A/D/O by MINI | Nathalie Miebach Weaves the Weather

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Nathalie Miebach Weaves the Weather

This Boston-based sculptor blends meteorological data and human experience into fantastical woven creations, displaying weather events as tangled webs of color.

Basket weaving and big data may not seem like the most obvious bedfellows, and indeed it was by total chance that sculptor Nathalie Miebach was taking a weaving course back in 2002 at the same time she enrolled in astronomy classes at Harvard. “I've always been a tactile learner and have had to make something in order to understand it,” Miebach explained, “my hands are my main investigator of the world.” Thanks to an accommodating astronomy lecturer, Miebach was soon exploring quantum physics and deep space through tangles of brightly colored string, cane and beading.

Astronomy may have kicked off this unorthodox investigation of science and data, but her focus in the years since has been a little closer to home: the weather. “Every extreme weather event has at least two narratives,” she told The Journal. “The first is scientific, made up of temperature, wind and pressure gradients that generate energies to build these storms and propel them forward. The second narrative is made up of human experiences, both during and long after the storms have left.” For Miebach, our cool, clean, app-based way of representing the weather prioritizes the former but obscures the latter. In the weft and weave of her tangled sculptures, she gives shape to these messier human experiences.

In this sense, Miebach is practicing a kind of “slow data” movement in the same way that we’ve seen slow food or slow retail take off in recent years – injecting a more human scale and tempo into the process. This has even led her to develop a “grow your own” approach to gathering meteorological data, where she sets up rudimentary weather veins and data harvesting systems in her garden, cobbled together from trips to local hardware stores. “The harvesting process is a huge part of the work for me and it can take months, drawing on multiple online and offline sources,” she said. “I'm like a cat sitting at the window observing things: I don't rush out and grab data and immediately build something; I'm a hoarder.”

Beginning to understand climate change is a painfully slow process which has taken decades of monitoring and research, but even slower is changing our human relationship to ecology, not least in the US where Miebach predominantly exhibits and where some galleries have refused to display any reference to the subject.

“I think our reaction to the weather is increasingly absurd, but I want to make it clear that I'm not passing judgement here,” she said. “I'm just recognizing that we don't really know how to react to fast-changing environments. Humans are not the rational beings that we tend to think of ourselves as: we’re deeply emotional and irrational about the stuff that matters most to us. As the weather has become so politicized in recent years, my sculptures have increasingly become about creating spaces where people can talk about that too.”

This focus on creating experiences where people can engage with complex ideas has been heightened by Miebach introducing music into her work, creating original scores based on reams of weather-related data. “My sculpture is very much about storytelling, and music allows me to expand how I tell these stories,” Miebach said. “I love collaborating with musicians and bringing different expertise into the process. Musical scores allow me to add another dimension to the sculptures and to approach the gallery as a performance space.”

Since starting the Weather Score Project back in 2009, this fertile source of collaboration has led to 12 new commissions and 13 concerts. A recent show in 2019 saw New York musical collective ETHEL play an original score based on data and Twitter SOS messages gathered from Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent floods in Houston.

Weaving may be Miebach’s craft medium, but there’s a more metaphorical weaving going on here too: between science and craft; politics and nature; tragedy and hope, data and experience; sight and sound. “I like moving back and forth, so the research phase never really ends and the sculpture stage never really begins,” explained Miebach of her weaver mindset, “I also want musicians and audience to add their own experiences to the pieces so they become one giant collaboration.” These tangled webs of meaning may be a world away from the neatness of digital representation that we’re used to with big data, but their messiness presents an alternative take on the complexity of climate change.

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