Aerocene, a new era, an active community, and a movement proposed by Argentinian-born, Berlin-based artist Tomás Saraceno, imagines a world free from carbon, extractivism, capitalism, and patriarchy. Championed by an interdisciplinary artistic community, it enacts environmental awareness and atmospheric sensing experiments, imagining new infrastructures of planetary mobility and ethics. Curator Iaroslav Volovod spoke to Saraceno about this new era of planetary attunement and his upcoming installation commissioned by the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
A partially mirrored sphere suspended in the air, Moving Atmospheres is the product of Saraceno’s long-standing inquiry into lighter than air movement and utopian modes of co-existing. The work will be unveiled in September in the atrium of the Garage Museum in Moscow.
Moving Atmospheres resonates with the most daring concepts of Russian avant-garde, which suggested that people, buildings, and even entire cities should become airborne. Building upon concepts such as these not to abandon the earth, but to better attune to what it is that floats in the air with us—from CO2, particulate matter, and viruses to earthly and cosmic dust particles—Saraceno takes us a step closer toward this new era, working for the first time with a material that posits the sculpture as a working prototype for a balloon that is able to float around the world, fueled only by the air we breathe and the heat of the sun.
Learn more about the installation here.
Iaroslav Volovod: One of your earliest works is a set of instructions for making a geodesic solar balloon called 59 steps to be on air by sun power/Do it Yourself (2003). The use of instructions as a method of creating artworks is often mentioned in connection with conceptualism. Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist? Or maybe you are an inventor (a patent for a mechanism can, of course, be seen as a text-based conceptual art piece)?
Tomás Saraceno: I don’t like to close any doors. I am what I am until I am not. I love how things can change, and who knows what I will be 10,000 years from now? Maybe we’re caught, traveling in some threads of a spider ballooning… entangled in Laurie Anderson’s sound transmissions coming through our elbows, served as a recipe by Rirkrit [Tiravanija], a light beam of Olafur [Eliasson], crossing the earth with Jol [Thomson] as a neutrino…
But yes, some of my existence—when I’m not sleeping or meditating, because then I am in another conceptual dimension of reality—is practical. I tend to be practical inside the world of art, practical in my world of art, where my spectators are spiders and spider webs, the dancing dust, the wind currents… the parallel universes. I am thrilled when they define me as a conceptual artist, because at that point, you have to ask: Who are “they”? Have you ever met a spider critic? When a local spider shows up to my exhibition I am thrilled, and if they nest in my world or reproduce into it, even better! There’s a real world there—it’s why my work can’t remain only in concept.
A large part of the spirit of my practice is what I now call a “Do-It-Together,” or DIT, ethos, the together including a bit of a weird family, with humans, non-humans, more-than-humans… This is, of course, a play on the concept of DIY, or “Do-It-Yourself,” that focuses on the ability of the individual to create things sometimes, hopefully at the margin of the formalized, hierarchized, structures of capital. For me, then, DIT focuses on the ability of the collective to do so. Spiders weave together with me their works and their worlds, just as humans from around the globe can float with the wind currents using the Aerocene App, a sort of digital foray into 59 steps to be on air.
So some of my practice is material and has such practical resolutions. And at this point, you should be asking: For whom? For whose world? We all contain multitudes. For me, it’s that world of wind currents, the sun, spiders, webs, and terrestrial and cosmic dust. So I do not only ask what it might be to float free from fossil fuels, I actually do it. And I do it together with colleagues, friends, activists, students, scientists, and those whose livelihoods may be at risk due to the choices of multinational companies whose labor or products exploit the land and the climate, those who live under the threat of not being able to continue their journey on this planet.
Most recently, Aerocene community members learned from the local communities of Salinas Grandes, Argentina, whose home has been invaded by lithium-mining companies looking to capitalize on the so-called “green revolution” marked by electric cars. This “revolution” is less a revolt than a rebranding, maintaining the extraction of the Earth and exploitation of indigenous life that has defined our economies and led us to this state of climate crisis.
These are the community members that make up Aerocene, and these are the mutual struggles we are working together to change. Joining in the protest against these destructive extraction processes, the most recent real-world achievement was in my home country of Argentina, on January 28, 2020. This project, titled Fly with Aerocene Pacha, marked the first ever sun-powered human free flight, setting six world records for altitude, distance, and duration in both the Female and General categories. Fly with Aerocene Pacha stood in solidarity with the 33 indigenous communities in Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, flying above this land bearing the slogan of these communities: “Water and life are worth more than lithium.”
IV: You have continued to experiment with fossil-free flight for more than 15 years. Was 59 steps the point at which the vision for Aerocene was set in motion, and how did it evolve over the years?
TS: In 2006, soon after Museo Aero Solar, I did a project at Isola Art Centre in Milan with Alberto Pesavento and the neighborhood surrounding the institution. That project, Museo Aero Solar, has become a movement that still continues today, traveling to over 30 countries on five continents. Museo is built with plastic bags, trash that would otherwise be sent to landfill and take thousands of years to decompose or washed out into the ocean, polluting water and marine life. Instead, the bags are cleaned and handled with care before they are patched together and covered with stories, drawings, and records of the friendships formed during Museo’s construction. A community of friends started to cut them, paste, and join them together, creating canvases on which they then drew and wrote, creating a collection of personal stories. Together, these bags form a great, cavernous space: the world’s first flying museum, lifted by the heat of the sun. This project became one of the first iterations of Aerocene before the movement was even named, pointing toward a new way of inhabiting earth: solar-powered, airborne, held together and propelled by the intensities of the sun-Earth-air relationship.
From there, I went on to help found Aerocene in 2015. The Aerocene Foundation is a non-profit organization devoted to community building, scientific research, artistic experience, and education. At the core of the Foundation is Aerocene, a multi-disciplinary project that proposes a new era for the air, to free the air. Its community, composed of members floating in over 126 cities across 43 countries and six continents, participates both on the ground and in the fields of science and politics. Collectively, Aerocene has flown 6,700 minutes in the air free from carbon, built 33 Museo Aero Solar’s worldwide and, through the Aerocene Float Predictor app, flown 4,747 virtual flights, travelling 137,757,302 km free of carbon. Furthermore, as an ever growing research and experimental practice, Aerocene is open-source and has collaborated with institutions including MIT, Greenpeace, CNES, EAPS, and more than forty other artistic, scientific, and environmental organizations, including opening the biannual European Transport Commission Conference in Ljubljana (2018), engaging with thousands of European transport policy makers and the European Commissioner Violeta Bulc on transforming transport and mobility in the air. Together, Aerocene actively seeks to devise new modes of sensitivity, reactivating a common imaginary towards an ethical collaboration with the environment and the atmosphere.
Aerocene has produced Aerocene Backpacks containing aerosolar sculptures capable of tethered and untethered nonhuman flight, that are sturdy, accessible, portable, and reusable. These sculptures are shared and stored at various locations across the world, and people can borrow them and experience aerosolar flight on their own, with the help of instructions and safety measures from the Aerocene Foundation. Only in the past year we have had aerosolar sculptures rise into the atmosphere at Climate Marches in Paris and Berlin, be flown in solidarity by members of Extinction Rebellion, and carry messages of the communities of Salinas Grandes in the struggle against lithium extraction. The aerosolar sculptures contained within the backpack float together with the sun and the wind and everything that lives in the air—this includes our attitudes to the environment and to each other.
The issue of climate change, which at first glance may appear to be purely economic and ecological, is also intrinsically intertwined with race. The judgment and expertise of indigenous populations in the north of Argentina are consistently ignored and silenced, while environmental racism has had disastrous, deadly consequences during the COVID-19 crisis. Telling the stories of those groups often silenced or ignored by the majority and joining in support of their collective cause can be a first step in halting and, with dedicated work, reversing racial injustices.
I have also experimented with Aerocene to build aerosolar sculptures progressed to solar-powered flight capable of carrying humans, including one, uncertified flight with an unfortunate “don’t-try-this-at-home” type landing as a result of which I broke my back. My work with Aerocene led to a number of FAA certified flights, including the flight at White Sands, New Mexico, on November 28, 2015, where we achieved the longest, purely solar-powered tethered flight. That same year, I launched the Aerocene Foundation at COP21 in Paris, with the exhibition of two giant spherical flying sculptures at the Grand Palais during the summit, inspired by my residency at the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in 2014. The design of these aerosolar sculptures was in part inspired by the Montgolfière Infrarouge (MIR), a massive balloon flown by CNES in 1977 that floated by day using the sun’s rays and by night through infrared radiation emanating from the earth’s surface.
And I am so happy that what we are presenting here in Moscow is an evolution of these earlier flights, made of material will last much longer and perform significantly better in the atmosphere.
IV: In the age of biometric border regimes, customs control, visa restrictions, and surveillance, objects can sometimes travel more easily than people. Aerocene implies an idea of being inside of flying sculptures, that is to say inside of migrating, or diasporic, objects. The geopolitical mantra of Aerocene is that traveling around the world can be free from borders, which is an extremely relevant postulation amid the coronavirus pandemic, when national borders are being dramatically reinforced. How do you relate to these ideas at this moment, when the concept of freedom of movement is going through such an ordeal?
TS: Arundhati Roy put your question beautifully: “The virus has moved freely along the pathways of trade and international capital, and the terrible illness it has brought in its wake has locked humans down in their countries, their cities and their homes.”
I think the geopolitical mantra of Aerocene—that we need a future free from borders, free from fossil fuels—is more relevant than ever during this pandemic. While the urge of many nations has been to close borders, I believe that ultimately we will see that this is not the answer. Right now, we have our priorities backward: capital flows freely, supported by the fossil fuel economy, while people, empathy, and cooperation get stopped at the border. But things like viruses or pollution don’t stop at borders; they don’t need visas, they evade biometric control. Borders are constructed, the dividing lines between countries and states are not a result of natural divisions but of long histories of war and colonial ambitions. I think what coronavirus will ultimately do is lay bare this fact, as well as reveal what many of us already know to be true—that when it comes to public crises, be it a virus, pollution or endless wars, we must act as a public. This includes not only people from different nations but also animals from different species and forces both living and nonliving. There is no escaping the interconnectedness of our world; we have played our part in connecting even the furthest reaches for selfish reasons, yet now we want to deny those connections for selfish reasons. But when we do, nature, with its free flow, will be there to remind us. And we can either resist and continue to act selfishly, resulting in the free flow of pathogens, pollution, viruses, and pandemics, or we can accept it and act communally, resulting in the free flow of care, compassion, and cooperation.
An aerosolar sculpture is not meant to remove you from Earth so that you can live in some unsullied environment above the clouds. Rather, these sculptures create a new form of engagement with the air, a flight that is in full communion with the air and the weather. A flight that seeks to weave alliances shows just how superficial the dividing lines between countries and states are. By floating above these borders and moving with the Earth’s natural planetary rhythms we open the sky to another form of movement, one that gives freedom to all and holds the potential to reshape our way of living.
IV: Aerocene concerns partial emigration to the sky. The Russian avant-garde was beguiled by the idea of becoming airborne, be it fossil-free in the case of Petr Miturich’s flywheel-ornithopter (1922) or Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin flying bicycle (1929) or thanks to the power of atomic energy as with Georgy Krutikov’s Flying City (1928) or Viktor Kalmykov’s Saturn Ring City (1929). To what extent is the Russian avant-garde in the orbit of your practice?
TS: A large extent! But I would maybe not say that they are in my orbit, because I don’t think it’s right to say that I’m at the center. Rather, we’re all orbiting each other, or together in an orbit of something else… We form a constellation of speculative practices along with my other inspirations, who were also international progeny of Russian avant-garde traditions: Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto, Cedric Price, and my compatriot Gyula Kosice. One can’t talk about speculative architecture, flying cities, floating urbanisms, alternative ways of living and relating without discussing the Constructivists, nor can one think of our relationship to space and the heavens without paying some homage to the Cosmists. The avant-gardists epitomize a balance I strive for in my work in understanding the “real”—through the consideration of the speculative as a form of realism, the expression of utopia through the everyday. It’s important to realize that what we think of as realism and practicality are often constructs, built by ideologies that favor oppressors. The idea that speculation can be not fantasy but a kind of political practice of resistance, a recognition of a reality as communicated from the bottom up rather than the top down is part of the lasting legacy of figures like Tatlin and Krutikov.
IV: A new epoch entails a new polity and a new citizen. What kind of political philosophy informs the life of the airnomads of Aerocene or, as you sometimes refer to them, Homo flotantis? A 1925 utopian futurist poem by Russian avant-gardist Vladimir Mayakovsky The Flying Proletarian springs to mind, with its vision of a demilitarized, equal society in which “the flygirls” and “the flyboys of the republic of workers and peasants” navigate Moscow (solely in their aeronautical vehicles) “where you’ll find neither alleys nor streets —nothing but airports and giant apartment blocks.”
TS: Mayakovsky also wrote Manifesto of the Flying Federation of Futurists, soon after the October Revolution and in the midst of World War I. The poem you mention also begins with a war taking place in the sky—The Flying Proletarian is thus both those partaking in aerial warfare by way of airplanes and those living in the utopia of only “airports and giant apartment blocks” afterwards. Flight and war have always, unfortunately, been connected. The airplane was invented only about a decade before it was put to use in World War I; even the first untethered hot air balloon was launched in the context of territorial campaign—in 1783 by the Montgolfiere Brothers in front of Louis XVI and the royal family in Versailles, extending royalty into the sky. In an instant, the dream of the freedom of the air was replaced by colonial expansion.
IV: To quote from Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises: “Airplanes are not tools of war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”
TS: The sky—and more importantly the air—remains a space of conflict. Peter Sloterdijk calls this “atmoterrorism,” speaking especially to the history of total chemical warfare that turns the air into poison and thus our bodies—which can’t help but breathe—into weapons against themselves.
Aerocene’s polity is in direct opposition to this history; its floating is for the multi-species many, not for the few, or for any missions of terror, colonialism or war. Importantly, airnomads are more than Homo flotantis. The people of the Aerocene float together with the insects, animals, spores, cyanobacteria, and more that already live in this ocean of air. In this way, Aerocene imagines space as a commons, free from borders, free from domination or extraction. Its citizens are weather-dependent, incapable—and undesiring!—of disentangling themselves from the natural rhythms history has tried so hard to silence, yet which have always been there for us to attune to. They prioritize deep time over the minute moments of consumption that have run rampant in late capitalism and that lead to the prolonged afterlives of toxic waste. The airnomad lives free of CECPF—Carbon, Extraction, Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Fossil Fuel—floating instead by the heat of the sun and the upward lift of the air, repairing relationships and restoring balance between the terrestrial, atmospheric, and cosmic.
In the Aerocene, the air is not a warspace, a weapon or a tool of terror. It is a gathering space, a life form, a supreme sustainer, encompassing both the most sacred and the most mundane.
IV: Your Aerocene Manifesto’s Aeronauts, unite! makes an allusion to the most famous communist rallying cries, while the societal utopianism of Aerocene—namely giving up individualism—makes it possible to view your works in relation to the irrepressible optimism of the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s, with its house-communes and the socialist transformation of everyday life they were supposed to entail, such as complete collectivization of daily routine, the elimination of the habits of an individual economy, etc. Do you consider your Aerocene oeuvre as a sort of exercise machine for training new social relationships?
TS: There is a dire need for many of us to retrain our relationships: our social relationships and also how we relate to nature, to ourselves, and even to the products of our work.
Alienated exchange has pushed us beyond breaking point in so many arenas, with the overarching recent example being COVID-19. In a matter of months this disease has pushed to the forefront the dire need for us to retrain our relationship with the air: how we share air, but do not all breathe the same air; and how the pollutants we pump into it leaving certain populations more at risk for asthma, lung cancers, and a longer recovery time from COVID-19.
We have tried to master nature through domination, resulting in climate change; the genocide of cultures, communities, and species; and the emergence of viruses that otherwise may not have hit humanity. All of this proves that this approach does not work.
Instead, if we give ourselves freely to the air as it does to us, it will carry us. If we do not choke it with pollution, it will, in turn, not choke us. In proposing a new era, Aerocene makes a move from domination and control of the air to working with it. Perhaps there is less immediate glory in this—neither fiery bursts of fuel nor supersonic speeds contribute to the myth surrounding the flight of an aerosolar sculpture—but it renews our relationship with the air, allowing it to be something we can all breathe.
Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag really impressed this idea upon me. If we understand that the foundation of humankind did not originate with the spear, which is synonymous with death and glory, but rather with receptacles used to gather, hold, protect, and share, our way of relating to that which is around us shifts. Le Guin helps us to move away from this ideal of the hero to a respect for people and things. To move from a killer story to a story of life. She says:
“The trouble is, we've all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it. Hence it is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.”
I hope that Aerocene might help to add to this life story. Aerosolar sculptures depend on balance: between the air inside the balloon and the air outside of it, between temperatures, between the sun and the wind’s natural forces and the pilot’s response. They also depend on a balance between those journeying with it; each movement is reciprocal, will be felt by another passenger. One must move carefully in concert and consideration with the others, and in particular nonhuman others; as a vehicle it is fueled, at least in part, by trust. I hope this can be a kind of “exercise machine” for understanding the reciprocity of our actions on our other shared vehicle, Spaceship Earth. Here, too, our actions always have a reaction, our footprint is always felt by another, be they human or nonhuman, living or nonliving. The Earth also depends on balance, runs on trust; the lack of both as a result of colonialism, extraction, and domination is why we are hurtling toward catastrophe.
IV: I like to think of Aerocene as a method, or an ongoing form of prototyping, in the spirit of Solomon Nikritin’s projectionism, a way of organizing knowledge and vision where the artist is not a producer of a finished consumable idea but rather acts as a conduit for expressing methods, and where scientific and technical achievements can be formalized to produce aesthetic effects. Your new work presented at Garage is called Moving Atmospheres. As it is at both a prototype for an aeronautical vehicle and a new celestial habitat, it invites us to imagine the new epoch. If it were to replace the Anthropocene, how would the image of the art world transform? Would museums become airborne? How would the means of artistic production change? Would today’s nomadic biennialists have to switch from airplanes to Moving Atmospheres? I guess it would have a stabilizing effect on the accelerated velocity of a culture propelled, until now, by the jet-setting class.
TS: One of the great ironies of the technological revolution is that while it came about due to humans’ desire for mastery and control, it has actually put us even more—or at least, in new ways—at the mercy of nature. Slavoj Žižek points this out in his new book on the coronavirus, mentioning a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 that stopped most air traffic over Europe. He writes, “The very catastrophic socioeconomic impact of such a minor outburst is due to the fragility of our technological development, in this case air travel. A century ago, such an eruption would have passed unnoticed. Technological development makes us more independent from nature and at the same time, at a different level, more dependent on nature’s whims.”
We can see this, in the art world, in how we schedule. Being able to gather hundreds of artists, curators, collectors, and special guests for a biennial opening with the utmost faith that all will arrive on time from all corners of the Earth is a result of technology, a mastery over the things that physically separate us. But that certainty and faith is an illusion; in reality, there are thousands of things that can keep you from your destination—traffic, an accident, the weather, a global pandemic. And with no planning for changes, no flexibility in our scheduling in the recognition that we are not as in control as we think we are, we have no alternatives or solutions.
This is why one of the most important tenets of Aerocene is to be weather-dependent. In actuality, we are already weather-dependent, even if we don’t acknowledge it. Accepting that dependency actually gives you freedom rather than racing against natural forces to stick to a scheduled strictness that technology has given us the false confidence to enforce, you can acknowledge that you are, after all, Homo flotantis, floating on gusts of wind and in streams of time. There’s a certain forgiveness in that which we do not currently have.
This is in part how Moving Atmospheres will propel us toward an Aerocene era. If we are able to conceive of and accept this new alternative—one which enables us to attune to the air, its movements, and the role we each have as co-creators of the atmosphere—than we are one step closer to adopting a pace of life that can send ripples through the web of existence, without breaking its threads.
IV: What is the role of museums in your practice right now? Are they a kind of laboratory? A launch pad? A testing ground for your ideas to take real shape?
TS: We have been building flying museums for a long time now. Museo Aero Solar is an ongoing collective project I started back in 2007 through conversations with Alberto Pesavento. Museo is an open invitation for everyone to reuse single-use plastic bags and turn them into a lighter-than-air sculpture that floats free from fossil fuels, burners, helium, hydrogen, solar panels or batteries. These canvases unite to form a space full of air. At dawn, when the sun rises over the horizon, the air inside heats up, and the sculpture floats into the sky, becoming Museo Aero Solar, a floating museum.
The future is in the air! In order to keep all species alive aboard this planetary journey, we must stabilize atmospheric temperatures, a mission only achievable through renewed balance and solidarity between all beings, species, and forces within the cosmic, atmospheric, and terrestrial realms of this Spaceship Earth.
In addition, I try to foster a new environmental specificity within the museum, as well. When I exhibit, I always ask the operational staff to leave any spiderwebs they find intact, rather than sweeping them away and destroying that spider’s mind and home. I hope that participants, upon seeing these creatures alongside them—who, by the way, have been on this planet for many millions of years longer than we have—rethink their relationship to them. What if they are not in our home, but we are in their home? Can we live peacefully with them? In this way, these native spiders are also participants, and I value their opinion of the show just as much as—if not sometimes more than!—reviews and critical opinions. After my show at the Palais de Tokyo, I was told that the spiders, for the first time in that space, mated. I think that means they liked the show!
IV: When I first looked at your proposal for Garage, it brought to mind Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton (1784). Not only because two visionary artists look favorably on the formal qualities of the sphere, but also in a rather humorous way, in that your work is a tombstone on the grave of gravity. What do you think of gravity?
TS: I think gravity is a beautiful thing! Without it, nothing would keep us attached to the face of this Earth, and we would go hurtling into space instead of floating alongside its journey. But I think we need to appreciate gravity for this; instead, I sense that humanity has felt trapped on this earth by gravity and thus looked for ways to conquer both. This has happened both by extractivist practices of digging deep into the earth, going further down, down, down as we feel pulled down, down, down, and by attempting to escape Earth’s gravity through space travel. But I believe we cannot travel to space before we rid ourselves of these ambitions; we cannot carry colonialism to new planets, repeating the same mistakes we’ve made on this one. Rather, I believe that the human species should commit itself to achieving the goal of re-landing back “down to Earth,” as my friend Bruno Latour would say. And feel that with the earth you are floating in space as well...
And yet even with gravity, nothing actually touches anything else. You think you are seated in your chair, but actually you are floating on it, your particles always finding space between themselves and the chair’s. There is no other way to put it: as Richard Feynman taught us, “I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.”
We are already always floating—there’s nothing else we can be. And inside us, bacteria float, just as they do in the air. And this planet we are on, it floats, just as all interplanetary bodies do, gravity keeping them from ever crashing into each other as they float in their orbits. What if we just kept going? What if we started floating in space, with space, not defying gravity but in line with it? Drifting, aerostatic, as stillness in motion? We always imagine space travel to go at warp speed. What if it went slowly, drifting in deep time?
IV: If we consider gravity as a sexed subject of science, it is a concept invented by male physicists that concerns all living beings on Earth and justifies our obligation to be on Earth and to relate to it in a certain manner. If women had invented gravity, they might have said: “Gravity is merely a chance for us to become airborne, to fly away, all we need to do is to invert it.” So to this way of thinking, your Aerocene works could be considered an attempt at breaking away from the overtly masculine sense of territoriality, that is to say feminist. Would you call yourself a feminist?
TS: Of course! Our experience in Salinas Grandes, Fly with Aerocene Pacha, really emphasized that it is not enough to imagine a future free from fossil fuels if we don’t also rid ourselves of the ideologies that have created its economy. The mining of lithium there, even if it’s part of a capitalist “green revolution,” perpetuates the same inequalities. You cannot fight climate change without fighting patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. All are rooted in the same ideologies of domination and extraction. Moving into the Aerocene will take an entire overhaul of systemic ideals.
I think Maristalla Svampa said it beautifully in an essay she wrote following the flight of Aerocene Pacha:
“In this aerocenic 21st century, in which ancestral, feminist, and ecological struggles must be our greatest sources of inspiration, we will have to redefine and think about a horizon of just transitions, which point to an alternative system of social relations and links with nature.
Because as the movements for climate justice have been saying for a long time, the objective is to ‘Change the system, not the climate’.”
IV: Inasmuch as your work offers an alternative to a dystopian, “macho” version of the future, which calls for us to extract more, be faster, burn more fuel, I find it uncommonly optimistic, “solarpunk,” if I may. Especially if considered in relation to Russian cosmism and its decidedly patriarchal attitudes. It is rare to see contemporary art that prophesies hopefully about the times to come. Speaking of hope, Dialectics of Hope was the title of the 1st Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. You did a site visit to Moscow and Ulyanovsk in 2004 in preparation for your project. Was it your first time in Russia? How did it go?
TS: It was good! The Moscow Biennale came shortly after my participation in the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale and in the curatorial project Utopia Station [by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija] at the 2003 Venice Biennale, as well as in the midst of my ongoing project Air-Port-City, which was also displayed in 2005 at a solo show at the Villa Manin Center for Contemporary Art in Italy. So that’s very much where my head was when I visited: thinking about utopia, thinking about hope, thinking about ways we could utilize architecture and urban planning to imagine new ways of living and relating to each other, in these floating, flying mobile units. Moscow was a great place to go when my head was in this place, because of that rich history of the avant-garde we just spoke about.
I remember participating in the first Moscow Biennale in 2005. I asked if I could meet an engineer named Yury Ishkov, because his work really interested me. He worked toward the creation of the Thermoplan hybrid airship, beginning in the 1970s, and this was something that really influenced me. It was a structure comprised of two sections that showed a new way to fly. So I was lucky enough to get to visit Yury Ishkov. He lives in Ulyanovsk, the place where Lenin was born, and I also visited the Lenin Museum. We went there by night train, it was very very long journey. And then I met this fantastic person, who had this revolutionary idea of how we could inhabit the air. He was working on a kind of zeppelin and he had a huge hangar. I thought it would be wonderful to work together with him, and then present it in the Red Square—kind of a Mars red star floating.
For me, part of this thinking about hope and utopia has always been expressed through my experiments with materials, and all my work at that time was—and still is!—expressed through thinking of new ways to work with materials that allow new forms of relationship, be it spider/webs or, what I was working with then, ultra-light materials. Part of this was inspired by Yona Friedman’s Mobile Architecture Manifesto, which included “structures that are neither determined nor determining.” I thought, how can I make structures like this? This is also a part of the legacy of Aerocene.
IV: The Biennale took place in 2005, with a major exhibition at the former Lenin Museum next to the Historical Museum on Red Square. Your original proposal was entitled United Sky, and there is a photo collage in the Biennale catalogue called Sobrevolando Moscú (Flying over Moscow), which depicts a large red balloon floating above Red Square, not far from the Lenin Mausoleum. What was the idea behind this project?
TS: I envisioned this balloon as a kind of Mars, wanting to show that Mars can be both close and far away at the same time. In 2004, just before the Biennale, NASA landed an exploration rover on Mars. Mars has become such an attractive planet in the past few years for people who wish to colonize space; I don’t believe in this mission. These people want to get far, far away from Earth in order to get away from the problems they have created here, just to create the same problems there! Red is such a powerful color, and its importance in Russia can’t be overstated. There’s a relationship in that collage between the balloon, Red Square, and Mars. We can’t escape the contexts that have been created here. Any kind of project in the air, in space, must recognize that.
IV: How does your present-day practice, including Moving Atmospheres at Garage, relate to this original intention that was not fully embodied 15 years ago?
TS: What a happy connection! I did not think about this relationship until you mentioned it. There must be a kind of unconscious thing working here. I think my work now focuses more explicitly on this connection I just spoke about, between us and the Earth. My earlier projects approached the air as a space we could move to, where we could create a kind of utopia together without repeating the same mistakes and hierarchies that have defined our current global moment. But it’s not enough anymore to simply not make the same mistakes somewhere else; we have to fix what has been done here. Because at the end of the day, there is no air without Earth, no Earth with air. It’s why I named my last Aerocene project Pacha, which, by the way, was also a re-envisioning of the moon landing 50 years earlier, however without the patriarchal, nationalist, and colonial ambitions that hovered around this flight. “Pacha” is the Andean conception of the cosmos that connects what lies below the Earth’s surface with the furthest reaches of the universe, uniting space and time. It connects terrestrial, atmospheric, and celestial: there is no one without the others, and thus there is no future utopia if one of the realms is left out of balance. This is what I am bringing to Moving Atmospheres. The work I am presenting is not an escape, it’s a part of this world.
IV: In the end you presented a different work called The World. An inflatable globe hovering aloft and held up by a stream of air. Cameras attached to it projected onto the wall everything in its focus. Might we consider this work a sort of teaser for Aerocene?
TS: It’s amazing to be able to look back through your practice and see how everything has led to where you are now. The World was definitely a kind of proto-Aerocene project, because who else would live on a floating earth but Homo flotantis? The amazing thing, of course, is that the earth is already floating, always has been floating. We are flying through space on Earth at speeds we cannot even begin to imagine, actually feeling, and sensing, and comprehending. But in relation to us, the Earth is still, dependable, holds us to it so we don’t go flying off. This is stillness in motion! And now, of course, I’m making my own floating spheres, which will be able to hold people in them.
IV: Whether rendering the planetary through cartography and videography or mirror reflection or producing an image of the world floating in the air, your work gets to the heart of the idea of global interconnectedness. There is a very natural desire to look at your current project for Garage as a final remastering of that idea.
Cover image: Tomás Saraceno. Studio tryout, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Andersen's, Copenhagen; Ruth Benzacar, Buenos Aires; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018