Constructing Liveliness: The Experience of Nature Embodiment in Kinetic Architecture
A reality where nature becomes ‘lost’ is upon us — a future that is fast approaching over a built strata of hyper-artificial environments. It towers over limited possibilities of retaining a skin of untouched nature over the earth. Urban life is moving in a direction that will become further shrouded with socioeconomic, infrastructural capacity and sustainable living challenges. Almost three quarters of our population on earth will be living in urban centres within twenty years, where this urban life is inescapable (Dye 2008). When our super-systems of cities demand more colonization of the natural world with substitutional artificial systems to tackle these fixed issues, the question of what remains of our distinguishing sensibilities to what is natural and artificial emerges.
Even as some humans in western civilization have understood themselves to be part of nature, the attitude of ‘nature’ as territory free of human imprint still persists (Cleary et al. 2017). Blanketed with technological augmentation, natural environments are now recomposed and consumed through the digital lens as artificially processed human artefacts. A technologically spirited intersection of the natural and built architecture is a looming truth. How is the role of cybernetic feedback systems positioned in this truth? Can our sense of being connected to living systems in nature be regained?
In this paper, I draw a connection to a metaphysical essence of nature found in the motions of the living and inorganic, non-living systems that it houses. I will argue that re-building our environments with kinetic art and architectural layers inspired by these motions can evoke a sense of ‘life’ that re-unites us with the sense of the natural that is ‘lost’.
1.2. Alignment with nature in biophilic design
The sense of ‘life’ is valuable — it is a fragment of our human identity that connects us with the living and non-living systems in the organic world to which we belong. This connection is essential in keeping our psychophysiological stasis regulated, moving us in harmony with the wider cycles of circadian rhythm. Nature in its many appearances is a series of patterns — groups upon groups of individual parts that are comparable in behaviour or visual properties with slight variations from piece to piece. A singular bird that belongs to a wider flock of birds of one species is similar in its motion and shape to individuals in its group but slightly variant in the delay of its flapping of wings. This is an example of these evident patterns, and they may appear to us as systems with intelligent agency, when in fact, they are structures with self-organizing intelligibility (Ball 2012).
Understanding patterns as natural phenomena does not only rely on ‘seeing’ with the visual apparatus of the eye, but also in ‘seeing’ as a function of the ‘extended mind’ (Menary 2010). That is, to use our surrounding environments as tools that enhance our cognitive perceptions (Menary 2010). As cognitive tools beyond the boundary of ‘mind’, components of the natural world can help balance our health and well-being. A wide set of scientific research has deduced that exposure to nature lowers levels of morbidity and disease (Cleary et al. 2017). Only few have proposed specifically designed nature exposure methods to target benefits — a process they refer to as forming ‘targeted pathways’ (Cleary et al. 2017). One clear distinction is made between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ targeted pathways, and that is how they rely on our cognitive awareness to have an effect on us humans (Cleary et al. 2017). A direct targeted pathway of nature exposure such as good air quality, for example, reaps the benefit of healthier immunity and lung function with or without the interference of our cognition. Indirect targeted pathways, by contrast, that reinforce benefits like increased physical activity, social interaction, community belonging, and spiritual and good emotional experiences, have to engage our cognitive forces (Cleary et al. 2017). Indeed, in the case of motion perception which will be later explored, there is a cognitive process involved.
Indirect targeted pathways that have been widely covered include Psycho-Evolutionary Theory (PET), Stress Recovery Theory (SRT) and Attention Restoration Theory (ART) (McSweeney et al. 2014 and Cleary et al. 2017). They all are nature-based theories that support the use of nature-based scenery or presence in natural settings to hold attention, alleviate stress and mental fatigue from daily routine, restoring our abilities to focus and concentrate. To recreate the same effect within built, urban environments, spatial reflection and contemplation can be promoted (Craig et al. 2016). There are variations to this effect, however, as ‘nature’ itself is a subjective construct, and depends on variations of the individual in terms of race, gender, age, nature preference as well as their accumulation of experiences overtime (McSweeney et al. 2014).
Our semantic memory concerned with storing information, and episodic memory concerned with storing events and experiences play an integral role on these variations of experience (McSweeney et al. 2014). A nature-based stimulus that triggers memory, can release more endorphins having a more positive effect on the experiencer and triggering reflection and contemplation in them (McSweeney et al. 2014). Craig et al.’s EEG studies also show that the left hemisphere of the brain concerned with semantic and language processing is triggered in nature exposure, which is associated with reflection and awareness of surroundings, while the right hemisphere is also triggered, activating emotional expression and visuospatial processing that give us our subjective attention and observation to the surrounding environment (Craig et al. 2016). How subjective these theories prove the range of experience is can be a weakening argument against the possibility to design for nature connectedness that is effective for everyone. Motion-based nature stimuli I argue can engage humans more universally because of its time-based nature. The stimuli are observed for a time range allowing for different visual opportunities to be grasped by different experiencers. Motion perception is also engaged and relies less on episodic memory activation than semantic, subjecting the motion-based design to have a universal experience potential.
When studied, the nature-to-human relationship has traditionally focused on exposure to a single cue from the natural environment, and it is typically a visual cue (McSweeney et al. 2014). When we experience a natural, non-built environment, there is a current of cues targeting our non-visual senses from every direction. McSweeney et al. point to the olfactory, auditory, haptic senses that augment the visual and build an emotive, multi-dimensional experience and a ‘presence’ — a meaningful connection and state of feeling oneness with such an environment (McSweeney et al. 2014). As experiences will become more enclosed in indoor environments in a more populated future, there will be limited opportunities to expand the boundaries of architecture to include non-visual sensory cues from the natural world. Augmenting our interior spaces with digitized or artificial auditory, textural and olfactory layers, and/or indoor green spaces may offer a solution, but the layers may never reproduce the seamlessness and striking presence of a natural environment. There is an under-explored layer of motion apparent in our natural environments that could tie together many of these layers.
A common denominator that appears across naturally occurring behaviours is motion, a phenomenon that is perceived as transformative to the object. In this light, the next chapter will discuss ‘biological motion’ — motion that describes the actions of biological beings. It it is essential to the speculation of life in artefacts. The very idea of an artefact appearing to be life-like is termed by Kenny K. N. Chow as “liveliness”, to distinguish from the factually biological state of being “alive”. For the purpose of clarity, this text will uniformly refer to what seems to have qualities of “life” as “liveliness” moving forward.
Chow specifically characterizes the detection of motion within inanimate beings or objects as indicators of life. He argues that motion alone is insufficient to provoke the sense of something life-like, and should be coupled with ‘embodiment’ (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). Embodiment, he illustrates through ideas of the phenomenologist and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is sensing through bodily experience in a proprio-physiological and phenomenological sense (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). The cognition of the mind is manifested through the senses of the body and recorded in episodic memory as a lived experience.
The visual form of components in natural systems are static, less dynamic and not as meaningful as the active behaviour of motion that extends beyond their form and focuses on the interactions among them. The Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson once declared in his 1917 publication On Growth and Form that pattern formations across living and non-living systems are a result of the process of growth and transformation (Ball 2012). In the same light, the motion of living and non-living entities around us are dynamic and transformative, and perhaps, that is why they facilitate our perception of emergent behaviour — a phenomenon that cannot be derived solely from observing the static visual properties of the individual component of a pattern.
In the last few decades, the language of biophilia informing architectural and spatial design practice has been heavily focused on form. Biophilia as described by the American biologist and biology theorist Edward Osborne Wilson is the innate desire of humans to be in places that foster living things and prehistorically would have been facilitative to our survival. Leaping beyond form-based to motion-based design is unexplored territory in this domain. In the following chapters, I will inform an argument that motion is more promising in its adaptive and transformative qualities, thereby stimulating more convincing perceptions of liveliness.
2. From the Sphere of Life:
foundations of rhythmic perception studied
2.1. Biological and non-biological underpinnings of wave formations
This chapter concerns the perceptive mechanisms that filter our understanding of what “life” as embodied in nature is, from an affective and not objective point of view. Tied at the core of how we see nature as flowing patterns there are perceptual mechanisms at play. In the previous chapter, we discussed theories associated with memory and cognition tools that align our mental well-being with and connect us to nature-based stimuli. In this chapter, mechanisms of perception from gestalt psychology and optic flow will expand on why we gravitate to motion-based nature stimuli from an internal desire. These perceptual mechanisms are universal to the brain anatomy of human beings. Similarly, in most stimuli based in nature or appearing lively, I hypothesize that there is an underlying anatomical comparison. In this sub-section, using the theories of James H. Bunn and other observers of naturally occurring frequencies, I will discuss the “wave” as an underlying connective form to biological motion surrounding us in natural and urban environments.
In his essay, “Wave Forms”, James H. Bunn frames that there is an underlying natural curvilinear oscillating wave form that follows universal structures in the space and time continuum from biology, locomotion, atmosphere and fluid dynamics of water and wind. Light and sound, carriers of information processed by our optic and auditory mechanisms, are embodied in wave forms (Bunn 2002). At that level, it can be argued that life itself is experienced at the foundational level in curvilinear form ever-present in nature (Bunn 2002).
In locomotion, there is a counterbalancing action as bipedal and quadrupedal beings lead with four limbs to stabilize their upright form on land. This counterbalance is expressed in a counterrhythm of “natural arcs of S-shaped curves” (Bunn 2002). Waves are also curvilinear transmissions that express the exchanges of energy from one state to a different state, such as from liquid to gas (Bunn 2002). Electromagnetic resonances that are constant interplay between our state and the environment, such as with fish and water, birds and the air, are also an underlying presence of waves in the invisible spectrum (Bunn 2002). This omnipresence of wave forms comes in various types and dynamics from the visible to invisible spectrums. Even if the nature of experience is shaped differently for humans by the course of how environments and nature-based cues of motion are learned and recorded in memory overtime, curvilinear wave formation can be argued as a shared objectivism. This objectivism makes motion a more universal or inclusive language of nature embodiment that transcends human diversities.
Moving back to the conception of waves across the visible to invisible spectrums, some cognitive scientists would describe the brain as a tool that processes wave frequencies from those spectrums to images. The process of constructing the internal image of reality we perceive from our physical surroundings is shaped by the rhythmic archetype of waves that is filtered through the senses (Bunn 2002). Our spatial and kinaesthetic relationship to our environment is built upon externalizing this internal image through proprioceptive body sensing, bringing back wave forms into the environment (Bunn 2002). This way, just as the wave form is recited back by our bodies in the motions they propagate, it could be possible that the movement of signals through our neural networks is also oscillatory.
Dan Russell, an American physicist at Pennsylvania State University, describes mechanical waves as waves that propagate through a medium such as a solid, liquid or gas, divided into longitudinal and transversal wave types (Russell 2015). Transversal waves propagate motion perpendicular to the individual particle oscillations within them, forming the distinct secondary wave “S-shape” that James H. Bunn illustrates in his descriptions. Contrastingly, the motion translation of a longitudinal wave or primary wave is parallel with the individual particle oscillations, forming a linear shape of contractions and rarefactions (Figures 1 and 2) (Russell 2015).
Naturally occurring waves like water waves, seismic waves and solid surface waves show evidence of interesting linkage relationships combining both transverse and longitude waves. The unique motion of a water wave is a result of a clockwise circular motion of the water particle across the direction of wave propagation (Russell 2015). The magnitude of the circular oscillation of a single particle increases as it draws closer to the surface (Figure 3) (Russell 2015).
Contrastingly, Rayleigh surface waves involve solid particles in elliptical, not circular, motion travelling across the general direction of the wave (Russell 2015). Surface solid wave particles also decrease in elliptical width or magnitude with depth away from the surface. The difference is that there is an oppositional force in the movement of those particles from clockwise to counter-clockwise motion with depth away from the surface of the wave (Figure 4) (Russell 2015).
Nature-based stimuli can also display mechanics of tension or opposition, that result in the continuous flow of waves. James H. Bunn points to Carl Gans’ studies of a snake’s undulating motion, proving that similar to fluid dynamics like waves breaking at the shore, locomotive bodies move in an off-angular direction from the intended direction toÂ¬ meet the gradual goal position (Bunn 2002). Biological groups, like schooling fish, move similarly in that they meet the general orientation of the group but still hold idiosyncratic variations in the control laws that parametrically constrain movements and “ebb and flow” or deviate and re-converge. We perceptually derive an oscillatory nature in these oppositional variations. Our human bodies also stretch, contract and release concurrently in different muscular group areas to counterbalance, and traces of this counterrhythmic muscular flow effect the aerodynamics of the air in the surroundings.
The translation of motion in biomechanics is a kinetic transfer from “two discontinuous media”, one being the environment as the container and the latter, the body it contains (Bunn 2002). As a fish moving through water evokes the oscillatory fluid traces of water as the undulating body of the fish move through it. Similarly, our bipedal upright form as human beings is bound by the gravitational forces that we lift against to progress our coordinated action of walking and balance (Bunn 2002). This “oscillating feedback” of locomotion is what is described by neurobiologists as “central pattern generators” (Bunn 2002).
There is a quote by the Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson that goes: “In every symmetrical system every deformation that tends to destroy the symmetry is complemented by an equal and opposite deformation that tends to restore it. In each deformation, positive and negative work is done.” (Bunn 2002). Explained in his quote, symmetry theory is essential to how our brains see the relative composition of linkages in sensorimotor agents, similar to how it sees geometrical forms (Bunn 2002). Whereas geometrical forms operate on two-dimensional planes, sensorimotor bodies operate on a three-dimensional and four-dimensional levels of visual stimulation. Finding symmetry in these forms relies on the translation rotation of off-angular rotations of limbs from their attached kinematic core (Bunn 2002). Bunn describes that order, shape and position of objects or beings are characteristics of their spatial relationship while translation, rotation and twisting are modifications of these characteristics that when applied create “measured rhythms” (Bunn 2002).
There are inherent perceptual mechanics in the human mind to detect patterns. It starts at a point of when we visually perceive the wave form discussed in this sub-chapter. Each eye sees two contradicting stimuli, a condition termed ‘binocular rivalry’, one dominant and one submissive stimulus (Wilson 2001). In the sequence of wave motion, the rival stimuli are the states of contraction and rarefaction (release) in particle oscillation. Even the perception of the velocity of wave depends on a perceptual phenomenon called colinear facilitation (Wilson 2001).
As a result of colinear facilitation, longitudinal waves appear to us to move faster than their traversal counterparts (Russell 2015). This is a result of what was previously described about the particles of longitude waves oscillating in parallel with the contours of the overall wave direction. The parallel alignment appears to have less resistance or opposition allowing our minds to perceive a higher speed in movement.
This simple demonstration of how our perceptual mechanisms work supports the idea that rhythmic wave formation extends not only universally across natural-based stimuli, but also to our neural dynamics. In the following sub-chapter, neural dynamics of perceptual mechanisms will be further discussed to uncover the rhythmic nature embedded in them.
2.2. Principles of Gestalt theory and optic flow
In a momentary scene where senses are saturated with visual stimuli of motion in a natural setting, a flight of birds appears in sight and an awe of the symmetry in action overtakes us. How do we observe a whole scene from which we derive “sub-scenes” as subjects contained within the broader scene? How are the neural dynamics of our brain designed to observe these evident form qualities in motion, whether it be the curvilinearity of wave motion, or symmetry in autonomous group motions? I pose that there is a rhythmic order to how our brains receive input from the visual apparatus that I will explore though the lens of gestalt and symmetry perception in optic flows.
The attraction and repulsion rules of a flock or autonomous swarm, once recognized, creates a harmonious pattern of elasticity and propulsion, similar to contraction and retraction in active and reactionary forces of a living being explored in the previous subchapter (Bunn 2002). Even in the considerations of the scale change and growth within environments, one of the signifiers of “liveliness” are that the symmetrical proportions and relative dimensions of a being are preserved through their transformation — a concept termed as a ‘Principle of Similitude’ (Bunn 2002).
The words “automaton” and “autonomy” is etymologically derived from the “self” or “autos”, which represents the sense of self-rule or self-agency. In automata acting together as a collective, there is no central control unit. Human beings recognize a pattern that deceptively appears to be an autonomous behaviour of one entity. The idea of a “wave” follows the same notion. As there is no central autonomy to its curvilinearity, but exists within each particle oscillation. All in the same, individual characterizations within a group appear to the eye at the same scale where the whole group is in view. Because of the nature of this visual input as an array of information, the brain finds the least path of processing possible to consume it information all at once — gestalt theory in action. Despite its individualism, each component of a group is categorical — whether in form, goal orientation or linkage structure — giving a limitation to the degree of variation possible within the group. The components are then comparable in their behaviour. Therefore, the Gestalten perceptual effect morphs automata into a generative visual construct of contraction and release — two physical characterizers of wave formation.
To further explain this, it is valuable to introduce some of the earliest studies in gestalt theory that were concerned with how we unify separate visual components in grid-like spatial order or in disconnected surfaces (Hock and Schoner 2002). In 2012, Hock and Nichols introduced to perceptual studies in gestalt theory the concept of “dynamic grouping motion” (Hock and Schoner 2002).Â In effect, our perceptive neural mechanics enables us to be skillful at filtering out and intelligibly detecting the lowest forms of coherence or structure in patterns, against a background of noise (Grossman, E., Donnelly, M., Price, R., Pickens, D., Morgan, V., Neighbor, G., et al. 2000).
The concept illustrates how luminance across adjacent objects can affect how unified they appear to one another, blending the first a set of disconnected objects into the next, with low salience of the boundary distinguishing the two objects from each other (Hock and Schoner 2012). The directionality of luminance change from one object to the next determines the degree of affinity of the objects, blending the transformation of one object to another more fluidly, more gradient and less sharply, like the essence of being in-motion, frame by frame (Hock and Schoner 2012). Hence, the naming of this conceptual framework as “dynamic grouping motion” (Hock and Schoner 2012).
In arrayed kinematic artefacts, such as with “In Rhythmic Fragments” later introduced, the nature of motion dynamically changes light behaviour falling on each arrayed component, shaping its visual appearance and strength of boundary between the components as they move (Figure 5) (Todary-Michael, D. 2019). The rhythmic flow is perceived as result of the lighting conditions shaping the angles where edges appear more blended than others across the components, fragmenting the waves of the kinetic motion dynamically. There is a are two distinct concepts behind the perceptual process of this experience: surface grouping structure and dynamic grouping motion (Hock and Schoner 2012). Edge detection becomes the superior spatial mechanism to surface grouping, and boundary salience transience is significant for dynamic grouping motion (Hock and Schoner 2012). Spatial qualities like symmetry and repetition may form a connective thread in our perceptual understanding of the arrayed components of a kinetic object or artefact. They are directly linked to how motion can facilitate visual illusions in materiality and form.
“In Rhythmic Fragments” relies on the fundamentals of how its moving components are similar in form and contrasting in materiality to bridge the balance between the edge clarity forming a whole, and edge fluidity, forming its “fragments”. A mixed process is at play when we assess the perception of the rhythmic aesthetic of project’s environment. The dynamics of this perceptual process is a combination of top-down endogenous visual perception mechanics, and a bottom-up processing of surface-network grouping.
By Randolph F. Helfrich’s account, the evidenced rhythmic oscillatory nature in neural activity may support that visual perception is a result of “periodic sampling [or] rapid, sequential sampling of our environments” (Helfrich 2017). Saccades are small rapid eye movements performed when our eyes encounter important or interesting visual information in environments that excite our visual cortex. Helfrich argues that the nature of saccades are periodic and expressed in frequencies (Helfrich 2017). In reference to neuropsychological studies, Helfrich points to the possibility that the brain’s acclimatization to rhythmic behaviour could be linked to the visual inputs governed by the frequency of micro-saccades (Helfrich 2017).
In the project “In Rhythmic Fragments”, the visual appearance of the arrayed kinetic components across their spatial locations unifying the ‘lively’ artefact to the experiencer is changing along the artefact’s linear form and directionality of motion. In the bottom-up perceptual approach, the foundational theory of Grossberg and Mingolla’s ‘boundary contour system’ determines that the experiencer or seer is looking for edges to group together a connected surface or object that is composed of multi-objects or multi-surfaces (Hock and Schoner 2012). The seer/experiencer is constantly re-assessing whether the individual components belong to one object or another in the visual background. In this sense, the visual quality in terms of luminance of the surface components can be varied, with increased affinity or similarity between components along some boundaries and decreased affinity along other boundaries.
Another important spatial mechanism affecting the observer is gap detection between aligned parallel boundaries of multi-surface or multi-component objects. Hock and Schoner point to the strength of connectedness to the observer between two surfaces or components even when a gap is detected breaking their visual continuation (Hock and Schoner 2012). A visual gap is effectively injecting a contrast to further clarify the alignment of the components. Good continuation from one section of aligned components to another, observed in a dynamic artefact in motion, changes the observer’s emphasis in active visual exploration on one part from another.
This phenomenon supported by the top-down and bottom-up perceptual theories illustrated above represents to me how motion is approached and sensed in our environments, in a fragmentary sense, scaling from whole to part in a tight temporal frame. As the previous section of this chapter illuminated on the sinusoidal wave forms that are apparent in biological motions, the conception of contraction and release that build “waves” are also supported here as a mechanism of our seeing mind as arrays and multi-surface, multi-linkage objects are grouped and fragmented.
2.3. The perceptual thread to ‘lively’ embodiment and liveliness
Ideas from Gestalt psychology earlier discussed support the notion of wave perception as universal across biological and non-biological beings. Common alignment, velocity and proximity in organisms moving together as a group are characteristics that make it easier for us as humans to associate them with each other.
In this paper, I examine the metaphor of liveliness that is perceived in nature-based forms of autonomous groups — a kind of perceptive closeness to what nature “embodies” for us. How can this metaphor hold credibility in human-based not nature-based moving artefacts such as kinetic installations like “In Rhythmic Fragments”? In this sub-chapter, I would like to draw a correlation between the enabling mechanisms of gestalt and perceptive optic dynamics to perceive rhythm in motion and how we can artificially design spaces with a sense of liveliness using kinetic art for affective stimulation.
As social beings, humans are attuned to visually interpreting intent behind active body language. Swedish psychologist Gunnar Johansson argues that this ability is an evolutionary biology survival mechanism we inherited pre-language communication era. Motion perception begins at kinematic construction, a series of connected linkage points where pendulum-like motions spur in periodic or rhythmic time intervals (Johansson 1973).
Life in the biological spectrum grows and evolves with changing conditions of the environments that bind them. The natural visual recognition of joint and limb as constructors of motion in human beings is perhaps an evolutionary result of the development of complexity of the eye alongside the development of diversification in the vertebrate body across species. Through a series of experiments by Gunnar Johansson, our innate recognition of biological linkages was demonstrated.
In Johansson’s experiments, animations of a human walking or running were abstracted to visualize only the mathematical points, named ‘particles’, representing joints to which extremities are connected (Johansson 1973). The particles were visualized brightly in contrast with the background to frame visual information clearly. To organize proximal patterns, the regular distances of limbs between joints of the moving subject were maintained, and a video recording method was used to capture the live motion. The moving subjects were fitted with a suit with flashlight bulbs attached at their joints in a dimly lit space and recorded in front-parallel view to the camera lens (Johansson 1973). In another demonstration of the experiment, the view was re-adjusted to an angled view, where the distances of limbs between joints varied because of changing distances from the fixed location of the camera lens (Johansson 1973). Recognition of the action represented by the motion was successful in both demonstrations, and Johansson’s argument that the motions were perceptually self-evident was established. A third case where only the bottom joints connecting the legs were shown also showed the same success (Johansson 1973).
This demonstration grounds the point that perception of liveliness is credible in non-natural and artificial kinetic art kinematic motions that express a similar structures of dominant and submissive components like joint and limb.
Following the Gestalten phi phenomenon demonstrated by Wertheimer in 1923, one series of dots that are blinking in static position will eventually appear to be have motion (Figure 7) (Neri et al. 1998). The perceptual mechanisms of symmetry and continuity detection explored in the previous sub-chapter are at work in this phenomenon. There is an inclination for our minds to infer motion in stationary objects organized in an order that is familiar to us from semantic memory, as with biological linkage mechanics.
Human ability to detect biological motion and read self-organized behaviour in the complexity of groups of organisms moving together in the natural world were explored in modern studies (A. Seiffert, S. Hayes, C. Harriott, and J. Adams 2015). The studies compared visual samples of three motions: swarm motions; spirals representing a control motion with positions, speed and direction variations similar to swarm motions; and squares representing form-rigid translational motion (A. Seiffert, S. Hayes, C. Harriott, and J. Adams 2015). The results of the studies show that perception of swarm motion differs from the perception of biological form motion. Unlike the latter, it does not benefit from a linkage form among the individual components (A. Seiffert, S. Hayes, C. Harriott, and J. Adams 2015). However, detection of swarm and spiral motions was more effective than that of translational square motion (A. Seiffert, S. Hayes, C. Harriott, and J. Adams 2015). Conclusively, similar to how individual limbs of the singular biological form are connected with joints, it is the recognition of that there is a degree of freedom (or deviation) for each individual component moving in a swarm, while following similar dynamic rules, that enables us to perceive them as organized.
The individual vertebrate organisms in their groups have a rigid limb and joint structure for locomotion. The authors of the study argue that understanding biological linkages gives us a perceptual advantage to be able to associate these vertebrates together as groups with emergent behaviour (A. Seiffert, S. Hayes, C. Harriott, and J. Adams 2015). Connective joints and limbs offer a free, yet constrained range of movement, with limited possibilities of re-arrangement. It is important to note that visual recognition of these constraints inform human’s distinguishing abilities of biologically-inspired motion from other forms of motion.
Studies by Neri et al. compared an analysis of biological motion in the point light walkers’ method versus simple to complex translational motions of points displaced in position from frame to frame (Figure 6). Their findings argued that the mind’s analysis of biological motion relies on familiarity and visual adaptation to the stimulus motion (Neri et al. 1998). These findings are congruent with the notion that a hierarchy of biological linkage structure does make the process of seeing coherence in motion more efficient. The coherence of simple translational motion analysed in the studies increased with more spatial sampling point density, and more time exposure to the motion stimuli (Neri et al. 1998). Results analysing biological motion detection were comparable to translational motion, however, relied less on exposure time and more on the number of repetition cycles of the walking motion stimuli (Neri et al. 1998).
The findings by both studies can help argue that our understanding of biological linkages is instantaneous to our perception if the cyclical nature of their repetitions is immediately sensitized. Similarly, this is evident in Johansson’s light point walker animations, proving that the kinematic organization of our bodies is essential to motion perception and one of the earliest pieces of information recorded in our semantic memory learned from infancy.
What is fascinating in the vivid perception of biological motion in these experiments is that it is not immediately clear whether seeing the walking action is due to Gestalten principles of dynamic grouping or whether we recognize the walking action first, allowing us to derive the form of a human from the points (Johansson 1973).
2.4. Determinate and indeterminate behaviour
When one observes a pristine pastoral setting, there are a number of living beings that we objectively determine as biologically whole. The trees, the birds and pollinators floating through the air, the tree and soil-living organisms. But when one closes their eyes and shifts their focus to the senses, a feeling of overwhelming “life” emerges. Our immersion and reflection comes to us through a gestalt process is different visual gestalt perception to identify live entities within the backdrop of nature. It emerges from the by-products of motion that span out across time, beyond the visual to non-visual sensory engagement.
Liveliness is further classified as “primary” and “secondary” depending on the apparent intention (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). Alternating between the two concepts of primary and secondary liveliness can inform opportunities for creating more lively experiences when designing behaviour for kinetic art. Merleau-Ponty proposes that motion implies intention because there is a defined sense of direction and goal-orientation (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). As pointed to previously in discussions of biological motion perception, human beings are attuned to seeing intention in motion.
Primary liveliness tends to unfold to us as a connected singular whole carrying out central self-intentioned goals, and heavily engaging an observer’s visual perceptive of continuous action (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). Chow posits that primary liveliness draws in attention, while secondary liveliness involves complex transformations that distract, contrasting to earlier thought by Arnheim (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). In secondary liveliness, longer viewing and interaction time is needed before the inherent goals emerge and the observer begins to sense ‘illusory life’, as patterns of behaviour among individual agents acting within the group are read.
In the narrative of behaviour characterized by primary liveliness, intention is clearly observed. With secondary liveliness, diversion of intention is more characterized. There is a sense of determinacy that is perceived in possessing a clear goal to an experiencer, while speculation and indeterminacy are evoked when that clear goal is lacking. An environment that shifts the focal experience from the part to the whole and the whole to the part, or character to group, engages a balance of qualities between primary and secondary liveliness to achieve a nature of experience closest to what we are attuned to in natural environments, coined ‘holistic animacy’ (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013).
An effective way to embody ‘holistic animacy’ relies on how we design to include varying engagements within an environment. The biological ranges in structure, from invertebrates to vertebrates, plants, protozoa, from scales that range from visible to invisible to the human senses. Despite the breadth of structural qualities that give a visibility to living beings, one quality that ties them all is the ability to carry out transformative, reactive and adaptive exchanges with their surroundings. Similarly, as organisms in a symbiotic contract with our environments, human beings engage in a conversational exchange with their atmosphere, land, biological habitats.
Transformation and progression are essential qualities observed in motion-based stimuli. Visual contemplation can be invited through the design of interactions in kinetic artefacts that initiate speculation in the experiencer. Qualities of transformation and distraction in the moving components can embody this effect to the experiencer. An experience that invites motion-based proprioceptive input by the user in behaviourally dynamic system can form an epitome of immersion in an experience (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). When there are complexities in the movements of the system, an autonomous emergence is apparent. (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). By changing the rules of behaviour from one set of parameters to another across the temporal and spatial spectrum of an experience, the sense of wonder is re-introduced between the observer and the animate environment.
In line with the same evidence of why we readily perceive biological motion, K. N. Chow argues that environments that more familiar to us seem more easily perceived as lively to our senses and invite more proprioceptive interaction (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). Patterns of engagement where time-based changes in a responsively kinetic environment force us to re-adjust our perception of self-agency through body engagement are more affective and stimulate more meaning (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). This is coined by Chow as “enduring engagement” (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). A “sustaining engagement” is one where the kinetic environment continues to simulate agency when the experiencer stops interacting with it. According to Chow, secondary liveliness and “biologically” spirited emergence is more credible in this sustaining engagement interaction design. This is because the behaviour spans longer time intervals, allowing opportunity for the behavioural patterns to become obvious enough to be understood. A concept known as “neglect benevolence” in swarm perception.
The distributed nature of coordination in swarms generally shows a stronger sense purpose that is directly proportional to the quantity of individuals within the group (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016). Walker et al. declare that distributed information among multiple automata results in local interactions between immediate neighbours in the group. For example, all birds in a flock may seem to have one goal, a shared direction, that they are travelling towards. But the actual dynamic that successfully directs the general purpose is the constant adjustment and re-adjustment of each bird to its neighbours and not the overarching group. These local interactions vary but generally following similar rules of readjusting behaviour according to a constant parameter such as the position of each bird.
In A. Seiffert et al.’s experiments, concepts of swarm behaviour perception as well as how effectively we distinguish behaviour when switching between different swarm types were explored (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016). Based on their studies, human subjects recognized behaviour when neglecting the swarm before introducing a new command after some passage of time (corrective command) to change the initial directive course of the swarm (control law) (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016). This phenomenon is described as “neglect benevolence” (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016).
Given a display of swarm behaviour that attempts to converge or aggregate to a common point, a behaviour that is described as “rendezvous”, participants part were tasked to change the rendezvous point to change the configuration of behaviour and achieve the quickest convergence time. Virtual forces of attraction and repulsion, that resulted in the individual agents of the swarm to cohese or avoid collision with neighbours, were simulated (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016). The variants behaviours included in their study were flocking, dispersion, and rendezvous. Rendezvous’s control rules included movement of each individual agent towards its neighbour’s centre. Dispersion behaviour, by contrast, involved movement away from the “average position of their neighbours”, while flocking involved maintaining minimum distance from each neighbour, and maximum distance from the furthest neighbour at any given point, with the primary goal of matching the velocity of the neighbours (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016).
The findings from the study indicated that swarm behavioural types affect the level of how recognizable they are to their learners. Rendezvous behaviour was better recognized other behaviours, with flocking and dispersion closely similar in their recognizability (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016). Neglect benevolence was also evident for flocking, as the laws of the behaviour took more time to show the goal orientation of the individuals to be grasped by the learner (Walker, P.M., Lewis, M., & Sycara, K.P., 2016).
Liveliness, by Kenny Chow’s terms, demands embodiment and animation in the observed subject. Beyond motion, an artefact that is embodied appears to endure and interact with its environment. A proof of concept of this endurance is the constant adjustment, re-alignment (adaptation), growth and multiplicity in its dynamics (transformation), and interactivity potential (responsiveness) (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013).
Integral to ‘embodiment’ is also the mediating conversational exchange that occurs between the the lively machine and the perceptive user as a hybrid exchange of proprioception and visual perception (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). This particular exchange advances the sensori-motor link connection between active body movement and the senses, elevating the sense of metaphor and meaning extraction from responsiveness and presence gained from the position of observing ‘illusory life’ (Kenny K. N. Chow 2013). This, K. N. Chow iterates as ‘embodied cognition’.
3. To Life In Rhythmic Fragments:
liveliness of rhythmic motion embodied
3.1. Project conception
The exploration of liveliness and the possibilities of embodying nature in motion-based stimuli through kinetic art covered in this paper culminates in a series of work presented by Dalia Todary-Michael and Saria Ghaziri entitled ‘Sine’ and ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’. A series of mechanical iterations followed the journey from realizing the first to the second body of work. Universal wave formations that were detailed in the former part of this paper were explored in the mechanical iterations informing each project. For each conceptualization of project, the rhythmic embodiment of waves took a different course of purpose.
‘Sine’ was the first stage of testing and developing the idea that rhythmic engagement with a motion-based object can be achieved. The project was developed under a brief of creating an ‘exquisite instrument’ that performs, measures, or senses for a purpose. Specifically, the notion of rhythmic engagement for the project authors was a measure of how a level of ‘hypnosis’ or ‘mesmerisation’ with the object is reported when observed. In the terms of the brief, the project was conceptualized as an instrument that performs rhythmic embodiment to achieve a mesmeric state.
The conceptual stages of the project developed with the studies and observations of organic rhythmic flows in fluid motion and group-based motions in the natural environments such as flocks, schools of fish etcetera. These observations extended to the desire of translating a similar rhythmic flow to an object, visually with motion-based mechanism. Later on, the focus of the project was also extended to consider the non-visual senses and embody the experience spatially through multi-sensory modality (Figure 8) (Todary-Michael, D., 2019).
Leaping from ‘Sine’ to the project ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’ involved a series of exploring mechanical techniques of wave motion that informed the work of the kinetic artist Reuben Margolin that will be described in the following sub-chapter. Other techniques also involved a deeper study into the visual linkages of biological motion outlined in the second chapter of this paper.
As described by the authors, “’In Rhythmic Fragments’ is a biophilic spatial installation that translates mensurated motions into kinetic architectural boundaries. Inspired by the rhythmic flows of liveliness observed at varied scales in the natural environment, the installation aims to engage our mind as a physics engine with contemplative content to evoke memory and inspire the sense of being mesmerized.” (Todary-Michael, D. and Ghaziri, S. 2019).
An experience of nature brings to mind a serene image with a head tilted back allowing the flow of the crisp air to move through the breath, skin touching the cool, dewy blades of grass, with wide eyes capturing details of life in all directions. Patterns of motion across various forms emerge. Our awakening to the harmony of the natural environment gives in to a feeling of ‘presence’. The project carried foundations of ‘Sine’ to engage with rhythmic mesmerisation into further questions of how a spatial language can embody this experience through kinetics expanded at a human scale.
Work by authors in the architectural and interactive spatial design industry such as Studio Drift, Carlo Ratti, Jason Bruges, Phillip Beesley and Ruairi Glynn, have developed modes from kinetic to interactive that allow the experiencer to speculate on their spatial surroundings and engage in reflection. The goal of the project is to inform future applications of this spatial liveliness and nature embodiment in public spatial domain, learning spaces, and therapeutic environments where mental health stimulation is needed.
3.2. Mechanics, kinetic form and rhythmic liveliness
The mechanical construct of ‘Sine’ depended on foundations of crank mechanisms to achieve a kinetic form that can be controlled from one driving pivot point. An example of such a mechanism was inspired by the work of Arthur Ganson in ‘Machine with 23 Scraps of Paper’ developed in 1998 (Figure 9) (Ganson, A. 1998). The sculpture involved a rotatory shaft with a set of two alternating cams, moving one stem with the middle body of the paper scrap attached, then the other with the edges of the paper scrap attached to achieve a harmonic flow between the components that simulating the motion of flapping wings.
The natural top-down sine rhythm produced with the alternating cam movement inspired the sense of mesmerisation, but involved a clear visual separation of the mechanism from the moving paper components. With further studies looking into less rigid mechanical forms of single point drivers, Reuben Margolin’s work using string mechanisms to produce wave movements brought further interest in the embodiment of the wave form in the sculptural build of ‘Sine’.
One example of Reuben Margolin’s work that embodied concepts of “liveliness” expressed in nature-based group behaviour dynamics such as swarms was ‘Murmuration Wave’ developed in 2014 (Figure 10) (Margolin, R. 2014). The kinetic work involved a translation of a group of acrylic rods through the air, suspended by strings connected to a radial driver on a motor. As the radial driver moved radially along an extended arm from the central motor shaft, the lengths of strings suspending the array of acrylic rods varied, producing a visible transversal wave in the positional height shift on two axes.
The quality of the movement of the work was intriguing in the sense that the concepts of indeterminate and indeterminate behaviour and transformative figures of swarm motion became apparent in the study of the work. The rhythmic flow through transversal waves evident from any direction of observation, up and down, side by side, and back and forth, gave the kinetic body of ‘Murmuration Wave’ a coherence as a naturally-occurring form. Simultaneously, the loose quality of suspension from strings enabled the individual idiosyncratic variations that are typical to observe in the individuals of a swarm spetacle.
Through a culmination of a series of prototypes and studies, translating wave mechanics in the visible transversal secondary or S-shaped form, ‘Sine’ embraced the rhythmic visibility of the sine wave and further developed as a kinetic work with the physical expression of ‘sine’ wave built into its mechanical form (Figure 11) (Todary-Michael, D. 2019).
In lieu of a continuously central axil, the ‘Sine’ mechanism involved a rotational offset translation of 20 degrees parallel with the starting position of the driving pivot point, uniformly incremental towards one complete 360 degree rotation. Simultaneously, the central axil was offset perpendicularly from centre driving position with each increment, then re-aligned with the centre of the driving point uniformly with each increment (Figure 12) (Todary-Michael, D., Ghaziri, S. 2019).
The nature of the motion embodied in the ‘Sine’ mechanism created a combination of transversal and longitudinal motions — a combination stated by Dan Russell as evident in the flow of many naturally-occurring waves in the environment, like water and Rayleigh surface waves earlier explored. This combination allowed luminance and reflective light travel across the surface of arrayed aluminium arms to engage perceptual mechanics of optic flow. The illusionary perception of the mechanism receding and re-appearing was a phenomenon resulting from this, forming a perceptual continuity across the arrayed aluminium arms from one side perpendicular to the driving alignment to the other.
A lot of the designed outcomes of ‘Sine’ carried through into the conception and build of ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’, a spatially kinetic installation built on the foundations of the same mechanism with different material dominance. The construction of this kinetic artefact aimed to draw from the recognizable basis of biomechanical linkages, earlier observed in some of the biological motion inspired wave form derivations in James Bunn’s work and light-point walker studies by Gunnar Johansson, co-analysed with Gestalten principles.
The formation of the artefact’s structure is an A-frame that holds a motorized crank mechanism positioned relative to its vertical centre and the observer’s range of bodily core or mid-frame. The design of the wave formation is sinusoidal, composed of arrayed arms extended out from an imaginary central axil, and connected at alternating ends of the arms forming a physical non-centralized alternating axil. Each arm connection emanates from one central point with a rotary translation of each arm to 20 degrees from the position of the previous arm, until two complete 360 degree cycles are spanned across the mechanism. At the end points of each of the rotated set of arms, at the rotating joint of the axil, a linear acrylic unit is mounted at each joint forming another layer of the kinematic construction. These linear acrylic rod and tube components are translucent vertical units, interlinked in a piston-like mechanical form. They move as the central mechanism moves in sinusoidal wave formation, arrayed across the entire length of the artefact.
The perception of an artefact having a clear goal expressed in the lower-level behaviours in its singular components is a cue to how we associate and disassociate the artefact from the focal point to the backdrop of the environment. As formation of birds flies across a contrasted backdrop of blue sky, one shifts focus from any individual bird to the full group, and a change in behaviour is apparent. A common direction and speed in the flow of their movement make them seem as one goal-possessive agent, and yet, at individual level, a near identical alignment of wings is not achievable.
Similarly, the kinetic flows of the secondary kinetic components in ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’ appear to move as a goal-possessive collective in a wave formation along multiple axes. Despite the lack of separation in the individual components in the kinetic artefact that can display an autonomous intelligence and “re-adjust behaviour” to the wider group, the kinematic structure is the constant parameter formation of rules and limitations by which each components moves by.
A work that is reminiscent in this respect is a series of kinetic sculptures named ‘Strandbeest’ by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. A series of biologically-inspired linkage mechanics structured in PVC, wood and foil sails, are powered by wind force against a mill that acts as the driving point for the full kinetic sculpture. The installation appears to have complex, yet elegant coherent form embodying the human gait through numerous interlinked joint and limb sub-structures. In the elegance of its motion, an immediate connection to the environment it is powered by as a natural being in its habitat is easily inferred despite the skeletal artificiality of its form. The clear language of kinematics in translating motion in a sequential flow is embodied in this kinetic sculpture.
The presence of subtle variation in the degrees of rigidity of its joint construction allows for an indeterminant looseness to occur that gives an organic quality to the artefact’s limbs in motion. As in Johnasson’s particle joint motion experiments, a determinant quality of the recognizable motion expressed in walking is the rhythmic consistency that is subdivided into sub-rhythmic variations (Johansson 1973). Similarly, ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’ embodies different amplifications of wave form across its components, subdividing one rhythm into illusory variations of waves, flowing at varying speed, as a result of sequential linkage mechanics.
3.3. Futures in Materiality, interactions and Gestalten applications
In a study earlier discussed, Walker et al. hypothesize that different behaviours of organism groups, like a flight of birds, exhibit different features that make their local interactions harder or easier to recognize and acknowledge as emergent. More discreetly, they begin with previously founded assumptions that the biologically-inspired group motion is more intuitively recognizable by humans over unstructured group motion behaviours. Fish within a school of fish, for example, share common features of speed and direction, and proximity. When position displacement occurs and diverts some fish from the original trajectory within the boundary of the group behaviour, their coherence as a group breaks.
A body of work reminiscent of Reuben Margolin’s ‘Murmuration Wave’ by Studio Drift entitled, ‘Flylight’, explored the potential of a kinetic and interaction-based representation of this nature-based group coherence. There are further opportunities in lively kinetics to be explored in more radial formations of biomechanical structure that can transcend more naturally-occurring motion phenomena observed in the environment. Complex elegant biomechanical flows inspired by Theo Jansen’s work, as well as responsive interactions of asynchronous and asynchronous variation from groups of arrayed linkage structures will inform future iterations of ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’.
Through the body of work presented in this paper across perceptual theories of motion and applications of kinetic animism, the embodiment of ‘nature’ is framed in a new light. As concluded, living and non-living forms of nature demonstrate motion in the symbiotic actions and exchange of energy among them. Motion and animism is found across all environments within the natural and artificial spectrums, but there are specific qualities to a ‘lively’ motion that inherently possess nature-driven qualities to our senses.
This conception of liveliness depends on particular transformative characteristics inspired by nature-based group motions and biological motion. The qualities of transformation appear in the hierarchy of movement and interlinkages embedded in forms of rigid biological structure. They also appear in the and the attentional parametric variations of determinacy and indeterminacy in behavioural dynamics, based on gestalt relationships of individual to group. Likewise, Gestalten optic flow theory also dynamically alters our perception of the continuity and visual form of lively artefacts.
Through examples of kinetic development expressed in the progression from the work of ‘Sine’ and ‘In Rhythmic Fragments’, the embodiment of many of the pre-discussed theories was explored. While lacking representations of pure nature, our future technocratic urban environments can still possess the age-recorded sense to instil presence, nature connectedness and reflection in human beings. Kinetic art and kinetic-based forms of architectural enhancement can design a new spatial language for contemplation to restores back what we once had ‘lost’.
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6. List of Figures
Figure 1: Russell, D.A. (2015). “Longitudinal and Transverse Wave Motion.” In Acoustics and Vibration Animations, Graduate Program in Acoustics, digital image, The Pennsylvania State University, viewed 14 September 2019, < http://www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/Demos/waves/Twave.gif>.
Figure 2: Russell, D.A. (2015). “Longitudinal and Transverse Wave Motion.” In Acoustics and Vibration Animations, Graduate Program in Acoustics, digital image, The Pennsylvania State University, viewed 14 September 2019, < https://www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/Demos/waves/Lwave-v8.gif>.
Figure 3: Russell, D.A. (2015). “Longitudinal and Transverse Wave Motion.” In Acoustics and Vibration Animations, Graduate Program in Acoustics, digital image, The Pennsylvania State University, viewed 14 September 2019, < http://www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/Demos/waves/Water-2016.gif>.
Figure 4: Russell, D.A. (2015). “Longitudinal and Transverse Wave Motion.” In Acoustics and Vibration Animations, Graduate Program in Acoustics, digital image, The Pennsylvania State University, viewed 14 September 2019, < http://www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/Demos/waves/Rayleigh-2016.gif>.
Figure 5: Todary-Michael, D., 2019. “In Rhythmic Fragments.” JPEG.
Figure 6: Neri, P., Morrone, M.C. and Burr, D.C., 1998. “Seeing biological motion.” Nature, viewed 9 August 2019, < https://media.springernature.com/lw685/springer-static/image/art%3A10.1038%2F27661/MediaObjects/41586_1998_Article_BF27661_Fig1_HTML.gif>.
Figure 7: Cactus26, 2019. “Magni-phi, variant of the classical experimental arrangement with more than two elements.” Wikimedia, viewed 15 September 2019, <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a3/Magniphy8x51ms.gif>.
Figure 8: Todary-Michael, D., 2019. “Sine.” JPEG.
Figure 9: Ganson, A., 1998. “Thoughtful Mechanisms: The Lyrical Engineering of Arthur Ganson.” Hood Museum of Art, viewed 15 September 2019, <http://www.tfaoi.com/am/8am/8am52s.jpg>.
Figure 10: Margolin, R., 2014. “Murmuration Wave.” Reuben Margolin, viewed 15 September 2019, <https://www.reubenmargolin.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2016/04/Murmuration2.jpg>.
Figure 11: Todary-Michael, D., 2019. “String prototypes.” JPEG.
Figure 12: Todary-Michael, D., Ghaziri S. 2019. “’Sine’ cam mechanism characteristics.” JPEG.
Figure 13: Jansen, T. “Strandbeest.” viewed 15 September 2019, <https://strandbeest.com/admin/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/kort_6.mp4>.
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