On November 26 and 27, the artist Tomás Saraceno brought together researchers from the most prestigious universities in the world for a hackathon unlike any other. Objective: invent the Aerocene era.
London, from our correspondent
Tomás Saraceno’s art is a project in constant evolution. For more than twenty years, the Italo-Argentinian artist has mixed art and science and is shaping an era he would like to see succeeding the Holocene interglacial period, that of the Aerocene, an era where man explores and lives in the atmosphere in harmony with the other living creatures, with no carbon footprint.
Last year, Tomás Saraceno and his community gathered in the White Sands desert in New Mexico for the takeoff of the first zero carbon aero-solar hot-air-balloon. Makery was there.
This time, the community gathered in London, on the last floor of the Royal College of Art, luxurious room covered with paintings from the prestigious art school. Tomás Saraceno is invited by The Exhibition Road Commission, a partnership between 17 of the most prestigious scientific and cultural institutions of the smart South Kensington. Tomás Saraceno is the first artist in residence of the commission that he reinvented in a hackathon.
“Usually, I’m an artist. I’m slowly getting to know the open source and hacking community,” Tomás Saraceno introduces himself in front of a hundred or so participants. Ten years ago, through his project Museo Aero Solar, the artist met this community, he tells Makery. “I was invited in a very active social and political group in Italy and they wanted a sculpture, something we did all together. We therefore created Museo Aero Solar, a floating museum made from reused plastic bags.” This sculpture “without form or color, that can be modified by just one contribution” has since travelled through 21 cities worldwide, he says with pleasure.
A rucksack Aerocene Explorer kit
The new step of the Aerocene is embodied in the Aerocene Explorer kit, a rucksack still in beta version intended to be used “as a platform and expanded to different uses, such as sampling life in the air for example,” explains Sasha Engelmann, PhD student in ethnography and co-organizer of the week-end. It contains the floating sculpture, a Raspberry Pi and its camera module, barometric pressure, temperature and humidity sensors to measure conditions inside and outside the sculpture, a Wi-Fi code allowing you to access the camera and the thermal data from the ground and an instruction manual, she details.
Next year, it should be available to the public, probably in institutions of Exhibition Road, so that people can themselves carry out experiments, samplings and calculations and share them. The explanations to build the floating structure will also be made available on the Aerocene website.
Saturday November 26, the Aerocene community is gathering to hack the kit, around three challenges: “free flight”, “life in the air” and “sound”. To talk about it, Tomás Saraceno invited the most brilliant minds of the environmentalist scientific community: Nick Shapiro, member of the open science Public Lab community, about DIY air measuring instruments, Ronald Jones, artist and critic about interdisciplinarity, or still Bill McKenna, researcher at the MIT, about air streams and their representations on the website he is developing to follow the trajectory of the balloon, still in testing phase.
— Aerocene (@aerocene) November 26, 2016
One also talks about microbial diversity and other living creatures of the atmosphere, the way bacteria float, the difference between aerodynamic and aerostatic –and consequently, the relevance of calling the Explorer a “balloon”- and the regulation of the airspace, in the presence of the law professor Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. Supporters of the Aerocene would in fact like to adapt to flying devices the rule of maritime space by which sailing devices have priority over motorized devices. If you agree you can sign the petition.
Capture of moths
“We hacked the hackathon,” jokes Tomás Saraceno as the end of the day approaches and that the hackathon has still not begun. The academics chatting too much? The panel is exchanging views on the issue, not without picking up on the irony. Conclusion: “Conversation is important, says Bronislaw Szerszynski, sociology teacher at Lancaster University. But how long do we really float? I count 15 minutes when the balloon was in the air,” reference to the stroll in South Kensington gardens where the fair weather conditions allowed the participants to observe aero-solar energy in action… before the clouds returned, an opportunity for an impromptu presentation of the different types of cumulus, these “celestial graffiti”, as professor Sir Brian Hoskins poetically describes them.
“Next time, we will do the opposite: we will build, then we will talk. Then we will build again and talk again,” says Saraceno. Off to the hackspace of the Imperial College where the hackathon starts, six hours late; nothing to upset Lucy Patterson, molecular biologist, co-organizer of the Berlin Science Hacking community in charge of the Aerocene hackathon. “It’s important and interesting that we have these political and philosophical discussions. If we try to solve large problems, we need to have a wider debate.” Even if, she concedes, theory must face practice.
The hackathon was nevertheless productive. On the program, two insect catchers. The first can be unloaded in flight thanks to a parachute, the second lingers specifically around Autographa Gamma, these moths that migrate twice a year. The Cambridge University Space Flight (CUSF) team also perfected its flight predictor, developed to calculate the landing place of a helium balloon.
This hackathon is the follow-up of the first edition organized at the end of October, already on the three floors of the Imperial College hackspace. Participants had developed several prototypes. Amongst others, a dashboard to observe the points of interest on the journey of Explorer or a hack that allows you to use underground heat to supply the balloon and make it fly independently of the weather. “It’s a project that lends itself particularly well to hacking, reckons Lucy Patterson. It is accessible, beautiful, artistic, inspiring and there are many opportunities to produce DIY hardware and electronics.”
For Tomás Saraceno, the time has come to make Aerocene known to a larger public. In order to do so, the Aerocene Explorer kit will be made available for loan in one of the places of Exhibition Road. And the artist has organized a road trip in Argentina to reach out to other communities. “You are all welcome,” he says to the public.
The Aerocene website