Nadine Botha. Generally Relative – The Expanding and Contracting Perspective of Tomás Saraceno
Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno discusses with artistic researcher Nadine Botha about the meaning of the newly-found gravitational waves to our perception of the universe, his work and the blurred boundaries of art and design.
Text Nadine Botha
No one was particularly surprised when the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish a few weeks ago. Along with over 1.000 colleagues, the three have spent the past four decades working to detect the gravitational waves that Albert Einstein first anticipated in his 1916 theory of general relativity.
Finally, 99 years later, in September 2015, a ripple in space-time resulting from two black holes spiralling into each other some 1.3 billion years ago was detected by the built-to-purpose Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana. LIGO’s two 4-kilometre long laser detectors, which lie at right angles to each other, registered a one-thousandth of a diameter of a nucleon shift.
Why this giant fuss over an infinitesimal ripple?
“It changed the scale of something, which is maybe not yet perceivable by us,” says Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno from his studio in Berlin. His new work, ‘Gravitational Waves,’ has just been installed as part of the De Unie Hasselt-Genk open-air art exhibition by Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Constituting an entangled network of webs, it brings together two of Saraceno’s fascinations – spiders and ripples in space-time – to emphasise shifting perspectives and sensitivities.
Spider webs have often been used by scientists as an analogy to explain the complicated warp and weft of the universe’s cosmic fabric. In Saraceno’s entanglement however, multiple space-time webs intertwine to represent manifold perspectives in which up becomes down, and we are just as much standing on earth as suspended from a planet. Floating in a glade of fractal-like golden leaves, the installation expands and contracts under the Droste effect of nature. It’s all relative to how you situate yourself.
“If you are a person with a very human-based, planetary boundary – someone who feels like you still belong to this planet – then maybe the sun, the solar system and the universe became a gigantic web, and you became small, like Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Saraceno ponders. From another perspective, when we see ourselves as part of the universe, our perspective is more attune with the Wonderland itself. Gravitational waves actually make every person, human, animal, plant and planet shrink a little and then expand a little.
Blurred boundaries of science and art
Saraceno himself is more of the latter sort, living beyond the singular sense of self and limited category of artist. In his renowned open-source Aerocene project, he invites our environmental imagination to take to the air in a future of floating cities. Using only recycled plastic bags, in 2015 he became the record-holder of the first and longest solar-only powered flight.
“If we float differently, can we stop pulling into the centre of the world without using fossil fuel?” Saraceno explains the speculative nature of the project. “Then we can really learn – through a new social, mental, environmental ecology, as Felix Guattari said – a reoccupation of space and rethinking the negotiation of different sociopolitical realms.”
With this reoccupation, he goes on, that we become aware of how much space is already “given or used by certain infrastructure, telecommunication or aviation companies, and military zones” and how we might use air space in a completely different manner.
Besides resisting easy categorisation, Saraceno also scoffs at the artificial borders between art and science. He has the world’s only collection of 3D spider webs that is now also being scanned into a digital collection, has installed spiders in mesmerising web-making rituals in galleries, ordained an arachnoid orchestra with specially-designed instruments to amplify the vibrations they make, and published two articles in the leading international science journal, Nature. While artists working in science laboratories are not such a novelty anymore, it’s not often that scientists from MIT, the Max Planck Institute and the Senckenberg Museum make pilgrimages to artists’ studios.
“Much of the time it’s artists who go and learn from the science, which is think is a cliché. So we co-learn.” This is what “makes my day”, says Saraceno: “When we can co-author something and do something that I would not be able to do alone. But by working with the spiders, with other humans, and with universities, suddenly we become cutting edge in different fields, not only in aesthetics.”
One with nature
In his expanded perspective of the universe, however, it is the spiders using and researching him to ensure their survival on this planet. He’s dead serious: “Let’s degrade our level of intelligence to a little bit more humble way of perceiving others. Not the arrogance of, ‘I use the spiders.’ I think the spiders use me. In terms of how she’s able to genetically modify our behaviour for them to be able to survive on this planet.”
Many of us have pets – cats or dogs – that are considered privileged species and individuals, while we sweep spiders out of our homes and regard them as a ubiquitous mass. In unlearning the Anthropocene however, says Saraceno, we need to relearn how to co-inhabit our homes and planet with all of nature. These divisions have created a “crisis of connection”, unlike indigenous tribes that according to mythology used spiders as advanced sensory device for earthquakes. Dolphins too, are “much more adapted to sense gravitational waves, neutrinos, and high energy neutrinos”.
Instead of only the human perspective in science, Saraceno is now working with scientists to ask these questions. “I think there is a myriad of other embodied perception possibilities. We have to re-understand our inability not only to communicate among ourselves, but also to understand the majority of the species who live on this planet that are not necessarily human.”
Left to the cycles and creatures of nature, The Gravitational Waves installation itself will no doubt evolve with the seasons to incorporate interspecies perspectives. It could become home to birds and spiders, and of course the autumn leaves will give way to spectral icicles in winter that could again change the scale. But what cannot be captured in any photograph, no matter the artistic calibre of the photographer, is the sound – the leaves, the wind, the buzz of insects. Like the spiders, LIGO responds to sound.
“Now I’m thinking about a cosmic jam session. Kind of this planetary orchestra that we all somehow form a part – not the ‘we’ of the Anthropocene which is our [human] understanding of the world that we need to rebalance. We need to find a narrative that is inclusive,” enthuses Saraceno. “It might be a concept of silence. At least where humans became more silenced, because of our over dominance in certain areas. You know what I mean… this can go in many different directions.”
Exploding disciplines into different directions, it takes an artist like Saraceno to surface how gravitational waves might connect the perspectives, sciences and arts of multiple species and senses. •
Tomás Saraceno: Gravitational Waves (2017)
Forest at Cosmodrome
‘Gravitational Waves’ by German-Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno is a part of De Unie Hasselt-Genk project, initiated in 2014 by Z33 House for Contemporary Art. The installation shows Saraceno’s fascination to spider webs for the complex structures they display. In addition to investigating physical complexity of the structures, Saraceno seeks connections with science, such as sociology and astronomy, and increasingly uses the web as a metaphor to understand the structure of the universe.
Studio Tomás Saraceno. Gravitational Waves with Giovanni Amelino-Camelia. Z33 Research, 6 November 2017.
Nadine Botha is an artistic researcher, writer, and curator who is concerned with how unseen social, political, and cultural systems design our food, objects, technologies, cities, and selves. She works with The Istanbul Design Biennale, Van Abbemuseum, DAMN magazine, Design Academy Eindhoven, and the Dutch Institute of Food and Design. Her writing has been published in the Financial Times, Metropolis, Dirty Furniture, Core77, and Design Observer, among others.