Pilgrimage to the Cloud
Kelley O'Leary
Pilgrimage to the Cloud
Kelley O'Leary

When O’Leary was researching the centers, she was not only interested in the buildings themselves, but also in the history, ecology, and geology of the areas.

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Listen ~ 60 hz

At the Apple data center in Prineville, Oregon, the artist foraged native plants including juniper and sage, and recorded audio of high-tension wires buzzing (60hz) overhead. From the centers located in the Southwest, she collected rabbitbrush plants and dusty clay, contemplating the density of indigenous plants and geological information infused into the centers’ surroundings. For the artist, both the land of the American West and the data centers function as sites of embodied data, full of complex and simultaneous knowledge.

Reflecting on the centers’ location in the American West, O’Leary said, “they're alongside bombing ranges and a vast military history, and native history, and the history of colonization of this country. There's so much happening all at once in these specific places.” While on-site, O’Leary processed the space comprehensively, examining the mechanical and natural elements as one ecosystem.

Clouds of the American West is an interdisciplinary project by Davis-based artist Kelley O’Leary that explores the physicality of the internet. In the summer of 2021, O’Leary drove across the western United States to visit eleven data centers containing servers of digital information for corporations and governmental agencies, including Apple, Facebook, and the National Security Agency. The artist’s objective was to visit these mysterious and critical pieces of the internet’s physical infrastructure, and investigate their relationships to the surrounding natural environments. O’Leary documented her observations, took photographs, and collected samples at each location, processing the experience and materials in real time and later at her studio. The resulting work includes an installation, photo book, and eventual online atlas.

The title page for O'Leary's book about the project. Text reads "CLOUDS OF THE AMERICAN WEST" overlapping a square image of clouds on a white background.
A photograph of works in Kelley's studio.
Kelley collecting yellow flowers onsite in the wild.

Clouds of the American West

O’Leary has described this pursuit as “a pilgrimage to find The Cloud, this elusive Cloud that we have contact with every day of our lives.” This pilgrimage is a natural progression for the artist, whose creative practice has consistently probed the interconnectedness of the digital and physical realms. Her earlier work focused on making pieces of the internet tangible and blended ubiquitous elements – including Google Street View, Images and digital devices – with physical experiences to examine technology  in relation to memory and place. Through O’Leary’s work it is clear that the digital and physical are not separate entities to the artist, but interconnected systems bleeding into and shaping each other.

The on-site opacity that O’Leary experienced served as the impetus for a video piece included in the Clouds installation that retraced her travels using images from Google Street View. The images selected by the artist mimic the perspective of driving in a car and change in rapid succession to move the viewer through the digital landscape. O’Leary continues her practice of using Google-sourced images to conflate memory with digital and physical senses of place, but this time she also turns the technology onto itself to surveil the surveiller.

In Clouds of the American West, O’Leary dives deeper into this linkage, identifying data centers as compelling manifestations and entry points into the digital/physical overlap. To the artist, these centers ground the vastness and ethereality of the internet within physical places that are intertwined with the landscapes, histories, and ecologies they inhabit. O’Leary was able to research locations and information about these centers online, but found the experience of being there in person to be quite different. “It felt like I was doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” O’Leary said, recalling instances of being asked to leave and to not take photographs.

O’Leary continued to process the experience of the data centers when she returned to her studio in Davis, California.  Inspired by Robert Smithson’s theory of site and non-site – “site” as a place that can be experienced and “nonsite” a sample of the place in a different context – the artist transformed the materials she collected into location excerpts for the Clouds installation. To do this, O’Leary used earlier forms of human technology to dye fabric with the foraged plants and alchemize the earth she gathered into small, ceramic sculptures. The resulting objects function as documentation of O’Leary’s on and off-site process and connect past and present forms of technology.

At the core of Clouds of the American West, O’Leary is exploring how human technologies shape our world and our experience of it. The artist locates the origins of this connection within the natural world, evident in the very minerals that power the internet, and reflected in the metaphoric language used to brand the technology (i.e., “the cloud”). As we engage with the opportunities opened up by the internet, O’Leary is interested in staying integrated within the larger context that we are operating within and pursue the question: as nature informs what we create, how does what we create impact nature and our place in it? our relationship to nature?

At the core of Clouds of the American West, O’Leary is exploring how human technologies shape our world and our experience of it.

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