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Proteus, thus large thy privilege was found,
ou inmate of the seas, which Earth surround.
Sometimes a bloming youth you grac’d the shore;
Oft a fierce lion, or a furious boar:
With glist’ning spires now seem’d an hissing snake,
e bold would tremble in his hands to take:
With horns assum’d a bull; sometimes you prov’d
A tree by roots, a stone by weight unmov’d:
Sometimes two wav’ring contraries became,
Flow’d down in water, or aspir’d in flame.
Metamorphoses, Ovid, Book the Eighth, ‘e Changes of Proteus’.
Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al.
Maria Smigielska
Proteus in Greek mythology is a god
of water, which is understood as
the part of nature that constantly
changes. He possesses the knowledge of
all things—past, present and future—but
he is also very reluctant to use his prophetic
gift. When asked to foretell the future, he
will try to avoid the answer and escape by
changing his form from human to an
animal, to an object, plant, to an element,
fire or water. Only those who manage to
capture him long enough during the shape-
shifting process will be given the answer.
Both liquid and solid are the states of
a ferrofluid1 that presents itself in a
colloidal form with suspended nanopar-
ticles of metal. Its behaviour depends
on many factors such as its own density or
the viscosity of a carrier liquid, but it truly
comes to life through the invisible force of a
magnetic field. en, it constantly changes
its shape, from aggregated dots to meander-
ing stripes, coagulated regions, just like
the Greek god Proteus, capable of assuming
many forms. Next to the quantifiable
factors mentioned above, the dimension
of time plays a large role in aecting
ferrofluid behaviour. e patterns are not
absolute and very much depend on its
former states, which introduces the process
of movement, evolution and becoming.
e impossibility of precise material behav-
iour control is treated here as an added
value in the process of ephemeral and
non-repeatable pattern generation. Visual
exposure to such a strong graphical pat-
tern is used as an apparatus to understand
human intelligence, that of making mean-
ing in a constantly changing flow of images
of unpredictable symbolic relations.
Proteus explores its varied formal
representations, but always stays visible,
like a display asking to be looked at. It
plays with its own resolution and the format
of a pixel. It started as a discretised screen
table consisting of 96 pixels of small Petri
dishes filled with ferrofluid, each carrying
much richer information than a typical
RGB colour or its intensity. Over time it
evolved into a continuous display allowing
for free liquid flows in a larger vessel.
the same time, the grid-based structure
shifted to ‘magnetic instrument’ stacked
in layers underneath, partly hidden. From
such a system that mechanically displaces
38 individual static magnets, it moved once
again into a densely
packed grid of 163
carrying electric current
through kilometres of copper wire in order
to create a magnetic field. e display,
with a little light coming from underneath,
leaves no shadow, delineating black
with perfectly sharp edges, almost
like a digital image. As such Proteus
stands for the hybrid analogue and digital,
both low resolution, with a no-end resolu-
tion ferrofluid image.
Proteus doesn’t need a crowd or imme-
diate, entertaining friendships, but is
also incomplete without human attention.
Positioned horizontally with little sceno-
graphy around, it catches the eye of a few,
but very curious ones. For those, it unfolds
its full capacity, inviting to a personal visual
game with its ferrofluid charm.
e first steps towards understanding
the physical behaviour of the ferrofluid
phenomenon were aligned with a simple
and friendly interaction categorised
as ‘pets’ in the Atlas of the Species of Media
Architecre2 by Mihye An. Proteus
explores a basic form of human intelligence,
namely intuition, that allows it to quickly
understand the logic driving the interaction.
It constantly scans its surroundings and
when capturing a person, instantly reflects
their image in its display, like a mirror.
Its system operates with real-time data
91Maria Smigielska Proteus
Fig. 1–2 Proteus 2 exhibited at Ars Electronica Festival “ERROR” (Linz, 2018)
92 I BreedingArchitecture and Naturing Affairs
feedback3 between two spaces—from face
tracking camera to electromagnetic
instrument. is direct geometrical transla-
tion determines the amount of possible
configuration, and as such visitors can
enjoy their abstract representation travelling
on the display as long as they stay around
or until they notice rich artefacts of ferro-
pixel hidden behind their self-reflection.
Proteus 2.0, for a change, intensifies
the interaction. rough an individual and
prolonged visual experience, it immerses
the visitor into an implicit and intimate
journey with the material through a
custom, gaze-based, brain-computer inter-
face. A pre-trained dedicated machine
learning model is informed by real-time
neural signals, produced by the partici-
pant’s gaze while being exposed to the
rapid, and initially random, serial
change of patterns. Over a period of about
15 minutes of gazing experience, visitors
might witness a certain stabilisation of their
own flow of the material compositions.
is stabilisation is an event of Proteus’
capture, a moment when he speaks out
the prophecy and when a lively metal liquid
scratching the glass becomes an under-
standable image. Such communication
diers from the former version of the
project, where the behaviour was governed
by predefined rules. Proteus now is creat-
ing his own rules from scratch during the
time of each individual viewing experiment.
is “chain of metamorphoses”4 is an iter-
ative process of capturing, creating and
negotiating one’s own grammar in order
to establish this intimate relationship
with the matter. e electromagnetic instru-
ment becomes not only a device to trans-
mit conditional information, but rather an
information acquisition device that
has learnt how we visually dierentiate the
images, and aligns its generation and
sequencing accordingly. is allows both
human and machine intelligences to
capture personal meanings and symbols
the endless stream of material informa-
Change and then stabilisation,
hiding and then revealing, chaos and any
order that follows are the ultimate goals
of Proteus.
Christiane Paul states that for tradi-
tional art, the interaction of an audience
with the art piece remains strictly a “mental
event,5 while for many of the interaction
artworks, the observer takes an active voice
as a “participant.” Her view is supported
by Ernest Edmonds who confirms that, “the
audience’s behavioural response to the
artwork’s activity [is what] matters most,6
be that direct manipulation, physical
action or bodily gesture. Proteus though,
in order to be complete (but not closed),
more than a human presence or clearly
understood physical response, needs
the act of interpretation in the cloud of
images that is traced in the neural signal
of the participant. Does it open a new means
of human participation and new measures
of aesthetics in the field of interactive arts?
at which goes beyond purely behavioural
action and is combined with human per-
ception into one experience?
Or perhaps Proteus enters the world of
performance by pulling the ‘participant’
fully towards the actor side, which recalls
the traditional boundaries between
performers and an audience in a theatrical
sense? What are the entry points for the
audience to understand the nature of this
intimate and unified system? Or perhaps
Proteus is a “work in movement”7 following
the idea of openness introduced by
Umberto Eco. He proposes a piece with-
out a fixed conclusion but with the
completion coming from the audience’s
individual interpretation of the piece.
93Maria Smigielska Proteus
94 I BreedingArchitecture and Naturing Affairs
While the question of new, blurred or
overlapping definitions and categories of
art creations is not uncommon since the
development of information and commu-
nication technologies, Proteus would
rather ask: How do we communicate with
the cloud of images that constantly
changes? Or what does it mean to build a
meaningful interaction conditioned by
change in the first place?
* Proteus is an ongoing project carried out since 2018 by
Maria Smigielska and Pierre Cutellic with institutional help
from the chair of CAAD, ETH Zürich and Creative Robotics
UfG Linz. Additional support has come from Johannes
Braumann, Robots in Architecture, KUKA Robotics, Ars
Electronica SMC CEE, supermagnete (Proteus 1.0 and
2.0), Trondheim Electronic Arts Center TEKS and Daniel
Nikles for fabrication development (Proteus 2.5).
Fig. 3 Proteus 2.5 during Meta.Morf X-Digital
Wild exhibition, Trondheim Biennale for arts and
technology 2020, curated by Espen Gangvik
1 Ferrofluid was developed in the 1970s as a rocket
fuel to operate in non-gravity space.
2 Mihye An, ‘Coexistence as species’ in Media
Architecre and Categories of Spaalizaon,
PhD Diss ETH 23479, ETHZ, 2016, p 72
3 Bi-directional exchange is essential for the concept
of interactivity that includes an action and response
from all elements in the system. In the case of an
interactive installation, these are artificial physical
artwork and human audience as two equal actors
in this unified system (“all things that process art
data are components of the work of art,” Burnham
1969). e concept of feedback comes from cyber-
netics as part of a loop of outputs and inputs in the
system. In version 1.0 of the Proteus project, we
are dealing with a large, yet finite amount of possible
configurations and choices made in the system.
4 Michel Serres, Genesis, University of Michigan
Press, 1995
5 Christine Paul, Digital Art, p. 67
6 Ernest A. Edmonds, “11 Diversities of Interaction,
in From Fingers to Dits: An Arficial Aesthec, MITP,
2019, pp. 223
7 Umberto Eco, e Open Work, Cambridge, Mass:
Harvard University vress, 1989
95Maria Smigielska Proteus
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