Leaking Bodies is a project that explores the hidden energies and activities of matter. Created as part of the Stretching Senses School it responds to the exhibition »Stretching Materialities« of the MoA project Object Space Agency Tieranatomisches Theater Berlin.
Playful approaches can directly affect our sensory faculties beyond the realm of power and knowledge. The »stretching senses school« is an education-as-research project at the Tieranatomisches Theater Berlin (TA T) attached to the exhibition Stretching Materialities.
Leaking Bodies explores the hidden energies and activities of materials and spaces and the possibilities of extending our sensual experiences through technological solutions. As members of the Stretching Senses School, we are developing a project inspired by the exhibition Stretching Materialities in the TAT (Tieranatomisches Theater). Our goal is to add a new layer to the existing narration of the exhibition; drawing connections between several areas of the exhibition through storytelling, soundscape and VR worlding. We take the constantly evolving exhibition as a material and source of inspiration in the development of this project.
The research for this work was divided into two areas, contemplating the body flow, the leaking of each (earthly) being, and the atmosphere soaking in and distributing that flow. We discussed relations between different forms of matter on the micro and macro level. Our point of interest also revealed interactions between phenomena that are not easily reachable by our senses: Electromagnetic fields, micro particles in cloud formation, and energy flows. Our research was built around two main topics:
Clouds and the materiality of atmosphere
Cloud as connector
Circulation of matter - decaying process
Energy flow on stones and earth’s electromagnetic fields dynamics
Acupuncture Meridians and cosmic energy
The artificially created cloud in the center of the exhibition is incredibly fascinating to watch. It also became apparent in conversation with Clemens Winkler, one of the exhibition curators and creator of the cloud machine, that the function of the atmosphere can be considered the heart of the exhibition, linking all the exhibits and visitors with each other.
During the formation of clouds, when the warm air, which better absorbs and retains moisture, expands in lower pressure of higher atmosphere areas and cools down, water vapor condensates to tiny water drops. It is easier for water vapor to condense when it has a particle to concentrate upon, the condense nuclei. These cloud condensation nuclei can be dust, pollen, ash, microbes, or smog. In the exhibition at the TAT, particles of the visitors and exhibits are enclosed as condensation nuclei by the water droplets that form in the process of cloud formation through the artificial creation of a cloud. So the space and audience affect the cloud but likewise, the humidity of the cloud has effects on the other exhibits and particles from the cloud are taken away with the visitors. On a larger scale CERN’s Cloud experiment showed that trees facilitate cloud formation through the biogenic vapours they emit.1 We were fascinated by this interplay between atmosphere and matter and so this cyclical connection between cloud, material and bodies forms the basis for our project.
Atmosphere surrounds us, even though we cannot see it. It is composed of several layers, based on its gas composition and, deriving from that, its pressure, its distance to the earth and its temperature. In this context, electromagnetic radiation interacts with the atmosphere through transmission, reflection, or absorption2 with the gases in the atmosphere, of which water vapor, carbon dioxide, and ozone are the most important actors.3 An example of this is sunlight, which is scattered by water droplets in the atmosphere and becomes visible as clouds.4 However, the electromagnetic spectrum includes more than just sunlight; it ranges across the following: radio waves, microwaves, infrared, optical waves, ultraviolet, gamma rays, and X-rays. Especially in our modern age, we are constantly surrounded by electromagnetic radiation emanating from human-made electronic devices.5 In the exhibition of the TA T, many electromagnetic signals are exchanged, and thus enable the experience of the exhibition. However, their radiation remains hidden from the visitors.
To begin to formulate a creative response we looked into how other artists have used and/or responded to the idea of clouds and particle flows and found some very inspiring examples.
Ann Veronica Janssens creates rooms filled with fog and colour that challenge spatial perception and give physical experience of colour. Immersive art collective Marshmallow Laser Feasts created the immersive installation ‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’6 that explores the fundamental connections between living and natural systems and the forces surrounding us. Olafur Eliasson has many projects that deal with light, climate and atmosphere. He captures moments where light, water/fog and audience-member align to reveal beautiful ephemeral effects. Particularly inspiring are his Fog Assembly 2016 - a swirling mist that changes constantly with the quality of the light and the wind - and the hazy, sun soaked atmosphere of The Weather Project 2003 at Tates Turbine hall. The most influential artist for this project was Fujiko Nakaya who has worked for decades with fog systems as her medium. Through her work we were able to see the links between many of the ideas we are grappling with. She comments that “With the introduction of fog, nature's stories and information are made more accessible to the observer.”7 This idea of the cloud as the medium to reveal hidden information resonated with us. Nakaya also sees her fog sculptures as evoking the cycle of life and death, tying in other key aspects of this project - death, decay and the cyclical nature of matter. Through these inspiring artists we found visual strategies to connect the concept of cloud and atmosphere with ideas about energy, decay and flow of matter.
2.2 Body flow
Another starting point was thinking about different forms of matter’s existence and understanding the body not only as the human body but also as a variety of material structures. Decay, death and transition are topics we discuss. We thought about relations between real and virtual ‘bodies’, asking what does it mean that something is real? In the existing exhibition there is a reference to acupuncture and meridians in the human body. The idea of Qi and this flow of energy was also interesting when we see the body (and by extension all matter) not as solid but as energy taking a form. Our imagination turned to thinking about the micro-scale of material things and the immateriality of matter, which led us to the cycle of matter and the movement of energy and particles and a connection with the atmosphere research was born. In order to explore these complex connections we saw possibilities in working in VR, that would allow us to show our vision of these invisible processes.
3. Our Project
Our project ‘Leaking Bodies’ explores the connection between earthly atmosphere and earthly beings to gain an understanding of the connection these beings share with the atmosphere and with each other through the atmosphere. The leaking bodies of the exhibition's beings and their particles exchange, revealing hidden stories and experiences, giving the visitor the opportunity to grasp a piece of their universal knowledge transfer.
With this project we add another level to the existing VR experience in the exhibition at TAT. The visitor uses the portal like VR elevator and is transported to a space at the level of the clouds in the troposphere. In the elevator hangs a cloud being, correlating to the real cloud in the physical exhibition. Out in the exhibition space are three sites where three beings; tree, rock and decaying wood await. Electromagnetic fields of the artificial cloud machine and an artificial wind machine are recorded and transposed to their real locations in the exhibition. Recordings that represent the electromagnetic fields of the exhibition’s beings are connected to the three sites in VR. If the visitor approaches a being leaking an electromagnetic field into the atmosphere, hidden from the visitors’ senses, it now becomes audible in VR.
Spoken stories reveal a personal connection to the beings in the space; cloud, rock and tree. Through storytelling we evoke memory and experience, questioning whether these are only human abilities or are in fact possessed by all matter.
The exhibition’s beings introduce the visitor into a renewed encounter stretching the visitor’s senses through VR. Each being is part of a process of leaking and exchange, their particles coalescing in the cloud. The atmosphere and all the particles have a tale to tell. Meeting a particle reveals insights into their exchanges through sound and story.
On entry to the level visitors arrive ‘in the cloud’. The cloud is seen as the connector between all the beings in this space; its ability to reveal hidden energy flows (heat, wind), micro-particles and transformative processes make it the ideal focal point for linking our ideas around decay, energy flows and evolving states of matter.
Decaying wood preserved in 3D filament allows the visitor to touch the decay process induced by microbes exchanged through the atmosphere. Due to the connection of VR and touch, the visitor is given the opportunity to move beyond a reaction of rejection to decay.
A physical stone is used as a mirror and vertex of intergalactic, cosmic, energy intersections. Using The Meridians Acupuncture methodology acupuncture needles are placed in the stone, trying metaphorically to find and represent earths stressed energy flows, and realigning “Qi” Flow in the realm of the exhibition. In VR it becomes possible to visualize a representative core dynamic of the energy field of the Earth, which leaks out at the points the acupuncture needles perforate the Earth’s membrane. The electromagnetic field “Qi” of the Earth is made tangible through a visual and aural experience.
A tree that sees itself more as an ensemble of cells. Where does materiality begin? What makes a tree more touchable than a cloud? Is touch even possible, or do only our electromagnetic fields interfere? In VR, the tree is represented as a point cloud escaping the visitor’s touch into a flowing movement.
Visitor interactions with the VR environment
Depending on the distance of the hands to the point cloud of the tree and the decaying wood, the flow or leakage visually changes, therefore visitors are able to manipulate matter in VR. Particles can be interacted with, by interfering into their virtual field, adding their own particles to the system through their movement and with that the particle’s stories are activated.
By moving in physical and virtual space, the visitor moves through the various fields of electromagnetic radiation, which can be perceived acoustically in VR. One's own movement is thus extended by a sensory perception.
The following section describes our development process and the negotiations needed to implement the many threads that this project strives to weave together.
4.1 Exhibition’s Beings
A decaying piece of wood was found at a park in Berlin. Photogrammetry scanning was performed with a camera using the software Agisoft Metashape. The calculated 3D object was exported from the software and imported into Unity, where it’s texture was altered using VFX Graph and Shader Graph. Additionally, the 3D object was imported into Meshmixer to prepare the model for 3D printing. The object was then printed in the MoA Cluster, using black pla filament.
A stone. Marble is physically intervened to depict and project the Meridians in what starts to be acupuncture of the stone over its surface. Then, 3D scanned through photogrammetry process to be uploaded and presented in VR, where the inner energy dynamics can be depicted.
The tree is represented in VR with a 3D point cloud that was downloaded from Sketchfab from Epic_Tree_Store. VFX Graph was used to add a flow movement of the particles and the possibility of interaction.
4.2 Sound and energy storytelling
The recording of electromagnetic fields was explored in a visit to the TAT exhibition, using microphones that can capture electromagnetic fields. These recordings map the electromagnetic fields in the exhibition space. Exciting sounds of the EMFS were recorded especially inside the frame of the cloud machine with its computer, linked pumps, sensors, and wifi signals. Outside the circle, fans that act as artificial wind helping to control the cloud, gave us interesting recordings too. Experimenting with these recordings, we mixed them with free sample sounds of wind and rain.
While dwelling on forms of matter and their dynamics, we also tried to locate our bodies in the system through storytelling. Firstly, we wrote individual stories related to an interest or personal experience which resulted in responses on cloud, flesh, energy and water. Spontaneous writing revealed different writing styles, such as poetry, autoethnography, and science-fiction storytelling. The exercise helped us to see from other perspectives and bring a personal connection to the nonhuman actors in the work. Through narrative we hoped to materialize nonhuman perspectives; using a process of refining and rewriting we were able to create a mix of human and non-human voices that can be accessed throughout the VR experience. Through storytelling we question whether water molecules (for instance) retain knowledge they made with their old bodies? Could they have universal knowledge? What could we learn if only we could chat with a micro-particle about their experiences?
4.4 VR Vision
Building the VR world is based on the existing exhibitions Unity project. We created a new level and first mounted 3D objects from Sketchfab as sample exhibits in the VR world. The textures of the walls and the floor were replaced with a glass-like material.
A 3D object of a cloud was created using Blender and mounted in the center of the room inside the elevator. With the cloud being a central piece of the exhibition, we tried several shaders, exploring the shader graph and downloaded packages, to achieve a satisfying look in the URP of the Unity project. It was astounding to observe that a shader sometimes looked completely different in the VR application than in the PC version. Additionally, since the exhibition runs on the standalone Oculus Quest 2, we also had to keep an eye on the performance. Thus, the final decision was taken to use the existing fog from the main hub, which is built from Unity Particle System, and adapt its texture and structure.
Unity’s VFX Graph package was installed and used to envision the particle flow and the beings leakage.
5. Conclusion / Outlook
Working on the project has changed our perception in many ways. An understanding has emerged of the extent to which the atmosphere contributes to connecting material forms and immaterial forms. This includes the constant exchange of organic and inorganic substances, but also the constantly occurring contact with radiation. We were able to formulate many thoughts and ideas with the help of storytelling and get to know tools that will be useful to us in the long run. For example, some of us got our first experience in implementing visual effects with the VFX graph in Unity, and others had their first photogrammetry and 3D printing experiences. In the process, we were able to combine many thoughts and ideas into a joint project, with whose end result we feel deeply satisfied.
The implementation with the Oculus Quest 2 as a standalone device required that we imposed some restrictions on the interactivity of the texture and the number of particles used to maintain performance. In future iterations, we would like to integrate further particles, which detach from the visitors, so that they likewise understand themselves as part of the Leaking Bodies system. We would also like to consider how we can expand this virtual system to integrate stories and 3D scans generated by the public.
Subterranean Matters is a collaborative artistic research and VR experience made by Baris Pekcagliyan, Paulina Greta, Warja Rybakova and Nayeli Vega under the Stretching Senses School by Matters of Activity.