Arts exhibit review

An ethereal silken globe

The Silk Pavilion of the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab

6143 silk 1
A Bombyx mori silkworm deposits silk fiber on a digitally-fabricated scaffolding structure.
Steven Keating
6144 silk 2
A perspective view of the completed Silk Pavilion and the basic research exhibit focusing on fiber density distribution studies.
Steven Keating

The Silk Pavilion is a gauzy hemisphere of sparse silk threads, with apertures arranged in an asymmetric but balanced pattern and many small, dense, circular patches of silk filaments that were spun directly onto it by live silkworms. The scaffold is composed of several panels with irregular patterns of silk thread to support the silk spun by Bombyx mori, the most widely cultivated species of silkworm.

Suspended in the lobby of the Media Lab (E14) until the middle or end of September, the Silk Pavilion was made by the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, consisting of Markus Kayser, Jared Laucks, Carlos David Gonzales Uribe, and Jorge Duro-Royo and led by Dr. Neri Oxman. The project was developed in collaboration with Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto (Tufts University) and Dr. James Weaver (Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University).

To build the Silk Pavilion, 6500 silkworms were placed at the bottom of the thread scaffold, which was laid out by a computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machine and assembled in the lobby of E14, where it is now on display. The silkworms were placed on the scaffold over a ten-day period, during which each silkworm spun for three days, which is their normal spinning behavior. The silkworms did not create cocoons, but rather locally reinforced the gaps in the scaffold with their non-woven silk structure.

The trajectories of the silkworms were affected by the layout of the threads and possibly by the variation in natural light and heat, which led them to move from the lower edge where they were placed towards the top of the dome. The holes in the dome were positioned to capture sunlight from the east and south and allowed the limits of the ability of silkworms to cover holes to be tested. The result is a dome of sparse, thicker threads that appears to be lightly covered with patches of silk filaments of varying density.

The research behind the Silk Pavilion began in September 2012 with several small experiments on silkworm spinning behavior, to determine whether the worms optimized their spun structure to follow lines of tension, and to study the geometry and reach of their silk. The results of these platform spinning experiments can be seen on display to the south of the Silk Pavilion, and were considered when the final scaffold of the Silk Pavilion was modeled. The development of the final project began in February 2013, and the scaffolding, CNC weaving, assembly, and silkworm placement lasted until early April.

Although the Silk Pavilion was initially meant to explore the possibility of fiber-based construction on a large scale, other aspects of the research became apparent. For example, silk production does not currently allow the use of the silkworm/moth lifecycle — the pupae are killed when their cocoons are immersed in hot water to free the silk filaments. However, the silkworms that spun the Silk Pavilion were allowed to pupate, and the pupae could be removed without killing them.

The Silk Pavilion is not the first work of art to rely on insects for construction. Steven Kutcher, an entomologist who once created a scene for Steven Spielberg involving flies walking through ink and leaving prints, made a series of paintings with insects such as beetles walking on paper with paint on their legs. Earlier, in the 1980’s, French artist Hubert Duprat used caddisfly larvae to create jewelry-like art. Caddisfly larvae naturally use materials found in their habitat, such as pieces of wood, to construct protective tubes around themselves. Duprat placed caddisfly larvae in tanks with flakes of gold and precious and semiprecious stones with which they created ornate gold tubes.

The silkworm research will continue with further experiments. “We are always looking at new or different biological systems that we might be able to work together with as a more collaborative process as science and technology are merging,” said Jared Laucks G, a member of the Mediated Matter group. Future research in the Mediated Matter group will also focus on “swarm printing”.