Helium Balloons in the Wild

For the last year I have been collecting and scanning helium balloons that I find ‘in the wild’, while out walking or bike riding. They are normally deflated in the woods, undergrowth or hedgerows having escaped, popped, and fallen back to Earth.

This year as part of a brief launch for one of our first year projects at Goldsmiths I wrote a letter to the V&A asking them to create a new collection in the museum for them (see below).

Department of Collections Management, V&A Museum,
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL

I am writing to you with a proposal — for the last year I have been collecting helium balloons that I have found after they have reached the upper atmosphere, popped, and fallen unceremoniously back to Earth. Often I find these balloons on the ground or in bushes while out walking or bike riding in various bits of woodland near to London.

These objects perfectly encapsulate the excesses of modern/late capitalism, and need to be preserved to provide future generations a window into our current epoch.

I propose that these balloons should be added to a new collection in the V&A that I suggest calling — following the philosopher Timothy Morton — the Hyperobjects collection. Morton describes Hyperobjects as things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. He goes on: 

‘A hyperobject could be a black hole. A hyperobject could be the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades. A hyperobject could be the biosphere, or the Solar System. A hyperobject could be the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just the plutonium, or the uranium. A hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism. Hyperobjects, then, are “hyper” in relation to some other entity, whether they are directly manufactured by humans or not.’

These balloons as excellent examples of a Hyperobjects, most notably because they transcend human scales and awareness in multiple ways. First, the balloons that I find while I am out walking are by no means the extent of the helium balloons around the world — they participate in a far larger network of manufacture, distributions, shipping, and so on that I am not privy to. Instead, I find small instances, or a local manifestation of them. Second — and most notably — the balloons occupy profoundly different temporal scales than we do as humans. They vastly outlive both a human’s lifetime, and for the most part, human experience. 

Helium is mined — it is dug out of the ground — (most often as a by-product of natural gas), and though it is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, on Earth it is relatively rare, and some are concerned that it is running out. On Earth, Helium is produced by radioactive decay of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. These elements have a decay cycle of billions of years, meaning the helium once held inside the balloons is as old as the earth itself, and most Helium in the universe was created during the big bang. 

It is also possible to speculate that these balloons, having been lifted towards the edge of the atmosphere due to the Helium’s low atomic weight, may well have ‘seen’ the earth from a perspective that very few of us will have done, or will be able to do. This is what astronauts refer to as the overview effect — a cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space.

Michael Collins of Apollo 11 has described this as follows:  

‘The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.’

This view creates a shifted understanding of the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From this view, national boundaries and borders vanish, and a feeling to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.

The balloons themselves will start to expand as they move away from earth and into the lower pressure of the outer atmosphere. A heart shaped helium balloon holds roughly 0.14 cubic meters of helium. The balloons will pop. The helium from the balloon that has carried it all of this way continues to float away far beyond the Earth — Helium has such a low density that when released is one of the few gasses that can escape Earth’s atmosphere and will never return. 

The plastic-foil balloons, after popping, will fall back down to earth, the plastic that once held the helium has no known lifespan. It could remain for hundreds perhaps thousands of years, gradually being made brittle and broken down by the UV rays from the sun and other elements. The elements that make up the complex plastic will eventually sperate out.

Arguably these balloons fall under the label of ‘outsider design’ – that is, that they are not necessarily made by celebrated studios or designers, but produced in a more mundane fashion, and uncredited factory workers. Several of the balloons I have found were made in China, but do not identify who had designed them. Others have the addresses of the head offices of popular gift shops.

It is important to note at this point that some balloons don’t fit the collection. It is not enough to buy a balloon, or to pop one after a party — in this collection they should have been found ‘in the wild’, and to have participated in some kind of journey. This is how they gain their historicity and their significance. However, it is also ethically dubious to release them only for the purpose of adding them to the collection so this should be avoided. Instead, I seek an authentic historicity that can be identified by the scratches, crumples and scars, or bits of leaf and mud that cling onto them when they are found.

In this collection each balloon has been scanned to a high resolution, and should be printed to at least 1:1 scale. I am happy for the balloons to be shown in a cabinet, or as prints, but each artefact should be accompanied by some wider context — either a photo of where it was found, or a map and pin location. If possible the origins (e.g. designer, shop or factory) of each balloon should be traced. The balloons should not be washed before they are scanned.

In addition to the balloons, I suggest that there are some other objects that you might consider adding to this collection, briefly these include:

  • Lego lost at sea — Lego pieces that have been washed up on beaches after falling from container ships. Documentation of which can be found at https://twitter.com/LegoLostAtSea
  • Pripyat — the nearest town to the Chernobyl disaster (and the subject of an excellent documentary by the same name).
  • Onkalo — a storage facility in Finland that will hold spent nuclear waste for 100,000 years (also the subject of an excellent documentary called Into Eternity). 
  • Another of my collections containing objects found during a near-past archaeological dig at the site of the former Jungle camp in Calais.
  • Finally, the song ‘Plastic Canoe’, by the punk band Dog Chocolate.

Thank you for considering this proposal, sincerely,

Liam Healy