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Nov 9, 2019

The workshop began with Daniel introducing Bonnie and Jb and giving an overview of the class schedule. Daniel went over various resources for making flexible circuits and how the concept of a voltage divider can be implemented in paper structures. The prototyping materials he demonstrated are really simple to use and look like they can do some very interesting things with paper.

Jb introduced the concept of radical design. The basic idea seems to be starting with broad vision and then leveraging the natural properties of materials and situated energy to achieve bold and revolutionary designs. While material science and certain physical laws (gravity) are significant constraints, I think radical design tries to deploy the imagination to work with not against the natural world. It seems to approach design with the posture that we work as one part of a complex system and are not masters of it.

Bonnie talked a little bit about origami and how we can see examples of folded structures all around us when we start looking for them, DNA, leaves folded inside of budding branches, etc. She led us in a simple warm up folding exercise. It was great to hear the quiet rustle of paper folding around the room. As she guided the class through the exercise, she conjured a sense of collective joy.

Origami and Paper Circuit Exercises

simple box exercise

water bomb

This pattern is called Chinese vase. Bonnie Cherni showed me how to make it and we thought perhaps it could be lit up like a lantern.

Variation of the Kawasaki Rose. Brooke Stevens very patiently showed me how to make this beautiful and super fun design.

First attempt at paper circuit with conductive paint. Lots of debugging and fiddling with the battery connection. Battery tended to disconnect with the slightest movement.

Nov 10,2019

Simple paper circuit with a Chibi Chip microcontroller. Video clip: Feeling pretty good about making a successful paper circuit and now I'd like to experiment with other methods of actuating paper.

Situated Energy

The idea that energy is situated all around us is not something I've thought much about. Every time I've seen the sun or water power anything, lots of complicated infrastructure was involved. Simply using ambient light, heat or moisture to make an object do something is a beautiful and profound idea. It reminds me of the Arthur Ashe quote, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Although he said these words in a very different context, they seem to have some application here.

Much of the non-interactive work I have made in the past deals with contemplating long periods of time. A couple of years ago, I made a body of work that used very subtle imagery to depict geological formations. The idea was that after living with these pieces for a long time, the viewer would notice subtle differences as the light changed over the course of a day and hit the pieces at different angels throughout the year.

Sedimentation 1, 2017, Archival tissue on panel, 24 x 36 inches

Sedimentation 1 detail, 2017, Archival tissue on panel, 24 x 36 inches

Erosion 2, 2017, Archival tissue and cotton thread, 15 x 19 inches

My training in fine art and art conservation taught me that exposure to excessive light, heat or moisture is bad for art. Keeping a piece in an environment with fluctuating temperature and moisture is even worse. The goal is always stability in the environment - 72 degrees F and 55% rh at all times if possible. After seeing demonstrations in this workshop for using heat and moisture to actuate paper, I saw that the traditional view of what is good/bad for art significantly narrows the potential for the creative process.

I began to wonder what I could make if I set aside the traditional wisdom of keeping art, specifically work made of paper, in a stable environment and explored the possibilities of working within the fluctuating conditions of a given environment. Daniel mentioned Hans Haacke's 1965 piece, Condensation Cube, an example of this kind of work. Jb also raised the idea of making work that would look completely different in a dry climate, like Boulder, Colorado, vs. a more humid climate, like NYC at certain times of the year.

Condensation Cube, Hans Haacke, 1965 (2006) (2013), Plexiglass and water, 76 x 76 x 76 cm, MACBA Collection

Situated Energy Experiment #1 - moisture application

With this in mind, I began experimenting with adding moisture to bi-layers made of various hydrophilic (Canson sketch paper, Strathmore 20# uncoated cotton printer paper, Japanese washi paper and Strathmore tracing paper) and hydrophobic substrates (white glue, glue stick and Scotch tape).

I did not expect to see great results with the white glue and glue stick substrates since they are water soluble. But they were available, so decided to try them. As expected, these materials did not work well as a hydrophobic bi-layer. The Scotch tape was the least permeable substrate and produced the most visible change when water was applied to the hydrophilic bi-layer.

The lightest weight hydrophilic material I used was tracing paper and I expected to see the best results from it. However, the heaviest weight paper, Canson sketch, had the greatest absorptive property and therefore showed the greatest change.

Time lapse of moisture test with Canson sketch paper and Scotch tape.

When the test strip dried, it did not return to a flat position. Cotton paper, like cotton clothes, often shrinks the first time it gets wet and so my test strip dried in a curved shape with the shrunken paper surface on the inside of the curve - a good thing to keep in mind when making future test strips. I can try wetting and drying the paper before applying the hydrophobic bi-layer, or I can apply the hydrophobic bi-layer to wet paper and allow them to dry together.

Nov 11, 2019

Situated Energy Experiment #2 - humidity fluctuation

I woke up this morning to condensation on my window and thought “Ah ha! Energy is everywhere!!!”

Now the questions is, what can we do with it? How can we take the energy stored in water vapor and do something interesting?

Following the lead of Hans Haacke, I decided to make my own (semi) closed system and see if my star test strip from yesterday would react to fluctuations in humidity over many hours. I attached the test strip to the top of a glass cake plate.

Normally this spot gets very strong sun in the afternoon, but since it looks like it will be cloudy today, I added 1/2 cup of water at 105 degrees F.

The glass fogged immediately.

And we can see the test strip curving to the right with the paper on the interior side of the curve.

After 2 hours, the strip straightened out, and after another 2 hours, the strip began to curve to the left with the paper now on the exterior side of the curve. Collection of time-lapse images is ongoing. UPDATED: After 24 hours the strip has stayed in its saturated curled position with the paper on the outside of the curve and the tape on the inside of the curve. Seems like the closed system is too stable to get much change in the paper. I'll keep this up in my studio to see if anything interesting happens, but it seems like this is all it's going to do. Much of the condensation has cleared now, but most of the time the dome was so foggy that the pictures don't show much of the paper strip hanging inside. On to the next thing!

Next steps will be experimenting with other hydrophobic bi-layers. Scotch tape is acidic and would discolor paper over time. I'd like to try some ph-neutral materials that stay flexible when dry, for example acrylic gel medium, PVA adhesive or beeswax. Silicon might also be a possibility.

Other ideas to look into are various surface textures of paper either those available commercially, or making my own paper with different surfaces.

Nov 12, 2019

Bi-layer Materials Experiments

For this set of experiments, I am going to focus on different hydrophobic materials and use the same cotton rag paper each time - Legion Lenox 100, 100% cotton, 250 gsm. I will also experiment with different widths of test strips.

I applied 7 different hydrophobic materials to both wet and dry paper.

  • Liquitex Professional Matte Gel Medium
  • Lineco PVA Adhesive
  • Golden Molding Paste
  • Pure beeswax
  • Briwax Original (blend of bees and carnauba wax with solvents to keep is soft until it dries)
  • Gamblin Cold Wax Medium (blend of white beeswax and mineral spirits)
  • Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane

Note: I recycled old drawing paper for this test, so graphite is visible on some of these samples.

After 24 hours drying time, I will cut strips and apply moisture (perhaps mist and water) to see what happens. Some of these samples look more promising than others. The acrylic based media dried smoothly and adhered well. The beeswax began delaminating from the wet paper almost immediately, and it looks like the polyurethane soaked completely through the paper. The Briwax and cold wax medium are nearly invisible. They look great, hopefully they will do something.

Samples will be labeled as follows:

  • MGM - D: Liquitex Professional Matte Gel Medium applied to dry paper
  • MGM - W: Liquitex Professional Matte Gel Medium applied to wet paper
  • PVA - D: Lineco PVA Adhesive applied to dry paper
  • PVA - W: Lineco PVA Adhesive applied to wet paper
  • GMP - D: Golden Molding Paste applied to dry paper
  • GMP - W: Golden Molding Paste applied to wet paper
  • BEE - D: Pure beeswax applied to dry paper
  • BEE - W: Pure beeswax applied to wet paper
  • BRI - D: Briwax Original applied to dry paper
  • BRI - W: Briwax Original applied to wet paper
  • CWM - D: Gamblin Cold Wax Medium applied to dry paper
  • CWM - W: Gamblin Cold Wax Medium applied to wet paper
  • POL - D: Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane applied to dry paper
  • POL - W: Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane applied to wet paper

Nov 13

Initial results:

  • MGM - D: slight change, tiny arc in middle of paper.
  • PVA - D: quick change, tall arc, relaxed back to flat after 5-10 min.
  • PVA - W: quick change, tall arc, movement seemed jerkier than dry paper.
  • GMP - D: slight change, like a small slow ripple.
  • BEE - D: quick change, tall arc, held shape for more than 30 min.
  • BEE - W: delaminated
  • BRI - D: quick change, nice arc, maybe not as tall as PVA and BEE, relaxed quickly.
  • CWM - D: quick change, nice arc, maybe not as tall as PVA and BEE, relaxed flat very quickly
  • POL - D: no change
  • POL - W: no change

General observations:

  • Direction of the paper matters A LOT. Samples that showed great change, did almost nothing when strips were cut from the other direction of the paper.
  • Width of the strip did not change results that much. For successful materials, strips at 1/2“, 1/4” and 1/8“ all reacted. Action decreased with the width of the strips and thinner strips relaxed back to a flat position more quickly. Shorter strips also show less change.
  • Damp paper does not reactivate. Will retry previously tested samples when they are completely dry. Update: After they dried completely, successful samples reactivated again when exposed to moisture.
  • PVA adhesive is slightly tacky when damp. Seems to dry smooth, but can be sticky when wet.
  • Samples that showed little or no change were consistent. They didn't do anything no matter the direction of the paper, length or width of the strip.

Thicker widths appear to result in taller arcs. From front to back these strips are 1/8”, 1/4“ and 1/2” wide.

Test strip cut diagonal to the paper grain

Jb passed along this very interesting paper hu2019.pdf about polymer bi-layers inspired by nature and used as soft actuators. It is amazing to see what can be done with such simple materials. Also super exciting to see a rigorous experiment demonstrate what I had observed earlier in the day.

Nov 14,2019

Nothing worked as I expected today. The day ended with a soggy pile of failed attempts, but there's always something to learn, so a few reflections before I toss everything in the recycling bin.

I noticed yesterday that water was beading up on the surface of the Lenox paper. For today's experiments I used the same waxes that worked well yesterday (Gamblin Cold Wax Medium and Briwax) and applied them to two highly absorbent kozo papers made of mulberry bark. These papers are fibrous and strong.

Legion Hosho Professional is a handmade Japanese paper with no sizing (85 gsm). The grain runs in the direction of the translucent lines.

Garden Smooth Mulberry is made from large fibers and the grain has no strong orientation, but runs in many directions.

Legion Lenox 100

Mulberry bark absorbs moisture really well, but it does not distort as readily as cotton. I think a stronger hydrophilic layer may be needed to get it to warp. Also, it may just be slower to react than cotton.

The other thing I tried was painting PVA adhesive on the origami paper we cut on the Compass 4 yesterday in the Thing Lab. I chose PVA because I was impatient and knew it would dry faster than the waxes. The problem is that it also gets tacky when wetted. The paper just ended up sticking to my table.

Getting ready for tomorrow, I am applying multiple heavy coats of wax to the kozo papers. Also, waxing some Lenox cotton paper since that worked well a couple of days ago (even with water beading on the surface).

Separately, I'm gearing up to experiment with Agar Agar as a hydrophilic layer. I've never used the material, and from the little bit I've read, it can be prepared in myriad ways to achieve different results, various things can be added to make it smoother or more flexible (Locust Bean Gum, Lignin). I saw that it can be used as a bulking agent in paper sizing, which makes me wonder if it would completely saturate paper instead of staying on the surface. In order to avoid saturation, I'm priming Lenox, Hosho and Mulberry papers with acrylic media (PVA and Matte Gel Medium) to make a barrier for the agar to sit on.


Nov 15, 2019

Using Agar Agar I found at the grocery store, I mixed a 10% solution (1 TBS agar: 10 TBS boiling water) and applied two coats to papers prepared with acrylic media. Agar was painted on with a brush with each coat applied in perpendicular directions.The agar appeared to adhere better to the matt gel medium. PVA is fairly glossy and the first coat of agar did not go on smoothly. The second coat stuck better and had more even coverage. The agar thickened as it cooled, so I kept it hot, but not boiling, on a burner while I painted the layers. The process took about 20 min and the agar I applied at the end was far more viscous than when I started. Samples were left to cure at room temperature for 30 min and then dried in the oven at 102 degrees F for an hour.

Most of the sheets were cured in the oven after 1 hour. A few took another 15-20 min, possibly due to thicker spots of agar? The agar surface completely smoothed out in the oven and looks really nice. It is glossy on the sheets primed with PVA and matte on the sheets primed with matte gel medium.

The problem now is that the paper really curled up in the oven. The Smithsonian Postal Museum suggests using a humidification chamber to relax curled paper.

Fortunately, I have a humidification chamber ready to go from earlier this week. I used 110 degree F water.

I also put a few sheets in a bag over my humidifier. Conservators everywhere are rolling their eyes.

Update: A bag over a humidifier works just fine, and the agar works great! Really excited to experiment with these bi-layers.

Nov 18, 2019


One of the things I loved about working at an investment firm was having access to interesting things to read that were not easily available through traditional channels. My favorite publication was What I Learned This Week, by Kiril Sokolov of 13D. It wasn’t polished market research or economic forecasts, but the seeds of ideas presented in a barely formatted PDF. In celebration of this workshop, I thought I’d share in my own WILTW - the beginning of a few ideas I will be mulling over for a while.

Documentation: “If it’s not on the wiki, it didn’t happen” (Daniel) and “Documentation is cognition.” (Jb) was the refrain of the entire week. My experience in this workshop was so much richer because of the process of documenting the things I worked on. It caused me to think more deeply and more focused than I may have otherwise. Better documentation has been a goal of mine for a while and it was great to have a nudge in that direction and the tools to make it easy. I am empowered to keep documenting my work and think that good things are going to come from it. I may be on the verge of something interesting with bi-layers so, to be continued…

Radical Design: I realize this is gross oversimplification, but it seems like so many of the thorny and seemingly intractable issues we face in the world boil down to narrow vision and failure of the imagination. Our vision is constrained by time and by point of view (both physical and figurative). We are not in the habit of looking at complex systems over very long periods of time…

David Latimer, retired electrical engineer, with a plant he has grown in a closed system since 1960.

Excerpt from the official 11 year time-lapse of the construction of One World Trade. Full video is available here:

…from great distance…

The Empty Quarter, largest sand desert in the world. It covers 251,000 square miles: Image by Benjamin Grant from his book, Overview.

…or up close.

Willkommlangea reticulata, slime mold under magnification: Image by Alison Pollack

We miss a lot by sticking to our routines of looking. Similarly with imagination, we get accustomed to doing things the way we always have, and cut ourselves off from devising new ways of navigating life. Radical design is so refreshing in contrast. With its focus on being sensitive to the world around us and working with it rather than against it makes logical sense. I’m left wondering why we don’t practice radical design more. On the one hand material science limits what we are currently able to do, but on the other hand, there are plenty of things we could do, but we simply won’t for a variety of entrenched cultural reasons. (Unpacking those is a topic for another day.)

Situated Energy: Thinking about situated energy this week feels like remembering a dream from a very long time ago. I know I learned all these concepts as a child in school, but I never seriously thought about how the energy in an environment works naturally within the system. Certainly, I never considered situated energy as an option to power something functional. My unexamined belief was things could only be powered through an electrical outlet or a battery. Of course that isn’t true, but that truth is something I had forgotten about for a long time. Working with situated energy feels like the ability to make something from nothing. Expectations of instant action or high fidelity would need to be adjusted, but there is energy everywhere, and using it is something that is very exciting to explore.

Urgency of Method: The Dansaekhwa movement was a loosely tied group of Korean painters in the 1970s. It did not originate from a shared point of view or goal, but it developed from an organic process where several Korean artists at this time relentlessly insisted on engaging with their materials. Their work was not called “painting” or even “artwork,” but “methods.” The marks they made did not generally do not demonstrate skill or technique, but simply the artists presence and their commitment to the process.

Untitled, Kwon Young-Woo, 1984, Gouache, Chinese Ink on Korean paper, 259 x 162 cm. One method Kwon Young-Woo employed was ripping paper and allowing it to touch the surface of a basin of ink and absorb pigment into the paper. Image from the Kukje Gallery

From point (No. 181), Lee Ufan, 1974, Oil on canvas, 160 x 130 cm. In his early work, Lee Ufan made procedural marks and only reapplied paint to the brush when it was nearly dry. Image from the Kukje Gallery

This work has been described as showing incredible restraint and benign strength. I find it arresting. It stops me in my tracks and demands my attention. Perhaps that is because this work stands as documentation of commitment to a slow and deliberate process. The image itself and the process by which it was made hits the brain all it once. Seeing and understanding are simultaneous. The artist set a method in motion, and let it run it's course.

The interesting idea here for me is pairing the Urgency of Method with Radical Design. What if it was possible to set a process in motion that does not run its course, but is ongoing? The final piece would not be a record of the method, but a continuous unfolding of the work in response to dynamic conditions.

lisa_bethancourt.txt · Last modified: 2019/11/19 20:10 by radical