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Olga Panades Massanet

Featured image: Photograph of a creative experiment on more intelligent modes of inhabiting the planet

Open_Sailing‘s biggest achievement is perhaps to have turned our future into an open source project. Led by a group of enthusiasts, gathered around the idea of “we don’t know what will happen, but together we can invent our future and cope”, the project puts forward a very ambitious, action-driven, experiment-led, way of thinking forward. After meeting with the founder of the project, Cesar Harada, Open_Sailing proved to be a much more complex enterprise than I originally thought.

Initially the project started by mapping threats, the idea being that threats can produce something else than fear. Indeed Cesar Harada, was decided to turn threats into design constraints. This constitutes an interesting methodology to deal with the current climate of fear. The exploitation of threat has become the standard procedure to stabilize a permanent state of emergency. Mobilising virtual threats, states acquire exceptional powers that facilitate the implementation of ever more pervasive measures of control. The current case of swine flu is the last of a long list of exercises of mass modulation of fear. War on terror is the paradigmatic one. On the other hand, and following the warnings of the Maya calendar, all sorts of popular tales for an apocalyptic 2012 have started to populate the planet.

Map showing where climate issues are

The role of Open_Sailing is to function as a catalyst that channels all this energy into the production of a better future. In short, its role is to transform fear into hope. Certainly this functioned as a strong attractor for new collaborators and soon the team started to grow. After putting together large amounts of real-time data about all sorts of dangers such as tsunami, terrorist attacks, nuclear accidents or pandemics, it became clear that the potential safest spots on earth were mostly located at sea. That led to the idea of designing the infrastructure necessary to inhabit those spots based on the concept of ‘Open Architecture’. Fear had been successfully turned into an active force unleashing the creative process. Inspired by this initial concept the Open_Sailing team started a very intense process of scientific, technological, architectural and artistic research that resulted in a first prototype awarded at Ars Electronica: Open_Sailing_01.

“A drifting village of solid and comfortable shelters surrounded by flexible ocean farming units: fluid, pre-broken, reconfigurable, sustainable, pluggable, organic and instinctive.” [1]

Illustration of the Drifting Village

This drifting village, which is about 50 metres in diameter and can host four people, is designed to respond to its environment, being able to become compact and endure severe weather conditions, and spreading out to harvest in calm situations. Open_Sailing_01 was supposed to set sail last May 2009 but mis-coordination in the production with Ars Electronica delayed the plan. In the meantime, small intermediary prototypes of different modules are being built and tested constantly, but the Open_Sailing team hopes to put together the main modules of the International_Ocean_Station for general testing by the summer 2010.

One other important thing that came across in the interview with Cesar Harada was how soon after Open_Sailing was set in motion, it became clear that the project was not only about escaping the problematics of our society. It was definitely not an idealistic utopia happening elsewhere and starting a world from scratch. Rather than an exercise of escapism, they realised that the idea of inhabiting those sites where there is no threat had become an experimental laboratory where to grasp the future. Indeed Open_Sailing is very much about finding ways to face and deal with the very problems of our world.

Photograph of an idea using DIY technologies

“Be it overpopulation, global warming or energy conflicts, we are living in a time where ‘Apocalypse’ beckons. We need to collectively invent and spread bootstrapping DIY technologies for the forthcoming challenges, not only to survive but to re-invent how we inhabit this planet.” [2]

This became particularly obvious when the team flew to Morocco to try out some live-saving structures. Between the coast of Morocco and the Canary Islands in Spain hundreds of illegal immigrants die every year at sea. A high-seas permanent shelter would provide a low cost life-saving facility for the migrants.

This particular instance is also paradigmatic of the way in which experimentation is carried within the project. Future thinking is developed through material instantiations. This very characteristic process of design and engineering disciplines gives Open_Sailing an exciting palpability, a materiality, a commitment with actualisation that accounts for its potential to bring about real change. Commitment with results drives the project away from the artistic disciplines, but the poetics of the project undeniably brings them back together. A project that in a year of development has acquired such a level of complexity necessarily had to go through a very intense and accelerated process of conceptualisation and experimentation. And there comes the figure of the enthusiast, an experimental survivalist who is willing to take a plane the morning after an idea has come up to participate in a military training testing life-saving technologies.

Experimenting through material instantiations

Even more interesting is perhaps how this enthusiasm becomes contagious and the project starts to work as a truly open source venture. Open_Sailing becomes a powerful autonomous entity that keeps bringing people in a dividing itself into labs. Each new lab engages a whole new group of contributors, with a new set of preoccupations and hopes. The project proves to be definitely not about the implementation of a master plan or utopian blue print, but an example of how open source can literally be applied to the construction of alternative worlds. Within these labs we find different experimental research projects focusing for example on mesh networking; pollution, climate and natural reserve monitoring; sustainable aquaculture in high seas; or energy autonomous systems that generate electricity through wind, sun or wave power.

Now, there is of course the problem of co-option. The research being done is a very useful material with infinite commercial and even military applications. But perhaps this is not something that compromises the success of the project. Rather, its value lies in its capacity to encourage people to co-design their own futures. It is more about joining people that want to create than attracting those that want to buy. Surely, it is the process of creation of alternative that’s been set in motion that is truly significant, even more than the technologies being produced. Furthermore, Open_Sailing manages to reverse the process of co-option, the same way it reverses the effects of threat. Collaborators turn to scientific institutions, corporations, military research, as a useful resource, and then open up the knowledge acquired. This is not a new ‘green design’ product for the consumerist society, it is a spark for a collaborative rethinking of the world.


2 ibid.


2 ibid.