Four Essays On Kinetic Art Projects

Embedded Systems and Kinetic Art:

Drawing on Data

Instructors: Erik Brunvand (School of Computing) and Paul Stout (Department of Art and Art History)

Course Numbers: This course is cross-listed for Spring 2015 as CS5789 and Art4455

When: Spring Semester 2014, T-Th 4:00-6:40

Where: We'll meet primarily in the Art building in Sculpt 178. 
Sculpt 178 is the "Sculpture area" in the Art building. It's in the SE corner of the art building. 
(There's an interactive map of campus located here if you don't know where the Art building is...)

What: Drawing on Data is our theme for 2015. We want to focus on kinetic art that draws upon, or reacts to, or modulates, or is otherwise connected to data. This could be as simple as using real-time sensors to capture data about the environment in which the artwork lives, or as complex as performing detailed data analysis to drive the kinetic behavior, or any number of other ways that data can be used as a fundamental element in the work.

Why: One of the main purposes of this joint class is to help students understand the fundamental notion of DESIGN, both in engineering and the arts. We all can appreciate good design when we see it, and appreciate things (both computer-related and art-related) that exhibit excellence in design. But how do good designers learn to be good designers? We hope that this course is one step along that journey.

From the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) side we encourage students to apply their technical skills in a context that is explicitly non-technical. This can allow students thefreedom to try a wide range of approaches to a particular problem. In the process, engineers are exposed to a variety of aesthetic and creative concepts that would not normally be part of an engineering curriculum. Artists explore programming and engineering in a context that is more conducive to their learning style because it is directed at art-making. Both groups of students gain practical experience in design-thinking which is quite distinct from the computational thinking that is usually more associated with CSE.

Course Description

Kinetic sculpture is art that contains moving parts or depends on motion, sound, or light for its effect. The kinetic aspect is often regulated using microcontrollers  connected to motors, actuators, transducers, and sensors that enable the sculpture to move and react to its environment.

An embedded system is a special-purpose computer system (microcontroller) designed to perform one or a few dedicated functions, often reacting to environmental sensors. It is embedded into a complete device including hardware and mechanical parts rather than being a separate computer system.

Kinetic art using embedded control is a marriage of art and technology. Artistic sensibility is required for concept and planning, and engineering skill is required to realize the artistic vision. In this project-based class computer engineering students will work together with art students to build collaborative kinetic art pieces. Students will explore interfacing of embedded systems with sensors and acuators of all sorts, along with real-time/interactive programming techniques and interrupt driven system design. They will also explore physical and conceptual aspects of machine-making as a sculpture process.

Drawing on Data implies a connection between the artwork developed, and some sort of data that mediates its behavior. We will start with individual projects, and then finish with group projects that include both artists and engineers. We want to make kinetic art that is interesting sculpture in its own right, and that involves data of some sort in its conception or behavior. This is a cross between an engineering class (embedded system design and programming) and a studio art class (designing and building the sculptures) with all students participating fully in both areas.

Course Schedule

This collaborative course is constantly evolving, so the schedule will be changing from week to week as the course evolves...

Remember to start keeping your sketchbook! We expect a page a day in your sketchbook related in some way to this class. Remember, not every page needs to be a masterpiece, but we want you to get in the habit of drawing/writing/composing in your sketchbook every day. We also hope that you'll use your sketchbook for inspiration, ideas, planning, prototyping, etc. for your projects.


Topics/AgendaLinks (these will become active as they become available)
T: 1/13
  • Introduction
  • Historical survey of kinetic art
  • A look at past versions of this class
Th: 1/15
  • More motivation and examples (drawbots)
  • Soldering Demo
  • Discussion of Reading #1:Jones

T: 1/20

  • Sketchbook Assignment 1: Sensor Awareness due
  • Student Artist Report presentations in class
Th: 1/22
  • 3:45-5:00:
    • James Coupe lecture in Gould Auditorium
  • James Coupe ( is an installation artist from Seattle. He is an Associate Professor in the DXARTS program at the University of Washington.
T: 1/27
  • Blind/Modified Contour drawing activity (Sandy)
  • Discussion of Reading #2:Bouttiaud
Th: 1/29
T: 2/3
  • Programming intro
  • Sketchbook Assignment 2: Linkages due
  • Programming/wiring hands-on - LEDs etc.
  • Discussion of Reading #3:Benjamin

Th: 2/5

  • Surplus/Hacking project preview
    • Bring your device/artifact in for review
T: 2/10
  • Sketchbook Assignment 3: Data Mapping due
  • More programming - sensors/servos
  • Discussion of Reading #4:Bishop + response
Th: 2/12
  • Principles of design
  • Basic 3d sculpture activity
T: 2/17
  • 3:45-5:00:
    • Lindsay Grace lecture in Gould Auditorium
  • Lindsay Grace ( is an Associate Professor, and director of the Game Lab and Persuasive Play Studio at American University in Washington, D.C.
Th: 2/19
  • Surplus/Hacking project demo/critique
T: 2/24
Th: 2/26
  • Lecture in UMFA - Visiting artist Duane Linklater
T: 3/3
Th: 3/5
  • SPI interface and external LED chips
T: 3/10
Th: 3/12
  • Papermaking demo
  • Major Project - team forming
  • Major Project - brainstorming
T: 3/17
Th: 3/19
T: 3/24
  • 3:45-5:00:
    • Mark Koven lecture in Gould Auditorium
  • Mark Koven ( is an inter-disciplinary and multi-media artist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art + Design at Utah State University.
Th: 3/26
  • Papermaking with LEDs work day
T: 3/31
  • DC motor and stepper motors
Th: 4/2
T: 4/7
  • Major Project #1 design discussion
Th: 4/9
T: 4/14
  • Presentation by Paul on his work
  • Presentation by Erik about Drawing Machines
Th: 4/16
  • Slides on interrupt programming
T: 4/21
  • 3:45-5:00:
    • Bill Manaris lecture in Gould Auditorium
  • Bill Manaris ( is a Professor of Computer Science at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., and director of their Computing in the Arts program. His interests include computing in the arts, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence, specifically as these topcs relate to music.
T: 4/21
Th: 4/23
T: 4/28
  • Major project demo/critique

On this page you'll find a collection of links that you may find useful...  

The syllabus page shows a table-oriented view of the course schedule, and the basics of course grading. You can add any other comments, notes, or thoughts you have about the course structure, course policies or anything else.

To add some comments, click the "Edit" link at the top.

Course Summary:


Kinetic art - art that depends on movement for its effects - has its origins in the Dadaist and Constructivist movements that emerged in the 1910s. It flourished into a lively avant-garde trend following the landmark exhibition Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris in 1955, after which it attracted a wide international following. At its heart were artists who were fascinated by the possibilities of movement in art - its potential to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer and new visual experiences. It inspired new kinds of art that went beyond the boundaries of the traditional, handcrafted, static object, encouraging the idea that the beauty of an object could be the product of optical illusions or mechanical movement. But the group was split between those such as Jean Tinguely, who were interested in employing actual movement, and those such as Victor Vasarely, who were interested in optical effects and the illusion of movement and went on to be more closely associated with the Op art movement. Kinetic art thrived for a decade and achieved considerable prominence. But Op art proved almost too successful in capturing the public's imagination, while Kinetic art eventually began to be seen as a stale and accepted genre. By the mid-1960s, these developments led to a decline in artists' interest in movement.

Key Ideas

Kinetic art marked an important revival of the tradition of Constructivism, or Constructive art, that had been a presence in modern art since the 1910s. Parts of the movement also revived its utopian optimism, talking once again of the potential for art to spread into new areas of everyday life and to embrace technology in ways appropriate to the modern world.

But the movement also borrowed much from Dada, and in this respect parts of it were highly skeptical about the potential of technology to improve human life. Artists who were inspired by Dada, such as Jean Tinguely, used their work to express a more anarchic, satirical attitude to machines and movement. They suggested that rather than being humanity's helpmate, the machine might become her master.

Although ostensibly fascinated by machines, some Kinetic artists developed a profound interest in analogies between machines and human bodies. Rather than regarding machines and human bodies as radically different - one being soulless and functional, the other being governed by the sensitive, rational mind - they used their art to suggest that humans might be little more than irrational engines of conflicting lusts and urges, like a dysfunctional machine. This idea has deep roots in Dada, and betrays Kinetic art's debt to that earlier movement.

Most Important Art

Arc of Petals (1941)

Artist: Alexander Calder

Before Alexander Calder trained as an artist, he took a degree in mechanical engineering, and this laid the foundations for what would later be an important and early contribution to Kinetic art. He is most associated with mobiles, which he began to make in the early 1930s, which employ motorized or hand-cranked mechanisms to move an array of different forms in a predetermined way. These later gave way to the works for which he is most famous: non-mechanized mobiles driven by air currents. Early versions of these often used materials such as glass or pottery, while later mobiles were generally comprised of flat metal pieces painted in solid red, yellow, blue, black, or white. In these works, movement is produced naturally and accidentally by virtue of passing breezes. Taking the theme of movement that was central to Kinetic art, Calder's later wind-blown mobiles reflected its harmonious and entirely natural aspects, suggesting that these forces can provide some of the subtle pleasures of human life.

Read More ...

Kinetic Art Artworks in Focus:

Kinetic Art Overview Continues Below


Early experiments with movement in art began between 1913 and 1920, led by artists of the Dadaist and Constructivist traditions. Perhaps the earliest instance of kinetic art was Marcel Duchamp'sBicycle Wheel (1913), which consisted of a wheel inverted on a stool (the piece is also recognized as the first "readymade" sculpture). In 1920, Constructivist artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner used the term "kinetic art" in their Realistic Manifesto. And, later, Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy used the term "kinetic" to describe the mechanized movement of his piece Light Space Modulator (1930).

Although artists used the concept of kinetics intermittently for several years, it was not until 1955 that it was established as a major artistic movement, when the group exhibition Le Mouvement was held at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris. Central to this exhibition was Victor Vasarely; his so-called 'Yellow Manifesto' was published at the time of the show and came to serve as one of the movement's founding documents. Vasarely had been trained in Bauhaus ideas and had spent many years working in advertising. The graphic designs that he had initially used in advertising formed the substance of his new style. These took the form of a grid-like arrangement of black and white that produced a flickering effect. His style quickly attracted followers such as Bridget Riley.

But other aspects of Le Mouvement, those involving real movement as opposed to optical illusions, began to attract the interest of artists across the world. This movement could be effected by air or touch, as in the case of Alexander Calder's mobiles: his Arc of Petals (1941) combines subtle lines and biomorphic forms with natural movement to examine the behavior of an object in space. Or, as was more often the case, the movement was mechanized. Nicolas Schoffer's desire to introduce a sense of dynamism to his geometric Constructivist sculptures initially involved merely lending them a complex sense of space. But he eventually introduced mechanized movement to these works, which he called Spatiodynamic sculptures, and this led to his interest in fusing electronics and art.

Concepts and Styles

The Legacy of Constructivism

The Kinetic art movement emerged out of what was widely perceived as the decline of the tradition of geometric abstraction in the post-war period. Due to the legacy of Constructivism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus, geometric abstraction had initially been associated with revolutionary attitudes to art and society. Its austere and conceptual language of lines and flat planes, and simplified color palette, made it seem appropriate to the modern world. The philosophy that grew around it also encouraged the belief that it might provide a language in which art might filter into everyday life, decorating everything from architecture to ceramics. But as these hopes receded, geometric abstraction came to be seen as a somewhat academic art form concerned with little more than old-fashioned notions of composition.

The Kinetic art movement represented a revitalization of that tradition, by utilizing mechanical or natural motion to bring about a new relationship between art and technology. The movement introduced Kineticism across several forms of art, including painting, drawing, and sculpture, and many of its artists aspired to work with ever newer and more public media in order to bring Kinetic art to a wide audience.

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Kinetic Art Overview Continues

The Legacy of Dada

Kinetic art also drew heavily on the Dada movement, which had inspired some of the earliest instances of movement in art, such as Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Roto-Reliefs (1935-65). The motivation for these was less an interest in uniting art and technology than in breaking with the conventions of the traditional static artwork. Instead of the experience of the artwork being entirely determined by the artist in advance of exhibition, Kinetic art objects suggested that movement and the viewer's own impression of that movement - something out of the artist's control - was more important. Indeed the Dada tradition brought to Kinetic art a skepticism about the value of technology in modern life. Jean Tinguely's amusing self-detonating construction, Homage to New York (1960), was typical of this skepticism, since the mechanical contraption ultimately destroyed itself in a violent performance of sound and light. Dada and Surrealism also informed the work of another prominent kinetic artist, Alexander Calder. His mobiles, such as Arc of Petals (1941), used the natural movement of the air to animate an assortment of biomorphic forms. Rather than use movement to suggest modern technology, he used it to conjure a wistful, calming mood, one that suggested a happy union of nature and humanity.

Later Developments

The mid-1960s brought considerable acclaim to the movement and its artists. Julio Le Parc was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and Nicolas Schoffer won the prize for sculpture in 1968. Galerie Denise Rene celebrated ten years of the movement in 1965 with another group show entitled Le Mouvement 2. But the perception that the movement had ceased to be radical and was beginning to be accepted by the art world establishment discouraged a new generation from pursuing it. Much of the impetus behind the movement had derived from an avant-garde spirit - on the one hand a utopian optimism that modern art might find a wider public, on the other a critical, anti-establishment ethos - and the realization that the movement was settling down to become just another successful style of art contributed to its decline. The deathblow was delivered by the huge popularity of The Responsive Eye, an exhibition concentrating on the Op wing of the movement, which was held at the The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. Some critics attacked this Op work as "gadgetry" and as a collection of kitschy optical tricks whose only effect was to titillate the eye.

Since that period, artists have continued to use movement in their work, sometimes in ways that betray the influence of kinetic art, sometimes not. Rebecca Horn's sculpture sometimes fuses aspects of Dada, Fluxus, and Kinetic art; her Concert for Anarchy (1990) features a grand piano suspended upside down from the ceiling, from which, every few minutes, the keys are thrust out. Yet the playground slides, carousels, and interactive sculptures created since the 1990s by Carsten Höller owe little to Kineticism, despite the importance of movement to them. Today, the Kinetic art movement seems less a pressing influence for artists than a resource for ideas.

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