Home, Balloons and their show

How did I turn an ancient Chinese poem into balloon language with motors circuit boards, and computer language.

Yuli Cai
Yuli Cai
Jun 6, 2017 · 10 min read
Front view of this physical transformation based on a Chinese poem

Before it starts

I am a travelling person to this country.

As lots of people in this country, I was born on the other side of the world. Google told me the only way I can go back there is to take a 15 hrs plane, no driving, no biking and no walking solutions.

Sometimes I ask myself where is home? Is it the apartment $1026 away? That doesn’t feel it is the whole after spending 2 years here.

At the same time I read one line from an ancient Chinese poem:

In dream,

never a visitor, finally home,

a waft of peace and joy.

I was moved. The emotions hidden between the lines of this poem stay with me and I decided to do something with it.

A little side stories

The poet of this poem was an exile emperor and was imprisoned when he wrote this poem. His name is Li Yu. Though lots of people interpret this poem as a sorrowful moan of a deposed emperor, I tend to read it more as an acceptance and embrace of life after tragedies and partings.

I guess it is because the image of home stays in both of our minds, which links me with him and leads me to start this re-expression 1100 years after.

As lots of things in life, having an impulsion does not mean I know how to do it. I didn’t know how my re-expression will look like or where this journey is leading me to when I first started it. But at least I know myself. I like making physical installations and doing performances out of subtle interactions and inconspicuous technologies. Light, space and story have driven me for the past years. So I want this new transformation to be a physical installation as well, a kinetic one, more like a show that is scripted from this poem.

But also like a lot of stories that are being told, the storyteller has already got the answer in the end. I don’t want to keep it till the end of this post, instead, I want to give a sneak peek of it now. But it is only how it looks. If you would like to know the human story, keep reading, if you want to know the technology story, feel free to jump to the end.

To start

The poem and its English translation

The above is the poem and its English translation. As I said I felt strongly related to it and I want to share my resonance with my friends who don’t speak Chinese. But I feel the English translation for it, as any other translations for poems, is missing something, maybe is the ineffable feelings between the lines of words.

So I told myself, words have limitations, is there a way I can translate this poem without using any words. The first thing I did is to ask people from different countries, what they see from this poem. One is because I don’t want to just base it on my own interpretations, but two is more of I want to see is it true that no matter what language we speak and what life experiences we had, we all share some similarities, and that common things will provoke connections between us.

I collected impressions and feelings from various people as they read a random part from the poem.


Taking their words as an input for a text analyzation program I wrote in python, I got the most frequently appeared nouns, adjectives and verbs from it, as a simplified way of quantifying human emotions.

Unsurprised results

It is not surprised for me to see lots of resonating responses, like a positive answer to my question, yes people do share similarities. But even if this is such a general and banal question to ask, I still get moved by them.

…I don’t know what home means to me.I never really thought of a strong sense of home. Even when I was younger like my parents moved out from the place I grow I did not care it did not bother me. I think what makes me feel like home is like being with people I am comfortable with. I think it is more the people than the physical place I am in. And also in general I am sort of resist comfort in a way. Comfort is necessary I guess, you can’t be uncomfortable all the time. But comfort to me also like, I don’t want to feel too comfortable in any situation. That just means, comfort to me almost feels like stagnating, like not progressing or changing, like routine…

Peace and joy….What we all want in our life. This makes me think a really good combination, its like two words you can always say to someone and you can, like smile…

To continue the journey, I chose some of the words from my text analysation results. (I spent my two years in a program called ITP so it is high frequently appeared in my responses.)

The message created here push me to think, who should be my performers for this show?

Balloon performers

I chose balloons.

The rhythm of its inflation and deflation looks a lot like human breathing. It has a joy of expanding, but also a pain of resisting

With this pain, it always carries the potential, to pop. But does it mean it is the end when it pops?

I don’t think it is the end. I see it more like the buddhist idea of Nirvana.

Be released from the circle of rebirth and norm states by going through raging fire.

It is a celebration of acceptance and embrace, after all the tragedies and partings, like what the poet expressed. So I chose the balloon to be my performer.

Balloon Language

Back to my first question, words have limitations, is there a way I can translate this poem without using any words?

Now that I found my balloon performers, I believe they have their own language to express feelings.

Starting from staring at balloons, I noticed this latex soft body is very familiar. It is like we are not the only kind that uses breathing as our basic vital sign, they do too. Sometimes I have a feeling of drifting, though I am not a skinny person, I still feel light. This maps to the tendency of moving from the balloon, it is like it can not hold it anymore, it is so light it flies with the wind, shivering. But among all of our balloons, there is one that is special in this case, which is our poet, the main character, the central balloon. As I mentioned at the top, he was imprisoned when he wrote this poem, so all of the feelings origin from the relationship of him and his surrounding world and how does it change over the time.

With all of these features of balloon, I am ready to craft them into a show, a show that has 6 phases separated from the original poem.

With top part as the stage of this show and bottom part as show program, what plays up at the stage is being indicated and lit up at the bottom show program.

Below is its documented video, with specific showing of how it plays the line in the beginning, “In dream, never a visitor, finally home, a waft of peace and joy.”

Back stage

Now it comes to a time to show some behind the scene stories. Though the conceptual part is always considered priceless, I still could not let go the actual price of the material and tech.

I never thought of blowing a balloon is such a difficult thing. Even just use manpower.

Trying to blow the balloon without technology at first

After days of research and clicks of Amazon shopping, I finally found a nice combination that can automate this effort, with one air-pump and 3 solenoid valves for each balloon.

One module

Air pump, apparently is for the goal of pumping air into balloon, it has two airways, inflation and deflation. But since the pump has been modified, it’s no longer a normal motor that can be reverted simply by shifting the polarity of its power supply. There comes the solenoid valves, by controlling the open and close of each valves, it controls whether the air gets pumped or not.

Valves control airway demo

This system can be easily translate into computer language with zeros and ones.

I have 9 balloon performers, so in this case, it is 27 solenoid valves and 9 pumps in total. With one single Arduino Uno driving them all, the pinouts is not enough, so I use shift registers.

I used 5 daisy chained 74HC595 shift registers to control 9 balloons, one balloon takes 4 bits(1 pump and 3 valves). One shift register has 8 bits, so it takes 5 registers for 9 balloons.

As I said before, the sculpture is separated into 2 parts, top stage part and bottom show program part. So does the circuitry. The top circuit board is for controlling pumps and solenoid valves, the bottom one in another hand, is for controlling 6 led strips and 2 groups of fans. I am not going to illustrate the led strips and fans a lot, but basically the Leds are for the light up effect of the current line of the poem, as for fans, they are for the shivering effect.

Though it has 2 separate boards to control two systems, they both communicate with the same Arduino Uno board.

9 modules layout

Now I have pumps without brain and circuit boards without limbs, it is the time to connect them together with nerves, aka wires.

Sometimes things just get out of control.

After living with it for weeks, I finally put together all the hardware parts and software parts and make it a whole.


This seems to be the end of the story. When I was showing this sculpture, someone asked me, “ Have you asked others to read the meaning only through balloon language and then compare it with the original Chinese poem?” I said I haven’t. Logically it seems to be a good way of making a complete circle. But also at the same day, the central imprisoned balloon popped for the once and only time, in the last hour of my last show of this 2 years journey. I was having a touching conversation with someone who was watching and reading it. I remember I was in a little bit of hurry because my parents were waiting for me to pick them up, so I said to the person “ It’s ok, don’t worry, I can replace it with a new one.” But he said, “It is not ok! It died!” At that moment, something changed on my side, I feel empowered, and I know that this has already been a complete circle.

To the beautiful time I had in the past two years in an amazing community.

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