Brett Zehner

"The wild embodied wind of the prairies is like a presence among the fields."[1]

                                      -Meridel Le Sueur


Tornado impacts tend toward the surreal. Cars wrapped around trees stripped bare of their bark, school busses thrown through the air like toys, toothpicks driven through engine blocks. People impacted directly by tornadoes report a sudden drop in air pressure; eardrums explode, the lungs are stripped of air just before impact. The body’s atmosphere becomes attuned to the radical change around it, undermining any simple division between human and environment. The sheer force of a tornado can be staggering. Tornadoes can move laterally at speeds of 100 feet per second, while the internal wind speeds of the worst storms may exceed 200 miles per hour, enough to rip skin from bone. In one instant, normality; in the next instant–an explosion of debris. Violent winds disarticulate the architectures of the everyday, turning nearly every mundane object into a deadly missile. The split second of a tornado’s impact acts as a threshold between altered states. In its vortex, seemingly solid things become things in flux. Some will remain, while others vanish. But for a fleeting moment, what remains and what disappears are held together in catastrophic coherence. Everything is up in the air.

         Encounters between earth and air, at the point of a vortex, highlight the strange singularity of tornadoes, troubling distinctions between subjects and objects, scale and movement, culture and nature. Tornadic encounters—touching down, piercing, and transgressing the liminal boundary between earth and sky—thus pronounce the entanglement between earth systems and social processes. The weather event exemplifies the earth, not as a passive receiver of human impact, but as a continually changing set of physical dynamics.

This essay presents a media theory for tornadic encounters: a meteorology of media. This project is inspired by Jussi Parikka's Geology of Media, which translates the methods of geological science to analyze the stratified, nonlinear layers of media history. Parikka expands media theory to include the raw minerality of technological enviroments. I, however, turn to meteorology, a science reliant on probabilistic prediction, as a methodological lens. As a source for media theory, I argue that meteorology draws our attention to local singularities and events-in-the-making that fall outside the grand scope of media history. In this manner, it is important to make a distinction between climatology and meteorology, two epistemologies that are often conflated. Paul Edwards writes that "meteorological data systems are built for real-time forecasting. Their priority is speed, not precision, and they absorb new instrumentation, standards, and models quite quickly. In contrast, climatology requires high precision and long-term stability – almost the opposite of the rapidly changing weather observing system" (Edwards, 14). It is within the technological assemblage of meteorological knowledge production that the storm chaser's act of citizen science is a necessary supplement to the temporal gap of computational weather predictions. The speed and rhythm of the storm chaser's movements are what make them unique. Chasers fuse real-time data flows with embodied environmental awareness as they navigate gridded road networks to intercept erratic tornadic paths. In this essay, I follow the artist Francis Alÿs through his project Tornado, Milpa Alta (2000-2010). I explore the aesthetics of tornadic encounters and their capacity for troubling meteorological modes of knowledge production and opening environmental experience to other possibilities of shared risk. With Alÿs, I find the rupture of the tornado productive in disrupting discourses of hubris around climate risk and mediation. I ultimately ask, as a theorist of environmental media–what do we gain by considering storm chasing as a form of art?


To begin, we must consider the centrality of art to Parikka’s paradigmatic use of environmental science as a model for media studies. Parikka’s elaboration of a geological imaginary for media studies builds upon the work of Robert Smithson. Smithson’s artistic practices throughout the 1970s engage technological landscapes from the perspective of geologic time. Smithson’s critical essays and artworks such as Spiral Jetty (1970) enact the technological milieu not as an extension of humanity, but as fundamentally made up of the raw materials of the earth (Smithson, 1996). Parikka reads Smithson’s experimentation with the given materiality of the earth as an elaboration of non-human timescales. Smithson ultimately decenters the classical humanist perspective of aesthetics and replaces it with something akin to a psycho-geophysics. Writing over three decades after Smithson, Parikka theorizes what he calls the “earth media arts,” which experiment with premediated materials and the afterlives of dead technologies. The geology of media attends to “notions of temporality that escape any human obsessed vocabulary and enter into closer proximity with the fossil.”[2] The materiality of the fossil is essential to deep time perspectives. However, if we focus, rather, on the motion of the spiral, we return to the scale and temporality of the individual. Here, Smithson muses on the construction of Spiral Jetty–

“On the horizon–a horizon is an impossible point to locate. Even though it is right there in front of you, it is constantly evading your grasp. It is only a mirage that can’t be fixed, arrested or stopped, or transferred into an abstract condition, and that is the arrested moment. Those moments constantly change and are giving way to other moments; so you can get into a kind of vertigo situation. A point is like a whirlpool or central vortex. The piece in Salt Lake will be built on a meandering zone, that is unstable, and the idea is to stabilize something that is unstable.”[3]

The spiral form in Smithson’s work supervenes on its material substrate and concatenates deep time with embodied experience via vortical motion. The vortex of Spiral Jettyoffers a break from the temporal norm, sending viewers into the vertigo of an a-temporal drift. The vortex opens an interval and triggers a network of responses that create a general attitude and set of alienated relations to the environment. The vortex highlights the difference between the geology of media and the meteorological approach I propose. The shift between the geologic and the meteorological register occurs in the temporal scale of the individual subject. What the geology of media cannot account for is the event, the immediate experience of the vast time scale of environmental risk. And the emergency of severe weather occurs at the immediate human scale. It is precisely where the deep time accumulated effects of climate shifts will come into contact with the individual.


Tornado Alley, spanning the central plains of the United States, is an area in which conditions have historically been ripe for tornadoes. Today it is migrating further east, into more densely populated areas. This geographic shift is brought on by a generally warming climate and, in turn, a wider area of atmospheric instability.[4] In this region, a tornado is an explicit effect of human activity, if not of direct intentions. It is a ricochet of human endeavor, not a relation emerging from direct causality, but a haunting, intense (re)turn of cultural (re)production.

         For a hurricane, preparations can begin a week or more in advance. For tornadoes, by contrast, the average warning time is less than 15 minutes. As the temporality of preparation is compressed, anticipation heightens. The tornado siren is the first aesthetic cue to rapidly changing weather. In their haunting pitch and tone, tornado sirens articulate an atmosphere of foreboding, anticipation and doom. At many sites, Cold War air raid sirens remain as the public address system for tornado warnings.[5]The warning itself is a system of imperatives, organized around a structure of command and control: be warned! The state enacts sirens, messages, maps with trajectories, an entire communications network externalizing the responsibility of environmental protection to the individual. During the Super Tornado Outbreak of 2011, for instance, local weather presenters across the South shepherded their respective publics through the catastrophe in firm but calm voices. Phrases such as “unsurvivable above ground” and “guaranteed catastrophic damage” mixed with the weather broadcaster’s calm, (usually) masculine voice, in a live play by play– “if you are in the path of this tornado, take your tornado precautions.”[6] The role of the weather presenter is that of a conductor, translating between machines, and between human and non-human. The forecast creates a cartography of isobars and isotherms — the weather map wrapping together air and subjects. The raging atmosphere can be known, up to a point, but not fully controlled. The subject is directed away from harm. As the weather presenter choreographs the viewers’ self-protective pattern of response to an orchestrated threat, there is a breakdown of the division between the television studio, the weather station, and the theater.

         In reaction, the citizen turns away from an outside threat and toward home. In Sara Ahmed’s analysis of the cultural aftermath of 9/11, home becomes a symbol of the nation.  Ahmed argues that emotions are not solely located within the subject, they circulate and stick to objects infusing them with a charged tension. Under the threat of the tornado warning, the midwestern family home similarly becomes a “sticky” symbol of American identity under attack, in this case from arbitrary forces of nature.[7] The individual is thereby bound to the retrenched material cultures of home via the emotional attachments brought on by the dual relationship of threat and security. After the tornado has passed, once the family has emerged from their bunker, and homes have been destroyed, we see countless photos of the flag, battered, yet still flying. The basement rec room doubles as a setting for a certain wistful longing. There is a temporal drag of Cold War anxiety, of the collective sense of a threat from above. There is a nostalgia for the air raid shelter where families endlessly practiced resilience in the face of the end of the world. The storm shelter, in turn, becomes a refuge from the tornado menacing the countryside. Sirens blare a generic call, atmospheric in their own right. The dressage of the citizen subject passes through all of its disciplinary training. The senses are trained to recoil; a heavy book protecting the head in the school hallway, a public safety lecture, emergency protocols at work, family emergency plans. These are not at all insignificant moments in shaping a national identity.[8] Bleating their shrill warning, the sirens recall nuclear war simulations, hailing national subjects. The tornado bunker, qua home, becomes the space of the family, under threat, yet protected.

         When one hears the sirens, the performative command and control message is activated: citizens should take cover, turn toward safety. Terranova refers to this as “soft control,” a form of control that need not necessarily emanate from a central authority.[9] It is more banal, more automated. The siren is an infrastructural language, directed toward the pre-individual, aimed at moderating flows of affect, sensation, and desire–relations on their way to becoming subject. Here, following Maurizio Lazzarato, we can comprehend the production of subjectivity as both a pre-individuated process operating at the level of affect and an individuating process operating through authority and social connection.[10] The subject is produced within a socio-technical assemblage made up of urban infrastructures, earth forces, communication systems, and bodily capacities, at once individuated and dividuated by forces that exceed language.

         In her analysis of Hurricane Katrina, Marita Sturken draws our attention to the public service campaigns of ready.gov, which were produced to warn citizens of the dangers of severe weather events. In its appeal to middle-class suburban families, the government agency displays a blatant refusal to imagine any citizen subject that does not fit within the bounds of the nuclear family, linking the state, environment, and normative social structures (Sturken, 2006). This meteorological communication network primarily views the weather from satellites and Doppler radar stations. The typical vantage point is a depopulated one. Giant swirling storms are seen from above rather than felt from below. This de-bodied perspective converges with urban planning discourse and architectural models. A generic subject is implied by a structured landscape. FEMA response plans, scripted for the idealized, middle-class family, will prove catastrophic for the majority of the population. Meteorological media is a global system of information wielded to externalize the responsibility of environmental risk to the level of the individual. Yet by both ignoring the on-the-ground reality of the citizens affected by the storms, and the fine-grained movement of the storms themselves, pressing social concerns appear in the gaps of state knowledge. The ability of the state to control natural threats to its sovereignty breaks down. The storm is not entirely predictable. Engineering systems can only hold so much force. And these shortcomings converge with an unevenly distributed disregard for the realities of people affected on the ground.


In an artwork titled Tornado, Milpa Alta 2000-2010, Francis Alÿs opens himself to non-human resistance by willingly throwing himself into tornadoes—albeit very week “dust devils”— in the Mexican countryside. Alÿs sees the dust storm as a symbol of the imminent collapse of all systems of order. In the description of his installation at the Tate Modern, we can read Alÿs’s attraction to the tornadic vortex:

“The act of running into the storm, which we see repeated over and over, also invites interpretation: is the artist no longer able to combat the chaos he encounters? Or is it only within the chaos that he can challenge the turmoil around him? Reaching the epicentre of the storm, the artist is breathless and almost blinded, yet he encounters a furtive moment of peace that could hint at a new moment of possibility.”[11]

         In the work of Alÿs, it is too simple to imagine leaping into a tornado as a nihilistic impulse. The artist sees the tornado as a positive force. Through the chaos of the vortex, through its excessive noise, its blinding debris, its sheer physical force, the vortex becomes a symbol of regeneration, an imperceptible, but open future. The indeterminate act of Alÿs flies in the face of a seemingly overdetermined world of big data.

         From the artistic gesture of abandonment through storm chasing, to the citizen science of meteorological storm chasing, we can track an openness to the radically indeterminate. The globalized atmospheric sensing systems which underpin the meteorological apparatus seem omnipresent in the planetary scope of their infrastructures.[12]However, there is still a great need for citizen science to fill in the particulate gaps in local environmental knowledge.[13]The storm chaser, in the context of the tornado, is the eyes and ears that are necessary to confirm the existence of a “tornado on the ground.” The storm chaser’s role in detection and warning is central in defining the exact path a tornado is taking. Even though Doppler radar has become an important tool for meteorologists in tracking tornado development, it still has a broad range of error, and it cannot calculate the infinite complexity of atmospheric data.[14]The storm chaser has the advantage of the haptic, close-up experience of the tornado, whose path is often erratic. The chaser follows singular fluid dynamic developments in supercell storms, often by sight or sound, only and using an innate sense of timing to intercept tornado paths.

         Much of my interaction with the storm chasing community occurred through the now defunct Tornado Videos Network of storm chasers. TVN was an online platform which provided live streams of chasers in the field along with chat interaction features. These networks of chasers, of course, have access to mobile Doppler radars and the latest mobile technologies, but their immediate senses are what allow them to follow the singular flows of storm morphology., Chasers are often forced into situations that require sophisticated navigation. Their choices for movement are constrained typically to north-south or east-west movements on the gridded road networks of the Midwest. The timing has to be perfect to intercept a tornado’s path, which pays no heed to the grid, but cuts diagonally across this striated space. For the chaser, the experience of the tornado chase is an aesthetic one, a dance of contradictory timing between the wind and the built environment. The chaser operates between two atmospheres– “one of meteorology and one of aesthetics– straddling the uneasy division between nature and humanity, materiality and the sensory, the cosmic and the affective.”[15]The split between meteorological materiality of the atmosphere and its cultural production runs through much of the burgeoning field of air studies. I follow Tim Ingold who argues in the Life of Lines (2015) that these two bodies of knowledge are intimately intertwined. It is the concatenation between the built and the atmospheric, the following of singular atmospheric flows, and not overdetermining the tornado, which offers the chaser insight.

         The epistemic form of the chaser is akin to what Deleuze and Guattari call– “nomad science.” The nomad scientist is defined through specific attention to materiality, not by representation, but by working with and making connections between material singularities and irregularities.[16]They offer the example of a woodworker using the singular flaws and knots in the material they manipulate. Instead of merely cutting a pre-designed pattern onto the wood, the woodworker works with the wood to find singular intensities. Nomad science refuses top-down representations of matter that smooth difference into easily standardized coordinates. The key aspect of nomad science is its mode of assessment, not of quantification, but an interpretation and practice of affective intensity, aesthetics, and singularities.[17]The chaser, working as a nomad scientist, begins their work where quantification and information leave off. Radar and computational models generalize an area of tornadic development, yet an attunement of the senses to rapidly changing conditions allow the chasers to enact a much finer-grained environmental awareness.

The successful storm chaser requires an organization of affect, labor, and social space. The process of following intensities and affects requires a particular form of embodiment in the storm chaser apart from the flattened view of computer screens and televisual machinery. The chaser, as opposed to the television weather forecaster, is out in the open, exposed to the elements. They join with the populace in a live, shared risk. In many instances, the storm chaser is also the first responder on the scene once a tornado has done damage, making their primary role one of care, protection, and repair. In the context of environmental media, borrowing from Michel De Certeau’s distinction between strategy and tactics, perhaps the state issuance of meteorological warnings is the overall strategy of infrastructural adjustment to environmental threat, while the chaser provides the short-term tactics of everyday analysis.[18]

Chasers engage what Elizabeth Grosz calls geopower, where the non-human forces of the earth make their mark on human expression (Grosz, 2008). This non-subjective form of power, through its temporality and destructive force, script the chaser’s movements. Aesthetics here is not merely a ‘distribution of the sensible’ (cf. Ranciere, 2003), but a process of experimenting with the material forces of the earth. Art, then, may be construed not merely as a cultural achievement, nor a solely human endeavor per se, but as a repurposing of the forces of geography and time for elaboration and experimentation. The chaser's act of citizen science, then, is not far off from that of Francis Alÿs, in directly engaging the material forces of the earth to experiment with indeterminacy. In moments of environmental disaster, both Alÿs and the storm chaser harness the vast forces of the earth as processes that radically re-orient the personal. It is only that the storm chaser ventures further, using a larger toolset in hopes of a shared survival and a future otherwise.

Both Alÿs and the storm chaser remind us that a monolithic object of nature does not exist. The environment resists prediction. It is erratic, chaotic, and without a subjective will. Environmental change always shirks an external ordering by idealizing forces. Thus, it will not suffice to overcode a closed human interiority onto every nook and cranny of nature. Instead, storm chasers risk themselves for the survival of communities unknown to them. Rather than turning within in response to the threat of outside force, the chaser joins with the forces of the earth. As such, the non-human substrate is not merely a passive background for the projection of human knowledge; it is fundamentally constitutive of the personal. Thus, the chaser performs the meteorology of media as an ongoing attunement to hybrid ways of knowing personal timescales within climate systems.

         The tornadic vortex is a strange bending of time and space which does not easily fit into periods, monoliths, archives or maps. The vortex disrupts and breaks normative modes of epistemology; perhaps this is why, in its metaphoric usage across diverse theoretical fields, it is implied as an outside, an excess, chaotic, or something unthinkable. The tornado forces an immediate response from the scientific mediation apparatus that requires a complex interaction between computation, communication, and individual citizen scientists. A close reading of the tornadic suggests an approach to environmental media that follows the short-term breaks and disruptions in the changing weather in search of new relational trajectories between individual and the environment.


Agee, Ernest, Jennifer Larson, Samuel Childs, and Alexandra Marmo. (2016) Spatial Redistribution of USA Tornado Activity Between 1954 and 2013. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. 8-22.

Ahmed, Sara. (2013) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. London; New York, Routledge.

Certeau, Michel de. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Edwards, Paul (3010) A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MIT Press.

England, Gary. (2011) Breaking News Weather Emergency News9.com, KWTV, Oklahoma City, May 24th, 2011.

Fine, G.A., (2006) Ground Truth: Verification games in operational meteorology. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 35 (1), 3-23.

Grosz, Elizabeth (2008) Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York, Columbia University Press.

Ingold, Tim. (2015) The Life of Lines. London; New York, Routledge.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity.Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014.

Lefebvre, Henri. (2004) Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Paris, A&C Black.

Le Sueur, Meridel (1940) Salute to Spring New York, International Publishers.

Parikka, Jussi. (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2003) The Politics of AestheticsNew York, Bloombsury Press.

Smithson, Robert. (1996) Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Sturken, Marita (2006) Weather Media and Homeland Security: Selling Preparedness in a Volatile World. Understanding Katrina.

Terranova, T. (2004) Network Culture: Cultural Politics for the Information Age. London, Pluto Press.

[1] pg. 8 in Salute to Spring (1940)

[2] see Parikka (2015) pg. 7

[3] pg. 12 in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings.

[4] see Agee et. all

[5] For more on meteorological infrastructure and communication systems see Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming.

[6] I am referencing here Gary England’s Breaking News Weather Emergency broadcast in Oklahoma, City in May of 2011.

[7] pg. 70-74 Sara Ahmed The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

[8] For more on dressage as an embodied training paradigm see pg. 39 of Lefebvre’s Rythmanalysis.

[9] For more on de-centralized soft control see Terranova Network Cultures pg. 98-131.

[10] Lazzarato claims that the contemporary condition under late capitalism is characterized by the simultaneous individuation of subjects as marked by the state as well as the disintegration of the subject via capitalist trajectories of affect and desire.

[11] This is taken from Tate’s room guide online at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/francis-alys/francis-alys-story-deception-room-guide/francis-alys-6

[12] See Jennifer Gabrys Program Earth and Paul Edwards A Vast Machine for the necessity of planetary scale computation in the prediction of atmospheric phenomena.

[13] For a key text on citizen science and environmental knowledge see Irwin’s Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development.

[14] For the tension between the instrumental knowledge of meteorology i.e. – “meteorologists are at the mercy of their machines” – and the need for trained and embodied verification of severe weather, see Gary Fine’s Ground Truth: Verification Games in Operational Meteorology.

[15] pg. 76 Ingold, The Life of Lines. 

[16] pg. 360-362 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus.

[17] Ibid., 360-362.

[18] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life.