Cloud Visions

Blurry photograph of people on beachfront

Cropped ver­sion of an im­age orig­i­nally pub­lished in The Mail Online with the cap­tion: Thousands of Britons ig­nored re­peated warn­ings to stay home as part of on­go­ing ef­forts to clamp down on coro­n­avirus by head­ing to DIY stores, parks and beaches on Sunday.


In late March, some weeks into the pan­demic, a new genre of lo­cal news story emerged: Local park Crowded with People Despite Social Distancing Orders. These sto­ries usu­ally struck a sim­i­lar tone, de­scrib­ing how, while most peo­ple where be­hav­ing re­spon­si­bly and stay­ing in­doors, a mi­nor­ity de­cided to flout the clear guide­lines set out by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment and gath­ered out­doors.

With these sto­ries came a par­tic­u­lar set of im­ages, show­ing sunny paths and streets filled with seem­ingly obliv­i­ous peo­ple mov­ing around in dan­ger­ous prox­im­ity. The real sub­ject of these im­ages is what is­n’t there: dis­tance be­tween the bod­ies. Whatever empty space does re­main vis­i­ble in the im­age is be­ing en­croached from all sides by peo­ple walk­ing, run­ning, and cy­cling, bleed­ing in and out of fo­cus.

Soon af­ter these im­ages ap­peared, peo­ple be­gan to ques­tion how well they re­flected the re­al­ity on the ground. Their com­po­si­tion seemed too sim­i­lar (we’re al­ways look­ing along the path from an el­e­vated po­si­tion, never across), and their op­ti­cal ar­ti­facts (the con­densed per­spec­tive and nar­row depth of field of a long tele­photo lens) too pro­nounced to be ac­ci­den­tal.

Even as Twitter users ad­vanced this point by com­par­ing the me­dia pho­tographs with satel­lite im­ages of the area1, the an­swer to the orig­i­nal ques­tion — are the peo­ple in the im­age keep­ing to the two me­tre dis­tance? — re­mained elu­sive. All we have is a dis­torted slice of re­al­ity, blurred not only by the tele­photo lens, but also the shim­mer­ing sum­mer air, the JPEG al­go­rithm, and the con­flict­ing nar­ra­tives sur­round­ing them.

But sup­pose we had a some way of ac­cu­rately mea­sur­ing the dis­tance be­tween peo­ple in these im­ages: What good would that in­for­ma­tion be, any­way? The two-me­tre line does­n’t rep­re­sent a phys­i­cal bound­ary (airborne par­ti­cles don’t sud­denly stop once they reach it) but a sta­tis­ti­cal one: at two me­ters, your risk of in­fec­tion is low enough to im­prove pub­lic health. The real droplet-cloud has no bound­ary: you and me feed it every­time we ex­hale, it in­ter­acts with the built en­vi­ron­ment in com­plex ways, phas­ing in and out of ex­is­tence. You’re al­ways al­ready en­veloped by it. The cloud is not only phys­i­cal but also also epis­te­mo­log­i­cal, spread­ing mad­den­ing un­cer­tainty wher­ever the wind blows it.2

As an il­lus­tra­tion of this con­di­tion, the blurred, dis­torted, com­pressed im­ages of parks and seafront parks take on new mean­ing. In them, peo­ple, the heated ath­mos­phere, and the built en­vi­ron­ment melt to­gether into a sin­gle, ever-mov­ing, amor­phous body — this is the cloud, made vis­i­ble.

The cloud is a ter­ri­fy­ing en­ti­tity, es­cap­ing our at­tempts at classyf­ing and un­der­stand­ing it since the be­gin­ning of such ef­forts in the 18th cen­tury. But ac­cord­ing to the ar­chi­tect Eyal Weizman, the ephemeral na­ture of the cloud also forms the ba­sis of its civic po­ten­tial. Because the cloud does­n’t stop at na­tional bor­ders or the thresh­old of build­ings, it has the po­ten­tial to cre­ate a po­lit­i­cal space that equally reaches across ex­ist­ing di­vi­sions. Everyone who is en­veloped by the cloud be­comes an in­hab­i­tant of this new space: a cit­i­zen of the cloud.

Read from this per­spec­tive, the im­ages of crowded bod­ies in bright sun­light loose noth­ing of their sub­tle ter­ror. But per­haps in their blur­ry­ness, a glim­mer of hope for a new, more in­clu­sive po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity may be found. 3

  1. Joey D’Urso (2020), Here’s Why Some Pictures Of People Supposedly Breaking Coronavirus Social Distancing Rules Can Be Misleading. In Buzzfeed News, avail­able at buz­​joey­durso/​coro­n­avirus-so­cial-dis­tanc­ing-lock­down-pho­tos ↩︎

  2. Eyal Weizman (2017), Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, p 193. Zone Books. ↩︎

  3. This text is also pub­lished on Medium. An ex­tended ver­sion is forth­com­ing in Content Full ↩︎