Moiré: how i built an art installation

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Hello! I’m Isabel, currently finishing up my sophomore year at Yale. This semester, I applied for and received a grant through my residential college to build an art installation in our art gallery, something I’ve always wanted to do. I wanted my first art show to be unique, and to challenge me to step out of my comfort zone.

Kinetic sculptures have always inspired me tremendously (here are some of my favorites), and their elegant fusion of creativity and technology was something I hoped to emulate. Furthermore, using code to build something physical was also a pretty novel to me, something I hadn’t really undertaken in any of my courses. I was motivated to learn the basics of various types of hardware, like arduinos and micro-servos.

Through a lot of experimentation, iterations of parts, and trial and error, I ultimately built five kinetic sculptures for an art show that ran from March 31st- April 6th, 2019. Here, I’ll try to document the semester-long process of developing this project from scratch, and everything I learned along the way.

DEVELOPING AN IDEA

I secured funding to build something in September, but didn’t really have an answer to the question “So what exactly are you building?” until about January; I probably would have just given a non-committal grunt.

When the idea for Moiré did finally form, it came from a few places- the popular Scanimation books, for instance, have been everywhere, and the intricacies behind it were something I always had wanted to know about. The visual effects produced by black lines masquerade under several different names; broadly, black line interference patterns are dubbed Moiré Patterns/Fringes, whereas the specific animation that occurs is known as Barrier Grid animation, Kinegrams, or Slit animations. People have already explored the phenomena in many cool ways. For example, a quick Google search will pull up these:

Somethings that struck me particularly were 1. the inherent loop-y ness of their motion, something cyclic or repeatable hundreds of times seamlessly, and 2. how they were all in black in white. It was probably for simplicity’s sake, since the black bars obstruct too much of the picture, but I wondered if I could find a way to preserve iconicity and clarity while adding more color to my own animations.

The idea of producing animation from still images, a sort of low-tech optical illusion, really appealed to me. I knew I wanted to work with micro servo motors as well, and the motion of circular kinegrams was very conducive to the circular movement of a micro servo. I could make my own animations digitally, splice them together, and print them out. I had all the pieces I needed, and most importantly, I had a feasible idea.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Of course, polishing an idea into a finished project is not an easy endeavor. Firstly, I had to figure out the exact technical details of how they would work. This brilliant tutorial by Jimmy Chion was really helpful, and outlined the basic magic trick behind it all: make four frames of an animation and splice them together such that every fourth slice is one frame. Then, overlay a black stripe mask that obscures three slices for every one slice it shows. Therefore, when you rotate the black mask, one frame of animation is revealed at a time- make those frames similar enough, and your brain will merge them into an animation.

That was a lot to take in, so let’s break it down a little. These animations had to fit within certain ‘boundaries’ I set for myself: since three-fourths would be obscured at all times, they needed to be bright, distinct, and use high-contrast colors. Since I only had four frames of animation to work with, the range of action was pretty limited, so any motion had to be repetitive and relatively simple. Finally, they had to be interesting and dynamic to look at- they were art, after all. All those factors combined is how I landed on animals as a subject: fun and colorful subjects with a wealth of loop-able actions I could draw from.

The animations themselves were drawn on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil and the app Procreate, and they each have four frames of animation. Here are my designs without the black ‘mask’:

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Not my cleanest work, for sure, but the end products would be so highly obscured that I figured it didn’t matter. A lot of them incorporate eye-catching environmental factors that move across the page or recede into the distance- trees, mountains, water, ice puddles. These furthered the notion that real movement was occurring.

To splice these frames, I again looked at Jimmy Chion’s tutorial, who used photoshop masks to build his image. Here’s what the final moose one turned out to look like:

These images were printed out in Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, or the CCAM. It’s full of really amazing people working on everything from music to motion capture video to virtual reality, but its main point of interest for me was its big glossy printers.

To make the black masks and wood bases, I used a laser cutter at Yale’s Center for Engineering, Innovation, and Design, or the CEID. It was a great resource, with all the X-Acto knives, drills, glue, and solder I needed. I made friends with a lot of the staff members as well, whom were incredibly helpful.

Also at the CEID is where I put together the back of each piece, the actual parts that would make the black mask move. It took a couple of different versions to get it right, but ultimately I settled on a circuit consisting of two 9V batteries in parallel, an arduino uno, a continuous rotation micro-servo, a voltage regulator, and a switch that slid into a hole on the side.

**DISCLAIMER: I am NOT an electrical engineer. I know the image below looks pretty ugly. But it worked- and next time, I’ve resolved to make things look prettier.**

The two parallel 9V battery power source ultimately led to a few issues down the line; as the batteries drained, the speed at which the mask turned was pretty variable, and replacing them constantly was pretty tiring. If I had more time and a bigger budget, I’d invest in power supply adapters to plug into wall outlets, so I could keep them running indefinitely without worrying about batteries.

THE FINAL PRODUCT

Hanging up my pieces with fishing line wasn’t too hard- in the wood base, I designed holes at the top for hanging purposes. The art gallery itself is on the small side, so even with five small-ish pieces, the space felt filled.

Here is a video with all of the final products!

Oh, also, because it looks pretty cool, here’s the poster for the event:

And that’s it! Months of planning and building condensed into a decently long Medium article. This project was so fun to execute, and I’m so thankful to everyone who helped me handle a certain piece of equipment, gave me ideas for my animations, came to my opening, or generally had my back. To end, I’ll quote the artist’s statement I had hanging up next to my installation:

“Finally, I made this to share with other people. I hope Moiré inspires you to unpack a small mystery. Thank you to everyone who has come and seen my work! Please enjoy.”

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