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Alter-engineered Worlds

In our late industrial times, two weighty terrestrial infrastructures appear inescapable when becoming unstuck from the earth’s surface. Whether it is gasoline in propeller planes, kerosene in jet engines, propane in hot air balloons, or helium in stratospheric balloons, going up isn’t possible without drilling down. The actual burning of fuel in commercial airplanes, pumping out innumerable ultrafine particles and 50 pounds of CO2 for every mile traveled, is the final corrosive sputter of an already environmentally costly hydrocarbon extraction process. The second set of infrastructures—less materially manifest than the mesh of pipelines, condensate tanks, drill rigs, frack chemical impoundments, water trucks, refineries, and compressor stations that establish landscapes of oil and gas extraction—are those that maintain intellectual property.  Aircrafts like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are the vibrating embodiments of over 1000 patents and many more proprietary secrets.[1] The Aeroscene is poised to de- and re-engineer the hydrocarbon and intellectual property infrastructures that envelop our world. Let us consider the stratospheric helium balloon as both a seemingly innocuous form of air travel and one closely allied to the form of loft that enticed you to this exhibition and now to this page. Helium–rich natural gas is, and has always been, the only source of commercially available helium. Although not itself a greenhouse gas or toxic to biotic life, helium—the most noble gas—is implicated in the vast infrastructure for extracting natural gas (i.e. methane). For helium balloons to gently ascend into the atmosphere we also need the drilling capacities and pipeline systems of a world hungry for natural gas. During the extraction and transportation of natural gas, methane—some 14 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2—is routinely released, vented and leaked into the atmosphere. These emissions amount to the largest source of methane-release in the United States, the largest producer of helium.[2] But such extractive infrastructures are not limited to what industry and regulators consider as infrastructure. We must also include slow valve leaks, permitted airborne emissions, fragmented habitats from millions of miles of pipeline, and the alarming effects of endocrine disruptors released in the wresting and refining process as fundamental aspects of the natural gas–cum–helium infrastructure. These regular excesses are precisely what Michelle Murphy has referred to as chemical infrastructures that materially and unevenly shape human and non-human life in time and space.”[3] The inclusion of fugitive—and sometimes insensible—chemicals into our understanding of infrastructure is not a mere provocation. It is an acknowledgement, long past due, of the chemically suffused and sculpted nature of life in our contemporary moment. The Aerocene, also past due, recognizes other unseen but much more ancient earthly infrastructures. Its dream worlds do not run on the technological domination of natural resources. Rather, the project begins by attuning to and moving with the forces that animate our planet—more of a calculated and informed submission to global forces than a mastery over them. Conceiving of wind and solar rays as critical infrastructures for the ongoing present demands that our desires be re-engineered through forgotten supply chains: the planet’s shared and circulating atmosphere. These currents of interest are not merely the aerial flows that propelled a nautical yesteryear but multiple, overlapping, dynamic, and sometimes countercurrent atmospheric strata that have only recently become model able in their full complexity.  In this way, the Aeroscene denotes an epoch of slippery temporalities, of pasts–becoming–future and of futures–becoming–present. Saraceno’s vision is not undergirded by restorative nostalgia for a romanticized non-technological past but a reflective nostalgia[4] that pulls centuries–old technologies and the fabulations of science fiction into the same frame. As balloons were already wistful novelties during the 19th century and solar balloons have not yet been fully realized for flight, tense (past perfect, future anterior, etc.) begins breaking loose when trying to locate the Aeroscene. It is a chronotrope without the ‘golden spikes’ of terrestrial eras, one that’s movement is already enjoyed by the fungal, avian, insect, and bacterial species that regularly cruse within atmospheric currents. Humans are only now warming to its promise and rising to its challenge. The Aeroscene does not entail becoming the wind and turning one’s back on terra. Look elsewhere for an escapist fantasy.  Instead, it engages our besmirched earth, the toxic chemical infrastructures that suffuse life, and the corrosive happenings that condition both biotic and geologic beings. It does this in two ways. First and foremost, the Aeroscene severs the link between aerospace exploration and petrochemical exploitation by providing an alternative to hydrocarbon–derived loft. It establishes a destination for environmentalist dreams that bristle with critique of the present but are rightfully weary of roosting among the ‘viable futures’ touted by industry. Every aeroscenic balloon flight is a humble step toward weaning off mined deposits and extinguishing the human and ecological impacts of a world engineered around hydrocarbon extraction. Second, Saraceno harnesses the fledgling days of the Aeroscene to monitor Earth’s current chemical infrastructures. Equipping these balloons with sensors, they could be variously used to monitor stratospheric ozone levels, measure tropospheric particulate matter levels in the cities, trawl the oceans for microplastics, assess methane releases from pipelines, track ocean acidification, or enumerate shale-field flares.[5] In the Aeroscene, global infrastructural change emerges in tandem with hyperlocal environmental engagement and knowledge production.

Louisiana wetlands facing contamination by BP oil spill in 2010

The exact instrumental payloads will be determined iteratively through a series of boots–on–the–ground workshops and in consultation with leading scientists. While the balloons will float freely, they will be tethered to the specific desires and needs of communities with whom they share airspace.  The Aerocene will become a platform for civic technoscience that pluralizes how and who can make authoritative claims about the environment. The project’s ability to proliferate on the ground–its uptake, reproduction and alteration by diverse winds of human ingenuity beyond the individual hand of the artist—stems from its open hardware methodology. This now brings us back to intellectual property and the infrastructures of knowledge distribution. Sublimating into the Aerocene cannot be done using the same methods and tools that constructed our current hydrocarbon–dependent planet.  Placing Aerocene designs in the creative commons, gives rise to a new flow of knowledge, circulation of capital, transparency of research, and idea of property that runs in diametric opposition to those that constitute and dominate the Anthropocene. Open licensing is just one, albeit gigantic, step towards a more just and socially democratized planetary atmosphere. As the Open Source Hardware Statement of Principles outlines, the bottlenecks in making material technologies truly open, easily modifiable, and adaptable to divergent contexts are not limited to licensing: “open source hardware uses readily–available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware.”[6]

To continue our focus on stratospheric balloons, take Google’s Project Loon as an example. The project involves flying a large number of stratospheric helium balloons across the Southern Hemisphere to broadcast LTE internet connections to otherwise offline communities. Sri Lanka may well achieve universal internet coverage via Loon by the time this newspaper goes to print. The project has tallied some 200 patents, which tech pundits read as a sign of its immanent success. Loon has created their own automated balloon manufacturing facility. Balloons that initially only lasted a few hours in the air now stay aloft in the upper layers of the atmosphere for over a hundred days. But the steps to exponentially increase the life of these balloons remain stuck behind the enclosures of corporate secrecy.  Their production process requires specialized machines and vast amounts of capital. Beautifully simple innovations such as Google’s patent #US20140252163 A1, which rotates darker or lighter sides of the balloon towards the sun to increase or decrease elevation and catch winds of different directions, will remain legally out of reach to aspiring aeronauts for the next two decades. Even more troubling is that a similar, if not more advanced, design of this kind was featured in the Journal of the Balloon Federation of America in 1978.[7] Patents can colonize preexisting knowledge not just safeguard hard fought and capitally intensive developments. By contrast, the Aerocene can begin with the open–licensed plans for a tetrahedron solar balloon. The balloon costs $25 in materials–a plastic drop cloth, scissors and an ordinary iron. Its assembly process is meticulously documented, and the design has been freely available on the internet since 2009.[8]  To keep our balloons aloft at night we could, when the sun sets, bring very small magnets into contact with magnetotactic bacterium that emit heat when exposed to magnetic fields. If any of our longer term and higher-tech balloons need extra lift during launch to reach the upper stratosphere we can collect helium being emitted from natural thermal springs such as those in Maire de Santenay, some 334 kilometers south of Paris’ Grand Palais, without need for mining. I could go on, but the point here is not to conjecture technical possibilities but to underline the knowledge infrastructures necessary for germinal collective dreaming to take place. Through open development Saraceno multiplies both those who can contribute to the project and who can directly benefit from it.  In this way the Aerocene bucks the assumption of industrial capitalism, namely, that the practices and infrastructures that beckoned our present environmental crises can also get us out of it. — Nicholas Shapiro Notes: [1] Cindy Naucler Glickert, “Guarding the ‘Gold’: Protecting Boeing innovations is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage,” Boeing Frontiers (2010): 38-40. [2] Predecessors to helium balloons were no less implicated.  The 19th and early 20th centuries balloons were almost universally filled with coal gas, which is a mixture of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. [3] Michelle Murphy Michelle, “Chemical Infrastructures of the St Clair River,” in Toxicants, Health and Regulation Since 1945, ed. Boudia and Jased (Routledge, 2013): 105. [4] Jacob Dlamini, “Native Nostalgia” (Jacana Media, 2009). [5] This last use of high-altitude and low-cost balloons as has been attempted by our colleagues at SkyTruth. [6] Open Source Hardware Association “Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0” [7] Dick Brown, “SUNSTAT: A Balloon that Rides on Sun Beams,” Ballooning: The Journal of the Balloon Federation of America (1987): 5-9. [8] First uploaded in 2009 and updated in 2012 This balloon building guide was written by my Public Lab collaborator Mathew Lippincott, who provided invaluable research assistance in the preparation of this essay.