Tomas Saraceno hopes spiders he works with would be recognised as artists

Vladimir Belogolovsky visits Tomas Saraceno’s exhibition at The Shed in New York and talks to the Berlin-based artist about his Spider/Web installation and the role of phobias.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Mar 10, 2022

Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s) is the latest exhibition of the Argentina-born, Berlin-based artist. The multidisciplinary show that opened last month at The Shed in New York is the artist’s largest US exhibition to date. It comprises two specially commissioned installationsFree the Air: How to Hear the Universe in a Spider/Web and We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air. Other projects include the community-organised Museo Aero Solar (an enormous grounded balloon made of plastic grocery bags that visitors can walk into and even contribute to the growth of the sculpture by donating their own used plastic bags), a display of spider web sculptures Webs At-tent(s)-ion, and futuristic projections called A Thermodynamic Imaginary. These mysterious constructs, most lit by spotlights in dark spaces, are spread out over several galleries on two levels and take the entirety of multi-story McCourt space within the arts centre's iconic ETFE shell that moves on wheels and retracts to make space for a one-acre outdoor plaza in warm weather.

The McCourt, used for concerts and special installations, is where the show’s highpoint, Free the Air: How to Hear the Universe in a Spider/Web is presented. The Spider/Web is a 95-foot-diameter white sphere. It is divided horizontally by two circular web-like floors stretched end-to-end at two levels—12 feet and 40 feet above the ground, both accessible to the visitors. The second commission, We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air is a visual representation of the uneven distribution of pollution across the United States. These are collections of hourly dust dots on paper strips representing different geographies, demographics, and racial divides. Shown in large frames they are presented as works of art, but there is a political message in these evidence displays.

Tomás Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2007 – . Reused plastic bags, tape, ventilator, polyester rope. Approx. 39.4 x 52.5 x 19 feet | Interview with Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2007. Reused plastic bags, tape, ventilator, polyester rope. Approx. 39.4 x 52.5 x 19 feet Image: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of the Aerocene Foundation

Saraceno was born in 1973 in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, spent his childhood in Italy, and now practices in Berlin, although on his website it says that the artist lives and works in and beyond the planet Earth. He was trained as an architect in Buenos Aires—the National University and Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes de la Nación Ernesto de la Cárcova. From 2001 to 2003 he studied at Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main where Peter Cook and Ben Van Berkel were among his professors. In 2004, Saraceno graduated from the IUAV University in Venice, and before opening his own practice in Frankfurt am Main in 2005, he worked at the office of Olafur Eliasson in Berlin. Saraceno’s studio relocated to Berlin in 2012. He has been imagining a world free from borders and fossil fuels in collaboration with spiders, their webs, and many leading creatives around the world, including such visionaries as Yona Friedman (1923-2020) and Frei Otto (1925-2015). The artist is noted for such community initiatives as Museo Aero Solar (since 2007) and the Aerocene Foundation (since 2015). His installations were shown all over the world, including at the 58th Venice Art Biennale (2019), Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2018-19), Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires (2017), the inaugural Chicago Architectural Biennial (2015), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2012), and Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (2011). The following is a condensed version of our interview over the phone between New York and Berlin.

Tomás Saraceno, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, 2022. Custom steel, wire net, wood, light, LFE, shakers, fog. Diameter: 95 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno. Commissioned by The Shed | Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, 2022. Custom steel, wire net, wood, light, LFE, shakers, fog. Diameter: 95 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno. Commissioned by The Shed. Image: Nicholas Knight

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s talk about your exhibition at The Shed and specifically the Spider/Web installation.

Tomás Saraceno: It was a very challenging project because the space at The Shed is challenging; it ranges from a huge multi-story McCourt space to tiny corners of smaller galleries where the spiders live. For a long time before the show, I was asking my curators this question: “Where do the spiders live at The Shed?” The idea was to make their presence felt at the show. That required everyone to change their attitudes because typically you don’t find spiders at art museums, right? [Laughs.]

Tomás Saraceno, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, 2022. Custom steel, wire net, wood, light, LFE, shakers, fog. Diameter: 95 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno. Commissioned by The Shed. | Interview with Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, 2022. Custom steel, wire net, wood, light, LFE, shakers, fog. Diameter: 95 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno. Commissioned by The Shed. Image: Nicholas Knight

Vladimir: How did this project begin?

Tomás: First, I was invited by the curator Emma Enderby and artistic director of The Shed, Alex Poots. They and Hans Ulrich Obrist, senior program advisor, came to see my installation at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, called ON AIR. That was in late 2018. At that point, The Shed was not even built yet. They were just starting to develop their program and they wanted to see my work. Well, I always start with a discussion—I turn to the spiders... the dust… But also, humans. [Laughs.] I am most interested in creating relationships; it is all about forming collaborations. And I am interested in learning and tracing the role of spiders in different cultures.

Vladimir: How does the Spider/Web fit into the line of other installations with large-scale net-based projects you have done in the past? Were there any discoveries?

Tomás: The idea was to create an environment, in which we could augment the senses and perceptions of the spiders, or, at least, to imagine them. We know that spiders have very poor vision. That’s why a couple of minutes after you enter the installation the light is dimmed until it goes to a pitch-black, accompanied by sounds, both perceptible and beyond our ability to hear them, which is below 20 Hz. This experience is intensified by a network of shaker motors that are attached to the net and vibrate it. People are invited to walk on the net, to sit down, and to lay down to feel these vibrations with their entire bodies. These vibrations change frequencies from very tangible to almost imperceptible.  

Vladimir: Is there a particular question that people ask you about this installation that you find most relevant, interesting, or provocative?

Tomás: Well, one question I am focused on is how to investigate a sense of fear that people may need to fight when they experience this installation. I like to test and analyse how people enter and exit my installations. There are so many phobias that will be challenging for people to overcome: agoraphobia (fear of crowded places), acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), nyctophobia (fear of darkness). These fears are fascinating phenomena. For example, some people fear spiders even if they don’t see them; they panic just by seeing a spider web. And curiously, people told me that my installations changed the perceptions of their fears.

Tomás Saraceno, A Thermodynamic Imaginary, 2020. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno | Interview with Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, A Thermodynamic Imaginary, 2020. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno Image: Nicholas Knight

Vladimir: Interesting. I met a journalist at the press opening who said she would not enter your Spider/Web installation because of her acrophobia. Let me ask you this—would you agree that the Spider/Web is an autonomous world? Was there an intention to make this installation site-specific?     

Tomás: I don’t agree that it is autonomous and cut off. Even if this installation is entirely self-contained you still feel being connected to the cosmos, being suspended in space, you feel nature, vibrations, sense of touch, and the presence of other people through all your senses, the piece makes you aware of your phobias and phobias of others. And this installation is not just visual, not primarily. You must rely on your senses to judge whether it is site-specific or not. It may not be specific to the room, building, city, but it is specific to the environment on a much more universal scale. The world can be perceived with your senses, no matter where you are. You may close your eyes and feel that world and be connected with it and others. It is particularly important to feel this connectedness now that we are still experiencing the pandemic

Vladimir: What will happen to this installation after the end of the show? Will it be reused, recycled, or even travel to other places?

Tomás: I wish it could travel but I have no idea what will happen. There are no such plans at this moment. But every installation starts with this ambition for a traveling show or perhaps it could transform into other projects. I would even be happy if at some point The Shed asked other artists to reuse these materials for new, entirely unrelated projects. And wouldn’t it be fantastic if a version of this installation could float in the ocean of air? And if someone wants to do exactly the same installation elsewhere, why not reenact it? This could be done in a similar interior to The Shed, which is hard to find. Or, it could be built as a freestanding pavilion with some modifications. For example, the interior could be visible from the outside at night with moving shadows. Of course, such a pavilion would need to be reinforced to withstand the wind pressure.

Vladimir: This means that art is in the performance itself, not the materiality of the shell, right? Your webs become works of art when they get activated by people.

Tomás: Both. The shell is like a horse carriage. Or, let’s think of a concert hall where you need to perform music. So, it is a total work of art. But I don’t want to be specific and define any of the transmitted sounds and vibrations in a human language. If we keep it open, we will be able to build something entirely otherworldly.

Vladimir: You said, “Architecture is not the structure itself. It is the construction of poetry.” Your work “serves as a trigger of people’s imagination.”

Tomás: Yes.

Tomás Saraceno, A Thermodynamic Imaginary, 2020. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno | Interview with Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, A Thermodynamic Imaginary, 2020. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno Image: Nicholas Knight

Vladimir: I like it a lot. You also said, “A web is a musical instrument played by the spiders.”

Tomás: Yes, absolutely! What I called a concert and you said, performance; that’s what the spiders are doing. The spiders perform. But we need to create the right space and structure to enable them to perform.

Vladimir: When I visited the piece, there was a singer singing. Because it was pitch-black it was hard to realise whether this voice was human. I initially thought it was produced by a synthesiser and prerecorded, and only at the end, I have spotted the singer. Is that live performance a part of the project?

Tomás: It was a spontaneous decision to test the space, to confuse things, and keep everything open, unexpected, unscripted, and different every time. I spoke of very special vibrations, but the space also has a very special echo. So, I asked my singer friend, “Why don’t you play with the space?” He came in a couple of times to fine-tune his voice to the space, to play it as if it were a musical instrument.  

Vladimir: Could you touch on how you start your projects? Your practice is like a laboratory, what are some of the questions that you pose and test?

Tomás: I look around and I see so much injustice, global warming, air pollution, social and racial inequalities. And now we have a war in Europe. Unthinkable! Can we even survive? This beautiful planet, our spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller called it in his lecture and book titled Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in which he related Earth to a spaceship flying through the cosmos at a great speed, is very fragile. So many governments and corporations keep using the Earth’s resources senselessly and in their self-interests.     

Vladimir: As someone who is trained as an architect, do you see your work as architecture, and do you try to widen architecture’s limits with your projects?

Tomás: I don’t know, but I hope so. [Laughs.] Yes, I try to do that by working with air, communities, spiders, and so on. I hope to be able to contribute something to expanding architecture as well. And I am inspired by such projects as a famous exhibition at MoMA and the book Architecture Without Architects [1964] by Bernard Rudofsky, which celebrated communal, vernacular architecture that resulted from human intelligence rather than professional architectural practice. We need to look for alternative models, non-standard solutions, go beyond the limitations of each discipline, and, in general, go beyond preconceived definitions. We need to try what can be done. We don’t know what it is going to be—call it architecture, art, science, performance; it could be one inhabited thing. We need to mingle between different disciplines.

Tomás Saraceno, Webs of At-tent(s)-ion, 2020. Seven spider frames, spider silk, carbon fibers, lights. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno | Interview with Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, Webs of At-tent(s)-ion, 2020. Seven spider frames, spider silk, carbon fibers, lights. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno Image: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of The Shed

Vladimir: You worked at Olafur Eliasson's office. What did you learn from him?

Tomás: I think the main part is his passion for work, investigating, researching, asking questions, and actively looking for opportunities to collaborate with creatives from other disciplines. The idea of fusing art and science I got from him. I think I can describe his work methodology as an endless curiosity. Well, you asked me about architecture. What is important in the relation between art and architecture is that the author always remains an artist. The difference, of course, is that in architecture you must have a commission but as an artist, you become the commissioner. So, in a way, I was always an artist initiating independent projects. I am always playing between being both in and outside of a comfort zone, as I am always pushing the limits by initiating new projects.

Vladimir: What do you think art is for? What can it do?

Tomás: I don’t know, but the spiders I work with should be recognised as artists. Not only humans are artists. It is important to realise that. Perhaps some of their works could be included in art collections. That will address the phobia towards these creatures, and we would pay more attention to the fragility of nature in general. We must realise how quickly we have been destroying our planet, but nature is a part of who we are as humans. The spiders have been around for more than 280 million years, whereas humans have been living for less than 200,000 years. We need to find ways to live with them and maybe even learn something from them.

Vladimir: As you said, “By taking a closer look at the spiders we start seeing the world differently. By paying more attention to details.”

Tomás: Absolutely. There are communities that I came across in villages in Cameroon where they pay a lot of attention to the spiders and base some of their decisions on the knowledge acquired from these creatures. The villagers there interpret certain signs and even make their decisions based on what they learn from observing the spiders. You can see videos of the spiders interpreting binary questions at Nggamdu.org, a website by the community of spider diviners in Somié, Cameroon. The website even shows how to pose your own question to the spiders.

Tomás Saraceno, How to entangle the universe in a spider/web? 2020. Laser, spider silk, carbon fiber. Window: approx. 14 x 2.5 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno | Interview with Tomás Saraceno | STIRworld
Tomás Saraceno, How to entangle the universe in a spider/web? 2020. Laser, spider silk, carbon fiber. Window: approx. 14 x 2.5 feet. Artwork © Studio Tomás Saraceno Image: Nicholas Knight

Vladimir: What are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

Tomás: The plan is to slow down, work less, travel less frequently, and focus more consciously on what we do and what questions we need to tackle. There are about 30 of us here in our studio. We want to plant a garden, grow our own vegetables, fix our bicycles. We installed solar panels here to generate our own energy. Most of all, I want to continue exchanging knowledge and learning from all kinds of communities from around the world. This social interaction is our key focus. We have lost understanding of how important our surroundings are. We must rethink the world, shift our focus, reexamine our role and place. That’s why we need to step outside of what we know, what we are accustomed to; it will enable us to take a closer look at who we are.

Vladimir: You said that your net- and web-based projects are “about establishing a dialogue between people, objects, and spaces.”

Tomás: Yes, why not?! [Laughs.]

What do you think?

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