Tomás Saraceno

Dream of the Aerocene

In order to help us move beyond the Anthropocene, Tomás Saraceno, an Argentinian artist imagines a new era, the Aerocene. By mobilizing science-based tools, he proposes turning away from extractive and predatory behaviors in order to try and change our habits rather than the climate. With his recent work Aerocene Pasha, he achieved the most sustainable flight in history and revealed concrete alternative actions.

‘‘Generally speaking, I always strive to form part of a movement and not dwell on differences or on the exceptionalism of who I am or what I can do as an artist. What I’m interested in is similarities, exploring everything that could help connect individuals and approaches. In a sense, even being different helps connect to one another, because it opens up potentialities and synergies. My way of thinking and working is to look for contact points between disciplines. We are all different, but it is my belief that we could nevertheless somehow work together, gather together around projects. And I do it with humans, but also with nonhumans, such as dust or spiders—I’m fascinated with spider intelligence—because it seems to me that the discourse of the Anthropocene has accelerated the urgency of the need to understand other realities, other points or webs of view.

To give you an example, one of the projects I’m most happy about, Aerocene Pacha, emerged from an invitation by BTS, a huge K-pop band. The band itself is a global phenomenon. I think they’ve sold more records than the Beatles, although I had never heard about them when they first contacted me. At any rate, it was my first project that didn’t directly come from the art world. As part of a global exhibition, Connect BTS, DaeHyung Lee acted as a curator, inviting various artists from all over the world. When they asked me to create an artwork in my country of origin, we chose to return to northern Argentina, in the province of Jujuy, where I produced a series of artworks in 2018 with the support of CCK. I knew there were huge tensions and struggles around lithium extraction there. The salt lakes in this region, in what is known as the Lithium Triangle between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, contain 70% of the lithium reserves of the planet. Lithium is used, among other things, for electric car batteries as well as in almost all the devices of the “green revolution.” But there are very strong tensions between multinational companies and the indigenous populations, as extracting lithium plainly destroys their way of life. One ton of lithium requires two million liters of water, resulting in huge amounts of pollution and waste, just as with fracking. In Jujuy, the atmosphere is very dry and there is very little rain, and all the agriculture there and the indigenous way of life relies on this scarce water resource. But now, large corporations are coming in to extract all these minerals with the same colonial mindset as five hundred years ago—nothing has changed—and this leaves the local communities with very little chance of self-determination.

Fly with Aerocene Pacha, a Tomás Saraceno project, Leticia Noemi Marques, Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina ©Tomás Saraceno

We decided to create a flying sculpture, based on the principle of the hot-air balloon, bearing a slogan, “Water and Life are Worth More than Lithium” written with the communities of Salinas Grandes in Jujuy. The flight of Aerocene Pacha took place without any use of fossil fuels, batteries, lithium, solar panels, helium, or hydrogen. It marks the most sustainable flight in human history, and one of the most important experiments in the history of aviation. The sculpture rises up thanks to the temperature difference caused by the hot sun, in other words thanks to the collaboration between the sun and the atmosphere, and our collaboration with them, but also thanks to dialog and collaboration between humans. Together with the communities, we carried out the Pachamama ritual, thanking Mother Earth and asking for its blessing. There, in the salt lake, a meeting of different cultures and generations took place, with Korean and Argentinian youth coming together to sing BTS songs in Korean, as well as people from the art world, friends, and family. It was really wonderful to see all these people working together, especially since we were conveying a very strong message with the indigenous communities, a message everyone could see carried off into the sky.

We received confirmation from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) that this was the most sustainable flight in human history, more so than those of the Wright or Montgolfier brothers, or than anyone who has ever managed to lift themselves into the air! FAI, based in Lausanne, is the authority for air and space flight. For over a century they have recognized the most important accomplishments in air and space; awarding world records to individuals such as Peter Lindbergh, Maryse Bastié, Yuri Gagarin, the crew of Apollo 11. For the Pacha project, these thirty-two world records also represent the profound contributions made by the communities of Salinas Grandes. The exchange of local knowledge and the struggles faced by the native communities as a result of the extractive lithium industry that now plagues the region were central to the narrative of the Aerocene Pacha project, defining the next step toward humanitarian action for the Aerocene Foundation.

Aerocene Pacha also shows that technology could—and needs to—be coupled with social coherence and decoupled from extractive energies. It illustrates the activist dimension of artistic work, which isn’t simply about generating emotions, but also about revealing prospects for concrete alternatives, coupled with genuine social coherence. Artists now increasingly want to contribute more toward welfare, redistribution, and equality within society. It isn’t only an artistic practice and we often diverge into crafting governance, the processes that will help shape our work. For instance, we experiment with practical solutions and share all the information and data of the project in an open source way.

I believe that we must step up collective actions like this one on all fronts, not only as artists or architects who stick to their fields. Being an architect isn’t enough to really contribute to change things, if it ever was. We must engage in rethinking the way we’ve been designing and organizing in the West, open up to other disciplines, other societies, and other worldviews. Quite simply, we have to move beyond the silos in which Western modernity has enclosed us.’’


A preview of our interview with Tomás Saraceno for the 5th issue of our magazine Stream, to be published this autumn.

"Fly with Aerocene Pacha", a project by Tomás Saraceno, Leticia Noemi Marques, Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina ©Tomás Saraceno

Proceeds from Fly with Aerocene Pacha supports Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN), a non-profit that connects with communities in northern Argentina working to maintain biodiversity in the region. Fly with Aerocene Pacha was produced by the Aerocene Foundation and Studio Tomás Saraceno.

Supported by Connect BTS (curated by DaeHyung Lee) Eric and Caroline Freymond.