There Are Real-Life Cloud Cities Made of Lasagna

By Matthew Francey

You know that bit in Super Mario when you climb to the top of the beanstalk and suddenly there’s a whole new level hidden in the clouds? I know, it’s like the coolest, ever. Clearly architect turned artist Tomás Saraceno is a big Mario fan because thanks to him (don’t freak out) there’s a huge real life version suspended in the sky.

Tomás was the first artist ever to be invited to take a residency at the Centre for Art, Science and Technology at MIT, and his interests are largely dominated by expedition into the realms of future technology and air-borne platforms. His previous work included the construction of a ‘Cloud City’ in Berlin, and a huge spider web in New York, which demonstrated the structure of the galaxy.

His latest project On Space Time Foam covers 1,200 square meters and is composed of three layers of see through film raised above the HangerBiocca in Milan. I called him up to talk about art, science and how air could be the new land.

Hi Tomás! What is this crazy thing made out of?
Tomás Saraceno: Well 99.1% of it is just air! The whole thing works using the combination of differently pressurised air, in the membranes of film and in the exhibition space. Every experience is unique because your movement depends on your body weight and the pressure you exert, which will affect the space between the membranes, moving them up or down. I know it’s confusing, so think about it like lasagna.

Huh?
The different membranes are like lasagna sheets, and the air is the meat between the sheets. The weight of three people will curve the structures much more than a single person. This is a very clear analogy to Einstein’s theory of relatively: he said the mass of a body would curve space and time. In this case, it literally curves the membrane, and can make it very difficult to escape, almost like a black hole.

Cool! Is it bouncy?
No, it’s definitely not a bouncy castle! I wish all the journalists that described it that way came and tried to jump on it. It’s impossible, literally. To jump you need something to bounce you back, like a spring. You can jump on almost any surface, but On Space Time Foam is the exact opposite, it sinks with you rather than pushing you back up.

How do you move around?
Your movement is totally dependent on the position of other people, for example, if there’s someone who wants to get out but they’ve sunk down too low to reach the exit, then two or three people have to go to the other side in order to raise them up by 2 or 3 meters so they can reach the exit. It establishes a direct relationship between all the people in the space.

So is it kind of reflecting the butterfly effect?
Exactly, the installation is like an ecosystem; we relate to each other and to the space as a whole. Sometimes there are people you can’t even see that are affecting your movement, but after a while you start to understand the dynamics of the space.

It’s intended as kind of a learning process. You discover how you influence other people, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. It’s also about body language because things happen too fast to be able to communicate with each other using speech. You have to try to react with people’s movements and work together.

What does it feel like when you walk on it?
[Laughs] It’s great! At the beginning it gives you a little bit of a fright, the structure hangs at a height of 20 meters but your height will constantly be changing, so you’re pretty high up. Normally you’ll start off feeling a bit worried about how stable it is or if it will swallow you up, but that won’t happen. We had to do a lot of calculations to make sure it was safe. We’ve also obviously taken fire safety regulations and such into account, so you don’t need to worry!

It sounds pretty disorientating.
It is at first, but it’s amazing how quickly your brain adapts to perceive your environment differently. Once you’re on the foam you start to take into account the vertical dimension, which is something we don’t normally need to think about, it’s fascinating to feel your brain changing to suit totally alien movement.

What’s going to happen to STF once the installation’s finished?
The way we’ve built it, there’s a possibility that after the show we can move it outside, fill it up with helium or hydrogen and then the same forms that happen inside the studio space can happen outside, so basically it would look like a floating island.

That’s crazy cool, where would you put it?
Possibly moored over the Maldives, which will be one of the first places that will be under water due to global warming. Either way we were always concerned about what we could do with this installation more permanently; we invited scientists from MIT to speculate how to use the floating islands to distil drinking water from the air, as well.

On Space Time Foam is part of your Cloud Cities project. What’s the next phase?
I’m doing a project in Rotterdam to design a flying platter. When it’s windy this thing will take off and float. It’s a comment on reclaiming land, not just from the sea but also from the airspace. It’s kind of a strange hybrid between a kite and a balloon.

Sounds wild. Will people will be able to walk around on that one too?
Yes, yes. We want people to walk around on it. It will be a 300-meter long kite. When the wind is strong enough it will be 60 meters high!

Why are you so drawn to combining science with art in this way?
It’s wonderful to be able to use art as a tool to explain concepts that people might not be able to easily understand otherwise.

Thanks Tomás!

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey

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