"though a patriarchy would privilege the changelessness of the sun over the inconstancy of the moon and you" is a physical data art piece where red ink drips according to my 2020 menstrual data. The ink lands on watercolor paper printed with the 31 days of a month, marking the days I had my period. It is inspired by the shame I used to feel in my teenage years that somehow my body was abnormal because my periods never came on the same days of the month, until I realized that what was actually irregular was the solar calendar, which shifts from 31 days to 30 to 28 and sometimes even 29 days. By the end of the 30-minute performance, almost all of the days are marked red.
Within my recent work, I have been interested in expressing datasets that are too "messy" and "emotional" for the pixel perfection of a screen. I think there's something restrictive about trying to log a continuous process—in this case, my menstruation—into discrete rows, but in choosing to physicalize the dataset, in letting the red ink splatter messily, breaking date boundaries and pooling together from one to the next, I find it breaking free. And that, when applied to a data story as emotional and personal as that of my womanhood, feels extremely empowering.
The piece started as an assignment for a class called Time (it was honestly one of my fav classes at NYU ITP, the grad program I was in), in which we were asked to design a clock. I had created a piece a few months prior (wonder, 2022), where I had visualized the number of photos I took pre- and during the pandemic as a proxy for how often I went outside. I projected the visualization over a bowl of water, and dripped water based on the number of Covid cases in the same time period. The mechanism I chose to use—a solenoid valve—had a clicking noise that was very anxiety-inducing, and it became my way of expressing the anxiety and distortion I felt during the pandemic.
While working on the piece, I started to wonder what other effects these external factors might have had on me, and I became interested in tieing the covid dataset with my menstrual data. I originally thought of mapping those datasets to separate water dripping mechanisms and seeing what feelings those sounds would elicit, and perhaps even putting something underneath to see how they would erode with the water drips:
One tick per day using solenoid valve and water
Continuous flow mapped to Covid case data using peristaltic pump and black ink
Flow mapped to personal menstrual data using peristaltic pump and red ink
Though I knew the components I wanted to use, I wasn't sure what my physical form would look like, so I decided to start by prototyping digitally. We had been assigned to read Carlo Rovelli's Order of Time, and I had jotted down some excerpts to help guide the design:
Time passes at different rates at different locations—there is no uniform time, but countless times—and time is slower closer to a large mass.
We think of time as a flow of time, but in nature there's nothing distinguishing "past" and "future" except where there is heat involved. Entropy increases but never decreases.
The first excerpt helped me figure out how I wanted to order the datasets, from inside to outside: the menstrual data (in red ink), covid data (in dark purple), and time (in blue). It inspired me to orient myself at the center (I'm the large mass! 😂), and think about how my body is in relation to each of the concepts.
But as I went about getting feedback on the concept (and how to implement three different clock hands rotating and dripping three different inks at three different rates), I realized that I was trying to do too much. One of the most interesting challenges with physical pieces, as opposed to web pieces, for me has been figuring out how to communicate ideas without having a wall of text around it. It's also a lot more work to animate something in the physical world than in the digital. So I decided to simplify and concentrate on just one aspect: my menstruation cycle (natural, biological time) vs. the calendar (man-made construct of time).
Inspiration, round 2
At this point in the semester, we had been assigned another reading: Jay Griffith's A Sideways Look at Time. I loved her often cutting, often alternative ways of thinking about time, and was particularly inspired by her chapter about women. Some of my favorite passages:
The moon swells to full, then a moon-shedding begins, ebbing itself to a crescent; the moon, symbol of women, fluctuates, alters, changes, flows in cycles. (Though a patriarchy would privilege the changelessness—of the sun—over the inconstancy of the moon and you.)
— A Sideways Look at Time, 134
The much-maligned paramenstruum (defined as the two days before a period and the first two days of it) floods you with insight, with surges of instinctual thought, with demanding intensity, with burning innerness, thinking at full feeling. It is a time when the world full tilts towards you.
— A Sideways Look at Time, 141
If the paramenstruum is respected, it is a time of exceptional power, but if suppressed it will become a punishment, a curse...There is a veering difference now between the woman's interior, idiosyncratic, private clock and the exterior public clock with its strict, regular beat...Trying to fit her inner calendar to the male calendar causes a woman's snarling premenstrual feeling to increase...Jung suggested women should have the first three days of their periods off work to escape the masculine time rhythms of work.
— A Sideways Look at Time, 143–145
I decided to concentrate on the relationship between the moon and the menstruation cycle, and the idea of an inner calendar (of the menstruation cycle) not fitting neatly into a work calendar. I came up with a clock face design where a tube came out of the middle and did double duty as the clock hand ticking through the month while dispensing red ink according to my menstrual data (left, tube not pictured), and also did a cardboard prototype of the inner layout (right):
The prototype helped highlight a glaring error: the lunar phases and dates of the months don't usually align, since one is a ~29 day cycle and the other varies from 28 to 31 days. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd have to separate the two concepts apart and move them independently.
When I showed the cardboard prototypes for feedback, I was challenged to go beyond the circular form and potentially experiment with a linear form ("just because it's a clock project doesn't mean you have to stick with a circle"). The encouragement to go beyond a clock form gave me great clarity, and I decided to break the piece into three distinct parts that could be manipulated independently. I envisioned the piece to "perform" an entire year of data within some span of time, and I wanted:
The lunar phases to have a circular rotation, where a complete rotation is a full lunar cycle and it loops ~13 times through the year/performance.
The calendar to have a linear motion, it ticks forward until it reaches the end of the month and snaps back. To me, this felt like the movement of a conveyor belt, or a typewriter.
My menstrual cycle (the tube that drips red ink) to be stationary (as opposed to the previous iteration where it was the only thing that moved). I was reminded of what Griffiths wrote, that "the world full tilts towards you"—so I am static as everything moves around me.
To test this idea in the quickest way possible, I printed out some designs, cut them out, and showed them to a few people.
This time, I asked for very specific feedback, in particular whether the calendar should represent a work week or a full calendar month, and how the three distinct parts should be laid out relative to each other. But before I could even ask those questions, almost everyone was distracted by how awkward and unsatisfying the calendar movement was, where it moved back and forth, and they all wanted a smooth, rotating circle. At first, I tried to figure out how to incorporate their feedback, until I realized that they were feeling exactly how I wanted them to feel—that the way we currently perceive time with a calendar is awkward, repetitive, and artificial.
(And indeed, when I finally showed the piece at ITP's Winter Show, one of my professors commented that the way the calendar snapped back from the 31st to the 1st of the month felt existentially exhausting: "oh no, not this again".)
Once I explained this, I was encouraged to show a full calendar month, so that the back and forth movement would be even more pronounced. I was also able to figure out the layout of the three pieces, including in the z-axis, where I decided to place the calendar at the bottom, the lunar phases in the middle, and my menstrual cycle the tallest. At the same time, I decided to flip the order in the x/y-axis, with the calendar closest to the viewer, the lunar phases in the middle, and my menstrual cycle the furthest—which is my guess for how a lot of us perceive and relate to each of the concepts.
One of the aspects I've come to really love about working in the physical is that I get to add another layer of meaning with the materials I choose. With this piece, I wanted to use a natural material for the lunar phases, something artificial/man made for the calendar, and a copper tube for my menstrual cycle.
I was, however, restricted by budget (lol poor grad student life) and the tools I had access to (mainly a laser cutter and woodshop machines). So I decided to use a light birch wood for the lunar phases, and acrylic for the calendar, and sometimes I daydream about what materials I would use instead if money was no object 😂
I'm 1500+ words in and I haven't even started talking about the tech (lol), but I think that's because with this project, the conceptual was much more interesting.
Previously, I had used solenoid valves—which I could control by sending electricity to open it—because both the wiring and the code are really simple and I was honestly intimidated by stepper motors. But I couldn't use solenoid valves with this project, because there was a risk that the inks I was planning to use could seep through into the mechanisms and the sediments could damage it. I was instead recommended a peristaltic pump, which uses a stepper motor (NEMA17) to squeeze liquid through a tube, thus giving fine grain control without the liquid ever coming in contact with the internal mechanisms and electronics.
For the calendar's linear motion, I used a rack and pinion, and for both the lunar phases and calendar I used toy stepper motors (24BYJ-48) because they were the cheapest and easiest to wire and code 😂 Once I had the electronics wired and figured out, I used Fusion360 to layout the pieces and model their enclosures. I then used the laser cutter to cut out the flat pieces and the 3D printer for the enclosures.
I do have to say that the code was probably the most interesting part of this process because I was using an Arduino Nano 33 IoT, which is a single-threaded microcontroller with limited memory. The easiest way to control the stepper motors' speeds (with the assistance of a TMC2208 motor driver) was to turn the STEP pin high for a millisecond, then delay for X number of milliseconds or microseconds. But I had three motors that all had to run at different speeds, stop, and even reverse:
The lunar phases was the easiest, it just needed to rotate at a constant speed the entire performance
My menstrual cycle data was medium difficulty, I had to map the days of my period to the corresponding milliseconds of the piece's performance, and once the Arduino got to that particular elapsed time, it'd step the peristaltic pump a certain number of times for one drip of red ink.
And the hardest: the calendar, which depending on the month progressed forward a different number of steps depending on the number of days, then at the end of the month had to stop, reverse direction, and quickly step back that same number of steps so that it could restart at the beginning.
All of these timing requirements meant that, though everything mostly ran fine during the 30-minute performance, there were short bursts where one motor would stop because the other was being moved constantly, then play catch-up after.
The second iteration
I got the chance to build a second iteration of the piece to exhibit at Information+ Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland (the opening is later tonight!), and I jumped at the chance to refine and make improvements on the first iteration. It's funny because I thought this second iteration would go a lot quicker because I already did it once—how much longer could it take?
Turns out, a lot longer lol.
I had forgotten that the first iteration was held together by hot glue (an ITP staple), and this second iteration took just as long if not longer because not only was I rebuilding it from scratch, I was determined to not use hot glue. Which really epitomizes the saying, the final 20% takes 80% of the time.
Some of my considerations and improvements:
I wanted a version that was easy to take apart and put together, and would fit into a suitcase for me to take it from New York to Edinburgh.
I needed to upgrade my toy motors, because the amount of work I was having them do to move the calendar and lunar phases caused them to overheat to the point of melting the 3D printed plastic 😱
Visually, I didn't like that the calendar stuck out of the sides of the piece (there's a balance between visual elegance and kinetic awkwardness that I'm still trying to get right).
I needed a better way to indicate which day and lunar phase the performance was on.
I futzed around for 2 weeks trying to prototype this new version in Fusion360, until I realized that I was not good enough at 3D modeling to start from there, especially when the entire form had to change. So I got back to the paper prototypes, which helped me clarify how I wanted all the new components in relation to each other, then a laser cut cardboard prototype to get all the measurements precise.
That helped me quickly arrive at a new form, and even helped me determine which parts I needed to 3D model + print and which I could get away with laser cutting, since I no longer had easy access to a 3D printer. I ended up laser cutting everything but the wall that the ring gear (the new form that the calendar took) would brace against, and learned a new command in Fusion (Spline!) to model it.
I also wanted to be able to assemble everything with no glue, and no need for special tools, so I designed everything to be able to slot into place.
To address the timing issues I ran into, I decided to (throw more computing power at the problem) use three Arduinos that were controlled via Bluetooth from a main computer. I originally found three circuit boards I had soldered for previous projects and was giddy that I didn't have to solder again, until I went to test them and found that only two of them were working. So instead of having to solder a bunch of wires again, I decided to design a PCB instead and send it to a manufacturer in China. This had the added benefit of not having any exposed wires that could get damaged in transit—especially the wires leading to the power plug that would often fall out, it was also just a much more enjoyable and satisfying process (to me).
(I thought I was being so clever using three Arduinos so that I could control all of them independently, but the joke's on me—turns out I had complicated my timing problems exponentially because I now had four computers with four internal clocks that all ran independently from each other so how can I guarantee from my main computer that each of my Arduinos ran the number of steps they were supposed to? The answer is: blind faith lol.)
So if I ever get to do a third iteration, I'm definitely rethinking how I'm controlling each of the three motors. In the meanwhile, let me show you my favorite part of this second iteration:
I added a lighting indicator to show which day + lunar phase the performance was on, and I'm especially happy with how the moon looks like it's lighting up it's so satisfying. I was originally planning on just putting paper underneath to diffuse the light, but then husband gave the brilliant feedback to use resin instead. And despite my most careful efforts, I got air bubbles in the resin—which I was upset with at first, until I realized that it kind of looked like moon craters and I decided to embrace it as serendipity. This is probably my favorite detail of the whole piece ☺️