(polly)ethylene | Allison Ing and Shirley Leung
// Allison Ing, Shirley Leung
// December 2018
(Polly)ethylene is an immersive installation that highlights both the beauty and toxicity found in the cyclical aesthetic of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). The mobile sculpture adopts the molecular composition of polyethylene, the most commonly used polymer in the world. As viewers interact with the suspended piece, their presence causes the structure to rotate. This movement brings to question human cause for the creation of manufactured waste, as well as the infinite lifecycle endured by these plastics. In captivating viewers’ attention through the beauty and mystery of the experience, our intention is to evoke the tension which exists between humanity and natural ecosystems. The entirety of the sculpture is made from plastic materials, and its mechanisms are reliant on the use of an Arduino, an ultrasonic sensor, and a continuous high torque servo motor. Audio and a video is projected against the sculpture, which creates an intentional shadow on the adjacent wall. These additional auditory and visual experiences provide further context, life, and dimension to the narrative of the manufactured landscape and its cyclical nature.
// Design Concept
Our project originated in our desire to explore the continuous degradation of spaces in manufactured environments. In observing the scale of society’s ability to destroy with a lack of care, we questioned what sorts of manufactured cycles have grown within these ‘newly’ constructed ecosystems. How has humanity been able to simultaneously destroy natural beauty and systems, yet be responsible for the creation of artificial systems that in itself evoke awe and wonder through their vast visual allure?
In choosing to focus on the phenomena of the GPGP, we express that human pollution builds environments that thrive with the construction of artificiality. In the case of plastic pollution, these ‘readymade’ plastics eventually degrade into their original microplastic form. These microplastics then are collectively brought together by the converging waves to form the GPGP. Through abstraction, we narrate the infinite life that these microplastics assume made possible by human consumption.
By representing they cycle of plastic through the aesthetic composition of the structure and affixing a motor to its arm,we attribute plastic with identity and life. As people approach the sculpture it moves with intentionality. It will only be triggered by human presence, due to human input as the reason for its being. In choosing non-traditional mediums of mixed reality, including the use of video projection, audio, motors, and sculpture, we blur the lines between art and design. While the execution of project relied heavily on design process, the final outcome is a visually captivating piece that intends to evoke the sublime, tension, and disbelief.
The project intends to provoke thought and discussion about the creation of manufactured landscapes within natural environments, recognizing both its terror, resilience, and aesthetic beauty. We are interested in cycles, and how varying nodes within a system are interconnected. In thinking further about the dependency on humanity as the fuel for manufactured landscapes, we researched multiple case studies. These include electronic waste in China, the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We were shocked to discover the scale of the GPGP and the lifecycle plastics assume in our oceans. The sheer vastness of the Pacific also serves as a humble signifier of the natural sublime and the assumption of its unchanging, everlasting state.
In the work itself, we were curious to use mediums that evoke calm, awe, and beauty. We drew inspiration from the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, and his exploration into visualizing the beauty of what he coined as ‘manufactured landscapes’. Along with Burtynsky’s work, we investigated Pierre Huyghe’s, After Alife Ahead. Both artists in their own ways navigate means of translating natural cycles in their art. We also took aesthetic inspiration from the likes of Alexander Calder and his mobile sculptures, as well as Pipilotti Rist and her video art. Both these artists heighten experience through unconventional mediums of narration by altering perceptions of how their respective media should look and act.
//Audience & Experience
(Polly)ethylene was conceived through the initial prompt of designing a piece that addresses the Anthropocene and ‘climate control’. The piece is intended to be viewed by gallery visitors at Aalto University, Helsinki, in an exhibit displaying works associated to the aforementioned topic. To be displayed in the corner of a white room, the suspended sculpture hangs centered, six feet from the ground. The stark and eerie soundtrack invites visitors to approach the piece. The sound is accompanied by an abstract video projected upon the sculpture, and hence onto the ceiling and walls. The abstract video represents the cyclical nature of plastic degradation and evokes calm and wonder. As viewers near the piece, they trigger a sensor. Once triggered, the sculpture rotates, denoting life encapsulated by these fabricated ‘creatures’. The height and movement of the sculpture against the serenity of the video is intended to capture the viewer’s gaze upwards, as though submerged underwater. This experience is meant to contemplate human responsibility for the toxicity and beauty of artificial environments.
// Technical Production
The sculpture is constructed out of PVC pipes, roped vinyl, cellophane, and ready-made plastic bags. It measures approximately 1 meter in length by 0.5 meters in height. We use an ultrasonic sensor as a vehicle for human interaction to trigger the high torque servo motor fastened onto an arm of the sculpture.This hardware is operated through the use of an Arduino. In order for it to run, an external battery pack is attached to the Arduino. The piece is suspended by two steel cables and looped through two carabiners fastened to the ceiling. The additional movement of the sculpture is illustrated through video projection and its ensuing shadows. A soundtrack is played simultaneously with the video through the use of a short throw projector.
// Prototyping and Testing
Prototyping began at the early stages of production to experiment with form, movement, and material. We conducted low-fidelity prototyping to further understand kinetics, and how a mobile sculpture could adopt movement. We used materials such as string, wire, wood and aluminum foil. After deciding to build the molecular form of polyethylene for our sculpture’s structure, we analyzed a 3D model to get a sense of the shape. Based on the rendering, we built our first small scale geometric prototype out of balsa wood and cotton string.
From there we questioned how to scale the structure. We noted that the materiality of the piece was important to the narrative, and committed to building the piece entirely out of plastic. The final form constitutes of PVC pipes, pipe connectors and duck tape. In order to conceal the tape we coiled the structure with blue vinyl rope in hopes of visualizing a singular form. In addition, we added square pieces of iridescent cellophane and plastic garbage bags to further represent the result of microplastics in the ocean and the cyclical nature of plastic production and disintegration. The pieces of plastic bag extend out of the structure to evoke an illusion of it feeding into the structure itself, representing a role in its creation.
The video and audio components were iterated numerous times. The original footage played at a faster speed but was eventually slowed down. This decision was made in order to provide a sense of serenity, and to give viewers time to process the cycle being represented visually. The audio file initially paired with the piece was of the ocean, but in order to stir tension between the viewer and the narrative, we instead included a subtle ominous track.
// Future Iterations
Future iterations include simplifying the sculpture’s aesthetics. Possibilities include laser cutting acrylic to create the molecular form. We will also explore how the work is interpreted dependent on size and the number of sculptures suspended. We would like to maintain human input as central to the narrative of the piece and are therefore testing new ways to incorporate this in the work. Instead of having the sculpture move, we are considering changing the video’s state/content when triggered by the sensor to indicate this relationship.