Thinking/Creating with Active Materials

The Enactive Environments Lab explores notions of agency, materiality and interactivity, from practical and theoretical perspective. We are interested in kinds of activities and relations emerging when creating with or experiencing so-called responsive or active materials. By physically engaging with them, we experiment on the threshold between analog and digital materials, tools and methods. The dynamic properties of such materials allow us to design and to think form, behaviour and interaction as one rather than as a sum of separates. We put to the fore the experiences fostered by such materials, construct and explore responsive ecologies and environments that incorporate lightness, adaptability and aliveness.

We call such environments enactive in order to reflect the direct exploration of matter during a creative research process, as well as the exploratory interaction of inhabitants of such spaces. Enactive stands for an embodied and situated type of knowledge that is engaged in both tacit creative processes and physical interaction with our surroundings. Thus, it relates both to the creative hands-on processes and human experience of interacting with our surroundings. Theories of enactive cognition show that the world helps guide or modulate action that, in turn, continuously results in the body realigning and remaking that world. Thus, by shaping our environment, architects, designers and artists affect the way in which we explore, learn, experience and interact with things, spaces and people, and thus the way we think.

Our research focuses on three broad areas:

1. poetics of active materials and spatial interaction

The integration of novel materials into spatial design and art has always resulted in new spatial expressions and imaginations. Especially the development of lightweight structures and flexible skins has allowed for more complex geometries and inspired new ways of thinking space. How can today, novel responsive and transitive materials engender poetic ideas and forms? We propose to engage with fragility of such materials whose performance has not yet been perfected by engineering methods. By working with disadvantages of active materials for certain functional purposes, we aim to work with what is undesirable and explore the crevices of fragility, ephemerality and decay of responsive matter.

What kind of spaces can emerge from an approach that co-operates with matter and how can this extend formal and structural adaption towards a new understanding of materiality?

2. entanglements of environmental and human agencies

Enactive Environments do not only frame the activities of its inhabitants, but hold the potential of dynamically affecting and even transforming them. What kind of social and phenomenological experiences are generated by materials and structures made from novel materials? How does their spatial arrangement and temporal responses influence the behavior and emotional state of the inhabitant? How is the agency (e.g. that of space, single module, person, group…) perceived and produced?

The implementation of biologically inspired processes of self-organization can augment an artificial system with some of the properties of an autonomous and responsive organism. How can an environment manifest itself as a distributed but coherent entity? How can an environment’s behavioral repertoire be designed from correlated movements of its structural, visual and acoustic properties? How can these behaviors be consistent with both the individual and collective activities of its visitors?

3. co-creation with active materials

How do active materials affect our making and research processes? What kinds of practices emerge when we negotiate with materials rather then impose ideas and form on them, be it conceptually or via computational tools? How do we position ourselves in relation to responsive matter? In the midst of anthropocene, what kind of thinking/doing is engendered by active materials?

These questions address most general issues of practice-based research in design and arts (e.g. critical reflection, involvement and distance from art/design practice, theory-praxis questions) but also specific problems of  techniques for bridging the gap between making (with) active materials and  material-turn theories.