Silent Wings – Cellulose Nitinol installation

Silent Wings Installation in Critical making exhibition in Väre lobby gallery space in Aalto University of Arts

Materials that we use will be in the critical focal point for sustainability from now until the unseen future. In the Posthuman era that we live now there is no way around the reality that every artefact that is created must also lend a hand for the conservation of the natural resources and quality of life. Extra steps that must be taken for sustainable materiality is not always easy, because the framework of thinking for a long time has been based on different values. On a personal level I am determined to develop with sustainable mindset.

Extruding biomaterial for wing structures

Silent Wings was a project that started finding its final form during August 2021 when I had a chance to participate in Nordic Biomaterials studies in Aalto University and develop my own biomaterials. During that time I started working on developing what I called “delicate exoskeletons” from biodegradable materials such as pulp and nanocellulose. Creating these structures based on the physical layout of butterfly or insect wings I started thinking of the possibility of using them as a part of an actual moving prototype. Could I develop a version of this material that could make the wings fly or move in a natural manner?

The idea of flight is one that has inspired scientists and artists througout the history. My quest for developing natural wing movements started from researching and test building ornithopters, aircrafts that fly by flapping their wings. The interesting realisation from this was that in order to simulate the idea of flight one does not nesessarily need any electronics. To simulate the feeling life-like, continuous, and sensory input enabling signal reading, a control system would be needed. For this electric circuit would work best and something would need to work as a motor to translate the signals from the circuit.

Energy is a big part of the framework of sustainability thinking. I knew that if I would use a small motor I would also need to rely on a plethora of parts made from different, sometimes compound materials that are not easy to recycle into new use. Personally one of the easiest ways to think sustainably for me is to simplify: Strip away extra materials and steps and there you find the answer. So, from hand cranked ornithopters to servo motors, I finally came across the possibility of using shape memory alloys and nitinol to make my wings fly.

Nitinol wire combined with cellulose structure

A nickel-titanium alloy (NiTinol) wire production creates almost no toxic by-products during manufacture (in comparison to for example solar cells that can require i.e. lead, mercury and arsenic in production) but its powerful shape memory capabilities based on heat transmission can be translated into movement. Depending on the shape memory alloy (SMA) this can mean as simple as the heat of hands touching the material, or with higher temperatures electric current conducted into the material to cause the movement.

Testing the weight lifting capabilities of Nitinol powered cellulose structures

With the wing material, motor and control system decided I started thinking of the sensory input my installation would use. Being mainly a digital developer I’m absolutely fascinated by the digital data that can be translated into analogue information. It’s a role that I had to consider next for my work: Should I use it to teach us about something about the world, or should I use it to simply occupy its own physical and emotional space? Since this would be the first of its kind I decided that the latter one would be a nice way to introduce my art.

The sensory input for Silent Wings comes from a distance sensor. I’ve always been a fan of nature and to me one of the most profound ways that nature shows itself to us is by acknowledging our presence. On the approach of a human the nature reacts. Our presence bends the physical and emotional space around us. This is a humbling experience to me and I wanted to simulate that same experience in my work. From another point of view we are so accustomed to surveillance nowadays in our constructed environment that one might not always think that a harmless art installation is monitoring your presence, even when its obvious from the way it reacts to you.

Making of the installation

Silent Wings is an artwork that I hope to convey a message of critical thinking in creating art, in the time of materiality when we cannot anymore think like we did before. Considerable amounts of work must be put into thinking and developing material solutions that serve not only systems around us, but that by existing can help us understand the possibilities of designing human centered artefacts and further inspire us in sustainable development. I believe that Silent Wings is a good example of critical making and perhaps my own first artwork that connects the dots of my lifelong research, studies and interest into a clear continuation. From the way I’ve loved the nature since childhood, to my engineering studies in biotechnology and to the Master studies in Media and Art.

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