Drops: A Kinetic Painting

HTML on screen, 430.0 x 428.0 px
Move your cursor among the balls to interact with them, and watch them form dynamic symmetries


It may be more than ten years ago that I read an article in a periodical which I believe was the Scientific American. In some university, they prepared a sphere that, when switched on, set out happily to explore its surroundings. Humming nicely, it approached the nearest piece of furniture, pondered over its existence for a second, then turned and rolled away toward new adventures. When students were shown this sphere in action, they were surprised by how intelligent it was in getting around the room, and imagined some complex machinery inside it. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The sphere was hollow, with one small electric matchbox car placed in it (you can see toys like that nowadays in the windows of some shops). As the little car advanced, it propelled the sphere forward as a hamster in a wheel. The one trick was that the wheels of the car had been filed on one side. So, when the sphere hit something and stopped, and the car started to climb the steeper and steeper curve in front of it, it slid back sideways, turning a little each time. When it was in the right direction, the sphere appeared to have made up its mind, and roll away from the obstacle.

“Drops: A Kinetic Painting” is based on a very similar principle. The motion of the balls is controlled by surprisingly simple rules; still, they organize themselves in intricate patterns, and protect their formation from intrusions. It is as if they acted on instinct, or even with intent.

These two examples show how uncertain our judgements on intelligence and intent are. Extremely crude phenomena can trick us into believing that we’re confronted by some thinking thing, or some alien intelligence, however primitive it may be.

This, I believe, is the result of the egocentricity of the human race–its tendency to project itself onto its surroundings, and humanize the inanimate world. But what is the privilege of a toy car is often denied of our fellow human beings. While we attribute thoughts and feelings to dogs, household plants, toasters and computers, we frequently forget to treat fellow humans with respect, and we fail to remind ourselves that they have at least as much feeling, mind and heart as we like to believe we ourselves do. Fortunately for us, sometimes we engage in conversations with them, and discover–to our sincere horror–that they treat us in the very same manner.

But ethics and empathy aside, the little dance of the tiny balls is enjoyable, I think, on its own: a strange rhythm that compels us to strive to understand its ever-recurring patterns, or merely to look at it and relax or contemplate–the strange rhythm of a clumsy offspring of the marriage between op-art and a lava lamp.