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Tom Shannon, floating above New York City

I’m at the Applied Brilliance conference this morning, a gathering of architects and designers in Bolton Landing, NY, a gorgeous corner of Adirondack State Park. I wasn’t actually scheduled to speak here – my friend Omar Wasow had to pull out of the event so he could be on Oprah’s show today. Since I’m just down the road, I’m pinch hitting. (I guess that the fact that Omar’s known for his work on social networking in the African American community and since I study social networking in Africa, I can talk in his stead…)

Artist, scultpor and inventor Tom Shannon starts his talk with cartoons, designed by his alter-ego, Teapot. They include the Nice Ass pavillion (a pair of shapely mounds), the Tuning Fork Factory (predictably shaped) and the High Rise Camping Tent (“All the inconvenience of camping in one convenient midtown location.”)

As absurd as these ideas are, they’re not far from the absurdities that Shannon has actually designed. He shows us the original design for the Empire State Building, a 86-story structure with a flat top. The iconic pointed shape is the result of an interest in dirigibles – the pointed top was designed to be a landing and mooring platform. In the 1950s, the tower gained a TV tower. In the 1980s, Shannon proposed adding a optically perfect, polished sphere. It would reflect the environment out to the ocean horizon, showing the traffic as well as the celestial sphere as a vision hovering about New York City.

He didn’t get to build the sphere, but he’s now working on a project called Air Genie, which – oddly enough – may accomplish the same thing. Air Genie is a giant circle filled with helium. It’s 110 feet in diameter, the minimum size needed to support the 60 million LEDs that cover its surface (weighing 20 tons). This allows the sphere to have the resolution of a laptop computer at 50 meters. He shows us an image of New York photographed by an on-board camera and “reflected” on the sphere’s surface.

Air Genie could land on a college campus and teach us about geography and plate tectonics, he speculates. We could float spheres above two cities and allow teleconferencing on a city to city basis. Because the sphere can see behind itself, it can become somewhat invisible by displaying the background behind. And – and critically, I suspect – it would be a great light show at a huge dance party.

Shannon would like to float larger objects in the air. This means moving beyond helium, which is effective, but very expensive. He shows us a highly speculative project, a set of translucent islands that hover above the ocean. They need to be island-sized, he tells us, because they’ll float on vacuum. “Perhaps they’ll be built by nanotech, made out of clear diamond”, and will allow landmasses and water to float above water. He tells us that the vision is slightly closer to reality with the advent of graphene, a carbon honeycomb a single atom thick which could contain helium or other atoms permanently.

He’s obsessed with platonic solids and the characteristics of them, he tells us. This fascination has manifested in a series of pieces that involve spheres, hovering in air in free space. The spheres are powerful magnets, that hold themselves in tension and opposition. Showing us an installation at the Tokyo Broadcasting Headquarters, he explains that these installations are affected by the earth’s magnetic field, which is connected to the earth and sun’s magnetic fields – it’s literally and visibly connected to the universe.

A series of sculptures explore “heavy weightlessness”. He shows us a polished stainless steel surface, apparently hovering in thin air. It’s balanced on a very small point, so while it weighs a couple tons, air currents will move it. The newest sculpture in this series is premiering at an art installation in Aix en Provence, where it lives in a beautiful meadow, designed to both capture and evoke morning dew.

1 thought on “Tom Shannon, floating above New York City”

  1. hi Ethan – I very much enjoyed your appropriately brilliant talk at AB.

    Thanks for your excellent & perfectly accurate reporting of my talk. You clearly have a super-conductive memory! I don’t mind you characterizing my exo T Potian work as absurd – it may seem less so in time.

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