[ISEA2011] Paper: Jonas Ranft – A Potential Landscape


Besides natural scenery, which is its foremost and everyday notion, what can be meant by the term “landscape”? Obviously, it involves some notion of space, some spatial configuration, structure. In the sciences, the landscape metaphor is recurrent. Physicists for example speak of “energy landscapes” when they refer to a system’s potential energy as a function of space. This potential energy landscape contains information about the forces that act on the system as it evolves in real space, the forces that ultimately determine the system’s trajectory.

In this paper, we discuss the idea of an abstract dynamic landscape that represents a fictitious potential accounting for the trajectories of moving “agents”. Not only do the agents move, but also the landscape changes in time.  The agents can be people, moving in public space, or they can be—in a more scientifically inspired setting—laboratory rats chasing each other in a cage. What determines the latter’s course? Thinking of people, is there some hidden force that drives us (the agents) in a certain direction? As the movements continually modify the fictitious potential landscape, the trajectories are inscribed into another level of representation – energetic, mysterious, although constructed in a simple manner by analogy to real physical systems. It appears mysterious because we can not know the forces that determine us, what we see is only one of many possible reconstructions reminding us of uncharted influences on our actions. The visualization of this landscape triggers reflections on our relation to the physical; how we experience our free will as the possibility to escape total determinism; finally, how we relate to each other.

We present an algorithm to extract the potential landscape from trajectory data of moving agents; further research explores possible realizations of the potential landscape as an actual installation using camera tracking and 3D projection. vimeo.com/5334852

  • Jonas Ranft, Ecole nationale superieure des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France; Institut Curie, Paris, France; Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, Dresden, Germany. As a physicist, I work on developmental biology problems in which we think physics plays a decisive role; for the moment, I try to understand some mechanical aspects of tissue growth. As everything else, I am arty-farty, very much interested in design, and constantly trying to hang out with a non-scientist crowd… Just kidding.

Full text (PDF) p.  1998-2003