Aeronauts Unite!

Tomás Saraceno and Aerocene

Science, technology, architecture and philosophy all find their way into the art of Tomás Saraceno. Whether in arachnid experiments or aerial cities, he has called for a radical transformation of our relationship with each other and the planet. Ahead of his largest exhibition to date, Sophie Lovell visits Saraceno in his Berlin studio.

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Science, technology, architecture and philosophy all find their way into the art of Tomás Saraceno. Whether in arachnid experiments or aerial cities, he has called for a radical transformation of our relationship with each other and the planet. Ahead of his largest exhibition to date, we visit Saraceno in Berlin … to witness the launch of an airborne sculpture for the Aerocene project. Sophie Lovell, Wallpaper Germany Editor, tells the story.

“It’s August; Berlin, like most of Europe, is in the grip of a major heatwave. If global warming predictions are correct, this summer is but a teaser for weather extremes to come. It’s 6 a.m. and already too hot. And the Wallpaper* team are en route to join the Aerocene crew at a large lake in Brandenburg near the Polish border for the scheduled launch of their first solar hybrid balloon for the ‘Around the World’ project.

Tomás Saraceno first ‘launched’ his Aerocene project in Paris in December 2015, parallel to the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference COP21. The plan was to create a series of diaphanous sculptural volumes ‘inflated by the air, lifted by the sun and carried by the wind’, designed to circumnavigate the globe by hitching a ride on jet streams ‘without the burning of fossil fuels, without using solar panels, batteries, helium, hydrogen or other rare gases’.

Since then, Aerocene has grown into an independent foundation dedicated to ‘increasing public awareness of global resource circulation’ and fostering ‘a common imaginary towards new ways of co-inhabiting the earth’. It explores the potential for air travel and perhaps even a new way of life in the clouds, completely independent from fossil fuels and national borders, thus standing in collaboration, not competition with other species with which we share the planet.

If your goal is to build castles in the air, then you have to start with your feet on the ground. The Aerocene Foundation and its on-site staff of around ten people share facilities with Studio Tomás Saraceno but are independent from it. The foundation is supported by grants, donations and sponsorships (Audemars Piguet, for example, is supporting an Aerocene symposium series and workshops at the Palais de Tokyo this October, and later in December at Art Basel Miami Beach). This core team is connected to a steadily growing global community of enthusiasts and participants, whose contributions range from technical support and design to flight tracking and conducting their own flights and experiments. The results are then all shared open-source as a form of creative communing. ‘It’s becoming more and more like an NGO’, says Erik Vogler, technical advisor and head of production design.

As a way of broadening their research, Aerocene has created around 40 ‘Aerocene Explorer’ backpacks. Anyone can request to borrow one of the backpacks, which contains all the tools you need to conduct your own solar-powered tethered flight. Individuals and groups are encouraged to do whatever they want with the kits: from hacking them to adding software and hardware, or creating dance performances, music or poetry around them. Alternatively, people can also build their own Explorer kits from instructions available on the website. When they are done, they share their results with Aerocene and the community, then hand the backpacks on to whoever wants one next. ‘What’s interesting’, says Aerocene communications manager Camilla Berggren, ‘is that if people damage the balloons, they are encouraged to repair them themselves. As the balloons get more used they gain all these marks from stitches and tape, which build history into the sculptures and make them belong to the community even more’. The aim of all this sharing is to grow the knowledge base of what can be done with solar-powered, free-floating technology.

Back in Brandenburg, the temperature has climbed well into the 30s as we finally locate the Aerocene aeronauts camped lakeside, down a long forest track in a place where Google maps remains obstinately offline. Their tensile tree tents are strung between the pine trees looking, appropriately enough, like spider webs in the morning sun. People are swimming and breakfasting, and some are fiddling with various pieces of equipment and cameras. There also seems to be some kind of discussion going on, since the forest warden just came by and made it clear that they are not supposed to be camping here. Nevertheless, the balloons are set up and a couple of canoes are pulled up on the little beach, ready to tow the new ‘Around the World’ hybrid prototype out into the lake for the launch. Nobody seems in much of a hurry, although it is now after 10am and solar-powered flight is greatly improved if you can catch the maximum hours of daylight before dark. Then, just as it looks like things are going to take off, the police turn up. More discussion ensues, accompanied by taking down of particulars. The 25 or so Aerocene crew and community on site break camp and trek back through the forest to pick up the rest of the vehicles and move to the giant public beach on the other side of the lake. About three hours later we are all sitting on this beach next to a leisure boat hire shop, drinking cold beer and eating lunch. Somebody is playing a guitar. The sand is so hot it burns our feet. It looks for all the world like a scene from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. All that’s missing are the beanie hats.

The test launch we are all here to witness and participate in is for ‘a solar hybrid balloon designed to fly night and day around the world’, explains Erik Vogler, ‘carried by a helium carrier to get data about temperature developments and behaviour.’ The sculpture (as he calls it) itself is a cuboid gossamer fabric bag made of Kopa foil that is usually used for transistors, along with three helium-filled SPS-13 balloons. A shiny metallic radar reflector was hung below, along with a Pecan Pico 10.b tracker and solar cell. This enabled the sculpture to send live photos and positioning via APRS radio waves back to the earth to be captured by the team monitoring it from the ground.

The person that seems to be working hardest all day is a community volunteer called Sven Steudte, whose day job is something to do with satellite technology. Together with another volunteer, Thomas Krahn, he designed the tracker attached to the balloons and all the software connected to it. Saraceno is plying him with cold Coca Cola as he sweats over his laptop monitoring the path of the Around the World device, hooking up with a community of Polish radio hams called Radio Sondypolska, who are helping with the tracking. Later at nightfall, they lose contact with the sculpture just east of Warsaw travelling at 12,000 metres through the lower stratosphere. ‘It may have dropped to the ground’, says an apparently unconcerned Vogler two days later, ‘or it may keep going, circumnavigating the earth.’ They will know when someone picks up contact with it via the radar reflector again, or finds it on the ground and returns it to the address written on a label attached.

Once the launch has been celebrated and we lose sight of the prototype in the glare of the afternoon sun, the team decides to unpack one of the huge black Explorer balloons. They fill it with air after much comical running up and down the beach between families with their picnics and inflatable toys. Saraceno then tows the giant black quivering pyramid out onto the lake in a canoe, ties a couple of GoPros to it and releases it into the afternoon sky. But heat clouds have now formed above us, and after a brief glorious surge, the balloon sinks gently beyond the far side of the lake.

So Aerocene is a utopian art investigation, a social experiment, an educational project, an exercise in collaboration and community-building. But how much scientific innovation is really involved? Ballooning has been a thing for over 300 years. So surely Google’s Loon project, ESA, NASA or other research institutions, with investment in the millions, are way beyond floating fabric bags into the sky with trackers attached?  ‘There are a few projects doing high-altitude ballooning in the stratosphere, but not many just use the heat of the sun’, says Vogler, ‘The French space agency CNES had their MIR (Montgolfière infrarouge) balloons that were also heated by the sun, able to fly overnight and catch the earth’s radiation, but they stopped the project.’ By not using helium or fossil fuels, he says Aerocene are developing a whole new category of ballooning. They are also trying to connect those advantages to other endeavours, encouraging meteorological stations, for example to switch from helium-filled balloons to fossil-free alternatives (helium is a by-product of fossil fuel extraction). The fact that helium was used in the Around the World solar sculpture ‘was a special case’ says Vogler, ‘because following the legacy of CNES, we need to find out how to keep flying overnight and collect data. The helium carrier allowed the extension of this experiment.’

Also, Vogler says, by developing their own soft and hardware at a tiny scale instead of docking onto the research of big companies like Google, they are showing that ‘You can also do it. We try to motivate people to create workshops and build their own devices. If you are going too fast with technologies that are high profile, the you are cutting out a lot of people from the opportunity to participate in this project.’ Inclusivity, it seems, is the primary driver for the Aerecene project: enabling ordinary people to feel like they can make a difference.

It is late afternoon. We leave the team earnestly discussing a rescue mission across the lake using pedaloes from the boat hire shop, and head back to Berlin. When our grandchildren ask where we were at the dawn of the Age of the Aerocene, we can say that we were there – and it was fun.