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The Dwelling of Air: Making and Launching Solar Balloons

Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski (Lancaster University)

In this paper, written with Sasha Engelmann, Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski uses the solar balloon as a philosophical device for exploring air as element. A solar balloon is a balloon that is lifted and animated when it and its contained air are warmed by the sun. Through a phenomenological account of a 24-hour solar-balloon-making workshop with the artist Tomas Saraceno, he explores the materiality, technicity and sociality of balloon-making and balloon repair, balloon-launching and balloon-tracking. He shows how the aerostat demonstrates how Being appears not in the lichtung, the empty clearing of Heidegger's Dasein, but in the maternal embrace of "air, this there, which gives itself boundlessly and without demonstration, ever unfurled-unfurling, and in which everything will come to presence and into relation (Irigaray 1999), in an atmosphere that is both material and effectual (Infold forthcoming). The surprising event of aerostatic being enables us not only to feel the wind, but to join with it, as we travel with the eye and the mind, or with our won bodies, on the ground, or up in the air. By making, filling, launching and tracking a solar balloon we see the air's own powers made explicit. The solar balloon in its motion makes visible the gradients, motions and torsions that together make up air as element—the orderly and the chaotic, the gently and the violent, that are all at once accidental and essential to its being. In air, "the gods pass us by, weightless, insubstantial, flanking non-existence, evanescent spirits; the least wrinkle in the air will chase them away" (Serres 2008). Yet a solar balloon, if cared for, readily transmits the wrinkles and turbulence of air to human hands and bodies. Through the act of bringing a solar balloon to aerostatic life, human and non-human bodies can become attuned and sensitive to each other (Despret 2004), and to the enfolding element. But the solar balloon, the most fragile of balloons in its coming into being, also enables us to think not just about our relation to the balloon and to the air, but also the air's relation to itself, and to the objects that are immersed within it.

Event details

Bronislaw Szerszynski is Reader at the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK.  His research draws on the social sciences, humanities, arts and natural sciences in order to place contemporary changes in the relationship between humans, environment and technology in the longer perspective of human and planetary history.  His recent work, including both academic publications and multi-media performance pieces, explores areas such as geoengineering, the Anthropocene and planetary evolution. He is author of Nature, Technology and the Sacred (2005), and co-editor of Risk, Environment and Modernity (1996), Re-Ordering Nature (2003), Nature Performed (2003), and special double issues of Ecotheology on ‘Ecotheology and Postmodernity’ (2004), and Theory Culture and Society on ‘Changing Climates’ (2010).  He was also co-organiser of the conference Between Nature: Explorations in Ecology and Performance (Lancaster, 2000), Experimentality, a year-long research programme on experimentation in the sciences, arts and wider society (Lancaster/Manchester/London, 2009-10), and Anthropocene Monument, with Bruno Latour and Olivier Michelon (Toulouse, 2014-2015).

The 2015/16 Art History and Visual Culture research seminar series, chaired by João Florêncio under the theme of “Ecopoetics,” brings together speakers from a wide variety of disciplines – from art history and visual culture to theatre and performance, geography, law, and sociology – to explore the ways in which the realm of the visual intersects with ecological debates, thus reflecting on what it might mean to build an oikos, a home or dwelling place, predicated on more ethical modes of engagement and cohabitation with the human and nonhuman other.


Queens Building LT7.1 + 7.2