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Posts from the ‘Art’ Category

Aerocene – flight without borders

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Rubin Center for the Visual Arts


In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.

Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.

Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.

Black balloon lying in desert

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, air heating as the sun rises, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.

Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.

Black balloon, white desert, blue sky, person suspended

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.

On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.

We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.

The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).

The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.

As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.

black balloon, person suspended, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno flies his Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015.

Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.

His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.

But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.

Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Nicola Triscott flies Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Exploring the border of art and space: the “territory of the imagination”

A projection in a cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation – cave)

I have spent the last few days with a very special group of people in El Paso, Texas, on the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and in White Sands, New Mexico, a region where the space program had its beginnings and that is now home to a high number of emerging commercial space programs.

The occasion was the opening of Territory of the Imagination: At the Border of Art and Space’ at the Rubin Center of the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, curated by Kerry Doyle, a program of exhibitions, workshops and events highlighting the work of artists engaged in disruptive, alternative, and collective interactions with space and space technology, particularly artists from Latin America and the US-Mexico border region.

The program has been such a rich and thought-provoking experience that I want to blog about it in two parts, the first addressing the exhibition and the issues raised in it, the second focusing on Tomas Saraceno’s project Aerocene and the ‘Space Without Rockets’ conference, programmed by Rob La Frenais.

The four elements of the exhibition are the Astrovandalistas’ Imaginario Inverso, Matters of Gravity, Arte en Orbita and Tomas Saraceno’s Aerosolar.

Astrovandalistas is an artist collective interested in the effects of the industrialisation of our social imaginary in contexts where corporate and government interests supersede the individual and collective concerns of citizens. For Territory of the Imagination, they are running a series of workshops with communities in El Paso and Juarez and preparing a laser communication system to enable the creation of futuristic narratives about the border region. They are using lasers, in a reinterpretation of NASA’s laser communication technology for terrestrial purposes, both to transmit and engrave these narratives into stones. At the opening event, their preliminary research could be viewed both in the gallery and in a cave on the hillside.

Man shows device in cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso, laser device in cave installation

Engraved rocks in front of projected film with mountain

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation)

Matters of Gravity (La Gravedad de los Asuntos) presents the artistic outputs of a two-year programme of research (advised by The Arts Catalyst) by a group of Mexican artists, organised by Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente, into the nature of gravity and zero gravity, including a zero gravity flight at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.

Woman flies an ancient contraption in a zero gravity flight

Tania Candiani, Machine for flying, Besnier 1673, Matters of Gravity

Picture of a giant hourglass with sand floating inside

Ale de la Puente, An Infinity Without Destiny, Matters of Gravity

Arte En Orbita was a selection of films from an Ecuadorian exhibition of the same name, curated by Pedro Soler and Fabiane Borges, featuring a number of contemporary postcolonial space agencies – from Latin America, Africa and Palestine – that have appropriated technologies and imaginaries of space for their own use.

Person in crude silver spacesuit

Kongo Astronauts, Arte En Orbita

Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene (which will be the subject of a separate blog post) shows his work developing an alternative system for transport in the sky and potentially in space through solar balloons. The exhibition of photographs and videos ‘Becoming Aerosolar’ sets the context for furthering his research and discourse in the conference ‘Space Without Rockets’, curated by Rob La Frenais, and the attempted launch of his prototype solar balloon Aerocene in the White Sands desert (see my next blog post!).

A giant balloon made of old carrier bags floats in the air

Tomas Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2009

The projects in Territory of the Imagination connect the sociopolitics of space technology with issues of the territorialisation of space. Whilst the drive to explore space and visit other celestial bodies is visionary and open-minded, the space industry tends to replicate and propagate existing habits of thinking and ideologies from earth, such as American concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘frontier’, transferred from American historical narratives into the discourse of the space industry.

Since the 1960s, social imaginaries of space became largely synonymous with the national and international projects of Apollo, the ISS, space probes, Mars landers and Hubble. With the emergence of commercial space programmes – and New Mexico is where much of this is taking place – this imaginary is changing. A new ideological framework for space endeavours is emerging in which private enterprise is seen as the determining factor: space has become a place to be exploited for commercial ends. Is this the outer space of our own imaginings, those of us affected by space activities and, argues the United Nations’ space treaties, collective custodians of space as a ‘global commons’ but uninvolved in its industries?

It seems important that we question the ideologies shaping the new space age. Developing alternative social imaginaries of space is a critical part of this questioning. The space programme was historically shaped by the visions of artists and writers, and the same process could apply today. Artists, such as those in Territory of the Imagination, who engage in tactical, interrogatory or playful interactions with space themes, or who appropriate the images and technologies of space in ways that connect people to new bodies of knowledge, are developing alternative poetic and progressive imaginaries of space, and contributing to a vital societal and cultural dialogue, in which people from many cultures and across disciplines can take part.

2014 at The Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst's 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Mixed reviews of 2014 as a year in the media. The Arts Catalyst meanwhile has had a pretty darned good 2014 – our 20th anniversary year – which is remarkable considering the difficult political and economic climate in which the non-profit arts sector is situated. Our projects continued our ongoing artistic and cultural investigations into space exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, ecology, polar studies, and ‘epic’ residencies for artists.

We launched our year in January, in the wake of China landing a probe on the Moon triggering fears of mining operations on the Moon, by declaring an artists’ ‘Republic of the Moon’ and transforming the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into the lunar republic’s Earth-based embassy. The exhibition was a popular and critical success. It included works by Agnes Meyer Brandis, Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Katie Paterson, and Joanna Griffin and the Moon Vehicle Group, and an evolving installation and residency by artists We Colonised the Moon (Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser). We animated the exhibition with performances, workshops, music, talks, a pop-up moon shop by super/collider and playful protests against lunar exploitation.

Republic of the Moon at the Bargehouse, 2014

Lunar protest, We Colonised the Moon in Republic of the Moon

We Colonised the Moon’s lunar protest, in Republic of the Moon

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

In June, we brought the spectacular artist road-rail vehicle SEFT-1 to London. SEFT-1 was created by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene to explore the abandoned and ruined passenger railway networks of Mexico and Ecuador. Arts Catalyst, in partnership Furtherfield commissioned a new exhibition about their journeys, with video, photographs, objects, and a scale-model diorama of a viaduct ruin in Mexico, which the artists had explored on their travels. The exhibition reflected on how the ideology of progress is imprinted onto historic landscapes through the modern ruin.

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Viaduct


Model of the Metlac Viaduct, 2014

July saw us visit Japan with a group of artists to explore the artistic, societal and political responses to nuclear energy post-Fukushima. In partnership with S-AIR in Sapporo, and curated by Arts Catalyst’s associate curator Ele Carpenter, we organized the Actinium exhibition, which included works by James Acord, Shuji Akagi, Chim↑Pom, Crowe & Rawlinson, Karen Kramer, Cécile Massart, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Thomson & Craighead, which formed part of the Sapporo International Art Festival Collaborative Program and acted as a base for discussions, screenings and field trips to nuclear facilities around Hokkaido, and further afield to Eastern Japan around Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Meanwhile, our curated exhibition Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, commissioned by the British Council, and featuring some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, toured from MOSI (Manchester Museum of Science & Industry) to New Zealand’s IceFest in Christchurch and then to Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen -Belare 2008-2009

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, “Zero emission” polar research station, Ice Lab

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

As part of our ongoing investigatory project with YoHa, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, we organized workshops in Leigh-on-Sea over the summer months to involve local people and artists in exploring and mapping the changing ecology of the Thames estuary. Wrecked is setting up a network of local people, artists and technologists to explore how local “situated” knowledge of the estuary can be combined with artistic investigations and citizen science techniques to explore and respond to a changing, contested estuary.


Thames Estuary, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone. Photo: Fran Galardo

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked on the intertidal zone public workshop

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked public workshop. Photo: YoHa

Yours truly, stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea, Wrecked

Yours truly stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea (the reality of being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone). Photo: Jo Fells

The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party in October was delightfully celebrated with many friends, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, a moon landing darts game organized by We Colonised the Moon, a whisky tornado by Bompas & Parr, and music by Teleplasmiste and the Pond Scum Light Orchestra.

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: We Colonised the Moon’s moon landing darts. Photo: Marek Kukula

Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Kosmica Mexico moved into its third festival in Mexico City in November in partnership with Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Centro Cultura Digitale, programmed by Nahum Mantra. Artists, scientists, performers, scholars, space explorers, workshop leaders and musicians from Mexico, UK, France, Canada and USA came together to explore the cultural and artistic aspects of space exploration, including Bompas and Parr and super/collider’s recreation and extension of their intoxicating and wildly popular event ‘A brief history of drinking in space’ from Republic of the Moon’ as well as topics such as sex and sexuality in space, and nostalgia for the Earth.

Bompas & Parr's Whiskey Tornado at Kosmica Mexico

Marie-Pier Boucher, Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente try out Bompas & Parr’s Whisky Soda Vaporisation Chamber in ‘A Brief History of Drinking in Space’ at Kosmica Mexico 2014

In a series of international “epic residencies” throughout the year, we enabled artist Alistair McClymont to spend several weeks at the Central Laser Facility in Didcot with some of the most powerful lasers in the world, facilitated visits and field trips for six artists and curators to Japan (Revital Cohen, Tuur Van Balen, Ele Carpenter, Jon Thomson, Alison Craighead, Karen Kramer and Susan Schuppli), and supported Kuai Shen’s research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. We also advised and supported the Mexican project La Gravedad de los Asuntos, led by Nahum Mantra, which – inspired by The Arts Catalyst’s zero gravity programme (2000-2005) – saw a group of Mexican artists and scientists, including Ivan Puig, Ale de la Puente, Arcángel Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Iván Puig, Juan José Díaz Infante, Marcela Armas, Miguel Alcubierre, Tania Candiani and Nahum, go to Star City Russia and undertake artistic research in zero gravity.

All that and a new website, our first e-reader, and a map of the Arts Catalyst’s two decades of experimental, trail-blazing projects.

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

And, towards the end of the year, we said ‘au revoir’ to curator Rob La Frenais, off to undertake new freelance projects (although he will be working with Arts Catalyst on one-off projects in the future) …

HAPPY 2015!!!

HAPPY 2015!!!

Related reading material – for those who want:
Republic of the Moon manifesto
Railways, ruins & modernity blog post (on SEFT-1)
Nuclear Culture blog (Actinium)
and my blog posts on nuclear culture in Japan – Part 1 Part 2
Ice Lab book
Alistair McClymont’s blog (Beam Time residency)
Arts Catalyst Reader Volume 1
A Brief History of The Arts Catalyst (20th anniversary booklet)

Fracking futures – HeHe’s experimental drilling cuts out the middle man

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

As David Koch – the wealthy industrialist whose company is responsible for the dumping of a three-storey high city block sized pile of petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil sands refining) in Detroit’s Assumption Park – funds a new plaza at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m prompted to wonder what we in the UK arts sector will get up to in response to Government calls for reductions in public subsidy to be replaced with corporate and personal philanthropy, as per the American model.

Viewing the ongoing hubbub around BP’s ongoing sponsorship of our major institutions, Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House, how can we finance our work without sparking quite such a furor? And anyway, how much do we want to benefit a multinational?

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

In The Arts Catalyst latest commission with FACT, Liverpool, artist group HeHe (Heiko Hansen and Helen Evans) propose a radical solution: cut out the middle man, let’s extract our own fossil fuels.

In FACT’s ground floor Gallery 1, HeHe have begun initial exploratory tests to extract shale gas through an innovative process known as fracking, turning the space into an experimental drilling site. Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’: pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in subterranean rocks, releasing the gas trapped several miles beneath the earth’s surface. HeHe’s initial explorations have already discovered that the area directly beneath FACT consists of Holywell shale and might hold at least 20 trillion cubic feet of gas. This energy will be used to ensure the future operation of FACT and the energy created will be exported directly to the local community.

Whilst fracking is a controversial procedure which has caused mass public debate in the US and currently in Britain – and certainly there will be some unquantifiable subterranean noise and minor ground tremors in the gallery, as well as probable minor explosions and effluent discharge – it’s all being done with public safety and public benefit as a priority.

HeHe’s Fracking Futures ties into a long history of mining and extraction in northwest England, and looks to the contemporary context wherein sites around Blackpool, Manchester and Southport have been, or are currently, in the process of being approved for fracking. This artists’ installation aims to draw attention to current debates surrounding the process, both economic and environmental.


HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT for ‘Turning FACT Inside Out’

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