Art of Interference
Season 1: Water | Episode 8: Snow
[JG: Jennifer Gutman | ER: Emma Reimers | TH: Tori Hoover| ML: Maren Loveland | LK: Lutz Koepnick | GD: George Duffy | SB: Simon Beck | IR: Ian Round | JR: Jackson Reimers]
JG: Snow transports me to simpler times: listening to two-hour delay announcements over the radio in my pajamas, hoping the big flakes would keep falling and the school day would be canceled all together.
LK: When I grew up in Germany, we still had a good number of snow days. I am told those days are largely numbered by now.
TH: When you’re a kid, waking up to a snow day is such a miracle.
ER: Growing up in Northern California, it essentially never snowed at my house, but my sister and I skied in the Sierras almost every winter weekend.
ML: Snow always felt somewhat miraculous when we did have it.
JG: How would I spend such a day? Probably outside digging tunnels with my brother in the snowbanks that the plows built up at the end of our driveway.
ML: We would have a full day of playing outside, playing with this new medium.
LK: My fondest memory? To come home after hours of sledding down the tiny hill in the park around the corner, and to stick my frozen feet between the ribs of our radiator.
ER: My favorite was when it would storm in the evening while we were tucked inside the cabin with hot chocolate.
TH: That first night, right? Before the plows would come out and before our neighbors would come through with their shovels.
ER: Knowing we would wake up to a pile of powder the next morning.
TH: My mom and I would always take a walk up to the end of the road with our dog.
ER: And getting up really early so we could be the first ones to bomb down the new, immaculate runs.
LK: The smell of the wool socks, well, that wasn’t great, but feeling my toes come back to life felt like a miracle each time.
ML: And of course, ending the day with some hot cocoa.
ER: Sometimes we would visit the same mountain in the summer and it was like so different. It really was the snow that made it that familiar place for us.
ML: I loved that it transformed the landscape and my childhood home into this new kind of glittering place.
TH: And there is really something special about the stillness of snow. The crunch of our boots felt like the only thing around. The feeling of being the first person to walk that route.
From Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this is Art of Interference: a podcast about creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we talk with artists and experts who work at the intersection of nature, technology, and science today.
Today’s episode is cohosted by Jennifer Gutman and Emma Reimers.
JG: Today’s opening question was posed by George Duffy, a Vanderbilt alum who is now a researcher with Syracuse University’s Earth and Environmental Science program. He studies satellite measurements of snow.
GD: So what are some of the first things you think about doing when you imagine yourself in a snow day?
JG: And how does George answer his own question?
GD: Yea, you imagine making art with it. You imagine making a snow person. You imagine making a snow angel or making a snow lantern. You’re basically surrounded by a giant natural sandbox.
ER: Basically, snow is an irresistible medium.
JG: On today’s episode, we’re going to explore some questions related to the magic of snow: Why do we want to make stuff with it? And how does climate change threaten to disrupt the possibility of doing so? We’ll talk to Simon Beck, perhaps the world’s most renowned snow artist, who creates breathtaking drawings in fresh snow.
ER: But before we hear more from Beck, let’s dive a bit deeper into his magical medium: snow.
JG: As a native New Yorker, I’ve always looked forward to the first good snowfall of the season. But I wanted to better understand George’s infectious enthusiasm about snow.
GD: So one of the best things about snow—I say one of the best things about snow. There’s so many best things about snow.
JG: So I asked him to start with the basics.
GD: So snow is water that turns into a crystal. When water crystallizes in the air, it forms a snowflake. The shape that an ice crystal grows or a snowflake grows is going to be really influenced by its environment, its temperature, the local humidity, the local air pressure, the amount of other liquid water that’s nearby. Basically there’s a famous saying that no two snowflakes are alike. That’s because there’s so many tiny little paths that can be taken through a cloud.
ER: So snowflakes evolve in shape and size on their journey to earth. But the transformation doesn’t stop there. According to many snow hydrologists, snow doesn’t really begin until it hits the ground.
GD: There is something called snow metamorphosis. And that is the way that, a whole bunch of snowflakes will rearrange their shapes and water molecules will move atom by atom to reorganize their shapes throughout the snow pack.
JG: As the snow transforms from individual snowflakes to a solid pack, ice sheets form.
GD: The snow grains have started to compact and it turns into glacier ice that’s like halfway between ice and snow. And then over time, snow gets pressed so much that it becomes ice. Almost all the air has left and you get the ice in the bottom of an Arctic ice sheet or an Antarctic ice sheet. But that ice even that was once snow. All the ice we have on the planet was at one time snow.
ER: Wow, I didn’t realize snow played such an essential role in the formation of Arctic ecologies.
JG: Yea, and in addition to ice formation, snow is critical because of its capacity to melt once it has made landfall.
GD: It’s important to try and figure out where snow is melting because snow is the source of freshwater for over a billion people on the planet. That’s the reason that snow is useful, because it turns into water.
JG: So snow is useful. More than useful: it’s an essential resource for many. It provides drinking water; it makes an excellent insulator of the soil, protecting seed crops from winter’s harshness. It helps regulate the surface temperature of earth. And as this episode will cover later, it’s a resource that’s in danger much like the ice sheets that it helps to form.
ER: But from a cultural perspective, snow is more than useful, it is also meaningful. On a certain day, maybe even magical.
JG: For those of us who grew up in Northern climes, snow arrives pre-loaded with memory, like those that we shared earlier.
ER: And even for those of us from more sunny environs, snow brings to mind a repository of powerful images from popular music, movies, poetry, and art.
GD: When you say snow, I immediately imagine the mist coming out of my mouth and I imagine the twinkling lights of the holiday season. I imagine it dark outside. Snow isn’t just snow, it is all the associations I have with snow.
JG: We load snow with cultural meaning, nostalgic memories, and poetic possibility. Such treatment seems almost unavoidable, what with its crystalline sparkle and pure, gleaming white.
GD: There’s really nothing that is as perfectly white as snow. It is just naturally every single color of the rainbow. You don’t get perfection very often in the natural world, but you do with snow, you get a perfect white.
TH: Ok, ok, ok. Tori here with a little bit of a snowy interference for you. Perfect white. That reminds me of one of literature’s most iconic characters, actually. In Moby-Dick, the stark whiteness of the whale spurs fear in Ahab and the Pequod’s crew. Melville reflects on the whale’s sublime whiteness in the form of a lengthy question:
LK [as Melville]: “is it that …whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color,
and at the same time the concrete of all colors?;
is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness,
full of meaning,
in a wide landscape of snows
—a colorless, all-color of atheism
from which we shrink?”
TH: And you know, when I think of my own childhood memories of snow, this very same quality of snow is taken up in a more light-hearted but no less moving way in the final comic strip of Bill Waterson’s beloved Calvin & Hobbes. In it, the two faithful friends, Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, venture out into a landscape covered with freshly fallen snow.
IR [as Calvin]: “Wow it really snowed last night! Isn’t it wonderful?”
JR [as Hobbes]: “Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand new!”
IR: “A new year… A fresh, clean start!”
JR: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!”
IR: “A day full of possibilities!”
IR: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…”
IR: “…Let’s go exploring!”
TH: What Calvin and Hobbes do with their magical snow day seems to matter less than the possibility that such a day holds open, much like how Moby-Dick is more about searching for the white whale than about finding it. Snow itself contains both endings and beginnings. Its melting is inevitable, but the fresh blanket of snow is an invitation to explore and create. With Calvin & Hobbes, snow takes up the final frame, but it is also a fresh start. And you know, maybe snow plays such a strong role in our memories of childhood because snow itself is kind of like childhood. It’s a medium of promise, of possibility and beginning. It’s an unwritten page, a tabula rasa—just like childhood itself.
ER: Snow does make the earth like a fresh piece of paper, waiting to be written on.
JG: It actually reminds me of one of my favorite projects by the writer Shelley Jackson.
ER: Oh, she wrote Patchwork Girl, right?
JG: Right. Jackson’s perhaps best known for that project. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s an experimental hypertext retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein – but she tells it from the perspective of the female monster who gets torn up and discarded by Victor Frankenstein.
ER: Oof, yea, I remember that one. Despite its heavy themes, I do love how interactive that story is. It really transports you back to the aesthetics of the 1990s home computer era that personally I grew up on.
JG: Yea, definitely. It’s a classic. But more recently, Shelley has taken to Instagram to tell a story entirely written in snow.
ER: Uhhh, a snow story, in Instagram? How do you even read that? How is that experimental fiction?
JG: Yea, she’s named the project, simply, SNOW, and it’s an Instagram account where each post is a photograph of a single word that Shelley has written into freshly fallen snow. You’re supposed to read the story in reverse, which on Instagram means starting with the bottommost post from January 2014.
In the account’s bio, Shelley describes it as “A story in progress, weather permitting.” You can appreciate it as a sequential story spanning eight years, or you can just appreciate each post as a standalone image, each word appearing in stark outline to the white snow around it and serving as a fleeting call to our attention.
ER: Ok, so I’m not really on Instagram, so I just pulled it up. And you really have to give Jackson credit for her exquisite snow penmanship, like, look at this! Also the opening sentence of the story – let me scroll for a minute here – is really cool: “To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,’ said the girl who cried snowflakes.”
JG: Yea, she starts with this uncanny image that really captures the surreal tone of the rest of the story. Writing in the snow breaks up the freshness of it. And a story told about snow, in snow, inspires such fantastical images.
ER: Looking at these, the other thing that really stands out to me is where Shelley Jackson has chosen to—I guess “engrave” is the best word?—in the snow these individual words. Up on steps to buildings, there’s a melty, dirty pile of snow outside what looks like a school. She’s even written on a couch that’s on a curb that’s been snowed on. There’s something really dissonant here between the permanence and the disappearing nature of snow. It almost seems like Snapchat would have been better for I guess how quickly these words probably melt away.
JG: Yea, I hadn’t thought of that. But I do think the point of it is that tension between the permanence of the photo and the ephemerality of the art itself, right?
In that way, Shelley’s SNOW project offers a perfect segue into thinking about today’s featured artist, Simon Beck, whose work also deals with this tension between permanence and ephemerality and he also uses the same mediums of snow and photography.
JG: When I spoke with Simon Beck over Zoom this past November—
SB: I’m in my apartment. it’s in a ski resort in the Alps
JG: —he was holed up at the Arc 2000, a destination ski resort in the French Alps. In the off-season, Beck is an artist-in-waiting, counting the days until the arrival of his prized medium: snow.
SB: I’m Simon Beck. I make drawings of the snow every winter. I try and get 35 done every year. My lifetime total is 380 at the moment, so I’m looking forward to the next winter, which will be starting quite soon, we hope.
JG: Beck started making his snow art in 2004 and since then, he has gained a reputation as one of the world’s best and most prolific snow artists. His drawings look like giant mandalas imprinted into fresh snow. But instead of a pen or pencil, he uses his snow-shoed feet to make the points, draw the lines, and fill in the shading of complex geometrical shapes. The process is a long and arduous one.
SB: So you, you do the main lines by accurate measuring. The secondary lines is by judgment. You’ve then got the stage, which is do fractals around the edge. Which takes quite a long time, usually. And then you’ve got the stage of shading of the areas that need to be shaded, just walking sort of backwards and forwards on a parallel line until the whole of the area is being shaded.
JG: A single piece can take up to 12 hours to create even while the drawing itself lasts only until the next snowfall, strong wind, or pesky pack of skiers makes it disappear. The works themselves last only in the form of photographs—a massive effort undertaken for preservation in a single instant.
SB: The drawings work because of the shadow cast in the footprint and the lower the sun, the better the shadow. And sometimes you get nicer colors at sunset as well. So yeah, the ideal location has the sunshine, sunset, and it’s perfectly flat and you’ve got a good place to take photographs from the ground. Usually nine o’clock you’re posted by the weather forecast at the ski resort. So what you’re looking for is the following day to be a good day. So, okay, tomorrow’s gonna be a really nice sunny day to get the photographs. Today we’ll get the drawing done. So by the time we’ve gone home, had the appropriate food, you know, big bowl of porridge, with something mixed in it to slow down the digestive process so the energy gets released gradually. So you get up there, usually start work about 11 o’clock and you’re able to have all the lines drawn, all the accurate, careful bit done by about closing time. So typically by four in the afternoon, you can put personal stereo on, maybe a bit sooner.
JG: “Personal stereo,” by the way, is Beck’s winning phrase for the hours of his task conducted while listening to music…
SB: You know, the whole thing would’ve never have got started if we didn’t have these personal stereos. It’s just, it’s just dead boring plodding around. So yeah, you’ve got the careful measuring and judgment stages at the beginning. After that, there’s a lot less thinking involved. That’s what I call personal stereo time. When you, you’ve done the first two stages and you put in your personal stereo. And the amount of boredom from then on is really a question of how bored you are by the music.
JG: And what, you might wonder, does Simon Beck listen to for 12 hours of plodding through the snow?
SB: Oh, it’s classical music. It’s proper music. Yeah. I mean, I don’t like this pop young people are listening to nowadays.
JG: Once the personal stereo phase starts, that’s where the real work begins.
ER: It’s hard to imagine completing such a task once, let alone dozens of times over the course of a season.
JG: But Beck seems to like the physical effort of it. He says it’s a great form of exercise. But then there’s also the mental endurance required for such a feat.
SB: It’s a matter of keeping your mind on it and not losing concentration and making some sort of mistake. It is not the sort of cleverness of doing something clever. It’s the sort of cleverness of not making a mistake.
ER: Wow. I am really intrigued by the image of Simon Beck walking in his snowshoes up and down a snowfield in the Alps to etch certain shapes into the snow. It makes me wonder about the relation of art and walking, the transitory and the trace.
LK: Right. In her marvelous book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit writes:
ML [as Solnit]: “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”
LK: And she adds:
ML [as Solnit]: “Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.”
LK: For Solnit, walking is as much a physical as it is spiritual, philosophical, or ethical activity. It is a mode of thinking, and yes, of writing with other means. It is as much about trying to connect different spaces as it wants us to teach the art of getting lost.
ER: Which of course gets ever more difficult these days, armed with GPS and mobile maps on our cell phones.
LK: Yeah. But walking for some time has and still is at the heart of various artistic practices, and Simon Beck’s snow drawings, him walking in the Alps’ snow to print ephemeral figures, of course moves within that tradition. Think of Robert Long’s A Line Made by Walking of 1967. He created a transient line in a natural setting by repeatedly walking back and forth, then took a photo of his trace and exhibited it in galleries and museums. Think of Hamish Fulton who has made numerous works starting in the early 1970s based on the experience of previous walks, often really very extended walks. Neither Long’s nor Fulton’s work were ever as geometric or really as planned as Simon Beck’s. But they certainly prepared the ground for us to recognize the productive role of walking in art, recognize walking as a form of art in and of itself, of inscribing ephemeral figures in space with one’s feet. And let’s not forget about Nietzsche here:
ML [as Nietzsche]: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
LK: And of course, Bruce Chatwin, writing this about his travels on foot in Patagonia:
ML [as Chatwin]: “My god is the god of walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other good.”
ER: Well, the god of walkers better also be the god of foot massages. But for real, this is reminding me of the power of embodied geography and embodied geometry. Vanderbilt alum and current NYU professor Dr. Jasmine Ma has written about walking-scale geometry, which is a mathematical practice where groups of students are equipped with long stretches of rope and sent out onto big lawns at universities to make and then transform, scale, and reflect geometric figures. This is one example of what Ma calls “designing disruptions for productive hybridity”; in other words, it gets students out of the box of a classroom and blends their in-school learning with their out-of-school learning. Ultimately, the way they walk and move about in the world becomes relevant to their geometry test. Motion, tension, agency, communication, and participation are all at play here, much like they are in other arenas where walking is approached as a method.
LK: I think Solnit would like Ma’s approach: using the body – multiple bodies—to measure the earth quite literally. Even when geometry is centered, there is something artistic, something grounding, about walking as a method.
JG: Beck obviously works in a different medium for his walking art. But what drew him to snow in the first place? Why snow?
SB: Why snow? Because snow’s what we’ve got here. I drew a lot of the shapes when I was a child. Of course we had no snow living in Southern England. So when I came to the ski resort here in 2004, one day it just happened. I just thought I want to get a bit of exercise, not too heavy. And I thought, let’s draw a pattern in the lake outside the building here.
ER: But Beck’s work has to be understood as more than happenstance and exercise routines, right?
JG: Yea, definitely, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
SB: When I started doing these things, the idea was really just to show people that snow is beautiful and winter is beautiful and mountains are beautiful and it’s something worth preserving.
JG: Some of Beck’s pieces incorporate direct messages about climate change, like one calling on world leaders to follow the Kyoto Protocol. But Beck wonders about the impact of these pointed political messages.
SB: writing slogans on the mountains, you know, do this, do that. You’re only really reminding people what they know they should be doing anyway. It’s better than sort of gluing yourself to the road and blocking traffic like we’re doing in Britain at the moment.
ER: Wait, what’s this about gluing yourself?
JG: Yea, I think Beck’s referring to a tactic recently taken up by climate activists in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, especially Germany. In order to raise awareness about the urgency of climate action, members of activist groups like Just Stop Oil are supergluing their hands and bodies to famous artworks, airport tarmacs, and even concert hall furnishings.
SB: They are just giving the environmentalists a bad name, but I mean a lot of the time stuff tends to be preaching to the converted.
ER: Even if Beck doesn’t agree with the protest method, it is notable that these climate activists are targeting famous paintings—van Gogh, Warhol, Munch, Goya, Vermeer. It’s as if they’re using these paintings to say, “you don’t want to pay attention to the planet? Then we’ll threaten something you do care about—how do you like your art?”
JG: Yea, there’s a long history of this form of civil disobedience. And it’s interesting to think about where Beck’s work fits into it. Though his approach to the environmental cause is less about obvious forms of protest, his snow art is no less committed to bringing attention to an environment that’s gradually changing, even in the remote, idyllic Alps.
SB: When I was considering where to buy an apartment in France, one of the issues was climate change and warming up. And so I made sure I bought somewhere where it was quite high in elevation. So Arc 2000, which is a part of Les Arcs, is actually the second highest resort in the French Alps.
We’ve nearly been immune to climate change thus far, but last winter we took our first big hit from climate change. When we were waiting, waiting, waiting for bad weather to come in, meaning more snow, and it was warm and it was rain, it was useless for making drawings. And so that must have taken two or three weeks out of the usable part of last winter. And so it is really starting to affect us up here.
The proportion of the time that conditions are good has gone down cause it’s warmer. When I first came here, you thought you could rely probably ice on the lakes to be safe to walk on by the time the skiing started in mid-December. Now I feel you can’t. You’ve gotta carefully check it.
ER: If climate change is starting to affect snowfall in high-elevation locations like the Alps, imagine what that means for other parts of the world.
JG: It reminded me of a comment George made about his adopted city of Syracuse, New York, a place known for its legendary snowfall.
GD: Syracuse is the snowiest city in the United States, but if you look at the 30-year average, Syracuse has 60 days of snowfall per year. But if you look at the 10-day average, Syracuse has 30 days of snowfall per year. So that means that in my lifetime, the number of snow days in Syracuse has been cut in half.
JG: I ask George to unpack these figures for me…
GD: The impact of global warming on snow is one of the easiest and most direct consequences we can see because the only difference between a snowstorm and a rainstorm is temperature. Over half of all rainstorms on the planet already begin as snowstorms. That means that it starts off as frozen precipitation that melts into rain. As the temperature increases, you’re gonna have more days that are 33 degrees instead of 32 degrees. And that means that all of those days that it was snowing when it was 32 degrees are now gonna be raining. It’s one of the only things where there’s a very fine cut between a very subtle difference in temperature. And so it’s like a single event that you can start counting. The less snow days you have is like a really good way of visualizing climate change.
JG: George is right. Snowfall is one of the EPA’s main climate change indicators. The government agency reports a nearly 80 percent decrease since 1949 in the proportion of precipitation falling as snow in the contiguous US.
ER: For Beck, that’s bad for business, it’s bad for art.
SB: The amount of drawings that get done in the winter is gradually going down.
JG: And of course, it points to a time when there will be nothing left to draw in, which is just bad. Period.
JG: I asked George if he could imagine a world without snow.
GD: I got into a bad job field because the thing I study might just go away.
JG: But even if weather patterns change, George says it would take the most extreme climate scenario to rid the planet of snow completely.
GD: I think there’s always going to be snow on the planet in some places. I think you’re always gonna have snow on mountains. No matter what, it’s always gonna get colder when you go farther up closer to the atmosphere.
ER: Even if the snow doesn’t disappear completely, climatologists do predict that it will become scarcer by the end of the century. Current models predict that rain will become the dominant form of precipitation in the Arctic by the year 2070.
JG: This change in precipitation patterns will have ripple effects in regions that have historically relied on snow, affecting the ability of human and more-than-human populations to adapt and survive. One thinks of the projected “rain on snow” condition that will create thick crusts of ice that block caribou from accessing their underwater food sources.
ER: But beyond critical issues of species survival and ecological balance and harmony, snow’s loss will have rippling effects in communities that have built cultural practices and whole knowledge traditions around such weather conditions.
JG: The importance of snow to Arctic cultures is often framed through the profusion of language that exists to describe snow. Think of Kate Bush’s album “Fifty Words for Snow,” whose title track features a spoken word taxonomy of fantastical words for snow.
ER: The idea that there are fifty words for snow does not originate with the British pop legend, of course. It’s a feature long-attributed to Eskimo-Aleut languages that have dozens of words to express the variety of snow and snow-related conditions.
JG: In a documentary made by Inuk filmmaker Rebecca Thomassie, a local elder named Tommy Kudlak from the village of Kangirsuk in the far north of Quebec explains some Inuit words for snow: The snow used to build igloos is called “Pukaangajuq”; snow used for making drinking water is called “Aniuk”; snow that forms hard, raised bumps is called “Naanguaq”; and snow that hangs off the edge of a mountain is called “Aluktiniq.”
ER: I love all these different words. And as romantic as this idea is that there are dozens of variations of words for snow in Eskimo-Aleut languages, linguists have debunked this. It’s now called the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” debate. It takes up the work of nineteenth-century anthropologist Franz Boas, who created one of the first lexicons of Inuit terminology for sea ice and snow.
JG: Critics accuse Boas of being imprecise with the mechanics of agglutinative language structures, and as a result, of exaggerating the variety inherent in Eskimo-Aleut words for snow and sea ice.
ER: But more recently, other linguists have worked to affirm the complexity of Indigenous ecological knowledge as expressed through language.
JG: Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington, published a 2010 paper that confirms the proliferation of snow and sea ice terms in Inuit and Yupik dialects. He writes:
TH [as Krupnik]: “Some languages with more (or longer) exposure to snow and/or sea ice than English naturally develop detailed and meaningful terminologies for those phenomena that are of practical value to its speakers, even if some linguists claim otherwise.”
ER: This proliferation of language to describe snow and snow-related conditions attests to the forms of knowledge that emerge in tandem with experience of living in such climates, which is true of cultures native to northern territories around the globe, like the Sami in Northern Scandinavia and the Scots in the Scottish Highlands.
JG: Sadly, in an age of climate crisis, we may need as many words to describe the feelings of loss and grief connected to snow’s absence and the corresponding effects on cultural traditions and ways of life.
ER: Yea, it reminds me of the work of Finnish environmental researcher Panu Pihkala, who recently published “a brief vocabulary for climate grief related to winters.” In Nordic cultures, snow is an essential feature of life, and its absence produces corresponding forms of climate anxiety and grief.
JG: His taxonomy includes “snow anxiety,” which is an anxiety that develops around the uncertainty of whether winter will bring snow. “Winter grief,” or talvisuru in Finnish, is “grief for the loss of traditional winter conditions.”
ER: Talvihaikeus captures a joyful sadness related to the loss of wintery conditions while nevertheless appreciating what remains of these conditions. Whew. That’s a lot for one word to carry.
JG: Perhaps this is what makes Simon Beck’s snow art so compelling: the way it seems to stamp into the landscape affirmation of snow’s power to leave an impression despite its ephemeral nature.
ER: Yea, maybe the only worthy contender to the way snow inspires plurality at the level of the imagination and language is its capacity to create silence.
JG: Snow as the great noise reducer. George did offer some insight on this…
GD: There’s a lot of things that when we think about snow, we can answer by knowing that it’s an insulator. A snow pack is a mixture of ice and air, so that mixture of ice and air, in addition to being such a good insulator, you can imagine that it’s also really good at absorbing and suppressing sound. It’s just like the foam that you use to line a recording studio, which also is a mixture of solid and air.
ER: So snow makes the world both a blank canvas and a recording studio? No wonder artists are so inspired by it, right?
JG: Yea, and even scientists are inspired by it. Just listen to George describe snow’s impressive visual effects.
GD: I don’t think it’s an accident that we have Christmas lights because the way that lights sparkle off of snow, each snowflake is a tiny mirror, and they’re mirrors that interact with other mirrors. And so you have these lights that can glisten in every single direction, and you’re not going to be able to have that effect with grass or mud.
JG: Snow more often makes us look up into the sky, maybe to catch some falling snowflakes on your tongue. But when we think about how snow transforms whole landscapes, it calls for wide-angled aerial views, looking down at the earth.
ER: And this is where Beck comes in, plodding around for hours to his favorite classical playlist as we speak, I’m sure. But his snowscapes won’t last for long, so his photographs do.
SB: Photography is the permanent record. I mean, ephemeral art is like that, the permanent thing is the photograph, not the artwork itself. But then most people will only ever see most of the world’s artworks in photographs.
JG: Isn’t it wild to think of Beck’s snow records surviving into some deep, snowless future, where they may act as evidence of the lost art of snow? And I don’t just mean the art that some people make with snow, but the way snow itself provides the conditions for making art, the blanketing, blank canvas that inspires all sorts of creative responses.
GD: Snow can be a work of art that doesn’t even involve human hands. It can do lovely things with starlight because snow makes it so that the color of the earth matches the color of the moons and the stars. So they can actually get a black and white photographic image of a landscape.
JG: Snow’s reflective properties are impressive: it has an albedo of about 0.9, meaning that it reflects 90% of the light it receives. The effects of a warmer climate threaten the protective measure this reflection provides.
ER: An illuminating fact, no? I’m so sorry, but maybe this is what snow art helps us to see: that righting environmental imbalance is not only a matter of survival for many, but one that touches a deep human need to make sense of the world through creativity and art.
JG: And this is why it’s so important to highlight work like Beck’s, our generation’s great snow artist. He reminds us to see our landscapes as extraordinary precisely because they may vanish. And being reminded of this, we may act upon these landscapes differently.
SB: Well, that’s really the whole basis of the purpose of making these drawings is to draw attention to the problems of global warming, which is gonna affect a great many people. Action is needed now. People have gotta use less rather than more of everything.
ER: Considering his sparse toolkit, Beck’s “less is more” ethos may not come as a total surprise.
JG: We started this episode thinking about snow and childhood. And a child on a snow day is perhaps our best model for doing the most with the least. Children build worlds that we want to live in—or can live in—out of close to nothing.
ER: This makes me think back to that Calvin and Hobbes, right? The power of imagination. The power of exploration. Snow really does seem like the right medium for helping us see things anew, fresh, especially in terms of noticing our ecological interconnectedness and the threats that climate crises pose to it.
JG: Yea, it’s hard to deny the power of being surrounded by snow. If nothing else, it brings to the business of the daily grind a rare opportunity to sit still, absorb silence, and contemplate the ways we might commit ourselves to using less.
TH: Thank you for listening to Art of Interference. Be sure to subscribe to the show on the podcast app of your choice and if you like what you’ve heard, rate and review us. It really does help to get the word out. For extras, outtakes, and links to more information about the artists and experts featured on today’s episode, you can visit artofinterference.com or follow us on TikTok and Instagram @artofinterference.
Art of Interference is produced by Jennifer Gutman, Tori Hoover, Lutz Koepnick, Maren Loveland, and Emma Reimers. The podcast is made possible with the generous support of the Climate Studies Fund from the Vanderbilt University College of Art and Sciences. Today’s episode was written by Jennifer Gutman. The show was mixed by Emma Reimers. Additional mixing by Tori Hoover, as well as sound design and editing.
We’ll see you in two weeks, when we’ll be back to talk about the art of rain.