music, film, media, and art, as well as technology and neurology. The contributions address possibilities for affect as a capacity of the body; as an anthropological inscription and a primary, ontological conjunctive and disjunctive process as an interruption of chains of stimulus and response; and as an arena within cultural history for political, media, and psychopharmacological interventions. Showing how these and other temporal aspects of affect are articulated both throughout history and in contemporary society, the editors then explore the implications for the current knowledge structures surrounding affect today.


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