• 11.05.12

Floating Plastic Membranes Invite You To Walk On Air

Tomás Saraceno returns with a plastic playground whose twists and folds reference heady ideas about gravity and the universe.

Even if you fancy yourself an armchair (or bar stool) physicist, talking about string theory without delving deep into abstract language is a challenge. Tomás Saraceno broaches the topic in the most fun way possible this month, with a massive PVC jungle gym installation that he says represents the Planck scale, a theoretical subatomic realm where wormholes and multiverses abound.


You’ll remember Saraceno from his 2009 Venice Biennale piece, Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, Like Droplets Along the Strands of a Spider’s Web; or Cloud City, the Met’s 2012 rooftop installation. Both pieces mixed utopian idealism with theoretical physics–a heady combination that some will surely roll their eyes at.

But On Space Time Foam is hard not to like. Installed in Milan’s HangarBicocca, the installation invites ten visitors at a time to slide into the square space, hanging 72 feet above the ground and made from super-strong reinforced plastic. The PVC membrane is just taut enough to move across–some compare the experience to “cloud hiking.” There are roughly three layers that overlap and twist together, like a huge transparent layer cake.

To really understand what makes this particular cake so interesting, it might be helpful to backtrack for a second and talk about the Planck scale (full disclosure: I am not a physicist). It refers to the smallest piece of time scientists believe exist, making it a crucial aspect of the universe that could change what we know about gravity. But it’s difficult to study with current technology, which makes it a huge point of debate among physicists. Good old Wikipedia explains:

Is the Planck scale domain a seething mass of virtual black holes? Is it a fabric of unimaginably fine loops or a spin foam network? Is it interpenetrated by innumerable Calabi-Yau manifolds, which connect our 3-dimensional universe with a higher dimensional space? Perhaps our 3-D universe is ‘sitting’ on a ‘brane’ which separates it from a 2, 5, or 10-dimensional universe and this accounts for the apparent ‘weakness’ of gravity in ours.

In other words, no one really knows. But for Saraceno, the concept is intoxicatingly wild:

Quantum and string theories assert the fundamental layer of existence, the subatomic Planck realm (where intriguing physical theories of wormholes and multiverses exist, where superposition, decoherence and entanglement occur) is in fact structured as a foam. This relatively flat surface can be thought of as an elastic field called a membrane, which can curve, warp stretch and contract, and even pass through itself. String theoreticians have speculated that the Big Bang, the origin of our known cosmos, emerged from two such tremendously sized membranes crashing into one another, sparking the superluminal expansion of energy-matter that typifies our early inflating foamy cosmos.

So when you’re sliding across the slick PVC surface of Saraceno’s installation, feel free to imagine yourself as a black hole, sliding through a foamy instant in time, surrounded by fellow gravitational phenomena. Or, you know, just have fun and take plenty of pictures.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.