Travelling Atmospheres Reflections on travelling, atmospheric foams and the creation of our own bubbles (before they burst) The landscape drifts by the window. My gaze is fixed and yet a stream of images hammers onto my retina: trees and bushes, a small path, woods, then houses… , a shed, village with church, fields, then woods again… My body is stretched out, my shoes are kicked off and the scent of my neighbor’s coffee hangs in the air. He looks tired. On my inquiry he explains that in English there is not a big difference between the two words “ambience” and “atmosphere”. He is also quite sure that landscapes don’t have either one of them, they have “character” instead. When we think of atmospheres we tend to think of inside places, places that enclose or envelop us: cafés, churches, but also woods or fog tend to have this quality. Atmospheres – Peter Sloterdijk (2004) tells us – can actually be thought of quite literally as climatic spheres that separate their insides from a wider environment. Sloterdijk conceptualizes these spheres as the basic unit of his social philosophy and describes how our social life is organized in clusters of spheres. Accordingly, modern society consists not as a singular unity but rather as spatial multiplicities, which he conceptualizes as foams. As travelers we move from one bubble to the next, from Munich to St. Gallen, from the conference-sphere back to our private sphere. On our travel we are again cast into multiple spheres which envelop us in different ways and organize the relations between us and our fellow travelers. The fluffy, terry like covers of our seats, combined into a four seat compartment form one of these spheres. The surface of our seats allow for the distinguished feeling of first-class traveling, where – accompanied by polite whispers – newspapers, handkerchiefs and mints smoothly travel between passengers. The rhythmic sound of the wagon’s wheels, the slight shaking and rocking of the train, the barely understandable announcements of the next station, as well as the changing sun light entering through the large panorama windows form another endearingly crafted bubble. This sphere envelops the entire wagon and creates a cosy and somewhat dull atmosphere. Here movements are reduced to the minimum and the seats are only left for a visit to the lavatory. The thin leaf of the door separates this third bubble form the rest of the wagon. While atmospheres are usually organized in such a way that we don’t experience much friction or conflict, sometimes we are confronted with (atmo)spheric clashes. Different performances of the same place can result in tensions which can either make a bubble burst or lead to the emergence of new partitions. Very subtly in the beginning but then more and more obtrusively a high-pitched heavy-metal beat creeps into our compartment. It echoes form a gentleman’s earplugs somewhere behind me. Focusing on my text becomes a challenge. I seem to be loosing control over my ears and mind, which are inevitably attracted by this silent performance. For a while wonder if I should get up and confront my fellow traveler. Penetrating the membrane of this emerging phono-sphere will maybe let it burst before it gets big and stable. But instead, I decide to take out my own iPod and plug my ears with music. Is this, then, how to imagine a “war of ambiences” – a term formed by Ariel Winzman? In the context of my journey the term “war” seems a bit oversized. But nevertheless there is a struggle over the atmospheric organization of this place. Through the aesthetic enactment of places we are put into specific moods, which keep us from doing some things while encouraging us to do others. Accordingly, Gernot Böhme (2006) points out the political and manipulative power of atmospheres by analyzing the political work of the Nazi’s aesthetic strategies. Their strategy largely relied on the mastery of modern media and architecture and aimed at the enactment of the peoples’ body as a collective emotion. Böhme sees a similar strategy at work in the shaping of what he calls an “aesthetic economy” in which malls and shop environments become the controllable places of consumer manipulation. In the time of mobile electronic technology Böhme’s observation seem to no longer hold true for fixed places alone. Atmospheres and their persuasive power can now be closely attached to our bodies and accompany us like our cloths. Electronics companies increasingly regulate the content which can be played on their devices – not only music but also GPS-information – and thus extend the aesthetic control towards the everyday places of our lives. Looking out of the window again, I realize that the landscape changes. It is hard to see or to describe how it does so. It’s a flow: the transitions are gradual, the clouds move slowly, get denser, and dissolve again, the sun comes through, then shade again. If landscapes have atmospheres – and I am still not sure – they are not as controlled and stable as those of inside places. Obviously the weather, clouds, the sky and the sun make up a great deal of a landscape’s atmosphere. But here, securely wrapped in this compartment bubble, enveloped in the melodic tunes playing from my iPod, the weather seems to barely affect the formation of my atmosphere. In fact quite the reverse is true. The landscape becomes an effect of my playlist: … Chic, Chopin, Coldplay, … atmospheres at my fingertips. This contribution is part of the “Food for Thought” series which seeks to trigger conversations about research, the Universe and everything in between. The fragment was written by Christoph Michels who is an assistant professor at the research area "Cultures Institutions Markets" (CIM) at the University of St. Gallen. He researches the production of affects in cultural and educational spaces. His reflection was written on his return journey from the third "International Ambience Network Conference" in Munich. Drop him a line if you want to know more and join the conversation.