Being-in-the-air

In 1936, the great modernist playwright Elias Canetti gave a speech on the occasion of the novelist Herman Broch’s birthday, in which he described the artist’s relationship to the period as a “breathing-relation”: a particular mode of immersion in the tangible atmospheric conditions of the age. The artist, for Canetti, is a sensor of micro-climates, an individual who takes “air samples,” and a register for the material-affective spectrum of inhabiting air. Canetti saw Broch as the first great master of a, “poetry of the atmospheric as a static thing” – embodying a talent to convey the “respiratory economies” of individual and collective life. Later, as Peter Sloterdijk accounts in Terror from the Air, Marcel Duchamp would state “Je suis un respirateur” (“I am a breather”).

If Herman Broch was able to convey something about what it meant to breathe in the early 20th century, what do contemporary artists tell us about breathing today? At a time when human life is increasingly dense and urban, and we face the specter of climate change, what does it really mean to “be-in-the-air”? These are questions that I am considering as part of my research with the installation artist Tomás Saraceno. Through five weeks of site-based fieldwork at the Saraceno Studio in Berlin this March-April, I hope to develop the notion that artists can offer us conceptual resources to think beyond human breath-space as the only kind of respiratory economy, and can inspire an understanding of pneumatic relations between humans and objects, and between individuals and collective atmospheres.

Tomás Saraceno is recognized internationally for his models of “cloud-cities” – floating, web and globe-like habitats that would drift through Earth’s atmosphere and might sustain human life. He has collaborated with scientists from NASA and MIT on experiments with black widow spiders in micro-gravity; principles from these experiments have been applied to two of his recent artworks, On Space-Time Foam at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan, and In Orbit at the K21 Ständehaus in Düsseldorf. I have visited both of these recent works and will participate with the Saraceno Studio in creating an artwork to be exhibited in Toulouse in September of this year.

The artworks and proposals generated by Tomás Saraceno and his team have potential to inspire thinking on co-production of knowledge with nonhumans (spiders) and the environment (atmospheres of many kinds). I hope to use the experience of working with the studio this spring to further my understanding of art-science collaboration, to experiment with creative research methods, and to engage with the current disciplinary debates on air and atmosphere, verticality and contemporary art.

The photographs below are my own.

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Spider web woven by several black widow spiders in micro-gravity. K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf.

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In Orbit at the K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf, December 2013.

Sasha Engelmann

DPhil Student

More info: http://www.geog.ox.ac.uk/graduate/research/