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Piloting the Aerocene

How to grasp, in feeling as much as in thought, the promise of new forms of life in the air? This question, and the promise that sustains it, runs through the work of Tomás Saraceno, and takes shape in the form of the sphere with which we are confronted at the Grand Palais. Prepared through careful arts of fabrication, through processes of inflation, this promise can only be realized, however, in the vital act of releasing something – and eventually many things – into the air. In Saraceno’s works, acts of release become ethical, aesthetic, and political occasions of profound importance and affective energy via which a cluster of possible futures for being and becoming airborne can be rendered explicit, foregrounded, made palpable. This cluster of possible futures take shape around the speculative form of what Saraceno calls the Aerocene, a concept-in-motion for imagining and devising new forms of life in the air that are sustained by little more than the elemental conditions in which they move.

In the acts of release through which the promise of the Aerocene emerges, Saraceno revives a form of aerostatic experimentalism. This is a form of experimentalism which, anticipated by earlier journeys and travels in the air, involves learning to sense, to feel, and to understand the condition of being airborne.[1] Whereas earlier vehicles for this kind of experimentalism were powered by hydrogen, helium, or hot air, Saraceno’s are solar-powered. And one of these works, the spherical envelope installed at the Grand Palais has the potential to become, through the act of release, a solar-powered vehicle for undertaking this kind of experimentalism.

While the success and achievement of this experimentalism depends on detailed scientific and technical knowledge, it goes well beyond these domains of expertise, drawing together and diagramming new formations of the technical, the aesthetic, and the ethico-political. Thus, central to this aerostatic experimentalism is the possibility of amplifying the feeling of being in the air, of making palpable variations in atmospheric worlds about which most of us have little awareness and of which we have an increasingly insulated experience. Saraceno is an activist and advocate for these atmospheric worlds, working to reveal them and to enhance our aesthetic awareness of their complexity because he knows that doing this is central to a renewal of ethical sensibilities across different spheres of life. He knows that the feeling of becoming airborne does not end with the brief acceleration of aerodynamic takeoff or the view from a passenger window. He knows that this feeling extends to experiences of aerostatic attunement in which craft, body, and atmosphere sometimes become co-extensive and co-intensive. And he wants to make this feeling more accessible by devising, for instance, tracking technologies that make it possible to generate distributed infrastructures of atmospheric awareness, allowing the movements of aerosolar sculptures to be sensed remotely, at a distance, and across different bodies. The promise here is of the generous elaboration of a mode of collective enquiry for sensing the conditions of being in the air.  

The importance of the act of release to Saraceno’s aerosolar work means that central to its ethical and political potential is the invitation it offers for a return to, and a renewal of, the figure of the pilot and of the skill of piloting.[2] These days the pilot has perhaps become a problematic, diminished figure. A figure encapsulated in an almost hermetically sealed cabin in which the elemental outside is only ever sensed fibre–optically, and for whom the force of flight control surfaces is dampened. A figure routinized into the background through checklists and automation, only becoming public through heroic or suicidal acts of control or through ghostly traces of voice recorders. A figure who, through the operation of remotely–controlled drones, performs their work at a clinical distance.

Saraceno’s work invites us to revisit and affirm different senses of the pilot and of the craft of piloting. On one hand, each of Saraceno’s works is a pilot project for aerosolar futures to come. Their ongoing, circumstance–specific experimentalism performs a tentative yet exuberant form of piloting that pulls together bodies, devices, infrastructures, and concepts into new situations of collective assembly. Indeed, this is the way Saraceno uses concepts like the ‘Aerocene’ or ‘Becoming aerosolar’. Rather than simply applying them, or employing them as frameworks, he pilots them by putting them to work to animate relations of co-fabrication and co-fabulation whose achievement is never guaranteed in advance. As a form of experimental empiricism, piloting is therefore critical to Saraceno’s mode of inventing and circulating objects, concepts, and affects. Seen in this light, the Aerocene does not therefore aim to represent the real conditions of the present as we find it. Rather, for all of us concerned about these conditions, the Aerocene performs a “piloting role” in that it “constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality”.[3]

Then again, through the act of release, Saraceno asks us to think about piloting, rather pragmatically, as a responsive craft of becoming aerostatic and becoming aerosolar. Here the pilot is not so much in charge of a craft that travels despite the circumstances in which it finds itself. Rather, piloting becomes the very craft of sensing, feeling, and responding to the elemental variations of these circumstances. In the case of Saraceno’s aerosolar sculptures, piloting is an incremental tending of the trajectories of these works in response to variations in heat, light, cloud cover, and so forth. Understood thus, the pilot is akin to a choreographer in motion, whose works are composed not only of objects but also of the trajectories traced by these objects as they travel, always in material collaboration with the trajectories of their surroundings.[4] Indeed, the object, such as it is, is always an opening onto a possible way of moving, catalyzing a meticulously informed experimentalism in which deviations are joyous, dirigibility is only ever partial, and the envelope is always a shape of change that never fully closes in on itself. This is a craft of piloting which searches for opportunities for being led astray by eddies and up-draughts in sensory experience, and all in the hope that new inclinations in conceptual, ethical and political thought might emerge. A craft of piloting that is about acquiring enough technical expertise to facilitate experiments with the feeling of being in the air, with all the senses of stillness and motion this entails.

Crucially, Saraceno’s work elaborates a craft of piloting that performs and makes palpable a new kind of political physics of the air. Through the promise of the act of release, Saraceno asks us to re-imagine piloting as the crafting of modes of collective participation in the tending of forms of life in the air. This requires – indeed demands – ongoing commitment to speculative leaps. Imagine, for instance, as you look at this sphere, its release into the air. The mere fact of this body in the air will render it powerful as an affective attractor: an object of ethical and political attention. And left to its own devices, it might well circumnavigate the earth. But under certain circumstances imagine that the safety of this aerosolar body depends on being piloted and tended in relation to variations in heat from the sun, in infrared radiation from the earth, and in the thermodynamic winds of the atmosphere. And, further, now imagine that the responsibility for this piloting is distributed amongst an innumerable group of people, some on the ground, and some in the air. What would it mean, and what would it involve, for this group of people to take responsibility, collectively, for the altitude, direction, and speed of this aerosolar body? What would it mean to devise a way of responding to variations in the elements, to movements of the envelope in response to these variations, and to the responses of other people? And what if there were many of these aerosolar bodies in motion, all in the air at the same time? What new kinds of elemental intelligence would be required to sustain this experiment? What would it be like, in other words, to acquire the capacity to devise and choreograph political technologies for collectively piloting the Aerocene?

To consider these questions is to begin to appreciate something of the significance of Saraceno’s aerosolar works, and of the import of his ongoing collaborative experiments and speculations. It is to become open to the promise of these experiments in piloting the Aerocene: the promise of new senses of being and becoming atmospheric, new feelings for the air conditions that sustain worlds, and new shapes of thought for an aerosolar life we are only just beginning to grasp.  

— Derek McCormack


[1] See, for instance, Mason, Monck. Aeronautica; or, sketches illustrative of the theory and practice of aerostation: comprising an enlarged account of the late aerial expedition to Germany  (London, FC Westley, 1838); and McCormack, Derek, ‘Aerostatic spacing: On things becoming lighter than air’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 1 (2009), 25-41.

[2] See also Michel Serres, Rameaux. (Paris: Editions Le Pommier, 2007)

[3] Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans Brian Massumi (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 142.

[4] On this understanding of choreography see Manning, Erin. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).