Rob’s Spring newsletter and new essay: An Empty Chair On The Varsity Line

Rob La Frenais  Spring Newsletter 
Some talks and openings in Spring 2016 
Emerge, Bournemouth University, UK, March 23 
Becoming Aerosolar- Space Without Rockets’ March 23rd 15.00-17.00 In this talk, and 
to mark his appointment as a Research Fellow in Emerge, the experimental media research 
group at BU invited Rob to showcase one of the most recent major projects he has 
organised as curator with artist Tomas Saraceno and curator Kerry Doyle. The talk 
included the 'Future of Transportation' a series of projects and prototypes developed 
by students during the Srishti Interim 2016 at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and 
Technology where he was visiting professor in November and December 2015:
Marston Vale Rail Line, Bedford to Bletchley , UK March 24 11.30 AM. 
Rob has written the catalogue essay for Where Will Your Journey of Contemplation begin- 
Contemplation seats by Sally Annett and Snakes and Ladders on the Marston Vale Line here:
Centrespace Gallery, DCA Building, Dundee, Scotland, UK April 21 18.00 
Opening and introductory talk by Rob who has curated  “When The Future Was about Fracking”
by Paris-based artists group Hehe, whose often mischievous yet accurate miniaturisations 
of potential and actual global disasters have intrigued audiences worldwide. Exhibition 
until May 18, when there will be a closing performance/lecture by Hehe at 5PM. 
Open 11-6PM, late opening Thursday until 8PM. Part of Energy Ethics, organised by 
St Andrews University, and supported by The Cooper Gallery, DJCA this installation 
was originally commissioned as 'Fracking Futures' by FACT, Liverpool and Arts Catalyst.
More info: Sophia Hao 
Exoplanet Lot Residencies, SW France, open day: Friday 13 May at 18.30 you can come 
along to meet the artists and see the work in progress at Residences Maisons Daura in 
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, near Cahors, France.  Co-curated by Rob with Martine Michard, 
Director of the Maison Des Arts Georges Pompidou, in the spectacular Lot Valley in 
SW France. This will be a site-specific science, art and technology exhibition, in 
which the environment of the valley is imagined by the curators as an alternative 
earth-like planet, one where infrastructure developed by an intelligent species has 
evolved in a similar but different way to that on Earth. How would this civilisation 
organise things differently from the large-scale industrialisation of planet Earth 
and guarantee sustainability for this species and its environment? Artists and writers 
include Tania Candiani, Hehe, Tracey Warr, Nahum Mantra, Thomas Lasbouyges, Caroline 
Le Méhauté, Angelika Markul, Ludwig Passenau and Aleksandra Mir (TBC). 
Exhibition opening and performances on Saturday July 2 19.00. ( 
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds UK, May 21 
Rob will be speaking at a special study day, open to all, on the work of the 
late performance artist and pyrotechnicist Steve Cripps (1952-82) at the Henry Moore 
Institute in Leeds, UK in collaboration with Museum Tinguely. The workshop will take 
place on Saturday 21 May, 10.30-6pm and is followed by a film screening on Sunday 22 
May,11-1pm, featuring Cripps’ films alongside those of John Latham and Jean Tinguely’s 
‘Study for the End of the World’ (1962) at Hyde Park Picture House, a wonderful old 
cinema in Leeds. More info: Jon Wood: 
Date for your diary! Opening of No Such Thing As Gravity, a major new exhibition 
curated by Rob at FACT Liverpool, UK on November 12, Private View November 11 2016 

New Essay:

An Empty Chair on the Varsity Line

‘Marples Must Go!’ This graffitti remained on a bridge on the concrete strip of the M1, snaking through Bedfordshire to the North, Britain’s first fast highway or ‘motorway’ so quaintly named in the 50’s, for decades after Macmillan’s minister of transport had left office. I always noticed it as a young hitchhiker and it remains as a cultural memory among many, though no images exist of it as far as I know. Marples went, but not until after he had commissioned one Dr Richard Beeching to decimate Britains railways, including the ‘Varsity Line’ which intersected the M1, running conveniently from Oxford to Cambridge. Now those aristos and tweedy academics would have to pilot their Rollers and Morris Minors along roads built and financed and concreted by none other than the family firm, Marples Ridgeway, builder of the M1 extension and the Hammersmith Flyover. The closure of the Varsity line was not, in fact an immediate casualty of the ‘Beeching Axe’, but this knock-on effect of large scale closures led to the gradual degradation of other branch lines and lines that did not pass through London by neglect, ushering in the age of concrete and the car, leading to Thatcher’s dark psychogeography of the M25. As for Ernest Marples, the concrete magnate and former Minister of Transport ended his days as a tax exile in Monaco. Sounds familiar?

The M1 is also dissected by – points out artist, curator, all-round psychogeographer and activist of the inner life, Sally Annett – the route of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Including the Slough of Despond, an adequate metaphor for the corruption surrounding the replacement of Britain’s extraordinarily complex rail system with the current mire of road traffic: “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.” ‘Carriageway Widening Works’ in another age. There are even more appropriate landmarks in ‘Bunyan Country’, notes Annett, including the Hill of Difficulty, the Vale of the Shadow of Death and the Celestial City, some of which can be visited on the remaining part of the Varsity Line, the Marston Vale Line. On this small line, reactivated by the influx of workers to the contemporary Dark Satanic Mill, the giant Amazon warehouse facility in Ridgmont, we see some of the classic symbols of rail depredation, aimed to make one think again about taking the train such as unstaffed brutalist ‘bus stop’ stations, stripped of any architecture or shelter that may make the passenger comfortable while waiting for the train that may, or may not, turn up. Annett has responded to this state of affairs, including at her own home ‘station stop’ as they are now absurdly announced, by creating a number of ‘Contemplation Seats’ which she is strategically placing along stations of the Marston Vale line.

Sally Annett, in her ‘Snakes and Ladders’ project has previously broken new ground in conducting large-scale investigations of the ‘inner voices’ of artists and scientists, probing at their religious, anti-religious, philosphical and pyschological backgrounds, to find out what they may all have in common in terms of notions of the self and processes of meta-awareness. In ‘Where Will Your Journey of Contemplation Begin’ she has initiated an unusual public art project which puts a new slant on the notion of ‘waiting for the train’ by strategically placing chairs, virtual and occasionally physically real, of different types and design in a guerilla fashion, in places where there is no seating. But they are not just functional. Annett describes the chairs as a way for the public “ to see familiar environments in a reflective and self-reflective way, through the written word and archetypal symbol of a chair or seat. The work uses the human body as a vehicle or mediator for consciousness and tries to develop methods of creating time and space for thought. They encourage a dialogue with a ‘still small voice’”.

The chair is an important symbol in contemporary art and stands as a powerful metaphor for human presence. A well-known example is Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Fairytale’ project in 2007, where he brought 1001 chairs from the Ming and Quing dynasty to Documenta 12 in Kassel. He also arranged for 1001 Chinese citizens to accompany them, who responded to an announcement in his blog, who had to answer 99 questions, including one about their dreams and who then inhabited the town of Kassel en masse in what Ai Wei Wei described as an ‘Eastern Wave’ along with the chairs. Another significant ‘chair’ work, which I was involved in curating was Simon Faithfull’s ‘Escape Vehicle No. 6 (2004) which took place at the first Artists Airshow at Farnborough, organised by The Arts Catalyst, where a life-size replica of a chair was launched to the edge of space. Faithfull described the flight of his chair as “first rushing away from the fields and roads, ascending through clouds and finally (against the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space) beginning to disintegrate… the empty chair invites the audience to imagine taking a journey to an uninhabitable realm where it is impossible to breathe…” Annett eventually aims to be able to install her Contemplation Seats permanently on the stations but for now they will appear occasionally and provocatively as ‘ghost chairs’ on the empty platforms, accompanied by discreet aluminium plaques, illicit stickers and a bespoke/interactive website – an ethernet contemplative trail which in the absence of full permissions, circuits from the real to digital and then imaginal worlds.

Riding the line between Bedford and Bletchley is a jolly affair, a friendly 2 -man train taking schoolkids, elderly shoppers and others who for whatever reason don’t use cars.  However it is laced with uncertainty. On the day I first tried to use it, the electronic signal board announced enigmatically “This Train has been cancelled because because of a Train” only as an afterthought adding the word “fault”.  Once on, the train affords some interesting views of the post-industrial landscapes, with their gravel pits and abandoned brickworks. My previous experience of Bedfordshire has always been of the inner-city prejudiced variety, ie “get through it as quickly as possible to get to a real place”. We have now been taught by the likes of Ian Sinclair to value these apparently liminal non-spaces in the English hinterlands. Sally Annett, who lives here, is no exception, talking eloquently of the history of brick-building, local myths and of course Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which she is artistically (currently) enchanted/obsessed, pointing out the landmarks on the Icknield way and little corners of the landscape that are reflected in the life of the dissident evangelist who lived and worked here.

With Annett I have actually climbed the Hill of Difficulty, viewed the spire of the Church of the Village of Morality (which now with centuries old irony looks down onto the ‘Satanic Mill and Motor-highway’) and entered the actual Slough of Despond. I am not sure if I have seen the Celestial City, unless that is Bletchley Park, with its rebuilt Colussus and Enigma Machines, the ghosts of Alan Turing and his mainly female human ‘computers’, at the end of the line, boffins travelling there by rail in each direction from Oxford and Cambridge on the Varsity Line. Moreover, at the edge of the Slough of Despond there is Light at the end of the Tunnel, to stretch a metaphor till it squeaks. The East-West Rail Consortium project has been funded and is aiming to re-open the Varsity line, at least from Bedford to Oxford again by 2020 (the Cambridge section has been built over), hence the support for accompanying public art projects like Sally Annett’s Contemplation Seats.

It is always difficult to do art projects that engage with large-scale infrastructure like railways, without becoming illustrative and decorative additions to the travelling environment. Somehow health and safety issues and anxieties about public perception always become magnified around trains and those who operate them. Sally Annett’s simple statement of a chair on a platform should be seen as a straightforward but evocative gesture, suggesting waiting and a sense of personal time as part of a unique individual journey. I hope they will appear.

Rob La Frenais
March 2016

Rob’s newsletter for 2016

News From Rob La Frenais

Space Without Rockets! Future of Transportation
2015 ended with a gentle lift as Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene/Space Without Rockets project took off in El Paso and White Sands New Mexico, organised by Rob with Kerry Doyle, Director of the Rubin Center, University of Texas at El Paso. You can read more about it here:

Rob also instigated and helped run the Future of Transportation Interim Programme at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, in December. You can read more about this here:
You can also follow the facebook group Future of Transportation for news on the development of this project.

Coming next: Exoplanet Lot
In Spring 2016, Rob will co-curate the Exoplanet Lot residency and exhibition with Martine Michard, Director of the Maison Des Arts Georges Pompidou, in the spectacular Lot Valley in SW France. This will be a site-specific science, art and technology exhibition, in which the environment of the valley is imagined by the curators as an alternative earth-like planet, one where infrastructure developed by an intelligent species has evolved in a similar but different way to that on Earth. How would this civilisation organise things differently from the large-scale industrialisation of planet Earth and guarantee sustainability for this species and its environment?
It follows on from the Raumlabor Berlin Lotville project in 2015 seen here:

Artists and writers include Tania Candiani, Hehe, Tracey Warr, Nahum Mantra, Thomas Lasbouyges, Caroline Le Méhauté, Angelika Markul, Ludwig Passenau and Aleksandra Mir (TBC).

Note for your diary! Opening July 2 2016 at 19.00. Contact Rob on if you are planning to attend.

No Such Thing As Gravity.
Rob will curate this major season at FACT Liverpool, opening in Liverpool UK, which will be both a serious and provocative investigation by artists and scientists into the limits of scientific knowledge. Opening in November 2016, details will shortly be available: More details from

Rob is continuing to move towards making public a living archive about Performance Magazine, the 80’s cultural journal which he founded and edited. You can join the facebook group called Performance Magazine 1979-92 for news on developments. Rob continues to write regularly for Art Monthly, where he has recently written a feature on the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts. He also contributes to: He continues to give lectures internationally and is always happy to speak at educational institutions and arts venues on the above projects.

Aerocene – Space Without Rockets! Successful Flight

take off!

Text by Ewen Chardronnet

In a time of rapidly accelerating climate change, why do we still blast rockets into space, burning up vast amounts of hydrocarbons? Three weeks before the COP21, the UN conference on climate changes, international renowned artist Tomás Saraceno and his balloonists team, with the help of the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in UT El Paso, has decided to build a “Space without Rockets” action in New Mexico White Sands desert area, the land of the first rocket launches in United States and of the first tourist spaceport in the world.

The new space race for commercial space flights and space tourism raise certain questions concerning climate change. The big threat from the scaling-up of space travel comes from black carbon, a type of particulate matter that, when hurled into the stratosphere, stays up for years, absorbing visible light from the sun. According to a study Black carbon emitted into the stratosphere by rockets would absorb 100,000 times as much energy as the CO2 emitted by those rockets. And emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone. The simulations show that the changes to Earth’s climate could increase polar surface temperatures by 1 °C, and reduce polar sea ice by 5–15%. A growing space tourism industry will function like an experiment in engineering the climate.

There’s one issue and it’s simple: you don’t want to put black carbon in the stratosphere.

What then? Are rockets the only way to get there? Tomás Saraceno says no, we can float into space with balloons, from space stations hovering in the upper atmosphere and calls for an Aerocene.


Tomás Saraceno’s project Aerocene proposes the longest 0-fuel flight around the world, powered only by the heat of the Sun and infrared radiation from the surface of Earth. Being a sculpture with research potential, it contributes to the ongoing dialogue between art and science and posits a new way to collect data, distribute information and translate scientific research through an artistic form.

Aerocene is a collaborative project that engages in disruptive, alternative, and collective interactions with space and space technology and appropriates and reinterprets existing data sets; its launch in the dramatic landscape of the desert, led by Tomás Saraceno, implies the initiation of the growing global movement of artist-scientist-activists who are working in such a way that the imaginary of space becomes an expansion of the social imaginary, providing alternatives to traditional state-based and emerging commercial interests.The sculptures that are part of this endeavour examplifies the way how we can fly just as the planet Earth is floating in its contact flux.

In the dunes of White Sands on sunday november 8th 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person has floated more than 2 hours without touching ground – and burning any gas ! The test flight was successful !

“Space without Rockets”, the international campaign for sustainable space exploration and research, organized by Aerocene in collaboration with curator Rob la Frenais and the University of Texas at El Paso.

Space Without Rockets Conference: Alternatives in Space Travel, the launch of Aerocene sculpture and the demonstration of aerosolar ‘moon-walk’, with gravity reduced only by the heat of Sun happened at Rubin Center, The University of Texas at El Paso and White Sands National Park


Participants: Tomás Saraceno, artist who has begun the aerosolar movement, realised a number of lighter-than-air artistic projects (Becoming Aerosolar, Aerocene), and co-founded Museo Aero Solar collective; John Powell, founder of JP Aerospace; Rob La Frenais, conference chair and curator of the Aerosolar/Space Without Rockets project; Ewen Chardronnet of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts; Kathelin Gray, co-founder and Director of the former Biosphere 2 in Arizona, from Synergia Ranch in New Mexico; Nicola Triscott, Director of the science-art organisation The Arts Catalyst, London; Nahum Mantra, co-curator of the Matters of Gravity zero gravity exhibition; Cristobal Martinez of Post Commodity.…/t…/tomas-saraceno-becoming-aerosolar