We live at the bottom of an ocean of air and the space above us is full of life.
Suspended 25 meters above the piazza of the K21 art gallery, the former federal state parliament building in Düsseldorf, a surreal installation of ropes, nets and floating spheres hangs like a giant cobweb between the walls of the building. Visitors can move freely between the different spheres via wire tunnels and a dozen or so people are climbing around the swaying construction with varying degrees of nervousness. The installation is called In Orbit and it has been created by the visionary Argentinian artist and architect Tomás Saraceno. In numerous projects, installations, films and cross-disciplinary collaborations, Saraceno has investigated how human beings can create a sustainable future among the clouds. He says that we live at the bottom of an ocean of air and that the space above us is full of life.
Saraceno lives and works in Berlin but he was born in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina. Before studying to become an artist, he did a degree in architecture at the University of Buenos Aires. Many of his projects call utopian architects such as Buckminster Fuller to mind. Like Fuller, Saraceno has devoted his life to studying how nature’s constructions can be used for the good of humankind. He owns the world’s only collection of three-dimensional spider webs and was the first person to make large-scale models that emulate their silky habitats. One of them is In Orbit in Düsseldorf. “When we were thinking about how we could portray floating towns and create a new kind of urban infrastructure, we looked at how spiders have developed their own method of colonization and migration. It is a very simple technique but it could provide radical, new opportunities for life on earth and perhaps on other planets too, for both humans and non-humans,” he says.
For his cloud cities project, which has been exhibited widely since the mid2000s, he has concentrated on how floating, modular towns will be created in the future. One of his best-known works, Aerocene, was unveiled at the UN climate change summit in Paris and then launched among the dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands Monument. As the sun rose over the Chihuahuan Desert on 8 November 2015, a floating ball of lightweight black cloth warmed by the sun rose up to the sky as one of Saraceno’s co-workers hitched a ride in a harness below it. It was the world’s first fully solar-powered, nonfossil flight. Seventy years earlier, the detonation of the first nuclear bomb had sent up a mushroom-shaped cloud over the same area, an incident regarded by many scholars as the starting shot of the Anthropocene age. With his solar-powered floating sculpture, Saraceno wanted to mark the start of a new era that is not characterized by violence and environmental pollution. “This is an age of ecological awareness where we will learn how to float together and once again live in harmony with the atmosphere and the earth,” he says. Today, the Aerocene project has grown to become an open platform that engages researchers and activists all over the world. This has led to the development of the Aerocene Explorer, a starter kit for exploring the skies that fits into a black rucksack and is powered by the heat of the sun and infrared radiation from the ground. Together with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Saraceno has developed software that maps out trajectories based on atmospheric conditions and wind currents.
As we know, air currents do not care for national boundaries. For Saraceno, flying is a metaphor for freedom. He calls his floating towns “transnational places”. “The larger the sculptures we build, the higher they can rise. We can build gardens in the air. Would we be able to create a garden big enough for us to live there permanently? Can we create an entire ecosystem floating among the clouds? Solving these questions is not just a technical challenge. It is also a way of investigating freedom of movement among countries and bridging the political, social, cultural and military restrictions in today’s society. The air belongs to everyone, not to any government.” We’re not able to build floating towns like Saraceno’s yet, but he says that’s besides the point. The important thing is that we dare to ask ourselves how we want to live.
“We humans are lazy; it’s easy to hand over the future to someone else. But it’s important to get involved and imagine new possibilities.” In the In Orbit installation at K21, One visitor dares to jump in the net, causing a young man at the other end to wobble a little. As Saraceno puts it, “The world we live in may seem to be boundless but in actual fact, we are mutually and irrevocably dependent on one another.”