By Eliza Callahan
For the first installment of our Creators interview series, we talk to Mamoun Friedrich-Grosvenor, a 21-year-old artist, inventor, and East End native.
End: Your work defies traditional categorization. Its status is wavering — you work in realms of art, design, architecture, and ecology. How do you think of your work? How do you see yourself?
Mamoun: I guess don’t really think about the boundaries. It’s more like I have an idea of what it is that I want to create, and it usually spans different categorizations and conventions. So my balloon project has an aesthetic aspect, which is important, but it is superseded by its need to function. . . . My next project delves into plants, electrobiology, electrophysiology, and structural engineering. In the end I always hope it looks good, but that’s more something at the end. As far as how I see myself, I don't know. I don't really think of myself as artist even though I guess I'm making art.
Do you see yourself more an inventor?
Yeah, I guess more of an inventor.
So the aesthetics follow the function?
It varies, but, lately, yes.
What came to mind when I looked at your work was the idea of art as both functional object as well as representation of functional object.
I would say that the only time I'm interested in representation is if what I've made is a model for something I'm going to make in the future. Otherwise, I always have something entirely functional in mind. Growing up, as a kid, I would go up to my parents with an idea--they're both artists, my dad is always building things--and I would be, like, “I want to make this! Let's make a submarine.” And he would say, “alright!” So we made a wooden box with a plastic bubble on one side. Then I’d be like, “alright, let’s test it out. Let’s put it in the water. Let’s go!” So I think I’ve ultimately always been interested in making something that works. But I would say that most of the stuff I actually make doesn't work and most of the work ends up being aesthetic objects, a reference for a future idea, but always with the goal of its future being a working thing, like a spaceship.
Your parents are both artists [Saskia Friedrich and Jeremy Grosvenor]. Do you feel as though there are any aesthetic or conceptual relationships between your work and your mother or father’s work?
I would say, yeah, definitely with both of them. With my mom it’s definitely with Color Field and stuff, and with my dad, it has to do with construction, building out of wood. He gave me the feeling that I could make something if I thought of it.
Where did your interest and work on the solar balloons begin?
I actually started working on solar balloon project in high school, at Ross School, when I learned about Dominque Michaelis, the man who pioneered solar balloons But he’s also a pioneer in creating flying cities, similar to Buckminster Fuller’s concept, and Michaelis did the first crossing of the English Channel in a solar aircraft. I made my first man-craft balloon in high school, when I was 18, and then that one broke, so I built another one in college which is about seventy feet long, probably about forty-five feet in diameter. The way it works is you have energy coming in via solar radiation that is being absorbed by the black material, and then the black material passes that as infrared and so it emits infrared into the interior (and exterior) of the balloon. It floats the way a boat does in water — a less dense thing in a more dense thing.
Did you construct it by hand?
Well, it took about seventy hours, and I built it in the gym at my college, but I actually finished it out here at LTV Studios. I was taping each of the thirty-six panels, which are seventy feet in length, with Scotch office tape. It gave me a bit of a back problem, but it worked out. It took a few months. I’m currently trying to build the first-ever geodesic rigid hot-air balloon. I'm trying to make a rigid sphere made of fiberglass beams using the principles of transegrity, which Fuller, I think, coined and definitely talked about a lot. The craft is supposed to eventually be able to carry plants — the idea is floating gardens. So it will be a plant spaceship. I want to ideally pilot the craft using the electro-activity of the plants.
I also wanted to talk to you about your relationship with the work of Buckminster Fuller. You work with geodesic domes, the structural concept that he developed in the 1940s. Fuller also worked with the concept of floating habitats, which you also riff on...
Well, what I’m working on now is to try to eventually build the things Fuller had talked about and conceptualized — tensegrity spheres and something similar to his floating cities called Cloud Nine. But what I’d like to create is a passive solar garden. So it would be like an autonomous floating garden unit. You can use steam, like water vapor balloons, to get lift. So if you have a tropical environment inside a large clear zeppelin, you can end up with a permanently floating structure. I mean, it would only float in the daytime — it's a very ephemeral kind of engineering issue.
Have you studied engineering? Are you a self-taught engineer?
I definitely haven't studied engineering. If you have an idea in mind and the internet, you can get by. I studied biology for two years.
You grew up on the East End and have pretty much lived here your whole life...
I was born out here, lived in Hawaii briefly as a kid.
Do you feel as though there are any aspects of the East End that play into your work?
Well, I’d say I'm specific to this place because I'm kind of made of it. But I would say not beyond the fact that my atoms are generally from here.