The Political Dimension of The Invisible

The political dimension of the invisible


December 2021




In collaboration with

MediaLab Prado

Silvia Teixeira


Institute for Postnatural Studies

Reading time

10 min

This text has been elaborated by the Institute for Postnatural Studies and continues the line of research that arose thanks to the participation in the residency "El Aire Tiene Peso" at MediaLab Prado, developed together with the mediator and researcher Silvia Teixeira. As a result of this collaboration, this line of work has given rise to a series of works, talks, and events that vindicate the relevance and need to consolidate the relationship between scientific research and artistic practice.

Photograph of the sky over Jambi, Indonesia, captured by a local neighbour, 2015.
[Fig. 1] Photograph of the sky over Jambi, Indonesia, captured by a local neighbor, 2015.

By presenting the air as a political subject and how it is aestheticized, romanticized, and mythologized we discussed how representation somehow contaminates the collective imagination. Through the use of the data obtained by fieldwork measurements on volatile particles present in Madrid's air, ecology is extended not only to environmental issues but also to the world of images to question the forms of narration of the environment in which we live.

To achieve so, we focused on the classical paintings Vista de la fachada Sur del Museo del Prado desde el interior del Jardín Botánico (José María Avrial y Flores, 1835), La Pradera de San Isidro, (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1788) and El puente del Canal de Madrid (Francisco Bayeu y Subías, 1784) that serve as representative locations of the city of Madrid, through painting, to measure the particles in suspension in the air at sunset, indicating its quality or toxicity.

The result materialized in a series of digital and complexified images of the sky of Madrid that help us complexify the relationship between the air as an agent and its cultural construction through his representation. These postnatural sunsets were presented and displayed in Medialab-Prado's interactive façade during the spring of 2021.

The Political Dimension of the Invisible

The diamond blade attached to a saw held by an operator in his hands traverses the wall of a building so fast that it pulverizes the tectonic materiality of its layered components. Everything melts into a reddish cloud that covers the scene for a few seconds, like a dense and opaque blanket dissolving gradually, causing the impression that the cement, the sand, and the baked clay have vanished into thin air. When Karl Marx uttered his iconic phrase "Everything solid vanishes into thin air" he did not imagine that this metaphorical allusion was misinterpreting one of the fundamental characteristics of the environment in which we live. Air, the medium where much of life on earth takes place, is a dilution of gasses capable of incorporating toxins, chemicals, aerosols, and small physical particles into seemingly homogeneous mixtures that are rendered invisible to our eyes. The reality is that the transformation of air is far from a mystical transfiguration into nothingness, as none of these particles actually vanish.

The air around us has the capacity to absorb most of the aggressions, both natural and man-made, diluting and transforming their physical particles within the boundaries of this seemingly infinite environment. This power to absorb pollution has made it a malleable entity, which, due to its invisibility, has given rise to a history of continuous manipulations and interpretations. The expression of its quality, both scientific and cultural, has been mediated by political strategies, economic interests, or ideological positions. Its social and collective image has been highlighted, minimized, or even hidden1, transforming all its forms of measurement and dissemination into political instruments of selective (in)visibilization. But even turning air into a mediated substance, as a technological or cultural construction, its collapse is inevitably linked to the propagation of a climate of collective terror. With the idea that "terror explains the environment from the aspect of its vulnerability"2. Peter Sloterdijk invites us to reflect, from that precise fragility, on the political dimension of the invisibility of air. Through a military-historical event, he presents us with the atmosphere, understood as a fundamental and shared space on which "the primary and ecologically dependent vital functions of the enemy depend: respiration, central nervous regulations, and sustainable temperature and radiation conditions"3. This fact would transform the atmosphere into the scenario in which chemical-technological and military policies would be deployed from the beginning of the 20th century, bringing to light how the armament industry understood the importance of this environment closest to the human body.

The author places exactly this shifting point on April 22, 1915. On that day, a German regiment specialized in chemical weapons led the first large-scale offensive against French-Canadian troops in Ypres, in the Leper region of Belgium. The battalion led by Colonel Max Peterson deployed the first chlorine gas attack by inserting thousands of canisters into the front line. At 6:00 p.m, the 5,730 containers filled with a liquefied substance diluted approximately 150 tons of the gas into the air. The enormous yellowish smoke curtain, more than 6 kilometers long and almost a kilometer deep, advanced rapidly and steadily towards the French-Canadian front, aided by the wind currents predicted by the German high command. Despite the characteristic displacement capacity of toxic clouds, their real composition consisted of very fine solid particles, and not gaseous, released employing small explosions. Their identifying tonality and intense coloring did not reflect the very low proportion of these particles, since a concentration of 0.5% was sufficient to cause serious nervous and respiratory damage to the adversaries, making it a weapon capable of causing death in just a few minutes. 

Given that, as living beings, we do not know a form of life emancipated from the environment that surrounds us, being a constituent and dependent part of the cyclical functioning of the planet, we tend to place our trust in this environment, and therefore to be extremely sensitive to the variations that its composition and quality may undergo. According to Sloterdijk, and partly thanks to this historical fact, the twentieth century will go down in history as the era in which "essential thinking consisted in targeting not the body, but the enemy's environmentenemy's environment,"[4] giving rise to a new model of terror. From then on, modernity understands or is built upon, the potential of the impact on the environment in which basic human biological needs occur. The same sort of attacks that were executed by the German militaries in the 20th century, and which gave rise to the concept of atmoterrorism, are still constantly present in the 21st century. In this case, we are faced with another new type of attack on the environment, carried out by private companies and governments with mainly economic interests, which not only affect human beings, but also have collateral effects on all the species that inhabit the earth’s common space, and common air. Therefore, we should remember that humans are not the only ones affected by such attacks and that the ecosystem is the first and most damaged of all the agents facing the problem. Thus, atmoterrorism takes over from eco-terrorism, posing a post-anthropocentric reflection on the complex situation generated by aggressions to the environment, which gives the air a new dimension, not only political but also profoundly cosmopolitical.

The aggressions encompassed within what we can call eco-terrorism have an intricate relationship between economy and territory. The burning of huge extensions of land for oil palm plantations in Indonesia is a clear example of the magnitude of this complicated relationship, as they turn the territory into a battlefield of invisible local aggressions that have consequences on a global scale. 

If we look back to a specific day, but now in the 21st century, September 21st, 2019 could be also seen as a shifting point in these relationships. That day, social networks were flooded with pixelated images of red skies and intense scarlet landscapes. To the surprise of the neighbors, their sky, their surroundings, and their environment had been tinged with an intense red color, which varied in hue depending on the quality and megapixels of the camera capturing it. These crimson skies are the result of a very high concentration of volatile particles composed of ashes and material residues from the indiscriminate burning of peat, the most abundant type of soil in the tropical region. The burning of this substrate, part of the preparations of the soil previous to the subsequent planting of oil palm, deposited in the air a concentration of approximately 400Mg/m3 of PM2.5 particles, placing the quality of its air within the most harmful levels for health according to the WHO (World Health Organization). Seen from space, the fires are rendered as vibrant red pixels that expand and fade to form heavy blankets of transnational smoke. In this way, the coloration of the skies acts as a sort of code that hides the economic and geopolitical framework behind the burning of Indonesian land. What lies behind the intentional burning is a display of "soft power", an example of eco-terrorism involving all the farmers in the region. These farmers, in need of economic aid to be able to resist the ravages suffered by their crops due to the collateral effects of El Niño currents, are resorting to the introduction of a new species of intensive crop promoted by local governments. Oil palm, which is one of Indonesia's most commoditized and exported products, becomes the economic justification that allows all this deployment of aggression to the environment, both local and international. 

Once again, and due to its capacity of invisibilization, the air is once again the medium in which a massive amount of physical particles are discharged, but this time, to the point of collapse. In a metaphorical or almost symbolic way, the skies of Jambi, Indonesia, act as an automatic and almost immediate alert that notifies the saturation limit of the medium in which we live. A saturation that warns us through a violent response, an optical effect, a natural alert. The transition from gas-chlorine’s mustard yellow color to the greenish tone of the skies seems to emulate the chromatic gradients used by pollution maps, reflecting a significant increase in all its aspects. As if the air was warning us from a yellow-local alert on the day of the battle of Ypres, to a red and international alert on today’s peat burnings in Indonesia. Once the atmosphere becomes tinted, we approach the almost total fracture of that quality so representative of the air. The rupture of its invisibility warns us imminently of the critical, progressive, and irreversible state of the environment that surrounds us.

Air becomes a mediated space, increasingly presented as an agent of risk subject to interpretation, making its identification and visibility a fundamental factor in our existence. For this reason, the application of new conceptual logics and new visualization tools can be the key to the conservation of the atmosphere. Air, as an invisible and shared political entity, can benefit from a new multiplicity of approaches. That is why art, as a creator of subjectivities, can be a useful platform from which to exercise new ways of representation, and critical of the modes and simplifications certain narratives create. Following Lezama, we can defend how "transcending the simple field of the phenomenal existence of environmental problems and moving on to one of greater explanatory efficacy related to ideology, material interests, and power relations”[5] can promote a new visualization of this environment. A complex perspective that, through sensitive representations, will gradually combat the contamination of a collective imaginary shaped by economic and material interests. The collaboration between artistic experimentation and scientific dissemination offers a broadening of the target audience for which the information is created.

The political condition of the invisible entails an ideological, linguistic, and sensorial barrier to our relationship with the environment. By incorporating this invisibility into our mechanisms of understanding, we can subvert the physical limitations inherent to our bodies. Through the expansion of perception, we involve not only readers and experts in scientific languages in which data tables transmit their physicality, but also all agents capable of dialoguing through their bodies subjectively. Experimentation with new communication tools permeable to this subjectivity enables a deeper understanding of the immaterial conception of air. With an ecology based on bodily knowledge, capable of transcending the purely visual, other forms of relationship between the planet and the human being are intuited. As if the expansion of the bodies would make more accessible a planetary consciousness, necessary to be able to preserve the state of those "procommons" that are invisible to the human eye.


  • 1

    Lezama, José Luis. La Construcción Ideológica y Política de La Contaminación Del Aire: Consideraciones Para El Caso de La Ciudad de México. Demographic and Urban Studies 11, no. 1 (31) (1996): 31-67.

  • 2

    Sloterdijk, Peter. Terror from the air. 2009. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), p 107.

  • 3

    Ibid, 16

  • 4


  • 5

    Lezama, José Luis. La Construcción Ideológica y Política de La Contaminación Del Aire: Consideraciones Para El Caso de La Ciudad de México. Estudios Demográficos y Urbanos 11, no. 1 (31) (1996): 31-67. 

  • 6

    Lafuente, A. (2007). The four environments of the commons. Archipiélago. Cuadernos de Crítica de la Cultura, 77-78, 15-22.

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