Tomás Saraceno | Live(s) on Air

The Artist's Ecological Project Finds New Modes

Written by

Tayla Grainger

Photographed by

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Tomás Saraceno, Installation view, Live(s) on Air, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Los Angeles, February 24 – May 4, 2024. Photo by Jeff McLane Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.

The delicate threads of a spiderweb shimmer and a star radiates with the vibrant hues of energetic heat. These are the elements of cosmic existence that often go unseen, illuminated by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno in his solo exhibition Live(s) on Air at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. The allure of iridescence, though, is beautifully dangerous, acting as an allegory for our rapidly warming planet.

Tomás Saraceno’s body of work explores the duality between the vital force of the natural world and man’s capacity for destruction. His works are portals that offer glimpses into a brighter future—one of harmonious coexistence amongst the vast web of connections that comprise life on earth. It’s a future that’s certainly within grasp, Saraceno proves, if only we’re willing to reach towards it.

Tomás Saraceno, Installation view, Live(s) on Air, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Los Angeles, February 24 – May 4, 2024. Photo by Jeff McLane Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.

How does your background inform your approach to addressing environmental justice in your work?

Coming from an architecture background, but working very much in a cross-disciplinary format which also incorporates technology, as a starting point I find it important to remind myself of a phrase by Kim Stanley Robinson: justice is always the best form of technology. This idea really stands in opposition to the focus on technological solutionism championed by many in the Global North, one which often perpetuates a multitude of injustices and obscures the fact that technology, architecture and infrastructures are not neutral phenomena, but instead reflect and uphold the agendas of their designers. When we speak of environmental justice, we are also speaking of accumulative climate debt, namely from a minority in the Global North who continue to profit at the expense of populations in the Global South. From an architectural perspective, this imbalance stems in large part from various neo-colonial energy models, such as those that dictate e-waste exportation, material supply chains, lithium extraction and cobalt mining. These are also very much infrastructural & technological questions, as the very material modes through which the Global North continues to expand perpetuates these climate injustices. To speak of numbers, countries of the Global North owe an ecological and climate debt to the countries of the Global South, being responsible for 92% of excess global carbon emissions causing the climate crisis.

When we hone in further on these infrastructures of the capitalocene, we can see that 100 multinationals are responsible for 71% of global industrial Co2 emissions. In this regard, the wealthiest 1% of humanity, which is responsible for producing twice as many co2 emissions as the poorest 50%, are able to do so not only because many socio-economic models and legal frameworks permit this, but also because their infrastructures uphold this imbalance.

In my own work, the years-long collaboration between Aerocene and the Indigenous Communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc has allowed me to learn a great deal about what environmental justice means in the context of the current capitalocene era. Such collaborations have shown me that rather than looking to tech-solutionism detached from a justice-focused agenda, many of us should learn to listen to Indigenous and First Nation Peoples, who make up only 5% of the global population, but steward and protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.

How do the materials you use in your work reflect your understanding of sustainability? Do you have any specific criteria that you consider when choosing materials for a project?

When it comes to materials, a large part of my focus is examining processes of making the invisible, visible. To speak specifically about Live(s) on Air, at the entrance to the exhibition we give participants the option to surrender their mobile phone for the duration of their visit. This participatory artwork asks many of us to question not only our relationship to technology, but also our relationship to the materials that make up these devices. The idea is that by entering without access to their camera and network, visitors might instead become sensitive to what cannot be captured through a lens, or shared with the push of a button. Inviting them to look to their surroundings and not to their screens, this renewed focus could also serve to draw their attention to the impact of the (often invisible) material supply chains embedded in their devices. Digital addiction, and in particular the impulse to constantly check our phones, is a troubling phenomenon that really affects many of us—myself included—even if we often don’t recognise it as a problem. Screen time is also an addiction, so we should scroll-stroll responsibly!

When we were conceiving this piece, we wanted to highlight the material costs of lithium extraction—one of the materials used to power electronic devices—a process which uses 2 million liters of water to extract a single tonne, an extremely unsustainable process, considering much of the world’s lithium is located in arid regions. Such extraction zones are commonly located on ancestral lands, and directly harm both the ecosystems and the indigenous communities who already know how to live sustainably. It’s necessary for some of us to remember that digital steps also leave footprints, so by giving up their phones, visitors are invited to ask themselves: what is the ecosocial, material impact of my screen life?

Tomás Saraceno, Installation view, Live(s) on Air, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Los Angeles, February 24 – May 4, 2024. Photo by Jeff McLane Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.

Your work is cross-disciplinary, employing elements of the visual arts, science, and architecture. How do you navigate and find inspiration from the intersections between these disciplines in your work?

Working in a cross-disciplinary format is really important as it allows me to collaborate with local communities, scientific researchers, artistic groups and institutions around the world. I take really so much inspiration from these collaborations, as together we aim to rethink dominant threads of knowledge in the Capitalocene era and aim to seek out a more equal balance of human, techno and biodiversity, moving towards a more just and eco-social society. Embracing interdisciplinarity and interconnectedness not only across mediums, but also across ecosystems,

I want to ask how through examining these intersections we might also attune to collaboratively imagined futures, grounded in principles of collective care  and hope as already practiced and maintained by some communities, and to the radical interconnectedness of all beings with whom we share this planet.

Can you speak to how your project Arachnophilia came to be and how your process of co-creating with them has unfolded and evolved over the years?

Arachnophilia emerged from more than 10 years of collaboration with humans, spiders, and their webs. During the many years of collaboration with various spiders, I have been fortunate enough to also work with researchers at the TU Darmstadt, where we created the Spider/Web Scan, a novel, laser-supported tomographic technique that allowed precise 3-D models of complex spider/webs to be made for the first time. Spider vibrations have also been a big part of our focus: it took many years and attempts, but over time we designed and developed a hyper-sensitive microphone which can pick up very tenuous movements, and from there we built up an archive of all different types of vibrations.

We ended up collaborating with different teams at MIT and the Max Planck Institute, working on different forms of human/spider communication. Over the past years, this has led to an opening up of the research at my studio into the fields of biomateriomics, bioacoustics, ethology and cognitive science, among others, as a way of engaging speculatively, but also sensitively, with the forms of life that exist all around us. Last year, we launched Nggàm dù, a web portal built upon the request of the spider diviners of Somié,  Cameroon, which meditates on the possibilities of reciprocal, intercultural and inter- and intraspecies relations.

But more importantly than the technology, the  Arachnophilia undertakings open up different forms of knowing, along with potential modes of reconnecting and recalibrating our attention and senses to our nonhuman kin, often unnoticed. As for arachnophobia, it is a fear that many cultures suffer from, while many others do not and are actually able to appreciate the diversity that still exists on the planet. I think if we acknowledge, respect, and preserve that diversity, hopefully, we might all even be able to become arachnophiles.

Tomás Saraceno, Installation view, Live(s) on Air, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Los Angeles, February 24 – May 4, 2024. Photo by Jeff McLane Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.

What’s one message that you hope your audience will take away from viewing your latest exhibition?

The exhibition is an invitation for visitors to rethink dominant modes of knowledge, and to attune themselves to the multiplicity of voices, human and more-than-human, that have collaborated with me in the creation of these works. In Fly with Pacha, into the Aerocene, visitors will see the deep connections I have been fortunate enough to build with Aerocene and various other communities, including those in Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc.

For me, working with these indigenous communities is a constant reminder of the many ways we interact with other organisms and exist on this planet. It’s also a self-critique of my own  consumption patterns and makes me reflect on how I participate in the world. The indigenous communities, who are fighting to protect their ancestral lands from lithium extraction led by multinational corporations, share a simple but vital message, lifted above the salinas in 2020 by Aerocene Pacha, that I hope all who visit Live(s) on Air will remember: Water and Life are Worth More than Lithium.

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Flaunt Magazine, Tomás Saraceno, Tayla Grainger