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Fluid Expressions in Microgravity

Fluid Expressions explores the creation of fluid-based art and media in microgravity. How can the unique properties of fluids in microgravity can be used to create novel artistic tools and media?

Published onOct 07, 2020
Fluid Expressions in Microgravity

Fluid Expressions

Exploring liquid-based art in microgravity

Life on earth provides us with experience and intuition about how fluids will behave, and what they can be used for. Similarly, we have some intuition for what constitutes liquid-based art, as well as brushes, paints, and canvases.

These intuitions can be productively challenged when considering liquid-based art in space. How will microgravity affect the experience of applying paint to canvas? Can the experience of creating art with liquid-based media be re-envisioned to utilize and reflect the unique properties of space?

Project Updates

12.09.2020 —CDR & Veteran Flyers Panel

Full Assembly: container with attached wooden lids and leather tool wrap with painting instruments.

The end of semester CDR and Veteran Flyers Panel were both invaluable in providing feedback and suggestions for next steps for this work. In particular, it was amazing to receive such thoughtful feedback from astronauts on work that deviates slightly from mission-driven prototyping for space.

Looking forward, I am excited to conduct more interviews with artists (and hopefully astronauts!), iterate on both the design and ConOps of my experience, and develop ways of showcasing this work in both academic and artistic contexts. It’s been a wonderful experience working on this project, and I can’t wait to test my painting intuition with real moments of microgravity next Spring!

11.25.2020 —Handcraft

The final major task for Prototype 01 was to develop the container lids themselves, as well as a tool wrap for my painting implements. I chose leather, wood, and brass as my primary materials.

For as much of the fabrication process as was possible, I used hand-crafting and hand-finishing techniques. My hope is that the hand-made aesthetic, crafted feel, and care placed into the object would tie the painting experience back to Earth and (ideally) communicate the quality/longevity of the object.

The following images were taken during fabrication and finishing —

11.18.2020 —Final Design & 3D Print

After meeting with SEI Mission Integrator Sean Auffinger, I decided to incorporate threaded connectors, rather than bayonet locks, to secure the lids onto the container. With Sean’s help, I was able to develop and 3D print a pair of connectors, one of which contained a 3D printed gasket to act as a water-tight seal at the cylinder’s mouth. The final design can be seen below —

The acrylic container and threaded connectors represent the only pieces for the prototype that needed to be plastic. From this point, I can focus on using wood, leather, and brass to house my functional components and develop an object more in line with my material & experiential precedent.

11.11.2020 —Experimental Setup & ConOps

It was a challenge to scope down the possibilities of zero-g painting to match the time and parabolas allotted during the zero-g flight. Ultimately, I decided on three experimental setups — or “pieces” — to deploy during the flight, dedicating one container per piece.

The ideal scenario is to be allowed to use Piece 01 outside of a glove box, since it involves neither water nor painting instruments. A sphere of dried gouache could be used to deposit marks on the canvas surface, which then could be wetted post-flight. (Another option would be to dampen the canvas prior to flight, but this may not be allowed by Zero-G.)

Pieces 02 and 03 would then be performed in a glove box to ensure double containment of liquids, and control of syringes, rods, and other pointy objects. The containers and the painting equipment can be tied down inside the glovebox when not in use.

11.04.2020 — Artist Interviews & Secondary Research

To develop a better understanding of how other artists and designers might approach liquid-based art in microgravity, I interviewed three artists with backgrounds in painting. Their specialties ranged from scientific illustration to abstract art, and as such had a diversity of ideas about what kinds of art they’d produce in space.

Below are a selection of insights from the interview —

Space itself becomes a subject, so the idea of depth becomes more important. What if you made 2D work that feels not 2D in a new way?

What would watercolor be like in zero gravity? I would try representational things, to see how they differ — technically, could watercolor be done in space?

I would be interested in abstract art. What happens when you touch watercolor to paper, is it different to gravity? To see what happens from a physical perspective.

In addition, I researched first-person accounts of painting in microgravity and found a 2019 Quartz article by astronaut Nicole Stott particularly illuminating. Below are excerpts from the interview that describe the act of painting in zero-g —

I would squirt out a tiny little ball of water from the drink bag and watch it float in front of me in zero gravity. Then I would put the brush toward it to touch it. What was extra cool was that even before I got the brush to the water… the bubble of water seemed to move over to the brush, like it was attracted to the bristles in some way.

Then the ball of water would be floating around the end of the brush; it didn’t mix with the bristles like it does here on Earth. …When I moved the ball of water toward the solid paint, it was like the paint was pulling the ball of water toward it. The same would then happen when I pulled the colored water back toward the brush.

If I got too close and actually touched the ball of water or the brush to the paper, it would just suck it up all at once… it was like I was just dragging this colored ball of water along the paper, just above the surface.

These insights from the interviews and primary accounts are particularly useful in both outlining potential uses of the proposed kit, as well as how the experience deviates from Earth-based intuition.

10.28.2020 — Lid + Fastening Design

This week, two pre-fab acrylic cylinders measuring 4”D x 8”W and 6”D x 8”W arrived by post. Having met with artist and designer Che-Wei Wang earlier in the week, I took his suggestion to consider experimenting with different width containers to see how the change in painting surface area-to-volume affects the experience and results of painting.

Constructed and exploded view of the 4”x8” container with proposed lid design.

Another suggestion from Che-Wei was to examine the use of bayonet locks (e.g. the twist lock used to attach a lens to a camera) as a simplified screw on mechanism. The current design involves the use of pre-fab wooden rings and circular pieces and a custom 3D printed bayonet lock to form a custom lid for the container. I am hoping that a similar design can be reused for the camera/lighting container as well.

10.21.2020 — Material Considerations

Based on valuable feedback during the course midterm, I used the following week to reflect and research potential materials and aesthetic precedent to inform the final form design.

Aesthetic and material precedent to consider for final design

The most obvious precedents are traveling painting kits, particularly antique kits with compartments for brushes and tools. Other stylistic precedents included antique applicators and syringes used for ink and water-based media, as well as the leather roll ups and document tubes used to transport tools and materials.

The intricacy of these objects is mediated by the warm and tactile materials used, such as wood, brass, and leather. They also tie these experiences back to earth through the use of distinctly organic and terrestrial materials. My hope is to incorporate wood, leather, and brass, along with the some of the stylistic elements found in the precedent, to inform a future painting artifact that feels new while referencing older, gravity-bound objects from home.

10.14.2020 — Midterm Presentation

As this Wednesday’s class is a midterm review of our progress to date, en lieu of a traditional progress update I am including a link to the slide deck I will be using to present —

10.07.2020 — Updated Design + Functional Prototype

I met with Maggie Coblentz this week to discuss my initial designs and perceived challenges. She provided very helpful advice in informing my intuition about the experience and limitations created by my setup —

While the one-way rubber valves used in canning and fermentation may be able to provide the semi-permeable barrier I need, fluids won’t necessarily release easily from the syringe, and may “stick” to syringe tip. Unless I work in a glove box, I will likely not be able to switch out tools and syringes, at the risk of pulling water droplets outside the container. If not using a glove box, I will need double containment, and may not be able to switch paint colors or brushes. Multiple containers with different setups may therefore be advisable, each acting as a ‘message in a bottle.’

It is also worth considering how I will be storing “used” canvases, and how to take them safely off the plane. Embedded or additional lighting may be needed to film the experience, which I should test thoroughly prior to launch.

Updated design with one-way rubber valve, based on feedback from Zero-G teaching staff

Based on the feedback and suggestions, I updated the design of my prototype to include a rubber one-way fermentation valve, as well as a separate attachable container with a recording device. This is based on the assumption that I may want to use multiple containers for different experience, but may only have the one recording implement that I need to attach and remove from experimental setups. I also acquired some fermentation cans and rubber valves to test the efficacy of a syringe-rubber valve system to contain liquids.

09.30.2020 — Initial Prototype Sketches

Initial prototype based on experience needs and constraints.

After examining the feasibility of constructing various containers, as well as the relative benefits and challenges associated with each shape, I settled upon a cylindrical shape for the container. A cylindrical tube of watercolor paper could be pre-inserted, and a syringe placed at an opening in the container’s lid, ready to dispense paint during the microgravity window. The syringe could then be replaced by one of many paint manipulation tools, via the same opening. One potential method of documentation would be to embed a GoPro or other recording device into the lid of the container as well, to capture the motion of the paint prior to depositing on the canvas surface.

Current challenges include —

  • Finding an appropriate valve or opening to allow water/paint in but not out

  • Designing a double-containment system, or relying upon a glove box

  • Considering lighting and recording during the parabolic flight, especially if flying with multiple containers

  • Designing a sufficiently aesthetic and simple experience to feel in line with the metaphors of ‘painting kit’ and ‘message in a bottle.’

09.23.2020 — Structural + Experiential Constraints

Based on in-class tutorials and conversations with previous flyers, I am compiling a relevant safety and ops considerations for the experiment —

  • Weight of apparatus in various Gs

    • Structural analysis needed

    • Need to connect apparatus to wall in some way

    • May need glovebox / storage for syringes + tools

  • Liquids (important!)

    • Double containment plan for liquids

    • Liquids: stored in containers for inspection prior to flight

      • Is it possible to pre-load syringes / containers?

      • autonomous deployment of paint?

  • Air equalization plan for pressurization

    • Avoid implosion or problems caused by pressure changes

    • Additional challenges with compressed air

  • Timing

    • (15 seconds of microgravity per parabola)

      • 2 martian parabolas

      • 1 lunar parabola

      • 17 microgravity parabolas

  • Choreography of user experience given parabola plan

    • alternation between reset and data, or automating reset?

    • Will it be possible to change paint colors?

    • Or replace a used canvas with a fresh one?

I plan to continue adding to this list of constraints as I prototype and develop designs, so that I can use it to make sure I incorporate design considerations for all constraints in the final prototype and RPP.

09.16.2020 — Concept Sketches

Initial sketches of potential containers: sphere, cylinder, and rectangular prism.

When considering traveler’s painting kit for microgravity, the “easel” component must take on two functions — containment and surface for canvas. Ideally, an environment unconstrained by gravity should utilize a three-dimensional canvas to fully capture the experience of painting in microgravity. However, it is important (especially when designing for a parabolic flight) to keep liquids confined to an enclosed space, so that they do not affect other people or experiments.

These considerations informed initial sketches of containers and methods of interactions with the interior paint / canvas system. Each would require varying levels of customization for semi-permeable openings, bespoke 3D canvases, and methods for inserting and interacting with fluid.

Potential methods of fluid dispersal and manipulation: sponge, ring, rod, and free floating liquid.

In addition to containers, another design element worth exploring is the “brush” for a microgravity painting experience. Again utilizing all three dimensions for paint application is key in this case. Initial sketches portray a spherical, free floating paint sponge, a ring similar to ones used by Don Pettit, a rod for manipulating multiple “beads” of paint, and a free floating sphere of paint-laden water. Ideally, the final designed system would allow for the use of multiple of these instruments, but it may be necessary to create multiple containers that test these application methods to preserve containment.

09.09.2020 — Initial Concept and Prior Art

Fluid Expressions aims to explore how the unique properties of fluids in microgravity can be used to create novel artistic tools and media. How does the unique environment of space and microgravity change the way we approach the tools and craft of painting? How can the experience of working with liquid media be re-envisioned, and novel ideas can be captured?

There is a diverse amount of prior art for both traditional painting and experimental art with various media. Examples of traditional painting in and for space include The Space Suit Art Project (2016), Nicole Stott’s painting of the first watercolor in space (2009), and Koichi Wakata’s traditional calligraphy aboard the ISS (2014).

Clockwise: Calligraphy by Koichi Wakata, Space Suit Art Project, First watercolor in space by Nicole Stott

In addition to more traditional pieces, there is also precedent for more experiential, ephemeral art in microgravity, including Frank Pietronigro’s “drift painting” chamber for parabolic flight (1998), and Takuro Osaka’s Spiral Top light-based art experience aboard the ISS (2014).

Clockwise: Frank Pietronigro’s Drift Paintings from parabolic flight, Takuro Osaka’s Spiral Top light art

More unique precedent for this project are the ISS experiments conducted aboard the ISS by Don Petitt to explore fluid dynamics in microgravity. These experiments produced both scientifically relevant and beautiful results.

Clockwise: Fluid experiments by Don Petitt on ISS, fluid sphere with effervescent tablet dissolved inside

Based on these precedents, the goal of this project is to develop a novel set of instruments for manipulating liquid-based media in space. To do this, I am using a series of questions to challenge current intuition —

  • How might we reconsider the brush for microgravity environments?

  • How might we reconsider the canvas for microgravity environments?

  • What can be used as pigment, and how can it be manipulated in novel ways? 

  • How might we capture the experience/essence of space and microgravity?

  • What can (and should) be portrayed through art made in space?

Ideal outcomes of this project include —

  1. A set of tools for controlling and painting with liquid in microgravity

  2. A video recording of the experience during the parabolic flight

  3. An artifact from the experience to showcase post-flight


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