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[VIDEO] Exploring Cloud Cities and Solar Balloon Travel with Tomás Saraceno

World-renowned artist Tomás Saraceno sits down with The Creators Project to talk about the architectures of flying buildings, spider webs and solar balloons.

Tomás Saraceno’s new studio is under construction, and slowly taking over two imposing three-story buildings in the area of Köpenick, a red-bricked and forested district of Berlin that spills into the nearby Spree and Dahme rivers and the Mügglesee lake. Inside, the studio is huge and rough, and filled with elaborate models of flying pyramidal plazas, patchwork solar balloons, and a specialized tropical environment for exotic spiders. “In old buildings, there’s always a spiderweb in a corner,” says Saraceno as he climbs the stairs.

Tomás Saraceno, Cloud-Specific, 2011. Mixed media. Different dimensions. Installation views at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis 2011. Courtesy: Tomás Saraceno; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Andersen's Contemporary, Copenhagen; and pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa.

Saraceno, a trained architect, is endlessly fascinated by cities and structures -- particularly ones that exist above ground and float in the air. And over the years, he’s translated the networks and geometries of social, political and natural environments into new habitable spaces and poetic experiences, such as the walkable Cloud City at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the intricate Galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider’s web showcased at the 2009 Venice Art Biennale. In our new documentary, above, we step into the creator’s fantastical “lighter-than-air” world of spider web sculptures and research into futuristic airborne cities.

Tomás Saraceno On the Roof: Cloud City, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © Photograpy and Collage by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2012

Saraceno can trace his obsession with structures in the sky back to the age of one, when he and his family were exiled from Argentina due to the dictatorship, and forced to move to Italy. When he returned ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home. “I was always in a place where I feel like I didn’t belong. I like to travel a lot now. I thought it would be interesting to challenge how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth,” he tells The Creators Project. “That’s why I’m trying to build these flying cities.”

Tomas Saraceno, Flying Garden /Air-Port-City, 2005. Installation view: Villa Manin, Center for Contemporary Art, Codroipo, Italy. Photo: Sillani. Elliptical air pillows, elastic rope, helium, air, clouds. Different dimensions. Courtesy the artist and pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa.

Architecture, Saraceno believes, is more than the art and science of creating buildings, but a way to consider the construction, articulation or composition of anything, from music to spiderwebs and even computer systems. At the same time, scientific research and knowledge are especially important to his creative process. Often, he collaborates with scientists to ground his work in biology, physics, engineering, chemistry, aeronautics and materials science.

Tomás Saraceno : In Orbit at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf 2013. Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno ©2013

At the Museo Villa Croce, he worked with a team of biologists, musicians, and electronic engineers to create Cosmic Jive: the Spider Sessions, an installation that considered the structure of spiderwebs in the context of sound and vibration. The installation was set in a pitch-dark room with the sound of semi-social spiders on solitary webs coming from the left speaker, and the sound of solitary spiders on webs built by social spiders on the right. The sounds, which were actually the vibrations from the webs, shifted in intensity depending on the visitor’s location, and were interwoven with the soundtrack of far-away galaxies captured by space agencies. His “arachno-sculptures,” created by the many spiders crowding the ground floor of his Berlin studio, were peppered throughout the exhibit, lit with a spotlight.

Tomas Saraceno, Cosmic Jive: the Spider Session at Museo di Villa Croce, Genoa - Italy, 2014. Curators: Luca Cerizza and Ilaria Bonacossa. Courtesy: Tomás Saraceno; Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Andersen's Contemporary, Copenhagen, Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin.

During his work with spiderwebs, Saraceno was curious about how all the threads of a web were interconnected: pluck one, and another would vibrate. He explored the same concept in On Space Time Foam, a walkable environment made of three layers of transparent film filled with air that filled the post-industrial Hangar Bicocca in Milan. This project was the result of Saraceno’s studies on how humans perceive gravity, but also a brilliant reflection on the M-theory on parallel universes, and the concept of social distance. As participants moved to different areas in the space, the plastic shape would shift and sink while its opposite end would bulge. “It plays a lot with the concept of proxemia, the distance that you communicate to the others, and how much you can get close,” he says. “If you get too close you get trapped in a kind of social black hole, which is very difficult to escape. You have to become very, very aware.”

In addition to a passion for futuristic research and social science, Saraceno is intrigued with the rediscovery of vintage technology, specifically lighter-than-air travel. He is most intrigued by the solar balloon: “Only eight exist in the world!” He recently set out to build one, and succeeded. Saraceno believes the solar balloon can be an alternative mode of transportation, and even possibly the foundation for new habitats in the sky. The studio is now looking for partners to promote this revived technology. “If you build a city of flying buildings, it has to be very light. Maybe with the wind they could fly themselves. A kite city,” he muses, with a faraway look in his eye.

Tomas Saraceno, 59 steps to be on air by sun power, 2003. Black polyethylene 15 microns, tape, sun. 21m height, 14,5m diameter. Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno. 

Related: 

Tomás Saraceno's Massive Cloud City Graces The Met's Rooftop

In Orbit Lets Visitors Experience A Vast Cloudscape Suspended 80ft In The Air

Solar Bell Is A Flying Sculpture Powered By The Wind