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Notes on Aerocene Pacha

Tomás Saraceno

Humans have always dreamt of flying,
But, today, flight has become a nightmare.
1.3 million people in the air at any given time,
1 billion tons of CO2 released annually.
50% of aviation emissions,
caused by 1% of the world’s population.
80% of people have never travelled by aeroplane.

Let’s float with another dream.
Who dares to fly differently?

I have to confess that when the Pachamama ritual began, I was shedding tears of emotion behind my glasses. At the same time, I was nervous, the Wiphala (emblem of the Andean peoples of South America) was waving too much. The wind was blowing so strongly that I thought we were never going to take off. I could only think of all the friends and family who had come all the way here and would not be able to witness the performance. We were at an altitude of over 3600 metres and it was hard to breathe. My 10-year-old nephew Manuel kept throwing up. If I had known, I would have told him that a natural ‘slow movement’ was forcing us to walk differently. We were drifting together like the saying of the civil rights movement called for: move as slow as you can, as fast as you must.

“It’s going to be alright,” said Verónica from Santuario Tres Pozos. “The first thing is to thank Pachamama,” Néstor and Rubén responded. Together with them, the original inhabitants of these lands shared their ancestral knowledge in a ritual of gratitude to the Pachamama, Mother Earth. The ceremony thanked the earth, the water, the sun and the moon with offerings, wishing good fortune for the day’s flight. But the wind would not stop and, between too many words and a lack of concentration, I gave a welcome-speech that I’d rather forget. It was impossible to focus.

The weather forecasts predicted a lot of wind; the night before, a storm and thousands of lightning strikes had left us isolated. The river had grown too high, and it was not possible to cross it again. There was no way for me to warn the guests! In those territories there is very little telephone signal. We would have to predict the weather and communicate differently, rethink who our guests were. It is said in the Andean cultures, that when the body of the spider changes to blue, it announces rain. The meteorological-spiders, the weather inscribed in the clouds; it was other signs, for another kind of take-off, which we were looking for. We were looking for a truce, a time with no cell phone signal, but with other links, connecting us differently. In this region, you thank Mother Earth as part of the family, and so the ritual continued, with a confidence that I was mindful not to lose again.

From the experience gained in the previous weeks, and the previous decades, I knew that if we did not take off within the next 30 minutes, it would be impossible. I decided to ask everyone to start heading towards the launching site, and that’s when I realised what a tide of people we were. It looked like a procession and the calm of walking on this white canvas began to strengthen me.

Before, the quena was not heard due to the wind; now we could hear it loud and clear. The wind had calmed down and the music was beginning to fill us with hope. Tata Inti, Father Sun, was shining on the horizon like never before. I was slowly realising, at an ever-increasing pace, that maybe it was indeed going to happen.

I was trying to control my emotions, while remembering what my mom was also probably thinking of: 10 years before, in a situation akin to this one, she saw me fall from a similar flying sculpture. It resulted in a broken back, two operations and over 12 screws in my spine. But this time it should be different. The experience healed us. Now we were much more prepared. Aerocene Pacha embodied 20 years of collective research and design, resulting in a safe vehicle, a sculpture, an aircraft that was still experimental but respected all precautions and certifications required by international organisations and controls. Nevertheless, Leticia was the only professional pilot in Argentina who accepted the challenge; she would be the first woman to fly only with the sun and the air, without burners, solar panels, helium or lithium.

Once at the launch site, the sculpture, specially made of black fabric to absorb the sun’s heat, started to slowly inflate. Aerocene Pacha, impassive, was heating up and every second I thought, “let it rise, let the sun warm the air, before the wind gets too strong again and it doesn’t allow us to take off”.

But slowly, silently, called by the sun, Leticia started to walk at the speed of the wind. Step by step she was losing gravity, lifting off of our shoulders, into the ocean of air. She would slowly start to rise…and then come back down, but her steps were getting increasingly longer. At first, she would float just 10 centimetres above the ground, then 1 metre, 10 metres, until she reached an altitude of 176 metres and floated a distance of 1.7 kilometres for 21 minutes.

Tears and more emotion…”Go, Leticia. Go!”.

As the sculpture turned in the air, another message was made visible, maybe the most important one: “Water and life are worth more than lithium” was written in giant letters on the sculpture. This is the message of the indigenous communities who live in the surroundings of the Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc basin. Their struggle against lithium mining is a fight against a green energy transition occurring in the North, which is being primarily paid for by the peoples of the South. Their message stands for a different dream…

And so it was that Aerocene Pacha rose into the sky. We followed her incredulous, relieved, hopeful, in a shared magical moment.

After landing, we returned to ‘base’, walking again the 3 km that we had inadvertently moved
accompanying Aerocene Pacha. Exhausted, with muddy feet, we met again, full of emotion, with all those who had not been able to follow Leticia due to the distance and the heat.

It wasn’t Andean music we heard now; the rhythms were different as crowds of teenagers from Salta, Jujuy and Tucumán danced and sang in Korean. The BTS fans had arrived, celebrating with perfect choreographies and synchronised dance steps. Was this the same planet we were on before takeoff? 100 metres away, indigenous people, among coplas, locro and empanadas, were lifting more banners denouncing the extraction of lithium, flying other aerosolar sculptures while Leticia received congratulations.

Had we just witnessed other possible futures? Was this, perhaps, part of the revolution that Maristella Svampa was calling for: feminist and ecological, collective, plural, and collaborative? Away from the patriarchal dream of colonising space, floating in the ocean air, we drifted with the rivers of the wind, united by solidarity. Quietly, slowly, without explosions or burners, Leticia took a small step in the air that could be a giant step for this planet Earth and its climate. It was a cosmic flight that took us far beyond the moon.