• Sara Laura Wilson

Silk Pavilion II | The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC

Mediated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab

Position: Undergraduate Researcher (UROP)

June 2019 — February 2020

Exhibition: Neri Oxman: Material Ecology

Textile makers, product designers, fashion designs, and architects would find alternative methods of producing silk useful. But even a shirt requires the silk of thousands of silkworms, three orders of magnitude larger than our sample groups in the research study. Presenting research in the form of art challenges the scientist to consider their work visually and at new scales. To scale-up from microscopic to macroscopic, unit to system, organism to community, scientists must investigate a new set of research questions and consider potential advocates and opponents of their work.

Animal rights activists have berated the silk industry for viewing the silkworm as a “tool” rather than a creature. To harvest silk from a cocoon, the larva is killed; this disrupts the lifecycle of the silkworm because it dies before it can reproduce. The harvested raw silk is processed into threads, which are used to weave fabric for textile applications, like clothing.

The scaffold upon which the pavilion was strung during its construction was rotated by a motor. Therefore, silkworms, whose instincts drive them to climb upwards (presumably away from predators) would spin an even coating of silk across the mesh. Holes in the mesh were intentionally placed for silkworms to traverse the external and internal surfaces of the pavilion. Photos by Sara L. Wilson.

To design a work of art that would be of interest to a community larger than that of insect researchers, we ventured into an unexplored research space. We combined the known design criteria from our research and the knowledge of silk producers (from whom we learned the approximate number of silkworms needed to cover a specific surface area with a specific thickness of silk). We also considered the concerns of silk experts from every field: sericulture, fashion, design, and animal rights. The resulting piece was a six meter tall, five meter wide, rotating canopy upon which silkworms could spin flat sheets of silk. The construction of the canopy directly addressed the largest challenge of silk production: ethical and scalable manufacturing. Over the course of the two weeks, 17,532 silkworms were placed upon the pavilion (approximately 1000 a day) during their spinning cycle. A large, hammock-like cloth was hung under the entire structure to protect and collect larva that would fall off the structure when their spinning cycle ended. The underlying textile of the canopy was woven of a polymer mesh that could be removed post-spinning by dissolving with water.

Silk Pavilion II in the MoMA. Photo by Denis Doorly.

Here, the silkworms are not tools. They are collaborators, engineers, and designers.

Direct supervisor: Sunanda Sharma

PI: Neri Oxman

©2019 by Sara Laura Wilson.