Dirigible Fantasies

'Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.' - Winnie The Pooh

Around The World In Eighty Days is famous for it's balloon. Google the novel and you'll find a wealth of book covers, adverts for musicals, films and pantomimes and cosplay depicting Phileas Fogg's famous balloon adventure. The irony of course is that Jules Verne never wrote about a balloon. It was put into the 1956 adaptation of the film and has gone on to reverse-engineer the narrative ever since - it now appears on the cover of most editions of the book.

Film producers aren't the only ones to falsely impress memories and narratives of balloons on us, In fact, the idea of a balloon ride has been historically popular in experimentation with false memories. There's something about the strength and simplicity of the imagery of ballooning that makes it particularly powerful on the mind. Probably another reason why it proliferates in advertising despite ballooning having very little connection to anything except ballooning.

Google even popped it into their Google Glass video. Because ballooning is something you'll probably do more of when you're the type of person who buys Glass. Or maybe because you can only buy Glass if you're the type of person with interesting, real memories to record. Or maybe the balloon isn't real and this is some proposal for some 'life fulfilling' AR program in the works and we've just read it wrong.

Of course, the balloon was always associated with business. For years I lived in a place surrounded by fields that would populate with balloon enthusiasts on clear, windless weekends for what could essentially be called an intense aerial advertising campaign over rural England. Most of the owners of the balloons paid for them with sponsorship from local business. In the US, the Goodyear blimp has, over the decades achieved lustful fame with consumers as something to aspire to. They cement this relationship by only allowing corporate guests to ride in the three balloons they have. Maybe one day that could be you. If you work hard enough, or buy enough product. The sky, is quite literally, the limit.

Returning to Google, they just released Google Loon. Put aside the Boris Johnson-style titular self-deprecation in the face of the fact that we recently realised they rule the world, and you actually have a pretty good idea.  You send the Internet around the world on balloons to places that don't have the necessary infrastructure to get it themselves. It's easy to adopt cynicism here. Facebook recently found out that it's reached peak Western users and, without better communication infrastructure, is struggling to reach out to new markets to ensure the continued growth it promised shareholders. I would imagine that most of the big stacks find themselves in similar positions.

If this is ringing bells, think of Liam Young and Superflux's collaboration for Electronic Countermeasures (above) - a temporary network of drones carrying wi-fi for pirating media around the city. And here is where we can draw the delineation. Just as the drone has  in recent years become a symbol of shadowy agency, secretive motives and often para-legal, para-moral activity, the balloon seems to have cropped up as a sort of idyllic and earnest hero. I used the Winnie the Pooh quote because there's something of the Pooh about balloons. They seem to lack urgency and velocity, and with that they become quite helpless. It's quite hard to extract a sense of viciousness or sinisterism from a balloon. They're slow, susceptible to wind, bad weather and damage. They're hard to hide and have limited application. Hark back to the Second World War where balloons were our trusty defence against the Nazi bombing raids or the early twentieth century where skyscrapers were erected with balloon moorings, earnestly believing that the future of flight was in these imperfect dirigibles.

That dream seemed to have died at some point. Probably for the best and probably about the time of the 1956 Around The World in Eighty Days adaptation. Aeroplanes were safer, faster and ultimately cheaper. It was that simple. The balloon became a thing of novelty, for hobbyists or for advertisers to park their logo over the cityscape or sometimes, rural England, population 3.

But now the Golden Age of Ballooning returning. Perhaps not in reality but certainly in speculation. Dunne and Raby's recent United MicroKingdoms (left) features a group of Anarcho-Evolutionists that have evolved tall and slender bodies to live in balloons in the air. This semi-Utopian fantasy is faltered by the struggle to find fuel and resources and is perhaps not as idyllic as the balloon-as-sold would seem.

The architecture world is littered with hot air balloon projects. Cloud City by Studio Lidfors involvs quite literally raising New York in the face of rising sea-levels. The amazing Zeppelin's Swarm by Hector Zamora (above) looks at, again, falsifying a history of Zeppelin airshows in Venice through the power of the imagery of a Zeppelin (the Zeppelin itself has quite a fascinating history as a series of determined and failed experiments.) More recently, at Goldsmith's This is War graduation show, Stephanie Jedek's Vertical Geography imagines a populated future sky of balloons and dirigibles of commmercial and residential value in a slightly milder version of Theo Games Petrohilos' Air Futures.

Not only designers and architects, but novelists turn to the symbol of the dirigible. Steampunk is positively cluttered with them and one of my favourite books of the recently deceased Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist, concerns a race of dirigible creatures, passive and friendly, ancient and buried in custom who seemingly hold the secret to galactic domination but are reluctant to use it.

Perhaps there's something in here of the unreachable irreality of space colonisation. A balloon doesn't feel like a method of transportation. There are other, better, cheaper, easier ways of moving through the air and the drone, having shrugged off human cargo is perhaps the finest version of that. The balloon feels like it is built for us. Not something to move in, but something to be in, to be on. To be floated high and away from the overcrowding, the technology of motion and living and into a space seemingly without time or allegiance. Perhaps, and I think all these projects talk about this, we want that lack of agency. That ability to relinquish control that a balloon seemingly gives, to be a part of the world and observe it but to escape from it while the drone slinks under the skin and corrupts form the inside.

There are practical considerations too. Lighter-than-air aircraft are much more environmentally friendly and the thinking goes that with more and more goods becoming immaterial, what's left as physical will happily be transported slower and for lower cost - a story very reminiscent of the death of the Concorde and the birth of the Internet partnered with huge, cheap passenger craft. With Google Loon we're staring to see these futures become real but in a deceptive form. Google looks to appeal to our fantasy of dirigible flight in order to justify filling the air with data and cutify the technology of its ongoing market dominance. If this is really the start to the real Golden Age of Ballooning then it may end up more sinister than we imagined.

*check out this Darth Vader balloon I saw in the Netherlands a few weeks back.