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Emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology.

226 pages of conversation, research, opinion, analysis. Step into artists' studios and workshops to discover the faces, personalities, and processes behind important work. Learn more!

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Generative Jigsaw Puzzles – Nervous System toys with a classic enigma

Nervous System’s trademark portfolio of generative cups, lamps and jewlery has ‘grown’ an unlikely new product: jigsaw puzzles. Expanding the radius of an immaculate practise isn’t easy, yet partners Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg have produced a perfect fit: Generative Jigsaw Puzzles – surprisingly colourful thanks to the work of featured artist Jonathan McCabe – trace the same interest in natural patterns, unconventional geometries and computational systems that has inspired many of the duo’s fantastic fabrications. And like the other items available in their shop, each puzzle – down to the art and individual pieces – is a one of a kind creation, rendered from custom software and a studio toolchain in Somerville, MA (US).

“We’ve never thought we would go into the toymaking business,” Jessica and Jesse write on their website. Inspired by the complex patterns on fossilised celaphod shells (in the eBay rocks and fossils category) and a visit to a traditional puzzle shop in Paris, the duo first shared their fascination with puzzle making at Eyeo Festival 2011 (see their talk here). Less than 12 months later, in early May 2012, the first edition of 50 Radial Puzzles (7.5″ circle, $55 each) and 12 McCabism Puzzles (18″ x 12″ rectangle, $195 each) became available in the Nervous System shop – and (except for few McCabism ones) have sold out in no time.

The success of Jessica and Jesse’s practise is testiment to the beauty and novelty of their work. It’s also reward of an exemplary artist-scientist methodology that reverse engineers nature and uses its code for creation, making each product a key to the natural world. A complex process the two share openly and enthusiastically. “To create the organic shape of the puzzle pieces, we designed a system based on the simulation of dendritic solidification, a crystal growth process similar to the formation of snowflakes that occurs in supercooled solutions of certain metallic alloys. By varying the parameter space, it can produce a variety of cut styles.” Additionally to the ‘regular’ pieces, each puzzle comes with one or more ‘whimsies’, figural puzzle pieces resembling algae, diatoms, radiolarians and other minuscule creatures (a key to identifying them is available on their website). Once generated and with whimsies in place, a 60W Epilog laser cutter cuts each puzzle out of a piece of 1/4″ birch plywood, concluding the extensive research that went on for roughly two years. “The puzzle generation system is one of the most complex design programs we have created,” states the detailed project documentation with some pride.

A big part of the first edition’s allure are the mesmerizing radial artworks by generative artist Jonathan McCabe. “We are huge fans of Jonathan McCabe. We thought the colorful landscapes of his reaction-diffusion works would be perfect for jigsaw puzzles and luckily, he thought so too!” Jessica and Jesse write about the collaboration with the Canberra artist. McCabe, known for his kaleidoscopic morphogenetic systems, describes his contribution as follows:

“The images are generated by three processes acting in concert. One process is derived from Alan Turing’s proposal of a mechanism that would spontaneously produce patterns of spots or stripes in living creatures, due to the diffusion and reaction of various substances which activate or inhibit each other and move at different rates through the tissue. The process used here has been modified so that it acts at multiple scales as a kind of ‘fractal’ reaction diffusion process. Another process is a simplified simulation of a 2D compressible fluid flow, which mixes the coloured dots and stripes together and forms sharp edges which are a little like shock waves. The reaction diffusion process produces patterns of movement as well as colours in the ‘fluid’. The third process is the explicit imposition of the cyclic symmetry which is achieved by tying together (via averaging) the values of colour and movement around the circle at each time step. An image of the slowly changing field of colour is recorded at each time step, and the ones judged most attractive (about one in a thousand) are selected.”

With most of the first edition puzzles sold, Nervous System is gearing up for the next phase: “This is only the beginning of our puzzle making endeavors. There is already more in works.” Ideas include, for example, rotating generative artists, exploring new puzzle systems and geometric shapes. “The potential is infinite!” – and the 21st century still young …

Read about Nervous System’s Hyphae collection from 2011 on CAN here.

Generative Jigsaw Puzzles (project site) – Nervous System on the Web | Twitter | Flickr | Vimeo
Jonathan McCabe on the Web | Flickr | Vimeo

    • DIOTEKDio

      This is so COOL

    • Greatmax

      Yes, cool and beautiful.

    • matchingponies

      Really nice! Are they still using Cinder?