Throughout his artistic career, Tomás Saraceno has proposed speculative models for alternate ways of living in an environmentally sustainable future; known collectively as Cloud Cities, these artworks are a visionary conception of floating assemblies, which he has exhibited in multiple forms for more than 15 years. In a series of experiments with air-fueled sculptures begun in 2003, the artist has envisioned a future beyond the Anthropocene, the current geological era in which human activity has had a dominant impact upon the Earth. The Aerocene project is the latest development in this endeavor, a series of art installations and experiments designed to capture the public’s imagination with fossil-free flight. The floating sculptures, made of silver and transparent Mylar, are held aloft by heat from the sun and infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface, and the plan is for them to be navigated solely by atmospheric currents. The artist and his team have conducted a number of tethered and untethered test flights in Poland, Germany, The Solomon Islands, Bolivia and the White Sands desert in New Mexico.

Saraceno was the inaugural Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) in 2012. At that time, he began an ongoing collaboration with meteorologist Lodovica Illari in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). She and her team agreed to explore whether Saraceno’s sculptures could circumnavigate the earth without the use of helium, batteries or solar panels. The MIT EAPS team, including oceanographer Glenn Flierl and research assistant Bill McKenna, computed flight paths for balloons floating for several weeks at particular heights (or undergoing day-night cycles of rising and falling) and examined data acquired from MIR (Montgolfière InfraRouge) solar balloon flights conducted by the Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), where Saraceno was in residence.

Some trajectories were presented at a symposium related to Saraceno’s installation at the Grand Palais in Paris in conjunction with the COP21 Paris Climate Change conference, and others will be presented at The World Economic Forum in Davos in January, 2017. For the latter, the EAPS team has created an interactive web interface simulating the evolving wind patterns around the globe, based on wind forecast data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Participants can rotate and tilt the globe with a touchscreen and can create their own flight trajectories for the sculptures. These tools allow exploration in both an imaginative and scientific mode. The MIT team’s contribution rigorously explores the artist’s vision of the way the atmosphere connects all humanity. They hope that the public will develop an appreciation for the subtleties of atmospheric science and climate conditions alongside the beauty of Saraceno’s floating sculptures.