Tomás Saraceno

The physicist Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, reasons that since biology is our era’s dominant science, “the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants.” His view has a basis in the ever-increasing relevance and credibility of interdisciplinary research, where artists and designers will begin creating new transgenic life-forms using applied biotechnology. The work of artists such as Tomás Saraceno, with its interdisciplinary combinations of biology, arachnology (the study of spiders), sustainability, physics, and engineering, may provide the footing to turn Dyson’s hybrid visions into reality. Recent research on interdisciplinarity shows us that while monodisciplinary projects yield a far greater number of ideas, “breakthrough” ideas are more likely to emerge from the domain of interdisciplinary research, especially—and this sounds counterintuitive—where partnered disciplines are more different than alike. In Saraceno’s art, such collaborations result in visionary and entertaining spectacles but with hard science baked in. Saraceno’s design methodology is akin to what science historian Alex Pang recently called “tinkering to the future”; it fuses customized technology with artistic innovation, as evinced by 59 Steps to Be on Air, 2003, a solar-powered vehicle capable of lifting the passenger off the ground. Is it science or art? Saraceno’s hybrid vehicle answers with a wholehearted yes!

The exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall paraded Saraceno’s artistic accomplishments, but his practice is no stranger to the metrics of science. Indeed, his work sometimes sits more comfortably there, as in ILSRA-2009-1049, 2009, a research proposal to the European Space Agency to study spiders weaving webs in microgravity. Saraceno coauthored the paper with four scientists who conclude that their interdisciplinary research would have simultaneous applications in chemistry, sensory physiology, ecology, engineering, architecture, and art. One thinks of Richard Holmes’s book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008), the fascinating account of the “second scientific revolution,” when science and art were friends and Keats would compare his elation at feeling expanding horizons while reading Homer to William Herschel’s first sighting of Uranus. It was a time when artist and scientist could share common ambitions for discovery.

Projects like Air-Port-City, 2007, tell us that Saraceno sees the future as a remake of modernism. His colonization of the sky is the progeny of Georgi Krutikov’s Flying City, 1928; R. Buckminster Fuller’s Cloud Nines (giant floating geodesic habitats); Archigram’s Instant City, 1968–70; and the inflatable architecture of the 1960s Utopie group in the 1960s—but the significant difference is that Saraceno has science on his side. He is as utopian as any of these precursors, writing, “This will allow for greater energy saving and give people not only data but also an incredible mobility, thus permitting a constant redefining of boundaries and of national, cultural and racial identities.” But his prototypes and working models elevate his ideas from “what if” visualizations to actual demonstrations of relevance. This is what puts Saraceno in the company of artists such as Hans Haacke (and his Rhinewater Purification Plant, 1972) and Michael Joaquin Grey (whose ZOOB, 1997, is a toy for designing biomimicry systems that fuse art with science). Saraceno’s projects are pragmatic and postcritical, presenting scalable and achievable alternatives by way of interdisciplinary, practice-based research. Just as the most significant innovations will be hatched working across disciplines, Saraceno’s retrospective, the first look back at his career, actually shows us the way forward.

Ronald Jones