Project Proposal: 1

Downloadable file:  (MA_PP_V2_JAN2012)


TITLE: Fostering empathic connections towards the natural environment using smart-mechanical structures as the gateway.


2. Aims + Objectives:

By selecting a range of naturally-occuring patterns and events, and extrapolating them into smart-mechanical structures I intend to create works whose purpose is to foster the empathic connection between individual/s and the natural environment.

The loftiest aim is to encourage interconnectedness between people and nature (not the interpersonal interconnectedness that a social network provides). This will be attempted by creating experiences that are rich in sensual stimulation, interactive entertainment and enjoyable information.

Interactivity between the audience and the artefact is seen as key in helping individuals to uncover/explore their own unique connection to a natural non-human, non-exploitative worldview.

The work will begin with research that explores the sensual pleasures of connecting with nature – sounds, smells, textures, patterns, sights. Individual reactions will vary but there will be trends that can help to steer the project until eventually I am able to produce artefacts and situations that orchestrate similar impulses in the audience that which spring from artificial situations.

Parameters that define and limit the project in the form of a mini-festo are set at this stage – this list will increase in length and detail as the project matures:

  • ‘nurturing empathy’ aids in the creation of a well-balanced community
  • promoting an uncommercialised, non-exploitative understanding of the natural environment helps address the vacuum present at the heart of contemporary consumer culture
  • physical structures will be made and worked in a sustainably-minded (ecodesign) way – further clarification of this will be made but essentially this refers to energy use, materials use, and intergration into the surround environment

Considering that the inner-city / ultra-urban environment is most distant from the message I wish to convey, it seems valid to consider its permanent inhabitants the hardest to connect with – since their inherent eco-empathy will be underdeveloped or non-existant. For this reason part of the later research work should involve producing work for this group of people.


3. Context [Including Historical, Contemporary and Theoretical Contexts]:

There are five distinct threads that comprise the thinking behind this project, each of which has their own historical context:

  • Robotic & Networked/Telematic Art
  • Kinetic Sculpture
  • Environmental & Ecological Art
  • Social Art & Psychological Art
  • Interactive Entertainment & Interactive Art

Robotic, Digital and Networked/Telematic Art forms involve mechanical movement, artificial intelligence, sensors, and data storage and communication networks to create artefacts. Data-collection and visualisation is the axis around which our culture now moves.

Martin Wattenberg‘s work with Google (and independantly) has created visually-unusual and user-accessible ways to view vast volumes of information. Of particular interest to me are his projects that visualise emotion and thought processes in real-time.

Daniel Rozin works with hidden cameras and motors to create mechanical mirrors who’s properties mimic traditional reflective surfaces – a wooden mirror, and a rust mirror

Desmond Paul Henry is a pioneer in machine art – that is, art made by a machine without human intervention. What interests me though is the organic aesthetic quality of the pieces, and the fact that the object that produces the images draws them rather than prints them. Complexity like this is beyond the normal range of human expression, yet it is also something we see around us everyday in natural textures – an electronscan of a cell, the polarised refractions from mineral crystals, or the grain of hardwoods for example.

John Horton Conway is a mathematician whose work with recreational mathematics – in particular ‘The Game of Life‘ seeks to mimic natural patterns through cellular automata. The animations that are produced by this life-mimicing equation are immediately reminiscent of computer games – this disguises their immense power and importance in the area of artificial life studies.

Festo is an exciting company coming straight out of an optimistic technology-driven future – of most interest to me are their ‘Flying Bird‘ and ‘Bionic Network‘ projects. The secret of the Bird is its success at mimicing not only the shape and movement of the natural bird, but even more importantly its charisma and grace. Its impossible not to be charmed by it immediately. Festo’s sustainable approach to design and progress is also important for me.

Gilberto Esparza’s Nomadic Plants project catches my eye simply because it brings together the two worlds of living plantlife and robotic technology. Its a cute piece with alot of cliche eco puff surrounding it, but at the heart of the artefact is ‘a plant that walks’ which quite simply blows my mind.

Omo is one of Kelly Dobson‘s ‘machine therapy’ artefacts – a large breathing bean created to explore how empathic relationships can develop between people and objects.

3D Printed Art continues the aesthetic traditions of Gabo’s delicate constructions, and Conway’s machine art through the sheer high-resolution potential of the technique. I find it fascinating that a screen-based ‘3D’ design can be transformed into a 3D real-world object through these machines. Whether its a sculptural printout of the 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake, or a display printed entirely from human ashes the enormous potential of the medium is exhilerating. I have ideas that involve creating a bespoke 3D printer that works with soil and seeds bound together with a natural cement or rust – but am forcing myself to be patient for the results of my research before making any design/art/aesthetic decisions.

Kinetic Sculpture can also appear robotic but the key difference between the two genres is the lack of an underlying digital intelligence.

Theo Jansen‘s elegant, autonomous walking mechanical sculptures can avoid being damaged by rising tides or increasing winds through pure engineered ‘intelligence’. No sign of a microchip but its a shame he only uses plastic and pvc tubes.

Arthur Ganson creates Rube Goldberg-type machines although in a more traditional conceptual-art context. His mechanical works explores existential themes which point to ideas of humour and pointlessness behind his philosophy. I enjoy the aesthetics of his pieces as much if not more than the underlying concepts.

Naum Gabo‘s work explores space without needing to fill it with mass. Wonderful and delicate forms that use natural forces of wind or water (and sometimes motors) to express the rythmic and chaotic processes of life. There are clear parallels between some of Gabo’s 3d work and Desmond Paul Henry’s 2d machine art.

Environmental Art explores the surroundings as both natural and manmade space, while Ecological Art concerns itself primarily with issues around conservation, ecological-awareness, and sustainability. Necessarily these kinds of art have strong political and moral aspects that guide the practioners.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser embodies the idea of environmental-artist at a time before the dawn of the modern environmental movement. His manifesto condemns the modernist aesthetics of ultra-refinement as one reason that our cities appear so dull and inhuman; and suggests that every building should have a ‘tree-tenant’ to green up the place. I love his painting and architecture, but it is his manifesto and philosophy that is of most relevance to my work.

Andy Goldsworthy‘s work is a collaboration between himself and the natural objects that he finds – the work itself is the artefact and also the documentation of peaks in its journey from growth to decay. The aesthetic language that he has developed is very raw and carries a strong empathic connection between the viewer and the natural environment.

Herman de Vries also explores the natural environment as art but his approach is perhaps more traditional. I enjoy the unprocessed rawness of his pieces although again it is his approach and not the end-product that most interests me. Collections of his work are natural and carry the feeling of nature with them becasue he lets them be simply what they are. Perhaps he even manages to create a kind of empathic connection through the work between the viewer and the natural world, altho I think it would only work by preaching to the converted – this will be a key hurdle for my work.

Social Art & Psychological Art

Joseph Beuys passionately believed that every person has the potential to be an artist – this idea is very valuable from the perspective of Interactive Art, and also community-building. His approach was to break art away from ‘heroic’ subjects, and at the same time to render the process of making art a ‘heroic’ and grounding act. Discipline with technical aspects, and freedom of thought with creative aspects. His shamanism-inspired desire to remind us of the importance of the ’emotional human’ – “our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact.” – resonates with the goal of my work that is can act as a gateway for feelings and emotions between the audience and the natural environment. Beuys was extremely interested in Rudolf Steiner, and this is a body of work I would like to become more familiar with.

Interactive Entertainment & Interactive Art

Toshio Iwai develops interactive media and games as both art and highly commercial artefacts – e.g. Electroplankton. His work also deals with enabling learning through interactivity, and creative expression as with the Tenori-On that he developed in partnership with Yamaha.

Exploratorium, San Francisco, the Universum, Bremen and the Science Museum, London are world-class venues devoted to the disemination of knowledge about the living processes that surround us through entertaining interactive devices and installations – often taking a process out of context in order that its effects can be observed more clearly and in a concentrated form.

Scott Snibbe develops interactive media which explore social-interconnectivity through the medium of technology – often his aesthetic is linear and flat.


4: Methodology:

There are key areas – aside from the technological aspects – that I need to understand better:

  • Theories about how the natural environment effects human psychology – research into applied ecopsychology / ecotherapy, the biophilia hypothesis
  • Theories around the generation of subtle emotional reactions with artefacts – theatrical machines

It is going to be important to have an understanding about other peoples work, and theories before I begin to develop work of my own.

By May 2012 I should be in a position to begin creating devices that can explore how possible it is to acheive my goals, knowledge gained from reading other people’s theories will mix with my own ideas and instincts in the area. These devices will drive the 2nd phase of the project – to observe the qualities of these mid-point artefacts in different environments: art therapy, inner-city, and eco-community.

Observations will be done on-site through video documentation and recorded discussions with the audiences / users after the event. Clips, comparative statistics, notes, observations and thoughts will be uploaded and organised in a public webspace.

The results and observations from this phase – regarding both the optimum desired qualities of the artefact, and the optimum desired qualities of its audience and environment – will be transformed into a list of potential improvements to the artefacts. If time allows one or several of the artefacts will be upgraded in light of this experience and handed back to their test-environment for further use.

During the third and final phase of the project a single artefact will be designed in light of this research and refinement – knowledge about the audience and exhibition environment will feature strongly in the design process to embue maximum potency to the artefact.


5. Outcomes:

There are three distinct themes that define the arena in which I see my work:

  • Sensual & Aesthetic
  • Educational & Informative
  • Entertaining & Interactive

And this leads me to imagine where my work will feel comfortable, and for whom my work can be useful and relevant. At this stage these are potential areas of interest and not concrete goals for the project – marker points that indicate the various research paths open to me. As time goes on the goals will become more refined.

  • therapeutic use – the healing effects of the natural environment – perhaps to develop tools that aid the connection of patients to nature
  • educational – explanation of processes that our manmade world is built with and steered by – perhaps I can develop a language that sits well in museums and public gardens
  • aesthetic – a rich and sensual environment that captures the most seductive and delightful aspects of the natural world – perhaps through commissions for restaurants, and public spaces.
  • entertaining – the works should in part seek to be intensely engaging in a way that is impossible to resist – as with viral games – this is an aspect that is at the heart of the project

To make a detailed assumption about the precise outcome of the work at this stage is pure speculation, but there are some features that I can already know:

  • ecologically-produced work – wooden, non-toxic where possible
  • acting as a gateway between the user and the non-human natural world
  • moving mechanical structure that is driven by logic


6. Work Plan:

Phase One: 0-30 Weeks (Oct ’11 > Apr ’12):

  • Mature the project idea
  • Research the context of my project
  • Develop the course blog & website – coding and material
  • Develop the first practical experiments – programmed & mechanical, using Java, Arduino and woodwork
  • Identify qualities from the natural world that I wish my work to reflect, project, and mimic

Phase Two: 30-60 Weeks (May ’12 – Nov ’12):

  • Develop an experimental interim project – take to an eco-community and record the impact, feedback and effects
  • Develop an experimental interim project – take to an art-therapist and record the impact, feedback and effects
  • Develop an experimental interim project – take to an inner city venue and record the impact, feedback and effects
  • Test the devices with animals – if the qualities of the artefacts are truly universal then it will be interesting to see how they are received by non-intellectual creatures
  • Advance the practical experiments – mature the production language towards stability
  • Design and develop plans for the final project – including researching a presentation platform / environment

Phase Three: 60-90 Weeks (Dec ’12 – July ’13):

  • Bring together the results – from the eco-community and art-therapy experiments – into a document/s that points clearly the direction of the final project piece
  • Design and plan the final project
  • Build the final project
  • Secure the presentation environment and record the impact, feedback and effects on its audience



7. Bibliography:



I will attempt to converse directly with as many of the artists and researchers mentioned above as is possible (some of them arent alive anymore), by email / phone or in person:

  • Theo Jansen – kinetic sculptor
  • Kelly Dobson – robotic artist working with machine therapy / MIT researcher
  • Edward O Wilson & Stephen R Kellert – two great minds writing and researching the field of human connectivity with animal and plant life
  • MIT researchers working with artifical agents and robotic characters


A relevant booklist will grow as the project progresses:




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