What Just Happened: Martin Bricelj Baraga Builds Monuments to the Sky’s 53 Shades of Blue

Martin Bricelj Baraga is a Slovenian artist and curator based in Ljubljana. His installations and performances explore the relations between space, environment, technology, and people—often in bespoke urban contexts or in nature. His public works are part of the permanent and temporary collections of the cities of Ljubljana, Wroclaw, Geneva, Dresden, and Saint Petersburg. Baraga has exhibited internationally at venues including ICA in London, NEMO Biennale in Paris, Columbia University in New York, Museums Quartier in Vienna, and SEVKABEL in St. Petersburg. He’s also the director of the Museum of Transitory Art (MoTA), a founder of the SONICA festival, and co-founder of the Nonument Group. Photo: Peter Giodani

12/09/2022

Questions:
Alexander Scholz

What just happened? On July 9th, Martin Bricelj Baraga unveiled his fourth Cyanometer (2016—) at Geneva’s Museum of History of Science. An homage to the 18th century original kept there, Baraga’s sculpture measures the blueness of the sky as well as air pollution and joins a growing Cyanometer network with nodes in Ljubljana, Wrocław, and Dresden.

Q: Cyanometer is inspired by the eponymous 18th-Century instrument invented by the Swiss geologist, meteorologist, and physicist Horace Bénédict de Saussure. Can you walk us through the project’s genesis, from the discovery of Saussure’s work to installing the first “monument to blueness” in your hometown of Ljubljana in 2016?
A: In 2015, about a year before I realized the first sculpture, a dear friend sent me an article about de Saussure’s many inventions, and the cyanometer—a simple colour wheel with 53 shades of blue—caught my eye immediately. Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who is overshadowed by his more famous friend Alexander von Humboldt, conceived a number of instruments to observe and measure, including the anemometer, electrometer, and the compound microscope. Many people will be familiar with the solar oven—the first solar collector—he invented. De Saussure is also highly regarded as the founder of alpinism and the first to climb Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak.

The cyanometer is one of de Saussure’s lesser-known inventions and he used it to measure the ‘blueness’ of the sky in his hometown of Geneva. I thought it was such an interesting and beautiful instrument, that I decided to make a homage to it, a version for the 21st century, if you will. The result is a networked environmental sculpture that measures blueness and—an important data point since de Saussure’s times—air quality on a daily basis and displays its findings publicly onsite and online.

My first Cyanometer was installed in Ljubljana in 2016 as part of the Green Capital of Europe program. Our mayor likes to say that Ljubljana is the greenest city, the most beautiful city, but the Cyanometer may say otherwise: measurements show that we struggle with pollution in the winter, largely due to domestic heating with wood, and that in summer, ozone levels are way too high. In sharing these findings openly and publicly, Cyanometer becomes what I call a ‘transparency data sculpture’ that serves as a constant reminder of the state of our main life support system—the air we breathe.
“By sharing its findings openly and publicly, Cyanometer becomes what I call a ‘transparency data sculpture.’ It serves as a constant reminder of the state of our main life support system—the air we breathe.”
Q: How do the sculptures measure the sky’s blueness and air pollution, technically? And how are they maintained across the different cities?
A: The Cyanometer is equipped with a solar-powered Raspberry Pi and a camera that takes a photo of the sky every 15 minutes and uploads it to the project’s online database. The software, written by my colleague, software engineer and activist Miha Markic, analyses and identifies every image as one of the 53 blues from de Saussure’s original colour wheel. In this sense, I am creating a retrospective calendar of the changes in our environment. On cyanometer.net, you can browse the constantly archived skies of Ljubljana, Wrocław, Dresden, and Geneva—the four cities where a Cyanometer is currently installed. The air quality data is pulled from the respective national or regional environmental agencies and updated on the Cyanometer’s display and online database every hour.

Each Cyanometer is maintained by the partnering organization, community, or city that adopted it. They take care of regular cleaning, occasional recharging of batteries for the solar panels, and minor fixes. They also develop programming around it: the WRO Art Center in Wrocław, for example, does an amazing job with a wide range of educational activities for kids and seniors that involve the Cyanometer and environmental issues. WRO is the organization behind the WRO Media Art Biennale, where the second Cyanometer was unveiled in 2017. It sits right outside the national library, overlooking the Oder river.

Whenever possible I handle the maintenance of the devices myself. One time, my longtime collaborator Igor Vuk and I had to remove the air quality visualiser of the Ljubljana Cyanometer for repair. When we returned it, two elderly citizens greeted us, enthusiastically: “finally you are back!” We asked them if they used the instrument at all. “Of course we do,” they replied, “every day!” That meant a lot to me. In fact, one of the key challenges was to design the air quality display in such a way that it can be read and understood by people of all ages.
Cyanometer (2016–)

In his first vision for the artwork, Baraga placed the Cyanometer in the beautiful landscape of Slovenia with the Alps in the background—a nod to the instrument’s original inventor and famed alpinist Horace Bénédict de Saussure.
Q: The tech is housed in a reflective monolith that appears right out of science fiction. What can you tell us about the sculptural aspirations for the project? And, as an artist working in public space, what’s your philosophy for engaging people meaningfully?
A: The design translates the principles of the original device into a monument: similar to how de Saussure would look at the sky through his handheld colour wheel, I invite people to gaze through the hole in the colour wheel at the sculpture’s top. I put it at a height of 3.3 meters—the optimal position for passers-by to look through comfortably. Aesthetically, the sculpture resembles a portal to another world. With the reflective blue glass surface and the stainless steel casing it looks like a 3D rendering. In a way, the sculpture mirrors the environment as much as the collected data does.

What makes a good public artwork? That’s hard to say, as it very much depends on context. Generally, I’d say the better ones have the capacity to touch people emotionally, open their eyes to new perspectives, or serve the community in some fashion. A personal favourite is the now lost McKeldin Fountain in Baltimore. It was a brutalist gem designed by architect Thomas Todd in the 1980s—part fountain and part sculpture park that you could walk through. It had great significance to the locals and was declared a free speech zone by the ACLU in 2013, serving as an important site for gatherings and protests including the Women in Black marches, Occupy Baltimore, and the civil disobedience following the murder of Freddie Gray. Sadly, after several failed attempts to save the fountain, the city demolished it in 2016. With Nonument Group, an artist-research group that I am part of, we then resurrected the McKeldin Fountain virtually. During a residency in 2017, we collaborated with Baltimore architect and educator Fred Scharmen, who together with his students measured the fountain and recreated it in 3D. The model was the basis for an AR app that we realized with Lisa Moren and Jaimes Mayhew: It allows you to rediscover the fountain, walk through it, and listen to interviews with locals and activists that used to protest there.
Alpine Blues

Inspired by his mountaineering observations—the sky gets darker with elevation—Swiss geologist, meteorologist, and physicist Horace Bénédict de Saussure invented the cyanomètre in 1789. Its most advanced iteration included 53 painted shades of blue, arranged in a handy colour wheel. With it, de Saussure determined that the sky atop Mont Blanc, for example, corresponded with blue 39—the darkest he’d ever measure. In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt beat that record: ascending the Andean mountain Chimborazo, the famed geographer and friend of de Saussure’s observed blue 46. With subsequent advances in atmospheric science, the cyanometer fell into obscurity. Its poetry, however, lives on.

Q: Each Cyanometer functions like a node in a distributed measuring network that, eventually, will allow for comparative analysis between the connected cities. Can you elaborate on the significance of the collected data? What have you learned thus far and what are you hoping to learn as the network grows?
A: As an artist, I’m particularly interested in the nature of colours, and how our perception of them changes depending on place and time of day. Perhaps that’s why the database has a cinematic feel to it—four different skies presented in juxtaposition, four windows of azure, captured over time. Thus far, I’ve collected about 110,000 snapshots of the sky in Ljubljana and 90,000 in Wrocław and, interestingly, a blueness factor of 20 or 21 is the most common. It’s a blue-violet that most closely resembles Tekhelet, a historic dye prized throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and referenced in the Bible as the ‘perfect blue.’ The medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides described it as being the colour of “the clear noonday sky.”

Is the sky’s blueness factor scientifically significant? I don’t know—as far as I’m aware, I’m the only one measuring it. What I’ve learned is that blueness and air quality aren’t necessarily correlated. While particles and water vapour affect the blueness factor, as De Saussure himself concluded, a clear blue sky won’t tell you anything about dangerous ozone levels. That’s why Cyanometer includes air quality data. For us to have an inclusive conversation about the climate crisis we need easy access to environmental data and I hope the Cyanometer network can help with that—especially now, that I begin shifting focus from the individual artworks to how they interconnect.

The Cyanometer database will also be part of a larger open archive that I am currently working on, tentatively titled The Invisible Space Programme. It will present a variety of environmental phenomena, measured with different instruments and augmented with background information, and make data available publicly for analysis and interventions. The Invisible Space Programme complements the physical measuring instruments with a virtual public space that can host an open classroom, a public data repository, or a laboratory for aesthetic experiments. We hope to build an open archive that inspires researchers as much as lay people to discover new facets of our environment. After all, juxtapozing phenomena that don’t appear to be connected—the blueness of the sky, the soundscape of a river—can bear unexpected revelations.
“Thus far, I’ve collected about 110,000 snapshots of the sky in Ljubljana and 90,000 in Wrocław. The most common blue resembles Tekhelet—a shade the Bible describes as ‘perfect.’”
Q: The fourth Cyanometer was unveiled recently in de Saussure’s hometown of Geneva, right outside the History of Science museum that keeps the original instrument. What can you tell us about bringing the Cyanometer home, and where are you planning on installing the artwork next?
A: It was always the dream to install Cyanometer in Geneva one day. In fact, I was in conversation with the folks at the History of Science museum from the very beginning, as I needed to verify the codes of de Saussure’s original instrument. After the premiere of the first sculpture in Ljubljana, we began discussing possibilities of bringing it to Geneva. It was a long and challenging process—we had to postpone the installation twice due to Covid restrictions and lost 2 years—but the museum team were incredibly supportive throughout. As of July 9th this year, the Geneva Cyanometer sits right outside the museum’s entrance, overlooking the city, its lake, and Mont Blanc in the distance while documenting the sky above.

With four sculptures now connected across Europe, I’m eager to realize one in an entirely different ecological region. We are currently in discussions with potential hosts in Mexico, and I’d love to add sites in Asia to the map. A truly global network of Cyanometer would, of course, provide a more comprehensive picture of the changes in our environment and, hopefully, help spark local conversations around air pollution, public health, and environmental issues. I’d like to think that de Saussure would enjoy that idea.
What Just Happened?

In this serial interview format, HOLO checks in with artists, designers, curators, and researchers to get the lowdown on a timely topic—be it a new project, exhibition, or current event that ‘just happened.’

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Alexander Scholz

Alex is a Berlin-based writer, artistic director, and cultural worker. As the founder and creative director of HOLO, he helps produce and disseminate knowledge on disciplinary interstices, artistic research, and cultural transformations in the digital age. Over the years, he curated exhibitions, conferences, and educational programmes for organizations and festivals including A.C.C. (KR), Mapping (CH), MUTEK (CA), and NODE Forum for Digital Arts (DE).

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