Meandering River, 2009-10

Recent work: Meandering River, 2009

exhibition: Shared Robotics, Brandts Art Center, Denmark

installation | video | info on Light Green Light series

Materials: Robotically-etched, thermal screen made from recyclable HDPE, with vinyl application
Dimensions: 24” wide x length variable

In the fall of 2009, I had the honor of becoming the first artist-in-residence at Gibotech Scandinavia A/S, an international company specializing in the development of robotics applications. The residency provided me with the opportunity to incorporate Gibotech’s robotic expertise and hardware into the production of a site-specific artwork. Because I had virtually no familiarity with their robotic technology in advance of the residency, I began the project planning by delineating a greater conceptual/ organizational framework for the development of a new piece. This included the defining of three main design principles on which to focus: structural versatility, open source design, and variability of function.

As to the aesthetic/ artistic content of the work, Denmark’s unique geography provided the primary source of inspiration. Denmark is a nation comprised of a large peninsula, five major islands, and literally hundreds of minor islands. It is a nation therefore surrounded by sea and traversed by a vast network of canals, rivers, lakes, and watersheds. Over millennia, these waterways have etched complex patterns into the Danish landscape. Intrigued by the morpho-ecology of the river patterns, my research lead me to discover Hans-Henrik Stølum’s1996 article entitled “River Meandering as a Self-Organization Process. ” Stølum’s article was among the first to describe the procedural algorithms by which scientists and ecologists today are able to either predict or to reconstruct a particular river’s morphology. This morphology, or ‘sinuosity,’ is the total length and shape of each of a river’s arcs, meanders, bends, and reaches.

I set out then to create a site-specific work that could emulate the sinuous shape and flow of a natural river path. The river shape I used was derived from applying the self-organizing meandering river mathematics formula to the topology of an exhibition space. The result was Meandering River – a sculptural installation that wound through the Brandts Art Center in Odense, Denmark in an exhibit entitled Shared Robotics (Fall 2009). The fabrication of Meandering River took place over the three-month duration of the exhibition. A robot was employed to carve river patterns into the surface of a ‘stream’ of thermal screen material. (The thermal screen material was a flexible, low-density polyethylene-based plastic textile, supplied in rolls 2 feet wide by 250 feet in length.) As the stream of screen material was processed by the robot, it would spill into the exhibition hall where myself and the exhibition staff would arranged it – pushing and pulling the pliable folds until they fit the sinuous lines of the Meandering River. The river eventually traversed the large hall, filling it with the abundant free-flow of arcs along which the river system would ‘naturally’ follow in that particular space. We used over 2500 feet of thermal screen to complete this first installation of the Meandering River at the Brandts Art Center.

Where the sculptural river met a wall of the exhibition hall, the piece was designed to potentially cascade out a window, thus creating a waterfall of material that would ‘run’ down the exterior of the building. This configuration was intended not as just a dramatic conclusion to the piece, but as a functional design that would help to cut energy costs by insulating the gallery building’s facade and internal climate. The thermal screen material that made up the Meandering River is a product manufactured specifically for use as a ‘thermal curtain’ on the interior or exterior of a building’s walls. A hanging thermal curtain typically is used to insulate a space from extreme heat or cold, as well as to help maintain consistent humidity levels within a structure’s interior.

The Meandering River currently cascades down Atkinson Hall’s north-facing windows, where the CalIT2 Gallery is located, fulfilling the intended waterfall outcome for the piece. The next step in the life-cycle of this piece is to make use of this long, cascading portion of the ‘river’ as a trellis system upon which climbing vines may take root. In this case, a reverse flow of plant material may grow vertically along – and eventually fill – the etched river designs cut by the robot into the thermal screen surface.

In the end, materials and final design of the Meandering River installation fulfilled the sustainable design properties originally laid out for the project which included structural versatility, open source design, and variability of function. The piece is flexible in that it is capable of arrangement as an ever unfolding, drape-able, and expandable artwork. It may be used as both a thermal screen and as a support framework for the cultivation of a vertical garden. The thermal screen material offers also the benefits of being affordable, readily available, lightweight, aesthetically pleasing, environmentally stable, durable, and 100% recyclable.

“Slow design considers the real and potential “expressions” of artifacts and environments beyond their perceived functionalities, physical attributes and lifespans.” (The Slow Design Principles: A new interrogative and reflexive tool for design research and practice by slowLab: Carolyn F. Strauss, Alastair Fuad-Luke, 2008)

1. Abstract by John Wiley & Sons, publisher of Michael Hensel and Achim Menges’s book, Designing Morpho-Ecologies: Versatility and Vicissitude of Heterogeneous Space, 2008:
Morpho-Ecology’ is a concept and design approach that combines the notion of ‘morphology’, and thus intrinsically ‘morphogenesis’, with the notion of ‘ecology’. In the early 19th century, in the context of his studies in botany, the poet and writer Goethe defined morphology as the study of forms; he combined the study of ‘Gestalt’, or structured form, with the process of ‘Bildung’, or formation, which acts continuously upon form.

2. Stølum, Hans-Henrik, River Meandering as a Self-Organization Process, Science Magazine, Vol 271, March 22, 1996

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