Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn

Email interview with Michael Flynn conducted by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, curator, December 2012

Why were you drawn to work with ferrofluid in the first place? Would you mind talking briefly about what ferrofluid is and what makes the amazing shapes appear? Why do you find this material especially appealing to work with?

The Magnetoscope is not intended to deliver scientific information; its function is simply to activate curiosity. Natural human curiosity is the most potent, and the only authentic motivation for learning. The following explanation is made palatable by ravenous curiosity: Ferrofluid is a magnetic liquid that was developed by NASA. It is engineered at the molecular level, with nano-scale iron oxide particles chemically joined with oil to form a stable colloidal mixture that will not separate – even when exposed to strong magnets. Magnets steer the shape of the liquid as the iron particles in the oil are pulled toward the strongest magnetic fields. But the magnetic field is affected too. The field lines normally spread out as much as possible when traveling through air, but they are drawn together inside the columns of iron-rich ferrofluid. There are almost no magnetic field lines between the liquid columns because the magnetic fields crammed into adjacent columns repel each other. Gravity slumps these liquid columns into cone shapes, like piles of sand. And surface tension in the oil is responsible for the sharp tips and the glossy appearance. There is a lot of physics and chemistry at work in this enigmatic display of levitating liquid.

There’s an inherent lusciousness to ferrofluid, both in terms of its color and its forms. What kinds of aesthetic considerations went into your final design that relate to the purpose of the piece (e.g. color and size)?

I built the Magnetoscope around the maximum gap between magnets that I could span with ferrofluid. The heavy aluminum construction feels smooth and solid. It creates the science fiction futurist aesthetic which is an identifying characteristic of my artwork. I love the appearance of the Magnetoscope’s large viewing domes, but these were designed primarily for their function as a sturdy enclosure that remains immaculately clean – far from the messy splash of ferrofluid.

The flow within Magnetoscope is present in both the ferrofluid itself and in the interaction of the museum visitors who are able to change the position of the magnets. Why did you create a piece that requires interaction instead of just displaying the ferrofluid in motion?

The Magnetoscope fosters an extended sense of community in public spaces as people engage each other in cooperative play. Independent magnet positioning hand wheels require users to negotiate a shared control strategy to steer the liquid’s flow with the top and bottom magnets. Transforming impersonal spaces with an experience of community is the highest purpose of public art.

A few of the other works in the exhibition Flow, Just Flow visualize physical properties of a variety of things and phenomena. Examples include Semiconductor’s 20Hz; HINT.FM’s Wind; and Shinichi Maruyama’s photographs. All of these works, along with Magnetoscope, deal with movement of substances or of energy within the natural world. Why do you think artists are inspired by this as a subject to explore?

Matter and energy flow in accord with the same universal laws of physics that shape ourselves. The subjective beauty of natural patterns is in the way we identify with order and complexity. It is as if we glimpse our own portrait in these patterns, which affirms our inherent connectedness to the natural world.

I wondered if you might talk about your creative process and if you ever find yourself in a state of creative flow? When/if that does happen, does it occur at various stages throughout the making of the work?

I find my best creative flow in my initial planning stages where I can dream freely. Even logistic constraints are springboards for inspiration. Because of this, I have dozens of projects in prototype stage and lots of cool junk crammed into my workshop. I find it difficult to bring my ideas all the way to market as a finished product; I worked for five years to refine the design of Magnetoscope. It is clear that I suffer from start-ophelia and finish-ophobia but I really enjoy the labor I’ve chosen for myself.

Ferrofluid Magnetoscope by Michael Flynn from Michael Flynn on Vimeo.

See a brief interview with Flynn at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan


Michael Flynn (American, born 1967) is a lecturer at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design and also founder of Fun Exhibits, an art & science experience-design company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Flynn has a B.S. in Physics and M.S. in Science Education, and has experience as a science educator, designer, and engineer. His exhibits are in continuous use in the permanent collections of The New York Hall of Science, The Inspiria Science Center in Norway, The Impression5 Science Center and the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum in Michigan, and WonderLab Science Center and The Imagination Station in Indiana. He has exhibited at Dublin’s Science Gallery, The Edinburgh Science Festival, The USA Science and Engineering Festival and Maker Faire technology festivals in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and New York.

Read more about Flynn and his work