The Fog of War: Yuriko Furuhata

The fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. It is a psychological condition directly contingent on the availability of information and the clarity of communication.

Genealogy of the Media Environment: Fog Sculptures to Canned Air
Yuriko Furuhata (McGill University)
Workshop on Media Ecologies

For media scholars, the intellectual appropriation of the word “ecology” brings together the disparate notions of “media” and the “environment.” Japanese discourse on Media Ecology begins around the same time as the Toronto School of communication theory, in the mid-twentieth century. In Japan, the Society of Futurology was a hub of intellectuals from diverse disciplines, who studied flows of information and the media environment, and who were greatly influenced by Tadao Umesao’s classic monograph “An Ecological View of History: Japanese Civilization in the World Context.” This was possibly the first book in Japan to appropriate the discourse of ecology to describe the media, consolidating the assumption that the media is an environment.

The Japan Society of Futurology offers a point at which the bourgeoning convergence between communications, science, culture and the media environment of the mid-twentieth century can be theorized. Canned air illustrates this convergence. A gag item at novelty shops, it is a sharp commentary on the commandeering of the natural environment. For the Chinese expat, canned air is a familiar (if polluted) reminder of home; for the deskbound Beijing office worker, a fresh O2 booster from the Rockies provides a fleeting illusion of escape from the air-conditioned cubicle farm.[1] In an altogether different context, canned Fukushima air surfaces to reactivate interest in a nuclear disaster that disappeared all too quickly from the public eye.

Furuhata describes Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 glass object “Air de Paris” as coincidental with the weaponisation of air, following Peter Sloterdijk’s spatial theories of human “atmospheres,” and particularly his association of the modern “air-condition” with the atmospheric warfare of 1915.[2] In a similar tradition, Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures represent a particularly interesting meeting point between science, communications, warfare and the environment. At the height of the Cold War, when military research and practice of environmental control were most active, Nakaya exhibited her first large-scale public fog sculpture at the Pepsi Pavilion, as part of Expo ’70 in Osaka. Furuhata points out that Nakaya’s engagement with this particular form of expression is not accidental: her father was Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya whose research in glaciology and low-temperature sciences resulted in creating the first artificial snowflakes.

The history of environmental manipulation for tactical purposes can be traced to the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation used by the British during WWII. At that same time in Japan, Ukichiro Nakaya was working on a system for the dispersion of sea fog. After the war he was invited as a research fellow to the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), a US Army Corps of Engineers research facility in Hanover, New Hampshire, alongside other weather modification and environmental control scientists working on cloud seeding and artificial precipitation. In practice, this research sought to change local weather for strategic scenarios, such as prolonging the monsoon season to disrupt enemy supply lines during the Vietnam war, as described in Howard T. Orville’s 1954 article “Weather Made To Order.”

Out of this secretive and highly classified research, suddenly in the 1960s there emerges the idea of environmental art through practitioners such as Ukichiro Nakaya’s daughter, Fujiko. Her fog sculptures and the weaponised environment are based on identical technology. Is environmental art, then, a commentary on environmental weaponisation, or does it rescue science and technology from industrial and military applications through art? As a provisional conclusion, Furuhata mentions the cooling systems of data centres, and suggests that the combination of “media” and the “environment” should be considered in relation to the infrastructural and institutional histories that brought the notions together in the first place. These histories are never the clearly outlined and resolute outcomes of policy. They involve members from different backgrounds and with different individual visions of the future. Complicating standard narratives, Furuhata comments that research funded by the military does not always end up being used as a weapon and eventually may find other (frequently commercial) applications later on, passing thought art along the way. The institutional and infrastructural dynamics of this process (and of using science and technology as social commentary) are in a continuous state of flux, and what may be an accurate picture of the interaction between science, military, industry, art, media and communications in the 1970s will not be applicable in the post-border, post-state corporatized entities that national militaries are becoming. Perhaps, then, we can say that strategies for communications (and warfare) are have shifted along with the scientific tendencies of the day: from physics and the environment to data and information technology.

[1] More about the commercialization of air.

[2] Sloterdijk’s “Terror from the Air” provides the theoretical basis for Furuhata’s perspective on environmental art.

See also: Canned air: Marcel Duchamp goes CSI