NETS AND DANCE: Making the invisible visible

Throughout history engineers and artists have been fascinated by making the invisible visible. For example, the visual artist and polymath Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) wanted to understand and control the forceful flow of water and found great beauty in its eddies and swirls. He recorded the 3D nature of these flows in space and time, made them legible and expressed their visual impact through his sketches.


Figure : Studies of water passing obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9. (image credit Leonardo Da Vinci Wikimedia Commons)

Today in the Barry Onouye Studio at the University of Washington, we explore invisible flows and make them visible, not through sketches like Da Vinci, but through nets. We chose nets because of their link to Seattle’s fishing and net/rope manufacturing industries. We select nets as a medium because their spatial behavior changes non-linearly with time and they dramatically change shape as they interact with external entities such as for example human bodies.

The objectives of this Barry Onouye Studio are to:
1. Establish the effect of different design parameters on the dynamic behavior and expression of nets;
2. Determine the range of interactions between human bodies and nets;
3. Distill choreographic algorithms based on these body/net interactions to inform contemporary dance.

To achieve these objectives, we adopt a pedagogical approach that relies on a) formal learning through lectures, b) informal learning through physical form finding lab and dance workshops, and c) knowledge application in group and individual design and research projects.


The formal content of the studio is delivered in lectures that focus on the mechanical behavior and classification of nets and on choreographic approaches that focus on the interaction between space and body.

Figure1_Fishing_NetThe methods of the choreographers William Forsythe and Trisha Brown are explained and exemplified by choreographer Rebecca Lazier. William Forsythe states the following about the relationship between dance and space.

“Architecture and dance are forms of spatial expression; both are experienced through shaping physical forms. While architecture is static and the latter is mobile, both disciplines are tested through a measure of time. Through dance, endless possibilities of space are discovered and manifested. It is an experience that architecture aims to define and capture, so by discussing dance and its representation, I aim to architectural thinking.”

In Trisha Brown’s piece “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (1970), space, gravity and dance go seemingly effortless together: a dancer, secured by a harness, hoists and straps, gracefully walks down the side of a building undisturbed. In 2016, a version of this piece was performed at the University of Washington where our studio is held.

Video: Dancer Rachel Lincoln performing “man walking Down the Side of a Building” at UW in 2016.

To highlight the relationship between our studio and professional artistic and engineering practice, a number of guest speakers enrich the lecture content by discussing their own realizations. Guest speakers include the fiber artist Janet Echelman  and practicing structural engineer (Clayton Binkley (Ove Arup, Seattle Office)). Clayton discusses his approach to net engineering while we visit Echelman’s installation “Impatient Optimist” at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the Seattle Campus.

Video: Impatient Optimist at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the Seattle Campus


To impart the students with the necessary skills to tackle the studio, we hold a number of form finding and dance workshops in collaboration with the choreographer Rebecca Lazier (Princeton University). In the physical form finding workshop, the students make tensile forms using net stockings, dowels and foamboard. By building these archetypal forms (including the conoid, arched net, saddle net and valley/mountain net), the students develop an intuitive understanding of the interaction between form and force.

Figure: Physical Form Finding experiments with net stockings. Students Tom Zhou, Jess Kuntz, Elena Cortez, and Anton Sagun with Prof. Sigrid Adriaenssens (right).

In the dance workshops, Rebecca introduces us to the Laban Movement analysis which allows us to describe, visualize, interpret and document human movement. We physically experiment and dance, and categorize our movements according to categories of body, effort, space and shape.


Figure: Choreography workshop with choreographer Rebecca Lazier (on table) and engineer Clayton Binkley (front right), students Kristin Ramsey, Elana Darnell, Adam Bishir and fiber artist Janet Echelman in the background.


We strongly believe that students gain practical knowledge and experience by applying what they learn to design projects using their own strategies. Throughout the course, we formulate a wide range of structural and choreographic design challenges. The students respond to these challenges using a wide range of methods ranging from sketching, small, medium and full-scale physical models, digital (interactive) models, large scale prototyping and dance practice.


Figure: hand drawn sketch showing net sequencing – by Elena Cortez, with Kristin Ramsey, Lorryn Wilhelm, Anton Sagun


Video: small scale cardboard model of one net in different configurations due to changing boundary conditions – by Adam Bichir


Figure: Inspection by Professor Tyler Sprague on the left (UW) of a compression ring installation in a medium scale physical model of Gould Hall, student Lorryn Wilhelm (right)


Figures: Medium scale physical prototypes of tensioned/compression rings systems – by Mark Delpierre, with Steffen Pawlosky, Daniel Vu, Adam Bichir, Sarah Feng.


Figure: Forms generated using digital methods. Courtesy of Tom Zhou, Jess Kuntz

The full scale modeling offers an exceptional opportunity for the students to work at the large scale and develop a real physical spontaneous understanding of the interaction between bodies and tension structures. This opportunity is possible due to the donation of a vast amount of net and rope materials, from Diamond Nets (John Neal, Everson, WA) and Sampson Rope (Kris Volpenhein, Bellingham, WA) and the availability of the atrium of Gould Hall. This atrium has diagonal central stairs and an asymmetric railing system which allows for relatively easy net and rope attachment.


Figure: Student Juan Granados Borreguero inspecting one of the nets and Gould Hall atrium (credit Wikipedia Commons).

Video: Showing in-situ testing of moving boundary conditions (Students Elana Darnell, Juan Granados Borreguero and Nick Portman).

Alongside the studio, each student develops their own research project on a topic of particular interest to the student. Research project topics include “What is the effect of different knit/crochet stitch types on the Poisson’s ratio (ratio of transverse contraction strain to longitudinal extension strain in the direction of a stretching force) of a swatch?” or “To what extent are different mesh sizes in playground net structures determined by human or mechanical requirements?”. This research project allows the student to go into depth into the matter and investigate a topic using a hypothesis, literature review, methods, results and discussion.

Figures: Samples in an individual research of experimental knitted and crocheted swatches under uniaxial tension. Courtesy Lorryn Wilhelm


What keeps coming back throughout all design exercises, is the idea that the net makes visible what is invisible. Whether it is a metaphor for the human impact on the earth’s ecosystems, for fluid flow in all its forms, for the relationship between yin and yang, or for entanglement, the way parts interact even when they are a long distance apart. From a mechanical perspective, we observe how nets clearly visualize stress patterns, slack compression, relaxed and propagation of waves. All these insights provide a rich vocabulary that helps us define our project.


Figure: Synthesizing our studio ideas.


After gaining basic knowledge about the mechanical and visual expression of nets and choreography and after developing form finding and movement skills in lectures and workshops, our final project is oriented towards the application of that knowledge and skills (while continuing to deepen the knowledge) in team projects. The project goal is to make the invisible visible through nets and dance within the Gould Hall Atrium at the University of Washington. Through the formal and informal learning opportunities, the student’s ideas are no longer unrealistic in terms of how the net will behave and what are the possible interactions between human bodies and nets. Today, we are designing, developing choreographic opportunities while building a full-scale net installation in that Atrium. We anticipate the arrival of the choreographer Rebecca Lazier and her dancers as well as the visual artist Janet Echelman in early June. We are curious and excited to see how they will dramatically bring about changes in the net forms and make the invisible visible.

Figure: Final project prototyping and the development of choreographic opportunities in Gould Hall Atrium. Courtesy Lorryn Wilhelm, Anton Sagun, Mark Delpierre

This studio is co-taught by Sigrid Adriaenssens (Princeton University PU) and Tyler Sprague (University of Washington UW). Guest lecturers and critics are the visual artist Janet Echelman (Echelman Studio) , choreographer Rebecca Lazier (PU), dancers Cori Kresge (New York City NYC), Rachel Lincoln (UW), Brian Lawson (UW)  and Christopher Ralph (NYC), practicing structural engineer Clayton Binkley (Ove Arup, Seattle) and architectural faculty Alex Anderson and Vikram Prakash (UW). Our UW students are Adam Bichir, Elena Cortez, Elana Darnell, Mark Delpierre, Juan Granados Borroguero, Yuting (Sarah) Feng, Jess Kuntz, Nick Portman, Steffen Powlowsky, Kristin Ramsey, Anton Sagun, Daniel Vu, Lorryn Wilhelm, and Zixiao (Tom) Zhu. This studio is the precursor to Princeton Atelier in Spring 2020 and has the potential to be developed into a real art installation.

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