IN JUNE 2022, ARTANGEL’S INSTALLATION A Thousand Words for Weather opened at London’s Senate House Library. Created by author Jessica J. Lee and sound artist Claudia Molitor, the piece invites listeners to consider the ways in which our experiences of weather—and climate change—are at once intimate, shared, yet untranslatable.
Lee began by working with a group of UK–based poets and translators in English, Mandarin, Bengali, Urdu, German, Turkish, French, Spanish, Polish, and Arabic, each of whom contributed ten weather words and their definitions. Each word was then translated into the other languages, forming a thousand-word “dictionary” of the weather. Molitor then translated this dictionary into a sonic landscape, whose playback is controlled by real-time weather data from the UK Metropolitan Office. The installation is housed over three floors of the art deco library in Central London: in echoing stairwells, forgotten trolley storage rooms, amid stacks of books, by windows looking over the city skyline, and in the grand open space of the periodicals room. The physical installation is followed by a digital rendition from designer and environmental researcher Feifei Zhou.
Lee and Molitor met to reflect on the project’s creation, the ways climate crisis demands new forms of connection, and the task of making art across languages, cultures, and borders.
Claudia Molitor: Tell me how you came across the idea for A Thousand Words for Weather.
Jessica J. Lee: It was one of the strangest projects I’ve ever worked on. Artangel came to me in late 2020, basically saying they liked my writing about weather and the senses and the body. And they were curious if I could play with this idea of weather, because they were planning this whole year on weather in their program. Make something about the weather. Anything you want it to be. Which was really exciting and really terrifying. I was like: okay, number one, I’m not a visual artist. I’ve never done an installation. I’m not a sound artist. I’m not all of these things. I see myself as a writer first and foremost. And I was really, really intimidated by the idea of having to produce something that felt initially out of my wheelhouse. I was a bit nervous about the idea of having to create something that fell broadly under the category of art and that people would go and experience in person.
Over the course of the next few months, I wrote back and forth with Michael Morris, who was at the time one of the codirectors of Artangel. I was really preoccupied with this question of, when it comes to weather, how we actually talk to one another about it and who gets included in those conversations. Because when I was having conversations about weather and climate change, it was always with English speakers, with people who felt like they were part of, like, an “in-group,” already part of my community. It didn’t always feel inclusive. I had that question in the back of my mind because I feel like there are huge gaps in how our conversations take place and who they take place with. So that was where I started. What would it be like if I asked that question over a sustained period of time in some kind of creative work?
Because I was thinking about words and language, I started thinking about the idea of a dictionary. Michael and I talked back and forth for a few weeks about this idea. We didn’t want to make a literal dictionary. We didn’t want it to be so obvious. It couldn’t just be a dictionary of the weather, because that feels like it’s been done, and I didn’t really want to just do something in isolation. And so very early on, I realized that I wanted to have other people be involved. Not least because I wanted to play with languages and, while I speak five languages, I didn’t feel like I could create in all of them by myself. So I wanted to invite others into the space, I guess. That’s where we brought in the poets.
CM: Your experience of being asked to do that is not dissimilar to my experience. Michael approached me saying, “Here are these words, what would you do with them?”
JJL: That’s such a daunting thing. Just, like, make something out of thin air.
What weather means to us depends on where we live, the languages we speak.
CM: I really love that: No limits. Don’t think about any practicalities or anything at this moment, just dream. That was how it started. And it was like you described, going back and forth, me bringing some ideas of what could happen, what we might want to do with the project.
Everything developed very organically. I didn’t want to create something didactic. “This is what’s happening. This is what we need to do.” I wanted to make something a bit more nuanced and a bit gentle. Like you said, this approach to what weather means to us really depends on where we live, the languages we speak, who we are within a society. If we are poor, if we are rich—this all will mean very, very different things to different people. And so I didn’t want the sound of the project to be specific to just one experience. It’s a very different proposition if you went to someone, for example, in Bangladesh who experiences floods on a regular basis and they’re getting worse: that’s very different to our experience.
JJL: It does make me wonder why or how sound functions for you as a way of thinking through climate change, because it is such a felt thing. For something that would otherwise always be very intellectualized, I think. This exhibit and the work that you do, it feels to me very visceral instead of abstract.
CM: This comes to translation. Like rain, for example, the word rain, it doesn’t really relate very much to the experience of rain in any way. It just stands in, with sound, for an experience of rain. When you are writing words that describe the weather, you get a little closer to the experience of what it is to get wet creating these sound spaces. A translation from what it really is to feel the weather, but not as specific as language. It’s somehow closer to the experience of weather, but it can’t tell you exactly what weather I’m referring to.
JJL: One of the things I found really interesting, working with the poets and translators, was to see how they were translated by others. That was a fascinating process for me to observe, how others worked in languages where I might have done something differently, or the resonances that were so personal that were picked up with each word. I know you also speak some of the languages that are included. How much did your own linguistic connections shape or influence how you thought about the sounds that came out?
CM: I actually worked quite a lot with the descriptions of the words. I really enjoyed, with the languages I don’t speak, that they didn’t have semantic meaning to me. We recorded each poet saying their own words in their own language. So I had them as a sonic experience. Like Spanish. I did Latin at school. So although I don’t speak Spanish, I recognize patterns that sound familiar, even if I don’t completely have semantic meaning. You have these languages where you have the absolute semantic meaning, which distracts you a little bit from its sound. Then you have these languages, which I kind of recognized but I’m not fluent in, [where] the semantic is still very much present, but not complete. So the sound becomes a little bit more foregrounded. And then with the languages I don’t speak at all, and I can’t recognize any patterns because they’re very different to the European languages that I know—they were purely sonic. The semantic part had moved really far back, because of course I know they’re words, but my ear can’t connect [them to meaning]. Apart from some of the words, which when you listen to them, the sound is descriptive of the weather.
JJL: So you did find some sort of onomatopoeic words in other languages?
CM: Yeah. And although I didn’t know for sure, I thought, Oh, this could be it. I really enjoyed that hovering between understanding and not understanding, and being quite reflective of how we experience weather. Because if you explain snow to someone who’s never actually experienced snow, how much sense does it make? You can intellectually think about it. You can even watch a program about it and go, Oh, that looks nice, but it’s very different to actually hold snow in your hand or experience what snow does to the sound world around you, because it has a massive effect. When someone talks about the monsoon, for example, now I know that here in the UK, we can get downpours, but it’s
nothing like a monsoon, so I can sort of intellectualize what it must feel like to have a monsoon, but I don’t really, because I’ve never experienced it.
JJL: That was one of the big challenges, because we asked the poets to pick words that were really personal to them. I had that feeling that there would be words that, when it comes time to translate, someone else in the group might have no experience of. How do you translate a word like monsoon? Or, for example, we had haboob as one of the words, and we have these descriptions of the feeling of being under a desert sun or in a dust storm, [which], you know, is not something I’ve ever experienced. There is that curiosity: How do you put that into your own language when you actually have no firsthand experience of it? And then cut back to that question at the very core of the project: How can we have a conversation with one another about climate when we lack a shared language or a shared experience?
CM: The descriptions of the words were incredibly poetic, you know, and obviously they are included in the sound piece because, as you say, sometimes they don’t describe what it is. But they describe how it feels, and sometimes they move you to a different plane. It’s a sort of temporal dislocation.
JJL: I think it was our very first meeting, you presented this idea of working with atmospheres. That was how you put it to us. And on a certain level, each atmosphere is so different from another. When you were making them, did they connect to real atmospheres, to real weather in the real world? Or perhaps were they more tied to places, either places that you’ve been to or places that you were creating them in? What did they signify for you?
CM: I think the best way to describe it is to think of lightning and thunder. If you are in a thunderstorm, there’s a big crack of light and it’s blinding. It goes right through—the light and then the sound later, right above you in the Alps, which is very extreme. There’s massive sound. Just a magnificent thing to think that electricity in the air can cause this kind of experience. And also in the run-up to a thunderstorm, often you already have this sensation of electricity. So there are bits in the piece that are played inside the piano, where I created this overwhelming sense that is just nearly too much. But it doesn’t sound like a thunderstorm at all.
JJL: It just gives you the feeling.
CM: Yeah. So that’s what I wanted to do. And I only used nature field recordings of a blackbird, so I didn’t record the weather at all. But, for example, I did underwater recordings. So you get that crackling thing. The sensation of icy coldness, those kinds of things. I was thinking, How does it feel to experience things? How can I create those sensations through sounds, which for some people will have different associations? It’s not so literal. For some people, maybe they won’t get that at all and others will get that very strongly.
JJL: There is this further act of translation that you’ve carried out. Not to actually use any field recordings from nature, but rather to put them into your own creative medium of sound.
CM: And that’s why field recordings in this context would be too much. Like, if it rains outside, play this rain sound.
JJL: The project uses real-time weather data for parts of the installation to modulate levels of what is heard at any given time. When we first talked about this, one of the things we said was, We love this idea, but it’s also really important that it avoids being gimmicky and on the nose.
CM: Basically, this was really simple—just choosing some parameters. We chose the ones that fluctuate most, like wind direction and speed. Then there are wonderful descriptors of partly cloudy, cloudy, overcast, drizzle, rain, heavy rain, and temperature. It’s those kind of things that we use as parameters. And for the most part, it’s a very simple [matter] of switching tracks on. In the hallway, you have five speakers and you’ve got five tracks rising in the space and right at the top is the birdsong. If it’s a really hot day, a really sunny day, that’s all you will hear in there. All the other tracks will be switched off. But when it drops below a certain temperature, the birds will disappear and you will get other sounds.
Sometimes they don’t describe what it is. But they describe how it feels.
JJL: I love the idea of working from the UK Met Office data. Having lived all over the world, and as a consumer of weather reports all around the world, one of my favorite things is the cultural difference in how weather gets reported in different countries. In North America, weather reports always feel really militaristic to me. “We’ve got a storm tracking in from the east.” Tracking is always the word that’s used, and it sounds like an advancing army to me. I feel like weather reports in Britain, perhaps because the weather is such a social glue, the reports always feel really descriptive and chummy. You go onto the Met Office website, it’ll say, “Great picnic weather,” or something like that.
CM: That’s exactly it. “We’re in this together.” And also kind of a knowing nod. “Oh, it’s raining again.”
JJL: “Don’t forget your brolly!”
CM: It always rains. I haven’t listened to the German weather report for a long time, but they just tell you what it is. They tell you the degrees, the wind speed, that’s it.
JJL: And I struggle with that because they don’t create a narrative! Like, what does that mean? If you just tell me wind speed, I have no idea what to make of that. I need to go online and look at pictures. And so I really love this idea of working from these kind of data to create something, because, in many ways, there is an extra layer of cultural narrative around the weather.
CM: In the context of the piece we made, it’s important for it to be a bit ambiguous. It’s not necessarily obvious what you do or how it changes or why it changes. And of course I’ve got a whole narrative, how and why it changes, but we don’t talk about that in any of the literature we give to people who visit the exhibition.
JJL: Going back to the raw materials, in a way, the soundtracks: They’re already there. What we don’t know, moment to moment, is how they’re going to change depending on real-time weather data. In the periodicals room, you’ve written a long-form piece using those raw materials and it changes weekly, ever
CM: Right! With the main piece, because it goes over many weeks, if you go in every week and really listen, then you might notice what has changed from the week before, but actually the changes are very, very small. It might just be that one little section is added or taken away or moved. It’s not always that obvious what’s changing, but if you listen to week one and then week ten, you notice a big difference. And if you then listen to week thirty-four, it’s very different.
JJL: I think this is climate change: We’re not going to get something completely new to humankind. What we’re going to get is the bad stuff, modulated at a much higher level. We’re going to get extremes of existing weather. Rain, and a lot of it. Or drought, and a lot of it. All of that combined—that’s what’s dangerous.
CM: From year to year, it’s not so terrible. For people like me, who have been on this planet for forty-seven years, the childhood weather in Germany where I grew up and the UK where I visited and now live: I can tell a difference. It’s just not quite the same. When I was younger, it would snow for months and months. And now [there’s] none. The difference between when I was forty and now forty-seven, that’s not so much. But from when I was seven and now forty-seven? Yeah, definitely. So I think that the main piece was wanting to do that. Whereas the other parts of the installation are constantly changing depending on the weather. It takes data every fifteen minutes, so it’s relatively responsive to what’s happening outside. That was me trying to embody the difference. And I think this sensibility is in the words too, because there were some words that were just about weather, and then others that were about big climate events.
JJL: When I wrote the prompts, which were used to inspire and guide the poets, I wanted to be able to capture that sense of time passing. We had prompts like home and past that were really about memory of, like you say, being seven years old, what the weather was like. But then there was a sense of expectation in some of the prompts: the seasons. I added things to the list, like grief and joy and the future, because I wanted to bring in this question of how we set our expectations for what’s to come. How do we even process our feelings about this weather?
CM: You also have city. That’s another dimension. How we alter the space by going indoors when it’s chucking it down. Whereas, obviously, a bird can’t quite do the same. I thought that was really interesting. What we build around us is actually predicated on the weather.
JJL: So much of our conversation around the climate very often takes us away from this notion that we are experiencing climate change even in cities. Not just far away. I think this necessarily happens when we talk about the environment: people don’t imagine buildings. And I wanted to bring that back into the conversation because, at least for the purposes of this project, everyone we worked with was gravitationally centered around London. That seemed really important to me. How do we have a shared conversation across languages in this place where the weather can be so far away? Like when you’re on the Tube, you’re not really thinking about the weather unless it’s summer and it’s really hot. Right? For so much of our experience of the city, we’re able to push weather away and push that insistence of our local climate away. I just wanted to bring the weather back into the city.
CM: I was hoping this piece would create a space where people would contemplate their own feelings about the weather.
And the climate crisis is lurking underneath there. The installation gives people time to reflect on their feelings about it. They might then go and talk to someone else about the weather, translating different experiences of weathers all around the world. So really it’s a space for thinking.
JJL: The way you’ve just described people talking about the weather, it’s the cliché of how we talk when we don’t really want to have a conversation with someone. It’s small talk. But what this project invites us to think about is, actually, that small talk is deeply intimate. It’s “big talk.” And so when we think we’re having this innocuous, trivial conversation that we’ll forget two minutes later, we’re actually doing something very meaningful.
CM: When you go into a shop and then someone says, like, “Oh, God, it’s hot today, isn’t it?” And you go, “Yeah, it’s hot,” you’re connecting with each other. You’re saying, We are the same. We’re experiencing a similar thing. And therefore we both belong here. There’s this sense of belonging, because the way you talk about weather is often about how it makes you feel. “It’s cold today.” This is a shared physical experience that you’re exchanging. It says, We’re equals here.