Protected: Excitable Matter and Self-formative Structures of Behaviour and Sense

Topological Media Lab

Montreal, CAN  2022

This platform for experimentation examines the agentic and experiential potential of new excitable materials and their potential to acquire structurally emergent capacity for behaviour, sense and multi modally palpable ways of interacting with their milieu. Excitability being defined as degree of liveliness of matter, in its capacity to affect and be affected by other bodies (Natasha Myers, 2015), is a qualitative notion that we wish to borrow from philosophical biology and social sciences to examine the behavioural and experiential potential of matters of process, and how they may be designed to acquire the potential to sense, adapt, and interact with the environment. This will lead to synthesizing new forms of these materials while investigating new ways of orchestrating their (in)formative dynamics.


One goal is to mobilize the interdisciplinary partners towards bypassing the design-thinking separations between structure, sensing technologies, software, kinetic events, sonic manifestations, and the methodologies leading to design of excitable materials. To attentively work via and harness the conceptual and corporeal power of material dynamics, we investigate an ontological shift in the design of haptic-acoustic events, an ethico-acoustic paradigm for playfully co-articulating excitable matters of process in poetic motion.

Excitable Materials

We have reviewed, tested, evaluated, and cataloged an array of smart materials for their ‘excitability’ potential. Four types of cutting-edge smart sensor/actuator materials along with new techniques for pneumatic co-articulation of sonorous matters of process proved most promising which are explored in depth:

1. PVDF skins (structure-vibrationally excitable skins and tentacles) – 2020

2. Pneumatic veins (sonorous tubes and chambers) – 2021

3. MRE membranes (structure-vibrationally adaptive membranes) – 2021 This stream creatively explores the hybrid use of Magneto-Rheological Elastomers (MREs) via which mechanical viscoelastic properties of structures such as stiffness, and damping can be adaptively changed through variation of an external magnetic field. Moreover MREs can exhibit magnetostriction effect (actuation) under applied magnetic field. These unique features can be effectively utilized in current areas of applied research ranging from dynamic vibration control and smart actuators to new sensor materials. We will explore novel forms of engagement with MRE materials within hybrid excitable assemblages.


4. MFC structures (multimodal thin-sheet sensor-actuator with emergent properties), 2022 Macro Fiber Composite™ (MFC) is a leading low-profile actuator/sensor offering high performance, flexibility and reliability. It be bonded or embedded as a thin sheet to various types of structure (eg. bio-MRE membranes). The MFC was invented by NASA in 1999 and recently it has been licensed, customized, and instituted to meet the requirements for new applications.

Notable benefits to living architecture systems:

The MFCs flat profile and capability of simultaneously acting as an actuator and sensor allows for its use in very critical or tight areas.

Available as elongator and contractor

Increased strain actuator efficiency

Directional actuation / sensing

Damage tolerant

Flexible and durable

Conforms to surfaces

Readily embeddable

Environmentally sealed The MFC can be bonded or embedded as a thin sheet to various types of structure. If no voltage is applied it can work as a very sensitive strain gauge, sensing deformations, noise, and vibrations. Interacting with voltage, MFC can work as an actuator to bend, distort materials or generate vibrations.

The MFC offers an array of unprecedented potential behaviors and properties within a small, flexible and reliable form. These affordances are ideal for integration into hybrid excitable membranes to be adapted for use within design, art, performance, and architecture.

MFCs are often driven by specialized equipment and interfaces, built to meet the needs of aerospace and structural health monitoring industries amongst others. While current industries’ specialized use of MFC have influenced commercial devices to privilege only bandlimited and uni-modal actuation of MFCs, we have discovered, that it is possible to drive MFC membranes via voltage transformed audio input, where, for example, oscillations between 0.1-15Hz can result in shape-shifting and kinetic actuation effects, 12-30Hz in haptic feedback, 20Hz-20kHz in audible sounds, and 20kHz-19kHz in ultrasound, heat and thermodynamical variation. We are designing unprecedented ways of fabricating and interfacing MFC-based structures, for instance by using waveforms as input to create kinetic, haptic, or sonic events. Careful modulation of behavior of MFC-bonded structures within a multimodal continuum (kinetic<>haptic<>sonic<>…) via complex waveforms as input has never been explored before and due to intuitive pervasiveness of DSP techniques will lead to new novel forms of interfacing with smart materials and thus new forms of co-expression within arts/design, potentially novel contributions within material sciences, and new application within engineering.

When combined in an in loop with sensing properties of MCFs, these complex actuation behaviors can acquire an adaptive and excitable quality. design and fabricate an array of modular elements, each of which may be combined within a refined installation-prototype for future art-science applications (eg. haptically shape-shifting folds, sonically responsive surfaces, thermodynamically varied breathable skins).


Research in emerging forms of the four smart materials above is in a young and rapidly expanding stage and has hardly ever been investigated for its excitability by artists and designers. The research will challenge the fundamental role of structure-borne sensing and structure-borne behaviour in the design of living architecture systems, thus fostering novel set of interactions without needing to “program in” unsustainable assumptions about materialities and socio-cultural interactions, bringing material, computational, and social processes as-one. The platform will produce an array of modular prototypes composed of excitable structures and relevant software/hardware, ready-to-combine into smart hybrid excitable assemblages exhibiting complex, materially emergent and self-governing modes of behaviour and sense.