Aerosolar Sculptures

by Joan Sullivan

You’ve heard of the Anthropocene: the proposed name for the current geological epoch during which the collective activities of Homo sapiens have irrevocably and unwisely (man!) altered the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans and systems of nutrient recycling.

But have you heard of the Aerocene?

Tomás Saraceno, Aerocene Gemeni, Free Flight, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo by Tomás Saraceno, 2016.

Brainchild of the prolific Argentinian interdisciplinary artist Tomás Saraceno, Aerocene is the proposed name for a future planetary epoch – post-Anthropocene, post-fossil fuels – during which Wise man turns increasingly to the Air, to the unlimited potential of the Sun, to the borderless highways of the Wind. In this enlightened future era of ecological awareness, Saraceno imagines our species evolving beyond the Anthropocene to achieve sustainable co-habitation of our shared planet, no longer governed by extractive geopolitics.

To date, the Aerocene is perhaps best known for its open-source aerosolar sculptures (some made of reused plastic bags). These emissions-free floating airborne sculptures are filled only with air, lifted only by the sun, and carried only by the wind. Aerosolar sculptures are kept afloat in Earth’s stratosphere by the heat of the sun (during the day) and infrared radiation from the surface of the Earth (at night). No solar panels, no helium, no batteries, no fossil fuels. Just the sun and wind doing their magic.

Screenshot of Museo Aero Solar website

You can download free open-source do-it-together (DIT) instructions for making your own aerosolar sculptures here.

The Aerocene is also the name of an open-source participatory platform for global artistic and scientific collaboration to mobilize an urgent international and cross-disciplinary response to the Anthropocene. It has quickly evolved into a vibrant planetary movement of artists, meteorologists, engineers, architects, anthropologists, geographers, philosophers, historians, scientists, musicians, explorers, balloonists and several institutes (e.g. CNES, MIT, London’s Royal College of Art). An unsigned online manifesto calls for, among other things, “building a less anthropocentric relationship with our environment” and to “re/entangle ourselves with the surrounding milieu.”

While Studio Tomás Saraceno is located in Berlin, Saraceno “lives and works in and beyond the planet Earth”. He has been widely exhibited internationally in solo and group exhibitions including, among others, the Venice Art Biennale (2009), Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart (2011), New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012), Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2015), COP21 (2015), London’s Royal College of Art (2016), Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv (2017), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2017), and Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2018-2019).

In 2017, Saraceno was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as the TED2017 in Vancouver where he inspired audiences to “consider the impossible.”

By creating positive new narratives, Saraceno and his collaborators around the world challenge conventional thinking about climate change, architecture, the energy transition, mobility. The result is often a palpable sense of awe – a cosmic jam session – that inspires new ways of thinking about our relation to our only home, Earth.

In an interview posted on an MIT website, Saraceno explained his fascination with the Air: “We like to think of ourselves as living on the Earth’s surface, but we are living at the bottom of an ocean of air.” In a second interview, he added “There are highways in the sky; the jet stream moves at a speed of 300km per hour.” Saraceno’s aerosolar sculptures that glide on wind currents prompt us to “speculate on how mobility shapes the way we live on the earth.”

The Aerocene’s focus on nature as an endless source of inspiration is in stark contrast to many contemporary artistic interpretations of the Anthropocene’s planetary destruction as a fait accompli. For example, a recent major multimedia exhibition in Canada entitled Anthropocene at two simultaneous art museums featured hauntingly beautiful but emotionally numbing images of human-altered landscapes by the award-winning Canadian collaborators Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pencier.

While reaction to this ambitious concurrent exhibition was generally positive, several reviewers astutely questioned “Do we need (more) images of the Anthropocene, and why?” and “It feels frankly preposterous, not to mention criminally self-indulgent, that we are still observing, documenting, recording – still bearing witness, though what we are mostly bearing witness to is our own profound denial. Is another artistic project, no matter how spectacular, really what we need at this stage?”

Jayne Wilkinson, independent curator and Managing Editor at Canadian Art, concluded her review of Canada’s recent Anthropocene exhibit with strong words: “It is dangerous to continue to uphold the aesthetics of destruction.”

An increasing number of scientific and arts/cultural organizations are calling on artists to help “change the narrative” about climate change and planetary destruction by creating positive stories that offer a compelling vision of a post-carbon world we want to live in. I am personally interested in forward-looking stories that focus on solutions. Stories that invite audiences to ask themselves “How do we get there from here?”

Tomás Saraceno shows us how to get there: by daring to imagine, by embracing the impossible.

No more looking backward. No more dystopic discourse. It is time to focus all our creative energy on collectively imagining a post-carbon, post-Anthropocene future of clean abundance and endless opportunity. We can not build that which we cannot imagine.

(Top image: Screenshot from ArtNet website)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Visura.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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