Changing States: Eroding Form Experiments

Sanding Wood

To begin my exploration of form over time, I gradually sanded down a single short length of wood. I wanted to capture not just the material in its final form, but also the journey along the way; its story. This temporal recording, a time-lapse of the wood’s gradual erosion, expresses the nuance both of the material’s complex physical form and of the erratic method of sanding. Like a wave, the wood’s natural rings roll across its shifting surface. A knot appears, and breaks through the rings, surfing over the waves. All the while loose sawdust is peppered over the metal surface, offering a glimpse at the concealed passage of time.

In editing this video, I discovered that the material’s erosion is far more emotionally expressive when viewed in reverse. Perhaps because we are viewing creation rather than destruction, the wood growing out of the metal surface provides a sense of intrigue. We ask ourselves, what will emerge?

Melting Styrofoam

For my second experiment I selected a new material: styrofoam. Using a hot air gun, a squared pillar of foam was melted down until little remained. The result was surprising: in contrast to the previous experiment, the material properties were significantly changed by the process. Jagged points made up a brittle structure unlike the styrofoam it came from.

Again time-lapsed, the form in the reversed video seems more alive this time; different strands lurching and swelling as they grow towards the sky. A satisfying end is provided when the messy sprawl evolves into a clean cuboid. The alien motion is reinforced by the fact that there are no hints at the accelerated timescale of the clip. Framed against a static background, the form appears to grow in real-time. 

Dissolving Styrofoam

For my final experiment I returned to styrofoam, a material light enough to be dissolved in acetone. This experiment proved the hardest to document as the reaction happened much faster than expected. Where previously I had time-lapsed the process, here the styrofoam dissolved so fast that the footage captured lacked detail.

Regardless, the temporal form yielded some interesting characteristics. With the addition of a new element, the liquid, the apparent ‘birth’ of new matter is enhanced by the bubbling foam that it emerges from. Whilst the beginning state (a block of styrofoam) and the end state (frothy foam left in the acetate) are not particularly expressive individually, the transition between the two carries much complexity.

Injecting Interactivity

One element missing from the previous form experiments was the relation to interaction design. The temporality of form thus far was limited to the video recordings representing them. In editing these videos, I enjoyed scrubbing back and forth to find interesting intricacies in the materials’ erosion. It was clear that to fully express these subtleties, one must be able to control the playback with intention.  Here, the role of interaction design is to give greater expression to the temporal forms through interactivity.

I built a device, dubbed the Time Machine, with which one could freely scrub forwards or backwards through each video. Three pairs of forms were arranged around a central rotating slider. Each pair represented the beginning and end states of the eroding material experiments. As one rotates the central slider through each form, the video displayed updates.

The Time Machine was successful in encouraging the discovery of each material’s hidden story. Anchored between the beginning and end state of each material, the abstract notion of an existence of form in between these states (the temporal form) is made tangible.

Personal Reflection

By the time I had finished building the Time Machine, I realised that packaging the three experiments in this way was not particularly beneficial for my exploration of form. It now seems important to recognise the level of fidelity appropriate in a given project, judging based on the trade-off between time spent exploring ideas and time spent communicating them. In this case, the time may have been better spent furthering the artistic explorations to gain a deeper understanding of the possibilities of expression through temporal form. This is a valuable lesson, however, so the time is by no means lost.

The transient forms I created in this project do make the role of interaction design in expressing form somewhat clearer. Where form is normally regarded as wholly material, it seems form in interaction design concerns material change over time. Through this temporality, there may be more scope for expression than in the static forms themselves.

It is this shape-shifting temporality that enables an otherwise static form to express behaviour and personality; bringing it to life. The form moves from static to dynamic, through one-directional video, before becoming interactive by eliciting and responding to ones actions. The erosion experiments, for me, uncovered and highlighted this notion.

It is clear now that the artistic exploration practiced on this course have helped me to understand form, its expressive capacity and how it relates to interaction design. Free exploration is key to these learnings; if we instead had a task-oriented goal these exploration would have been far more restricted.

Additionally, it is the reflection itself that is a means for developing sensitivity and expressive ability regarding form in interaction design. Reflection allows for the learnings of exploration to be critiqued, and be brought to future work with consideration. With intentionality, even. Experimentation is important, but is most effective when coupled with reflection.