The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s)

Tomás Saraceno
Interactive Installation
Germany / United States
February-April 2022, The Shed

“I think it’s time to reinvent what a human is. You have to make the effort to change your own perspective and try to construct something which is beyond your own form of knowledge..” - Tomás Saraceno

Through interactive installations and an artistic process that focusses on collaboration—in this case with spiders and their webs—the artist Tomás Saraceno proposes a conversation between human and nonhuman lifeforms. Nonhumans have typically been disregarded by humans in the Capitalocene era, as environmental scientists have dubbed our current epoch, characterized as it is by the destructive effects of capitalism on the environment. In a call for environmental justice, Saraceno also collaborates with human communities that have been impacted by these negative effects, particularly as part of his community projects, Aerocene and Arachnophilia.

Particular Matter(s), the artist’s largest exhibition in the US to date, celebrated the complexity of our collective existence while searching for ways to live together in a different and more equitable fashion. Organized by Emma Enderby, Curator-at-Large, with assistant curators Alessandra Gómez and Adeze Wilford, the exhibition featured new and existing works in the galleries of The Shed as well as a newly commissioned sensory experience, Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, a 95-foot-diameter installation consisting of two levels of wire mesh netting upon which participants’ bodies could vibrate with the rhythms of spiders and other creatures—a concert of terrestrial and cosmic vibrations experienced as inaudible frequencies.

Matter(s) for Conversation and Action

In partnership with Columbia University’s Climate School and Studio Tomás Saraceno, The Shed presented a series of six conversations to explore key issues around climate change and environmental justice while identifying connections with artworks in the exhibition: "An Outlook on Particular Matter(s)," with Saraceno, exhibition curator Emma Enderby and The Shed’s Senior Program Advisor, Hans Ulrich Obrist; "Environmental Justice and Covid-19," a discussion featuring Harriet A. Washington, a leader in environmental racism discourse, and moderated by Courtney Cogburn, Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia; "Capitalocene, Aerocene," an investigation of the role of capitalism in the climate crisis, moderated by Andrew Revkin, Director of Initiative on Communication Innovation and Impact at Columbia Climate School; "From Arachnophobia to Arachnophilia," an exploration of interspecies interconnectedness and interdependence; "Invention, Experimentation, and Radical Imagination," a survey of artistic and scientific frameworks to unlock potential paths forward, and "Where Do We Go from Here? Rights of nature: Policy, Activism and Change," in search of diverse, international approaches to the rights of the air and of water.

Tomás Saraceno is an Argentine-born, Berlin-based artist who has worked with local communities, scientific researchers and institutions around the world. Together they have created works at the intersection of art, architecture, engineering and the natural sciences that propose new, sustainable ways of inhabiting and sensing the environment. He has lectured at institutions worldwide; directed the Institute of Architecture‐related Art (IAK) at Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany (2014 – 16), and held residencies at the Centre National d’Études Spatiales in Paris, the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and the Atelier Calder in central France, among others. He has had solo exhibitions at multiple museums and institutions, including the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2018), the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires (2017), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2012) and the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin (2011). For the 2020 project Fly with Aerocene Pacha, 32 world records were set with Aerocene, marking the most sustainable flight in human history.

"Saraceno is not so much an artist as a polymath on a mission. . . . His overarching goal might be summed up simply as getting humans to live right. This means getting them to understand that they are not the top of a pyramid of power in what is called the Anthropocene era, but exist on a horizontal plane with all non-humans, to which they should be sensitized and from which they have plenty to learn. And they exist in what Saraceno prefers to call the Aerocene era in which interspecies-cooperation and clean air are required. —Roberta Smith, The New York Times

"Tomás Saraceno's studio, in a gritty eastern district of Berlin, stands on toxic ground. After more than a century of industrial use, the land was saturated with contaminants. When Saraceno took over the derelict brick building in 2012, the sale came with restrictions. 'They said, "Please don’t plant apple trees near the street,"' he recalled, because '"people will eat an apple and be poisoned."'

"For an artist preoccupied with ecological concerns, extreme environmental degradation can be inspiring. . . . Saraceno is a hybrid of visionary artist and eccentric scientist. Over the years, he has produced scholarly research as well as sensuous works of art focusing on his two passions, spiders and solar-powered balloons, which have captivated him since childhood. Both, he feels, offer direct access to the mystery of the universe and provide an escape from anthropocentric, gravity-bound thinking." —Arthur Lubow, T: The New York Times Style Magazine

“'What kind of spider are you? What spider will you become?'

"This question is asked of all who visit Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, part of Tomás Saraceno’s Particular Matter(s) exhibition on view at The Shed in Manhattan. . . . Particular Matter(s) is not only teaching us more about what it’s like to be a spider, but how to be a better ecological actor. The experiences of being on the nets, feeling the vibrations of everyone moving around you, heightens the experience of others. The opening question, 'What kind of spider are you? What spider will you become?' could also be interpreted as 'What kind of person are you? What person will you become?'” —The Architect's Newspaper