Tomás Saraceno’s reflections on climate change
“How many of you feel like you are flying right now?”, asks Tomás Saraceno when we meet him at the presentation of his Aerocene project in Paris. “Probably not many of you. But the earth is moving around the sun at 140,000 kilometres per hour.” Basically, we are flying, as Saraceno gladly points out, even if we are not aware of it. And this is what inspires him to think of further ways to make flight possible without the use of fossil fuels, batteries, or other power generators. By tapping into motion that already exists. Aerocene is a proposal to travel the world in a huge spherical sculpture, powered by what is available in the sky, namely sunlight, air, and wind.
Saraceno presented two prototypes at the United Nations Climate Conference at the Grand Palais in Paris. Each weighs 200 kilograms. In both of these, half of the surface is transparent, the other half is mirrored. Looking up at the twin balloons hovering just below the ceiling, there was a beautiful interplay between the spheres and the steel and glass palace structure. From that perspective, the spheres behaved like sculptures – they were not yet the airships that Saraceno wants them to eventually be. Meanwhile, on the ground floor of the Grand Palais and reflected in the spheres, an information trade fair was happening. It was all about innovation and climate-friendly ways of entrepreneurship. For the sculpture, this proved strong competition. The ma- jority of visitors seemed wholly unconcerned about what was floating above their heads; they were too busy visiting stands and attending talks. This situ- ation somehow illustrated Saraceno’s current position, which is somewhere between utopian ambitions, aesthetic goals, and technical discussions with scientists and researchers from various fields about what is possible regarding air travel without creating pollution.
“This project is about understanding that we are all on board a ship that has limited resources”, Saraceno says, referring to planet Earth. “Before you go somewhere by boat, you have to check how much food and water you have, how many people it can carry, with whom you will travel.” He wants us to realise that the ‘boat’ called Earth is carrying too much weight and may become exhausted. In order to prevent this from occurring, we have to think of ways to fly.
We had travelled to Paris via an Airbus that cruised at an altitude of some 10 kilometres, using not only air streams but also an engine with kerosene and several computers, to arrive precisely at the scheduled hour. Saraceno’s balloons do not use fossil fuel, nor do they have a regular cruising height; they move up and down through the air. The principle that allows them to fly is the heat of the sun, which warms the internal air during the day, sending the balloon upwards. At night, the balloon loses height until it’s reaches 18 kilometres or so, but keeps flying due to the infrared radiation emanating from the earth. It cannot be precisely predicted where it will land and in how much time; that all depends on the weather conditions. Adaptation to circumstances is necessary. In Saraceno’s view, a different mentality is required, another way of travelling and dealing with life on earth. It’s not so much about conquering space as about tuning into life ‘up in the air’ and moving along with it.
“We are developing an application that allows you to book your flight on the basis of the weather, wind patterns, and jet streams. Imagine flying at 180 kph just by following the airstreams”, he says enthusiastically. “It is free flying. If you want to change direction, you just need just to move to a different height so that you arrive in a different jet stream.” While listening to Saraceno, one wonders if he is talking about flying in the imagination or in reality. Some of his projections are clearly fantastical, such as the idea that you could build cities in the air, that people could live there in spheres while moving through the air, not having to worry about national borders. This is utopian thinking, an artistic vision. Concerning the project’s present status, the focus is on the further development of self-sufficient balloons that can travel round the world without the need to refuel, and that could remain in the air for as long as desired. Saraceno and his team have carried out one experiment so far, travelling 50 kilometres in five hours, from Berlin to Poland. The next step will be a flight starting in Bolivia, in the ‘spiritual landscape’ of the salt flats, where Saraceno worked on one of his earlier projects. “It is the place on earth that most resembles Mars. The elevation is very high and the climate is very dry – that’s where we will do our next tests.”
Saraceno was born in Argentina but moved with his parents to Italy when he was just a year old, escaping the dictatorship. He later returned to Buenos Aires to study architecture, but then switched to art and relocated to Germany, where he continued his studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. He now works in Berlin with a team of more than 20 people. Does he feel that his background has shaped his imagination? “I'm from planet Earth”, he replies. “In Italy they call me the Argentinian guy, in Argentina I was the Italian.” This switching of countries has made him aware of being an inhabitant of planet Earth, rather than from a specific country, which has since become a significant part of his philosophy as an artist. “We are challenging the national borders and the idea of belonging”, he says about Aerocene. “Many of my friends have become politically engaged, while I have chosen a more artistic approach.”
The switch from architecture to visual arts is quite a change, with reality swapped for utopia. Does Sara- ceno see it like that? “It could be seen like that. Unfortunately, I think it is. People still lack the ability to understand that architecture also needs space for research and rethinking. How many grants are there for architects, how many scholarships, how many museums and residencies? In architecture, very few. Most of the architecture world is property based. Therefore art is the best environment in which to explore these kinds of things. Also, I feel more comfortable hanging out and discussing such topics with artists. Art is a place for dialogue with other disciplines. It takes away borders in a world that is highly specialised and compartmentalised.”
Although Saraceno’s vision surpasses notions of nationality, much of the support for the arts is organised through national governments. “This is something I am struggling with. The Aerocene sculpture cannot really be owned by anybody, it moves in the airspace, it’s shared by everyone. You only see it for a certain period of time. It is more like an eclipse. You project a shadow onto the moon and then detect your own presence by seeing that shadow increase. So it is also a challenge regarding finance. Who will pay for a sculpture if they cannot say ‘It is in my museum’ or ‘It belongs to my country’.”
Would Saraceno like us to understand ourselves as global citizens? “Something like that. But the word ‘global’ needs to be rethought. When we talk about climate change, how much of the world population is doing something to change the climate? How global is this? Who are the 'we' that produce global warming? It is only a small per cent of the world population. And it affects the lives of all species, not only human beings.”
All images © Tomás Saraceno