01 January 2010

High Life

Written by Published in Art & Culture

Overcrowding, climate change and technological innovation on an unimagined scale have motivated artist Tomas Saraceno to design living space that hangs in the sky. A whole new nation, in fact – a place that, as something of a wanderer, he can call home.

Picture this: bubble-like cells all joined together and floating in the sky. Inside each cell is an independent biosphere where whole communities live. For some, this is a utopian fantasy; for others, a dystopian nightmare. But whatever sci-fi image this might conjure up, to create a sustainable community that lives off solar energy is the all-consuming vision of Argentinian artist and architect Tomas Saraceno.

When asked what inspired the idea, Saraceno takes his time, lighting a cigarette before launching into a stream-of-consciousness account of the various influences that led him to create what he calls Air-Port-City or Flying Cloud.

‘I wanted to create a land that is transnational, intercultural, inter-visionary and multinational,’ he replies. Saraceno defines himself as a man without roots. His family left Argentina for Italy when he was just one year old, as the military dictatorship took hold in the 1970s and made it untenable for intellectuals and free thinkers, such as his parents, to remain.

He returned in 1986 after democracy had been restored. He lived and studied in Buenos Aires, but after graduating he moved to Germany where he is currently based. Having no one country he could properly call home, he often felt isolated, an outcast. ‘When I was in Italy I would watch the football and the locals would turn to me and say, “Ha, but you are from Argentina, you can’t support Italy.” Then I came back to Argentina, and it was the same story. It was like a joke.’

It was when he was studying architecture at Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires that the concept of a place that transcended nations arose. ‘The idea came about of building a country, or land, or place where everyone belongs, and where there isn’t really nationality as such but rather an international culture; a nation of the people of the earth.’ By their very location, the flying clouds would be beholden only to international law, as they would be outside border restrictions and under no international dictates. In a sense, this concept is not as eccentric as it sounds. With the exponential rise in communication technology and mobility, we have truly come to live in a global village.

Somehow a floating city without boundaries doesn’t seem so alien in this day and age. Saraceno sees this exemplified in our use of the internet. He says, ‘I’m not always aware of which country I’m in, or where I am, when I’m surfing the web. There is a certain freedom of movement. It allows people to communicate, which not only reflects the fluidity of the technology but also demonstrates the willingness in people to open up their minds, to see other cultures and establish a dialogue.’

Saraceno has had a series of exhibitions around the world. Last year his Observatory, Air-Port-City was displayed at the Hayward Gallery in London for the Psycho Buildings exhibition. Viewers were invited to enter the inflatable dome and clamber about on a transparent membrane suspended 20ft in the air. He also exhibited at the 53rd Venice Biennale, showing a tangle of elastic ropes that he calls Galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider’s web. A development of this latest work will be the main display of his first solo exhibition in Stockholm, at Bonniers Konsthall gallery, from February.

Although Saraceno is recognised mainly as an artist, his work seems to be stepping well over the boundaries of art. In fact, he doesn’t think there should be rigid boundaries between the different fields of work be it art, science or politics. He points to Leonardo da Vinci. Though chiefly remembered as an artist, in reality da Vinci was a polymath studying engineering, mathematics, botany and, fittingly, flight. Saraceno says, ‘It’s too much to compare myself with a genius like Da Vinci, but why not utilise another category when the specific tools in a certain discipline are not meeting your needs?’

His concept clearly requires in-depth scientific knowledge if it is to be realised, and all the manifestations of his visions have necessarily involved a strong grasp of different specialisms such as physics and biology. He has been heavily influenced by R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and hisCloud Nine project from the 1960s of floating cloud structures, which is certainly the basis for Saraceno’s Air-Port-City.
The extent to which Saraceno has entered the world of science is reflected by the two months he spent at NASA last year in order to develop his concept. Saraceno says, ‘I went to NASA to try and learn, and to dialogue with the scientists to see how this idea (Air-Port-City) could be realised, and to expand on my installations on a scale that could slowly lead us to build them.’ NASA is working on something called High-Altitude Platform, using aircraft as floating laboratories, wireless internet transmitters and as alternatives to satellites. They are currently working on inventing more energy-efficient devices that don’t need fuel, such as solar-powered platforms. Here Saraceno interacted with the scientists, learning as well as presenting his own ideas, including three patented LTA (lighter-than-air) vehicle designs.In his writings on Air-Port-City he sees it as a viable option for sustainable living. ‘With more than half of the population of the world living in cities, billions of people travelling every day and millions of pieces of data flowing,’ he says, ‘The Flying Cloud symbolises our capability to ease the pressure we are putting on the planet’s ecosystem by thinking towards a more sustainable future as far as living, communicating and travelling on earth is concerned.’

In order for the floating ‘cities’ to work without further using up the earth’s resources, solar energy would be deployed for the community to survive. For example, Saraceno has experimented with using Tillandsia, plants that get their nutrients purely from the sun and air. He showed this in operation at his Flying Gardens exhibition, where Tillandsia plants flourished on a floating balloon made from PVC.

When asked whether he thought some might find living in a bubble in the sky somewhat unnatural, he retorts: ‘I have a problem with understanding what is natural and not natural. What we have to understand is that we humans are part of nature – there is no distinction between us and nature.’ These thoughts spark off others in his mind, and he tacks quickly into pondering the future for humanity. ‘We [humans] are very destructive, and it will be easy for our civilisation to disappear, as have many other civilisations. Humans could be killed off, but life on earth will keep going.’ He also points towards the work of academic Juan Enriquez, who believes that, in the not-too-distant future, there could be a new hominid he classifies as Homo evolutus, a creature that would emerge as our expertise in regrowing and engineering body parts becomes greater.

While he is aware of the crisis humanity faces, he is not a defeatist; all his work is concerned with seeking out new and viable options for our survival. Sara Arrhenius, curator at Bonniers Konsthall, defines Saraceno’s work succinctly when she says, ‘[His] work comprises concepts of how art may build dreams for the future. He has the courage to let art propose new utopias in harmony with architecture and science.’

If humanity can no longer survive on earth, we will need to look for ways to live on another planet. But there is a paradox: ‘It is necessary to have these biospheres in order to know how we can survive on this planet. But it is only when we learn how to survive on this planet that we will be able to move to another habitat.”

Tomas Saraceno’s upcoming exhibitions

Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen: late January 2010

Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm: 25 February to 20 June 2010

Houston Blaffer Gallery, Houston, United States: 14 May to 31 July 2010

Shanghai Expo, China: 1 May to 31 October 2010

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