United Ecosystems

Flying gardens. Cloud cities. Oceans of air. Aerocene performances. These are works by Argentina-born, Berlin-based Tomás Saraceno (b. 1973), a creative whose practice spans art, activism, innovation and scientific research. As founder of Aerocene Foundation (2015 – present), he is dedicated to working towards a society free from carbon emissions, guided by a just and eco-social energy transition. It’s a response to stark facts about air pollution, which is expected to double – even triple – if unmitigated by 2050. 

Saraceno is also committed to rethinking the prevailing, and often western, threads of knowledge that dominate the “Capitalocene era.” This concept entered the vernacular in 2016, after historian Jason W. Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism was published. The book argues that global 21st century crises are, all too often, rooted in “The Age of Capital” and driven by consumerism. To do so, Saraceno and his studio work in collaboration with global communities, like the Indigenous populations of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, Jujuy, Argentina, to share different ways of thinking about nature with wider audiences. The artist is an advocate for our responsibility as stewards and active participants of the diverse ecosystems in which we live. He continues to engage with protests against lithium extraction in his home country. 

Now, Saraceno presents his first UK solo show at London’s Serpentine Galleries. It comes as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reports that global temperatures are set to reach new records in the next five years – exceeding the 1.5°C threshold established by the Paris Agreement in 2015.

A: The idea at the core of Web(s) of Life is that we’re all connected. When did your interest in ecosystems begin?
I come from a family of scientists, which has influenced my work and inspired collaborations with other researchers. I’m inspired by spiders and the concept of webs, and for many years have encouraged galleries to recognise spiders as artists in their own right. I find it interesting that they produce complex geometries yet are not able to see them because of their very poor vision. It’s a  process – almost like synaesthesia – of being able to perceive something through other senses rather than sight alone. I’m exploring other ways of knowing, as inspired by these creatures and communities across the world, and re-examining certain categories in order to question what is living and what is not.

A: Arachnophilia – meaning the love of spiders – is central to the show. Can you tell us more about this?
I read a statistic that the average house is likely home to more than 60 spiders; older houses may have hundreds. There are 650 species living in the UK, which might scare people – many have a big fear of arachnids. Whilst working in the Somié village in Cameroon, we found that there are other cultures who do not suffer the same arachnophobia as many in Europe do. Nggàm is a type of divinationfound amongst groups in western Cameroon, in which the actions of spiders are interpreted. I have worked closely with diviner Bollo Pierre Tadios. He asked if I could build a webpage through which people could ask spiders questions. We have spent almost three years discussing the site, which has now launched at nggamdu.org and is accessible at Serpentine South. The intellectual property belongs to him and the village; it’s really about knowledge sharing. Some cultures have relationships with others based only on extraction: not only of minerals, but also data. When it comes to digital  privacy and how information is circulated it’s often in ways that are beneficial only to the few. The website, conversely, connects Tadios to people around the world whilst preserving an important traditional practice. You can consult the diviners directly, and 100% of income goes to their community.

A: It’s estimated that 99% of UK residents aged 16-24 own smartphones, up from 29% in 2008. Serpentine invites us to give up devices when visiting the show. Why?
The idea was to draw attention to the lithium inside our phones and to encourage visitors to activate their eyes, not their screens. This part of the show was conceived in solidarity with the Indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, who are fighting against the Global North’s industrial lithium mining in their ancestral lands. Neo-colonial extractivism is depleting the water supply and displacing people and ecosystems. For many, being without smartphones is an activity in itself, and  it was encouraging to see how pleased visitors were to give up their devices. Many forgot to collect them, or noted how enjoyable it was to not view an exhibition through a camera. Personally, I was spending too much time on my devices: I had become addicted. Every week, your phone sends a screen time report – mine was growing too much.  I began to leave it in the kitchen and go to bed without it. I slept better and started to notice the birds and magpies which were nesting outside.

A: On 25 January 2020, Aerocene launched the “most sustainable flight in human history.” What’s the story?
If we could enter an “Aerocene era,” a key indicator would be the maintenance and care of all inhabitants and ecosystems, not only those in the Global North. It would constitute the most sustainable flight in human history: billions of inhabitants floating together on planet Earth, spinning around the sun. This is something that seems to be forgotten but that Aerocene recognises. Humans have always dreamed of flying, but for many, that dream is becoming a nightmare as petro-capitalist structures pollute and destabilise our planet. As an eco-social movement that brings together artists, activists, philosophers, balloonists, dreamers, birds and spiders, we’re trying to imagine other modes which are not so dependent on fossil fuels or hydrocarbons. We use the laws and principles of floating, just like when building boats to traverse water. Instead, we travel through something less dense: the air. We heat it using only the sun, and float with the Earth’s air flow. Aerocene has floated 7,060 minutes free from carbon in 110 tethered, 15 free and eight human flights. It’s an environmental and ethical collaboration, an interdisciplinary community that looks towards another era: post-anthropocentric, post-Capitalocene. The purpose is to move towards a world in which water, air and life are valued more than lithium or carbon. Ultimately, Aerocene is a movement for resistance, for solidarity and for a more just, equitable society for all.

A: How is your green ethos reflected in the staging of Web(s) of Life? Did you work with Serpentine on this?
We managed to reduce the energy consumption of the exhibition by switching off air conditioning and installing solar panels. One challenge was to not consume more than the panels could give. The show expends only two thirds of the energy produced; the rest is given back to the grid. I feel that if we are going to produce energy for a show, it should  be done locally. Web(s) of Life is wholly reliant on solar: depending on the weather, it may enter different modes, Sunny, Partly Sunny, Cloudy or Heat Wave – leading certain installations to switch off, dim, or run at lower frequency.

A: Recently, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg collaborated with Serpentine on a garden designed to sustain bees. What local non-human perspectives do you consider?
Serpentine is located within Kensington Gardens, so it’s surrounded by more wildlife than many museums in London. You can see ducks, foxes, insects and squirrels. By talking with biodiversity specialists, we realised that many regional birds have entered the red list for extinction. Why couldn’t museums a be spaces for encountering and safeguarding them? Most local creatures had been there since before the show started, some before humans have been on this planet – as much as 300 million years ago. Modern humans are only 160,000 years old. It’s about understanding the delicate relationship we need to weave to sustain and maintain life on Earth. We agreed with park authorities that, if a bird’s nest is built inside a sculpture like Cloud Cities: Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (2023), the piece would not be moved. We are developing a new relationship between collectors, galleries, artists and birds called partial common ownership – or partial common stewardship. It is a way of life that many cultures have respected for a very long time.

A: You spoke of communities fighting to protect their lands from lithium mining. What’s your involvement?
Two million litres of water are required to extract one tonne of lithium. Since 2017, Aerocene has collaborated with communities in Jujuy to help spread their urgent message. In January 2023, with Maristella Svampa, we brought together lawyers, activists, writers and poets for a gathering in Alfarcito, where the communities declared their ancestral lands as a Subject of Rights. This followed a  2020 flight, where the message “water and life are worth more than lithium” was lifted above the salinas on a huge flying sculpture, achieving the world record for the most sustainable flight in human history. During Web(s) of Life, visitors can better understand this by watching Fly with Pacha – into the Aerocene (2017 – ongoing). Most recently, we arranged a meeting between James Cameron and Verónica Chávez, a community president, who informed him of these grave violations of human and environmental rights. We have also received support from activists such as Greta Thunberg.

A: Web(s) of Life is ecological, political and philosophical, all at once. What do you hope audiences take away?
We try not to treat people as an “audience.” It can make them feel alienated. Instead, I ask: how can we involve others more actively? This doesn’t mean visitors can’t be contemplative, but it’s about being present. Hopefully, we reveal different ways of knowing and of being human. These are not necessarily western perspectives, and it’s important to do this with respect. We must recognise that 5% of the world – First Nations people, Indigenous communities – are those who maintain 80% of planet Earth’s vast biodiversity.

Tomás Saraceno In Collaboration: Web(s) of Life

Serpentine Galleries | Until 10 September


Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image credits:

1.Tomás Saraceno, Eclipse of the Aerocene Explorer, Bolivia (2016). Courtesy the artist and Aerocene Foundation. Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno.

2.Tomás Saraceno, Aerocene Launches at White Sands, (2015). Courtesy the artist and Aerocene Foundation. Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno.

3.Fly with Aerocene Pacha was produced by Aerocene Foundation and Studio Tomás Saraceno. Project supported by Connect and BTS, and curated by DaeHyung Lee. 

4.Tomás Saraceno, Sunny Day, Airport City, (2009). Courtesy the artist. Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno.

5.Tomás Saraceno, Endless Blue II, (2006). Courtesy the artist. Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno.