In her text, artist Burcu Yağcıoğlu warps time: the temporality of snow as she has experienced and heard about it over the course of her life intersects with the temporality of the bacteria, P.seudomonas syringae. Her phenomenological contemplation on snow is transformed into a cohabitation with the bacteria; Burcu thus seeks ways of practicing her research, tracing the boundaries of where research becomes action. Her work could be seen as a response to the urgent question: Could artistic practice describe a means through which our agencies can be reclaimed in times of catastrophe?
This text is part of a series that addresses artistic strategies to measure, report, fabulate, and tell stories about the weather, air flows, circulation, and other high to low pressure aspects of our practices and cities. Commissioned for the World Weather Network, a constellation of weather stations located across the world, and with the invitation of SAHA – Supporting Contemporary Art from Turkey, the series asks: how do artists respond to ideas of change, crisis, and future, focusing on various elements of the weather as an embodiment at the intersection of bodies, peoples, and landscapes? –Merve Ünsal
Is There Any Snow?
Children of the Lukewarm, Mourning for the Cold
Is there snow? Will there be snow on that date? I know you can’t say for sure, but do you think there will be snow? It was snowy at this time last year, will it snow this year too? We promised the children snow, will there be snow for sure?
If there is definitely snow, will the snow make it difficult to drive? We don’t have a four-wheel drive, could we still get there? The snow won’t block the roads, right? What happens if the roads close? Do we need snow tires? Do we need tire chains? Would we be cold?
Three years ago, we established a small nature tourism business consisting of a few houses on our family farm in Bolu. These are the questions I often answer when the winter months arrive. Our guests are generally people who desire snow but who are also afraid of it. We are all children of the lukewarm, after all.
But this year, I’m like a Zebercet.* I’m waiting for the snow that never arrives. These questions have also diminished. Everyone knows that there is no snow. Every now and then, a few people ask with hope, to see if there is any; they then walk away in disappointment. The more I wait for the snow, the more I get bleak. Snow turns into a distant fantasy. I mourn the cold and the white in this dry, brown winter.
Bolu is the region where my grandfather’s family migrated from Bulgaria. When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me his childhood memories about the heavy snow. After the Bolu earthquake on February 1, 1944, they lived for weeks in a snow hut they had built overnight, as they could not enter their earthquake-damaged house. Only the floor of this all-snow hut was covered with wood. They had also installed a stove inside.
There is another memory of my grandfather that particularly resonates with me. A man who was stuck in a blizzard on his way home, killed his companion dog when he was about to freeze, cut the dog open, and put on his skin. Thus, he was able to warm himself up and continue on his way. The first time my grandfather told me about this story, I was very shaken. I was in Bolu when I listened to it and we were walking in the snow with my grandfather. Our dogs were with us too and I knew under no circumstances would I wear any of them .
Later, I learned that in Yılmaz Güney’s film The Road, Tarık Akan’s Seyit Ali wore his horse to avoid freezing. It was a situation between putting on and getting into an animal. Decades later, Leonardo di Caprio was doing the same thing to his horse in Revenant. After these men had warmed up, they were reborn from within the companions they had slain with shameless betrayal. Victorious in this pathetic birth, they continued on their way through the snow.
There is someone who does not let his animal companion die in his story: Jack London. At the center of the short story “To Build a Fire” is a man who, due to his own arrogance, makes repeated mistakes and comes to the edge of freezing. As a last resort, the man considers cutting and wearing his companion dog, but cannot kill the dog because his fingers are frozen. He freezes to death and the dog survives. The existence of a narrative in which the human dies and the animal goes on living, offers me respite.
Freezing to death is acceptable; it is a merciful, even sweet death. London’s protagonist knows this too and doesn’t make a fuss. When he realizes that he can’t wear the dog, he accepts his fate.
I know the snow freezes with a comforting feeling of warmth. Sometimes after a long walk in the snow, you start to warm up when you lie on your back. The snow wraps you up more carefully than the most comfortable bed and brings you to sleep immediately. It is very difficult to be afraid when you are buried in that comfort.
On the other hand, the snow I experienced in my life was not as severe as the snow of the 1940s. The people around me have never been in danger of frostbite. Or even if we needed to, we couldn’t have built an igloo shanty with a stove inside. The snow I know is not the snow that could stay stable for weeks while heated from inside.
But I know what it’s like to walk at -20 degrees in snow beyond my height. In order to take a step while walking, you have to press the snow with your hands. The snow embraces you. Then your vertical walking angle gradually becomes horizontal without your noticing, and you find yourself somewhere between swimming and weltering. In order to be able to move, it is necessary to ensure verticality again.
You walk the same place over and over to make a step-wide path in the snow. With each step, the snow is crushed a little more and the snow walls rise on both sides. You find yourself in a snow corridor. In these snow corridors, my dogs line up behind me, as if stringing together in an order that accords with the internal hierarchy of their group. For every step I take, they take a step too.
When I enter the house, they sleep in the snow. They don’t go back to their huts to be near me. The place they lie down on melts and becomes compressed and icy. Their fur freezes. So much so that if you try to pet them, the frozen hair will cut your hands. If it’s snowing, they squint, but otherwise they don’t seem to be affected by the cold. As long as they are well fed, they sleep peacefully under their frozen hair, curled up on the snow like furnaces burning on the inside.
Some days, when the sky is covered with snow clouds and the ground is covered with snow, it becomes dark among all the whiteness. The darkness of snow is different from the darkness of night. There is very little to see. But not from the lack of light, rather the peculiar gray nothingness that snow creates. A few scratches on a white sheet of paper, a few misshapen spots here and there, that’s all. And there isn’t a peep. Snow absorbs all sound.
On days when the snow falls non-stop, the sky seen from the windows inside the house becomes more and more snow-covered. The earth rises towards the sky. The horizon line loses its dominance and remains under the snow.
On days like these, nothing can be done but to retreat, stop, and shut down. Inertia is everywhere. Even if it is hot where I am, I feel that I am slowing down. I move in slow motion and think in slow motion. Snow stops everything. If you’re outside, your phone’s battery charge goes from full to zero in a minute. Machines, bears, electronics, coup d’etat generals—everything stops.
Coup d’Etat in the Heart of the Blizzard
The movie Deli Deli Küpeli, in which Kemal Sunal played the leading role, occupied a large place in family folklore of my childhood. This is a movie adapted from Cevat Fehmi Başkurt’s play titled Buzlar Çözülmeden [Before the Ice Thaws], written in 1965. The film tells the story of two men who escaped from a mental hospital, arriving at a town cut off from the outside world by snow. The madmen are thought to be the district governor and judge who were newly appointed to the town but who could not come because of the snow. In the movie, we watch how these madmen who accept their roles eliminate the corruption and injustice that had taken root in the town.
A dense snowy area was required for the shooting of the film. The first film adaptation of Before the Ice Thaws was shot in Erzurum in 1965. Deli Deli Küpeli, on the other hand, was shot in 1986 in our region in Bolu. In our house there were ongoing speculations about which street or field the scenes in the movie were shot, though it wasn’t possible to recognize the places as everything was buried under the snow.
However, when I watched the film again recently, I realized that the movie begins with Kenan Evren addressing the public on television. The people who watch the news on TV at the town cafe complain: “If only the snow would melt so that the coup could arrive in our town.” According to the film’s narrative, the town, where corruption is rampant, cannot receive the coup as they are snowed in and thus the deteriorating course couldn’t have been corrected. But the fake district governor, played by Sunal, comes and carries out his own local coup; all bureaucratic processes are suspended, petitions are burnt, and at one point a gallows is erected in the town square. The film is actually a coup propaganda with the intention of showing the public what life would have been like if the coup had not happened. 1986 is the year when military tutelage was replaced by civilian administration. Before the military government withdraws, it conducts a public relations presentation on the so-called justice it brought and the corruption of the civilian government. The 1965 version of the film served the same purpose for the 1960 coup.
When I said that Deli Deli Küpeli was originally a piece of coup propaganda, this information was not widely accepted in the family. The only thing left in their minds about the movie is Bolu, Kemal Sunal, and the snow. In my opinion, as people who were exiled because of the coup and who overcame that situation with difficulty, they cannot admit to themselves of having embraced a pro-coup production. They also cannot consolidate such an idea with their perception of Sunal.
In my opinion, the most substantial element that defines the atmosphere of the film is the isolation and loneliness created by the snow, which does not allow the army and tanks of the coup to come through, but only a few madmen. Only madmen set out in that snow. Snow really means solitude and stopping of everything. Just like the solitude of both the physical and mental space, which Ursula Le Guin describes as the “heart of the blizzard.” There has never been a war on the ice-bound planet of Gethen in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The people of the snowy winter planet in which the novel takes place do not fight each other, as they spend their warrior spirits fighting the cold. In the heart of the blizzard, there can be no coup, no war.
I’m trying to imagine what it would be like in a world where snow has become a rare weather phenomenon on the verge of extinction, a planet without a heart of the blizzard. When I look at it from this perspective, the disappearance of snow appears before me as a loss that leads to war. Just after that first extremely hot summer of 2007 caused sudden glacier meltdowns, it was observed that militarization, which had been on the decline until then, started to rise rapidly around the world. The fact that the region where this rise is clustered is the North Pole makes me think about how accurate Le Guin’s speculation is. For the last 16 years, NATO countries and Russia have been amassing their troops in the North Pole. They set new routes that freighters can easily navigate when the glaciers melt. The fight over who will be the first to access the North Pole gas, oil, mineral deposits, and ocean life, which humans have not been able to access due to snow and ice, and who will get the biggest share of the cake, dates back to that hot summer of 2007. As the snow and ice protecting the region from humans are melted, the military demonstrations of the New Cold War increase. The new Cold War refers both to that first cold war, where armies did not carried out attacks, but were in a constant state of about to attack, and to a war with the cold itself. It is said that in a possible war that will take place in the poles, two enemies will be fought simultaneously and that the cold is the more dangerous enemy. It seems that the army that wins the war with the cold will keep control of the region.
On the other hand, as the ice melts, the barriers separating the armies disappear. Each melting ice brings armies together. The solitude and peace at the heart of the blizzard melt with the warming climate.
Even if it wasn’t on September 12, the snow in Bolu used to start on November 7 and it would remain until April. Snow now arrives at the end of December. But this year it’s delayed even more.
On the other hand, the heaviest snow of the last 75 years came last year. Snow fell non-stop for weeks. Doors couldn’t be opened in the morning. By pushing and shoveling, we could get in and out through a little gap. This opening would disappear every day and we would open it again every morning.
Many small residential areas were cut off from the outside world. The highway administration intervened and they sent help for us and for those stranded like us. A snowplow came to our area, but it got stuck in the snow. Tractors with chain wheels pulled the snowplow out, but this time they got stuck in the snow themselves. Then, other vehicles came: bulldozers, asphalt leveling vehicles, off-road vehicles of all sizes… Under the night blizzard, all these burning machines were trying to save each other from the snow. We declared war on the white mountains that would melt away in a few weeks. The machines that were furiously shoveling snow, crushing snow, skidding, pulling each other, struggled for their lives under a relentless blizzard.
We could have stopped without doing any of this. We could have stayed in for a while, for example. We could have accepted the stopping power of the snow. However, I think the state of stopping is not something we experience with comfort. There is no snow these days. There are no snow machines nor machines to clear up the highways. But this year, other machines are working hard to produce artificial snow.
From where we are, we can see Kartalkaya, the peak of the Köroğlu Mountains, where the first snow of winter falls. This is the destination where snow tourism is concentrated. In 2014, the region’s hotels started to make artificial snow for the first time to raise their profits again, which plummeted with the decreasing snowfall. These machines transform low-temperature water into snow and spray it onto the ski slopes. Winter tourism companies in various parts of the world cover their ski slopes, which are denuded by the warm climate, with the snow brought by these machines. Huge reservoirs of water are built to feed these machines, and miles of water channels are laid underground.
These machines generally spray the snow they produce into environments at above 0 degree temperatures, which are not at all suitable for snow. This snow could quickly melt away, but it doesn’t. Anthropogenic snow is much more durable than natural snow. Thus, the ski slopes can remain open until May.
One of the reasons why anthropogenic snow is more durable is a protein called INA (ice nucleation active). This protein is sold as a commercial product called Snomax, produced in 1988 by a biotech company called Advanced Genetic Sciences. These proteins, which are added to the water that are fed into the snow machines, allow the water to crystallize and become “snow” even at high temperatures.
The ice-forming INA protein is obtained from a bacterium called Pseudomonas syringae. These bacteria can turn water into ice at above 0 degrees. It can organize the water molecules at even +4 degrees to form ice crystals, and while doing this, it pushes the heat out of the water.
The prediction is that artificial snow machines will be scrapped completely in the near future, even if they are supported by the ingenuity of P. syringae. The snow they produce is only durable to a few degrees above 0, after all. They still need the cold. As the atmosphere warms, it is predicted that the snow they spray will melt before it hits the ground.
P. syringae was known for a long time as a plant pathogen because it harmed plants and thus harvests. It is one of the most common agricultural pests. These bacteria form colonies on plants and freeze the water on their surfaces. The tissues of the plants are thus damaged by the cold. Since it is a type of bacteria that can harm almost all agricultural crops, people have been struggling with P. syringae since 1961, which was the first time they discovered its presence.
In an experiment, they first completely clear a field of these bacteria. Soil, plants, water—everything is cleared of P. syringae. But this clean field soon begins to host colonies of P. syringae. The bacteria freeze plants and resume their life cycles. In fact, it’s a bacterium that is millions of years old and exists in the air we breathe. It can survive anywhere in the biosphere. It can live on earth and in the sky. One of the first ancestors. Looking at it this way, the attempt to clear them off seems a bit naive.
In 1977, genetic engineering and for-profit companies came into play. The genes that produce the INA protein, which helps the bacteria to crystallize water, were extracted by genetically altering it. This depleted P. syringae was called “Minus Ice bacteria” and was intended to be marketed as a product that can protect the harvest against frost damage. They also named the product Frostban. The aim was to destroy the dominance of P. syringae on plant surfaces in nature by spraying the Minus Ice bacteria on the fields. In other words, the goal wasto bring the two bacteria into competition and have this competition prevent ice damage to the harvests by reducing the population of P. syringae, perhaps even destroying it completely.
The company that stole the INA genes from P. syringae and produces the Minus Ice mutant is the same company that today sells the INA protein to snow tourism for artificial snow: Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS). Snomax and Frostban are two products developed to exploit the same bacteria to achieve opposite goals.
But the plans to make the two siblings, the “New Synthetic” and the “Ancient Natural,” hurt each other do not work. The company’s attempt to release this new bacteria into the environment was met with fierce resistance. The long-term effects of releasing a genetically engineered microorganism into the environment are incalculably complex and unpredictable, so was met with the protests of the environmental activists.
Protesters managed to delay outdoor experiments by court orders for four years. But in the end, AGS received permission from a judge to conduct the outdoor experiments. In 1987, a strawberry field and then a potato field in California were selected as the first fields to which the Minus Ice bacteria were released. But the night before the experiments, protesters broke into fenced fields, uprooting nearly all plants. The company planted new plants the next day and went on with the experiment.
AGS begins to work with a public relations firm to fix their bad reputation in the public eye and to make their work look more charming. As part of their public relations work, AGS staff members involved in the experiment are dressed in overalls inspired by the movie Ghostbusters. For the first time in world history, a genetically engineered microorganism is released by company employees who wear a logo showing a snowman surrounded by the international “no” symbol and the title Frostbusters on their chests.
The company also distributes badges that read “I Survived the Frostban, Brentwood, CA 1987” to media members who come to watch the experiment, to brand the protesters’ concerns with condescension as overblown apprehension.
But these populist charms, familiar from today’s right-wing politics, and the looking down on environmental concerns don’t work. The experiments remain the only examples of situations in which these bacteria were released into nature. Experiments are stopped by violent protests and court orders, and Frostban never finds its place on the shelves as a commercial product. In fact, other biotechs move away from producing genetically modified microorganisms because they are afraid of receiving backlash and being tied up in the courts for years.
The 1987 Frostban protests led to the emergence of inclusive regulations regarding biotechnologies to be used in agriculture, which are still in effect. The gains of the Frostban protests go down in history as the biggest obstacle to the release of genetically modified microorganisms into the environment for whatever purpose, be it frost, snow or harvest loss.
Otherwise, how would ice-forming P. syringae colonies be impacted? We don’t know if the life cycle of P. syringae would be interrupted if the Minus Ice bacteria had won the competition. Good thing we can’t know. Because much more recently, the understanding that P. syringae is not just a plant pathogen, but plays an active role in the formation of clouds and precipitation in the world and in the hydraulic cycle of the world emerged.
Bioprecipitation is a term used to describe rainfall caused by bacteria. The extend of P. syringiae’s effect is still unknown, but it has been acknowledged that it contributes significantly to the formation of clouds and precipitation all over the world. P. syringae has a much more critical importance in contributing to the hydraulic cycle of the world than was thought until recently. These bacteria can live in vegetation, the arctic oceans, the clouds that border the biosphere, and in refrigerators, as I noticed a few weeks ago.
Colonies of P. syringae enter the atmosphere through their life on plants and transition to a life in the sky. They bring clouds into being by directly affecting the water vapor in the sky. For precipitation to occur, the water in the clouds must first freeze. They freeze water in clouds using the INA protein and the water, which becomes heavy through crystallization, falls to the ground when it reaches the weight to be affected by gravity. The cloud is being pulled towards the earth.
INA, ice nucleation active, could be translated as “forming the ice nucleus or ice nucleating.” Ice needs a nucleus to form. Tiny particles and creatures like dust, ash, soot, and P. syringae in the clouds act as nuclei around which water can organize. The water in the atmosphere can fall as snowflakes, raindrops or hail only after it forms its core. Even if there are plenty of inanimate particles in the atmosphere, if the heat and other conditions are not suitable for precipitation, precipitation does not occur. However, P. syringae performs the “nucleation” function necessary for precipitation, thanks to its ice-making genes, and enables precipitation to occur even in unsuitable weather conditions.
P. syringae leave their life on plants and ascend to the sky, form clouds, make it rain, and turn themselves back to plants on earth with these precipitations. At the heart of most snowflakes, raindrops or hail are P. syringae bacteria. All terrestrial life, including themselves, live within this cycle.
This is so much so that when we change the vegetation in a region, it directly affects the P. syringae population there, and the cloud formation and precipitation patterns of that region also change with their populations.
In 1978, David Sands, a plant pathologist, suspected that P. syringae is airborne bacteria, and jumped on a small plane and held the petri dish in his hand. In the laboratory, the petri dish appeared to be filled with P. syringae.
But you don’t need to fly to reach this bacterium. I know from my previous fermentation experience that if you create the right environment, bacteria in the air will settle in the space you create and multiply there. If you keep the conditions right, they transform both themselves and your food with their various metabolic processes. In fact, they are fed, and we feed on the new substances that they transform and dispose of.
Our fermentation process with P. syringae started by chance through a pot of beans left to soak. The beans that had spent the night on the kitchen counter and had been placed in the fridge because I didn’t have time to cook them in the morning were completely frozen by the evening. When I found a container of frozen beans in the refrigerator at +4 degrees, I put a tightly closed jar of water in the refrigerator to rule out the possibility that the refrigerator was malfunctioning. The water in the closed jar, which does not allow bacteria to seep in, was never frozen. But any water I put in the fridge without a lid freezes. I am not entirely sure that the bacteria living in my refrigerator is P. syringae since I did not look under the microscope, but I live with a creature that can secrete INA protein—that is for certain. P. syringae is the most common ice-maker, but there are other microorganisms that have this ability. For now, I feed them a variety of foods, and they in turn produce ice that gets thicker and stronger.
Fermentation is any metabolic process in which the activities of bacteria convert matter. In this sense, it seems appropriate to call the process in my refrigerator ice fermentation.
Right now, they greedily freeze everything I put in the refrigerator in water. Legumes, rice, cabbage, tomatoes, even pure water with no nutrients are frozen within a few hours. They just don’t have access to the water or food I place in the fridge in a sealed jar. These remain liquid. Since I know that P. syringae are aerobic bacteria, I allow it to breathe every few days to provide the oxygen necessary for life. If I don’t let the oxygen in, the ice thaws.
Biotechnology is not a practice that exclusively belongs to the ones who seek to sell the life in the atmosphere to us as a product, all the while posing a threat to its cycle. Fermentation artist Sandor Katz is one of the first to tell us clearly that biodynamic knowledge constitutes one of our commons. Thus I’m developing ice fermentation on the grounds of the roadmap he provided.
I don’t know what it means to have colonies of P. syringae in my refrigerator. Maybe I will distribute it to my neighbors like kombucha or kefir. I’m looking after them for now. What do they like more, when does the ice start to melt, until what temperature can they produce ice? These questions allow me to interact with P. syringae in a way that I find meaningful. I find consolation in hosting these bacteria while I mourn for the snow in this dry and warm winter.
* a.n.: Zebercet is the protagonist of Yusuf Atılgan’s novel Motherland Hotel. Through the course of the narrative, the hotel’s receptionist Zebercet is slowly consumed by his never ending wait for a previous guest, a woman, a process that slowly drifts him towards delirium.
Translated from Turkish by Merve Ünsal