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A million matter particles

06 October 2021

7 min. to read

Christien Meindertsma © Martin Dijkstra
Christien Meindertsma has been invited as an ambassador to develop new work about the relationship between people and objects. Work reflecting on the Things that Matter sub-theme as part of the overarching theme, The Greater Number. In the run-up to Dutch Design Week, we spoke with her and interaction designer Joel Gethin Lewis about their project – and why we all must understand a little more about chemistry.

We are not above nature, products or matter. We are matter ourselves – Christien Meindertsma

Many people already know Christien, but Joel Gethin Lewis from London may be new to the Dutch public. Christien Meindertsma explains how she came to this collaboration: “I love research, I always really want to know where things come from, how they are made, and I prefer to unravel an entire chain. Because the ambassador project would have an important digital element, I wanted to work with Joel Gethin Lewis and Reza Ali, two great interaction designers and programmers.”

Joel Gethin Lewis says, “As an interaction designer, I have always been interested in the mechanisms or systems that make it possible to tell stories or to make society function. I am interested in creating work that enables real-time interaction between people, places, stories and objects through the use of technology. I've known Christien since 2004 when we both studied at Fabrica, Benetton's creative institute in northern Italy. She recently contacted me to talk about her ambassadorship. I grabbed the opportunity to work with her with both hands.”

I am interested in creating work that enables real-time interaction between people, places, stories and objects through technology – Joel Gethin Lewis

Connection with the world

The request to become an ambassador came at just the right time for Christien Meindertsma. It allowed her to start a project that had been on her wishlist for a while. Meindertsma says, “I thought it was a very interesting question, and I was immediately looking forward to it. I had a dream project in my head for a while, which is only possible at a place like Dutch Design Week. It turned out to fit very well within the theme of DDW21, so it was an instant match. As an ambassador, I want to show how we as humans are connected to the material world. How we are connected with our food, the earth, but also with products. And that we are not above it, but that we are equal to it.”

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Understanding matter to design products

It is important to Meindertsma that we understand how we are connected to the rest of the world. She explains how it works. "It's important to understand that connection, not just as designers but as humans, because we design products that in many cases we don't know how they behave. Think about how products respond to being used and how they wear out: it's hugely important that we better understand and anticipate this. Both how the product behaves as a product during its use, but also as waste afterwards. For example, researchers have shown that small matter particles are released when products wear out – while being used or as waste. Those tiny particles end up everywhere. In our water, in the air, which means it also ends up in our bodies. And we don't really know what the consequences of that are. We must start designing things that we understand what they do at the material level.”

Sharing Elements as an interactive installation

This insight translates into a project at DDW. Visitors can see and experience an interactive installation there. Meindertsma developed and conceived this project called Sharing Elements with interaction designers Joel Gethin Lewis and Reza Ali. Specialists in a different field than her. Meindertsma explains, “Thanks to this collaboration, we have been able to make something new. Together we designed and built an interactive cloud of elements. What you will soon see as a visitor is yourself, reflected in elements. That looks like a very large cloud of particles, a million! They move like you do and take your shape. You also see how the elements slowly come to you and leave again. It may sound crazy but just look at your own body. The elements from which you are made came from somewhere, and they'll return there someday. I want to show that for many materials, this form is only temporary. Then they become something else. As a human being, you see yourself as one fixed form, but you are constantly developing. Because you eat and breathe, take in and lose elements. You are just temporary storage of elements, which you share with things, with animals. It seems very exciting and meaningful to me to show that relationship. Because then you can also see that we are not above nature, not above products or matter. We ourselves are matter. It seems exciting to me to shape that image in people's heads.”

Chemistry for designers

The ambassador's way of speaking about matter almost sounds like a kind of chemistry for designers. But is that true? "I know very little about chemistry myself, but I think it's outrageous," laughs the designer. “I think that we as designers should know a lot more about chemistry. It contains knowledge about matter, materials, how they are put together and how they behave. The only problem with that is that you have to deal with scale. Very small things that you can't actually see are very difficult to understand. I think it would be great to build a bridge between the world of chemists and non-chemists with this project. So that we understand each other better. I think that's a very nice design task.”

As a human being, you see yourself as one fixed form. But actually, you are just temporary element storage – Christien Meindertsma

Cloud of a million matter particles

The installation we are going to see is interactive. Designing and programming such an interactive installation with a million dancing parts seems quite a difficult task. Interaction designer Joel Gethin Lewis explains how he went about it. "I've always loved Christien's work. It connects us to where things in the world come from – be it things made from pigs, objects seized from Schiphol or a sweater made from the wool of one sheep. So I'm very happy that I am working with her on this project, which revolves around the question of where the things we make come from. In the field of interaction design, Christien presented us with a very big challenge from the start. Namely, we had to visualize at least a million particles of matter to show the one copper atom out of that million in the correct proportion of the elements that make up our bodies. The second interaction challenge was that she wanted visitors to interact with their bodies with this cloud of a million particles. One of the many reasons why working with such a talented designer, director and developer as Reza Ali was so important! Imagine memorizing the positions and velocities of a million dots and then doing it 60 times per second! This installation performs hundreds of millions of calculations per second to display all elements of the body simultaneously on the screen.”

This installation performs hundreds of millions of calculations per second to display all elements of the body simultaneously on the screen – Joel Gethin Lewis

Physical and interactive experience at DDW

A very exciting form to encapsulate this subject. Finally, we ask Christien Meindertsma what she is most looking forward to at DDW. Meindertsma says, “What I am very curious about is how the project will come together both interactively and physically. We also physically show the elements that you see in the interactive installation as real elements. I am very curious how that combination of physical material and an interactive installation will work in practice, whether people can make the connection between the two and how they will react to themselves as an element cloud.”

The installation and exhibition Sharing Elements can be visited from 16 to 24 October in Microlab Hall (Strijp-S).