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Dynamic Ferrofluid Sculpture: Organic Shape-Changing Art Forms

  1. Article
  2. References
  3. Author
  4. Footnotes
  5. Figures

From ancient times, standing sculptures in Japan and elsewhere were made of materials such as clay, stone, wood, or metal. Materials were formed, modeled, modified, cut, and reshaped using processes appropriate for them, and the forms and textures of sculptures made from the materials did not change except by abrasion or surface corrosion.

The invention of photography changed this world of unchanging art. Modern materials and electric and machine technology came to be used in artworks and inspired kinetic art such as that by Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy was created. Since then, numerous artists, designers, and architects have created moving, kinetic works.

Since the introduction of the computer (for example, in cybernetic art proposed by Nicolas Shöffer), a number of artworks have been produced by processing external information from the environment or living beings through physical devices. However, it can be stated that there has been little work on expression through flexible changes of the surface texture controlled by a computer.

The goal of my project is to create organic shape-changing art forms and figures whose 3D form, surface structure, and color change dynamically and lively as if to reflect echoes of environmental music, light, and human communication. To create such 3D organic forms and surfaces, in 2000 I started using ferrofluid in my interactive art project Protrude, Flow (see Figure 1).

Ferrofluids, the shape-changing material used in my works, were invented in the late 1960s in the Apollo Program of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and are known to be used for forming liquid seals and in electronic devices for computers, audiovisual equipment, and other industrial applications. Recently, they have been employed in medical research.

Ferrofluids, which appear as a black fluid, are prepared by dissolving nanoscale ferromagnetic particles in a solvent such as water or oil and remain strongly magnetic even in a fluid condition. Therefore, they are more flexibly transformable as compared to iron sand. It is well known that ferrofluids form spikes along magnetic field lines when the magnetic surface force exceeds the stabilizing effects of the fluid weight and surface tension [1]. In my work, organic shapes are produced by these spikes under a magnetic field that is controlled by electromagnets. Sensing technology and computers are used to make the fluid change its shape according to environmental information. The transformation of the shape and rhythm of the movement are important aspects of the work.

My first project, Protrude, Flow, used six electromagnets. In this work, the electromagnets sometimes prevented people from viewing the moving liquid. To solve this problem and to simplify the work, I discovered a new technique called ferrofluid sculpture. This technique enables artists to create more dynamic sculptures with fluid materials. One electromagnet is used, with an extended iron core that is sculpted into a particular shape. The ferrofluid covers the sculpted surface of the 3D iron shape. The movement of the spikes in the fluid is controlled dynamically on the surface by adjusting the power of the electromagnet.

The Morpho Tower series in 2006 was my first realization of a ferrofluid sculpture. Figure 2 shows the spiral tower covered with numerous ferrofluid spikes. A spiral tower is positioned on a plate that holds the ferrofluid. When the magnetic field around the tower is strengthened, spikes of ferrofluid are generated in the bottom plate and move upward, trembling and rotating around the edge of the iron spiral [2].

The movement of the spikes in the fluid is controlled on the surface by adjusting the power of the electromagnet. The shape of the iron body is designed to be helical so the fluid can move to the top of the helical tower when the magnetic field is sufficiently strong. The surface of the tower responds dynamically to its magnetic environment. When there is no magnetic field, the tower appears to have a simple spiral shape. But when the magnetic field around the tower is strengthened, spikes are generated in the ferrofluid; simultaneously, the tower’s surface dynamically changes into a variety of textures—a soft fluid, a minute moss, spiky shark’s teeth, or a hard iron surface. The ferrofluid reaches all the way to the top of the tower, spreading like a fractal and defying gravity.

The spikes of the ferrofluid are made to rotate around the edge of the spiral cone, where they increase or decrease in size depending on the strength of the magnetic field. Using a computer, the transformation and movement of the shape can be controlled along with its speed and rhythm. The speed of rotation can be controlled without motors or shaft mechanisms, so that it works calmly; simply controlled by gravity and a magnetic field.

The inspiration for my artwork comes from life and nature. The organic forms and the geometry and symmetry observed in plants and animals are important inspirational factors when considering kinetic or shape-changing and potentially interactive art forms. The manner of movement of animals and other natural materials is also important. The breathing rhythms of living things is an excellent metaphor for a texture that dynamically changes over time. One of my eventual goals is to apply these elements in computer display design as well.

The continuously changing weather conditions of the earth are also important motifs. The motifs for the work Morpho Towers: Two Standing Spirals [3], which I created in collaboration with Yasushi Miyajima of the Sony Computer Science Laboratory, were ocean, tornadoes, and lightning (see Figure 3). Here, a black tornado elegantly dances in sync with music, reflecting the Japanese concept of comparison. Mimicking natural phenomena (“mitate” in Japanese) is a method that works well when trying to understand how natural shapes occur [4].1 It permits the comparison of ferrofluid forms to creatures such as sea urchins and jellyfish or to a tornado. Thus, it creates high-tech versions of the Japanese “Hakoniwa,” boxes with small models of things and landscapes taken from real-life settings.

When regarded as a ferrofluid display, my sculptures exhibit principles of Organic User Interface design. First, their form follows the flow: the entire shape of the ferrofluid display emerges naturally under the balance of physical forces. In addition, their output may serve as an input. While ferrofluid displays currently primarily serve as an output device, the electromagnet can be used directly as a sensor, allowing the introduction of feedback loops and interactivity in the artworks.

However, what function would be conceivable for such ferrofluid display? Perhaps the focus should be on the entertainment or aesthetic aspects of interactive ferrofluid materials (for example, when applied to carpets or walls), especially if color representation can be realized on their surface. If we consider the sense of touch and the elasticity of the ferrofluid, more practical uses of the ferrofluid display might be found. Now is a time of unprecedented advances in materials science, offering many opportunities to experiment with various materials for constructing organic figures in the creation of interactive art. Such figures are created along a timeline and provide new meanings and new ways of communication. The fusion of information technology and material technology will develop even more in the future, making it possible for them to eventually transform flexibly, like the interactive 3D surfaces shown in the movie X-men.

Bits may be transformed into reconfigurable textures and the concept of “bit-texture” may be realized. Even artificial intelligence may be applied to such substances. Is it possible to imagine that we have a third skin on the surface of our own body and on tools, furniture, houses, or other products, a skin that senses information from the environment and its inhabitants, and that responds by morphing according to its required function. If this becomes reality, computers that mimic natural forms may offer a more calm, relaxing, and comfortable user experience.

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F1 Figure 1. Protrude, Flow (2001) by Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno. Photograph by Yozo Takada.

F2 Figure 2. Morpho Tower, 2006.

F3 Figure 3. Morpho Tower/Two Standing Spirals, 2007.

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    1. Couley, M.D. and Rosensweig, R.F. The interfacial stability of a ferromagnetic fluid. J. Fluid. Mech. 30, (1967), 671–688.

    2. Kodama, S. Pulsating ferrofluid art. Nikkei Science (Scientific American Japanese Edition) (Mar. 2007), cover image and p. 30–41.

    3. Kodama, S. and Miyajima, Y. Morpho Tower/Two Standing Spirals. Shown at WIRED NextFest 2007.

    4. Kusahara, M. Device Art—A New Approach in Understanding Japanese Contemporary Media Art, MediaArtHistories. O. Grau, Ed., MIT Press, 2007.

    1With Hiroo Iwata of the University of Tsukuba as the leader, some researchers and artists are proposing "device art," which understands and uses new materials and electronic mechanical devices in a manner similar to tools.


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