The Persistence of Light and Sound: An Archaeology of Atmospheres by Rupert Griffiths

OCAT Institute, Beijing

In the mid-1990s, the photographer Uri Gersht made a series of photographs entitled Rear Window, each taken from the bedroom window of his high-rise apartment in south London. They show the London night sky, with a thin sliver of the urban skyline barely scratching the bottom of each frame. In London, as in Beijing, the night sky is strongly coloured by the light of the city, reflected by a haze of airborne particles  produced by combustion engines burning fuel, brake pads abrading steel disks, and tyres endlessly wearing against the surface of the road. Although Gersht’s photographs immerse the viewer in a colour field of nocturnal urban light, they also reveal traces of urban sounds and airborne particles. Together, these are carried by the meteorological atmosphere to the viewer as a phantasmagoria of urban ambiance—an atmosphere that is simultaneously material and affective.1–3


The Persistence of Light and Sound is a research-based exhibition, curated by Rupert Griffiths and Zhu Xinwei, which considers the relationship between artworks and the term atmosphere. The aim of the exhibition is to describe our approach to research through curation and develop the groundwork for a much larger subsequent exhibition at the same gallery in 2020. In essence, it is a pilot study for curation and exhibition design as a research practice. Conceptually, we approaches this from the two intertwined perspectives mentioned above—the meteorological and the affective—while organising the exhibition space around the rubrics of light, sound, and particles. Unified by the medium of air, these three rubrics create a milieu of material and affect, meteorology and imagination. This milieu can be understood through the philosophical concept of affective atmospheres.1–4

Rupert Griffiths and Zhu Xinwei, Qi, neon, 2019.

The character qi (气)similarly refers to air as both substance and spirit or vital energy. In Xie He’s Gu huapin lu (古畫品錄, Classified Record of Painters of Former Times, circa 550), qi yun sheng dong (气韵生动)(vividness brought about by air and rhythm)5 is the first of his Six Principles of Painting and refers to ‘the essential character or “internal reality” of the object’ and ‘implies the expressive quality of the work beyond formal representation’.6 Qi yun is an aesthetic expression of qi—the vital energy captured and communicated by an artist or artwork. Like affective atmosphere, qi yun is a milieu of artist, object, work, and audience. To unify our rubrics of light, sound, and particles with the architectural space, the works, and the audience, we rendered a stylised version of the character qi in neon for the exhibition. This drew from the character as found in ancient bronze inscriptions, such as those in bells, musical instruments, and ritual objects.


The exhibition sketches out our approach to curation as a collaboration between curator, artwork, audience, and architectural volume. It indicates how we would approach the larger prospective exhibition in relation to several aims: First, to look at how art has been used to engage with atmosphere as both a material and affective term; second, to initiate an investigation into the relationship between atmosphere in Western philosophy and qi yun in Chinese philosophy and art history; and third, to explore curation as a means of enacting transnational academic and artistic discourse through the concepts of qi yun and affective atmospheres. In the prospective exhibition, we would address several research questions: How do the selected artists contribute to our understanding of affective atmospheres as a milieu of artwork, audience, architecture, and air? How can these artists and their artworks be used to develop and describe a relationship between the terms atmosphere and qi yun? And why is this important now?

We approached the present exhibition as a pilot for a set of methodologies and case studies for the prospective exhibition. In addition to more traditional desk-based research, we employed a process of research by design to develop the concepts and content of the exhibition. This iterative process brought together elements of review, selection, and design. We took an ‘atmospheric approach’ that reflected the works we selected, playing with the architectural space and its natural light and collaborating with the artworks rather than simply selecting and displaying them.

We show work by the futurist artist Luigi Russolo, industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle, electronic musicans FM3, the land artist Nancy Holt, the ecological artist Tomas Saraceno, and the drone journalist Matthew Schroyer. Through these works, we consider how practitioners work with the air as a material to develop atmosphere as an affective medium. This engagement with the materiality of air, undertaken by artists working with various technologies and construction techniques also lends an archaeological dimension to our analysis of these works, not as a metaphor but as a practice.7–8

The practitioners included in the exhibition themselves create work that does not simply stand alone. Rather, their work is created in collaboration with architectural spaces or the landscapes in which they appear and the audience that interacts with them—some as performances, such as Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori (noise machine) performances, and some as participatory or interactive works, such as the Gristleism, Buddha Machines, Aerocene, and the Sun Tunnels. Several are open source works, such as the Dustduino and the Aerocene—indeed, we collaborated with a tailor in Beijing to create an Aerocene Explorer Backpack by roughly following Tomas Saraceno’s open source instructions.

Exhibition view showing Louigi Russolo, Throbbing Gristle and Christiaan Virant, FM3, Nancy Holt, Tomás Sareceno, and Matthew Schroyer.

We used several organising elements or principles when planning the exhibition. The works shown are organised within the space in such a way as to emphasise areas of intensity of light, sound, or particles (as shown in the rendered image).

Rupert Griffiths, Sketch Diagram—Light, Sound, Particles, 2019.

The left side of the gallery emphasises sound, the right side, light and particles. Our approach could be thought of as diagrammatic—one of drawing and drawing out correspondences between the works, the concepts that underlie them, the gallery space, and the space beyond the gallery. Some of these correspondences are formal—such as the approximate cross layout of Nancy Holts Sun Tunnels and the unfolded Aerocene Backpack.

Rupert Griffiths and Zhu Xinwei, Aerocene Backpack following Tomás Sareceno’s open source design, mixed media, 2019.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, concrete, courtesy of Artforum International. Artforum, Vol. 15, No. 8, April 1977.

Some are conceptual, such as the relationship between the earth and the atmosphere that both the Aerocene and the Sun Tunnels describe. Some are affective, such as the direct experience that these two works propose—of an embodied presence in the landscape with the works.

We hope that the audience will experience the works as both material and immaterial diagrams suggesting possible interconnections between works, spaces, and people. Indeed, the works were chosen because they describe correspondences between the individual and the air. For example, the fictional Gristleism illustration can be thought of as a diagram of the actual Gristleism loop machine that maps the artist and the audience to technologies of sound and the ambient, sometimes discordant, atmospheres that these can produce.

Throbbing Gristle and Christiaan Virant, Gristleism, screen print, 2019.

The Aerocene Back Pack maps the audience to the meteorological atmosphere, suggesting the action of flying the solar balloon sculpture and attaching sensors to track its movement, take photographs, and measure air pollution—with the DustDuino, for example, which is also shown in the gallery. Both the Gristleism and the Aerocene are diagrams of a collaboration between artist, audience, and atmosphere that is both material and affective. They are open diagrams, describing possibilities and opening up limits. They are diagrams of immanence that can be translated into actuality through action: whether that be playing with the Gristleism or the Buddha Machines or launching the Aerocene sculpture with a Dustduino sensor attached.

Matthew Schroyer, Dustduino, 2014 / 2015.

The neon work and the silver screenprint of the Gristleism drawing are also important organising elements, emphasising the changing light in the space from dawn to dusk. Neon  signs are illuminated by passing electricity through one of the rare gases found in the atmosphere. Neon is also a medium that is strongly associated with an urban ambience. Thus, the neon qi aims to place the intersection of material and affect at the centre of the exhibition—the urban atmosphere, as often expressed in cinema or photography, and the meteorological atmosphere of gases.

Exhibition view. Photograph Rupert Griffiths, 2019.

The neon qi sits directly between a black wall and a white wall, meditating the relationship between qi and yin yang in Chinese philosophy. To unify the space and give it a clear visual identity, we paired a black circle on the white wall with an adjacent black wall. These bookend the white walls, which are bathed in both natural light and neon light. The cropped black circle also makes reference to various formal elements of the work in the show—Russolo’s intonarumori, the speaker grilles of the Buddha Machines and Gristleism, and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, in particular, while the rectilinear form of the black wall makes reference to the corresponding rectilinear forms of the intonarumori, Buddha Machines, and Gristelism, as well as those of the Aerocene and Dustduino.

Luigi Russolo (left) and Ugo Piatti demonstrating their intonarumori (noise machines) before the performance at the Teatro del Verme, Milan in April 1914.
Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian (FM3), Buddha Machines, 2005–2017.

Collaboration was also an important organising principle. All of the artworks in the exhibition invite (or have invited) the audience to collaborate in the production of an atmosphere: in the case of Russolo, the audience sometimes participated with the artists in extreme ways, with fist fights breaking out between outraged audience members and the musicians. Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, although remote and difficult to get to, are nonetheless inherently playful—they invite the audience to climb and explore, whether that be the physical objects themselves, the seasonal movement of the sun, or the night sky, or the relationship between art and the white cube of the gallery space.

We were able to participate and respond ourselves to these artworks. We chose to screen print the Gristlesim illustration directly onto the wall in silver paint to respond to the sky and light in the gallery. We built the Aerocene backpack following open source instructions and choosing colours and materials in sympathy with the other artworks. We chose the tracks, volume, and pitch for the music loops played by the Buddha Machines and Gristleism to create an electronic mimicry of Russolo’s description of the howling wind in his Futurist manifesto L’arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises).9

Exhibition view. The Gristleism loop machine (Throbbing Gristle and Christiaan Virant, 2009) can be seen in red among the Buddha Machines.

The prospective exhibition would deepen the engagement with the artists shown here, and it would introduce other artists and practitioners, such as Ori Gersht’s Rear Window and Cai Guo Qiang’s paintings and sculptures in the air made from the particles and sounds created by fireworks. Cai Guo Qiang’s work demonstrates an important underlying dimension of the exhibition: the relationship between excess and absence, whether that be illumination and darkness or noise and silence. These are not absolute categories—they are created by the interrelation of people, spaces, and activity and cultural imaginaries attached to them.

The prospective exhibition would also include a programme of events to actively develop discourse with the audience, artists, practitioners, scientists, and academics. These events would place an emphasis on research as an embodied practice that engages an audience in the production of discourse. We plan to organise an event where the Aerocene is launched from the roof of the gallery, engaging a local community with the global Aerocene community. We also plan to organise seminars exploring the relationship between atmospheres and qi from philosophical and historical perspectives in the context of creative practice.

We believe that being attentive to atmospheric approaches is of crucial importance now, in a time when it is necessary to eschew instrumental concepts of nature as a resource and adopt perspectives that unite land, life, and matter. The works of these artists offer blueprints for thinking about such approaches. They offer speculative models for thinking and living that challenge the status quo. Excesses of light, sound, and particles are globally shared phenomena. Finding correspondences between the concepts of atmosphere and qi yun is one means of creating a transcultural rather than comparative approach to research that has both contemporary and historical dimensions.

Rupert Griffiths is an artist, designer, and writer. He is a research associate (City and Urban) at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Lancaster University and has been a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London since 2017.

Xinwei Zhu is a lecturer at Beijing Forestry University, Beijing. Her research considers the relationship between literature, image, and media technologies.

Photography Rupert Griffiths, 2019.

  1. Adey, P. (2013). Air/atmospheres of the megacity. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(7–8), 291–308.
  2. Anderson, B., & Ash, J. (2015). Atmospheric methods. In P. Vannini, Non-representational methodologies: Re-envisioning research. Taylor & Francis, 34–51.
  3. Böhme, G. (2016). The aesthetics of atmospheres. Routledge.
  4. Gandy, M. (2017). Urban atmospheres. Cultural Geographies, 24(3), 353–374.
  5. There are many interpretations of the phrase in both Chinese and Western literatures, and it has a long history of transnational knowledge transfer and discourse. Craig Clunas gave an excellent three-part lecture at the OCAT Institute regarding this in September 2019. Clunas, C. (2009). Three Transnational Moments in the History of Chinese Art. Annual Lecture Series, OCAT Institute, 2–4 Sept 2019.
  6. Hu, X. 2016. The Notion of ‘Qi Yun’ (Spirit Consonance) in Chinese Painting. Proceedings of the European Society of Aesthetics, 8. 247–268.
  7. Zielinski, S., & Custance, G. (2006). Deep time of the media: Toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means. MIT Press.
  8. Parikka, J. (2013). What is media archaeology?. John Wiley & Sons.
  9. Russolo, L., 1986 [1913–16]. The art of noises. Pendragon Press. 41–42.






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