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to spin

This page reviews a decidedly retinal type of kinetic art: the display of rotating objects whose speeds and/or patterns are designed to create optical artefacts that overrule ordinary, "realistic" perception. Rotating art pieces with less dazzling effects have been catalogued under the keyword "turn".


spinning geissler-tubes

In 1857, the German glass-blower and physicist Heinrich Geissler developed the first practical high-voltage low-pressure gas discharge tube. Geissler could employ lower air pressures than before, obtained by means of a new mercury vacuum pump of his own design. And he made good use of Ruhmkorff's new induction coil, to generate fast sequences of high-voltage pulses to drive the gas discharges.

Apart from its role in physical experimentation, the "Geissler-tube" was mostly used for optical art. The artistic Geissler-tubes had a variety of fancy shapes; they employed uranium glass for green fluorescence, and powders and liquids for additional color effects. The Geissler-tube also gave rise to an early form of kinetic art, known as the Geissler-tube rotator: an electric motor which rotates a Geissler-tube at a fairly high speed. Since the Geissler-tube emits a periodic sequence flashes (rather than continuous light), looking at a moving tube does not result in a motion blur, but in a superposition of discrete snapshots.


France, 1870

Georges Carette, Nuremberg





Albert Balasse: Le Compendium.

Albert Durac: Tubes de Geissler.

Antique Fan Collectors Association [Some posts by Terry Fisher.]

Jeff Behary: The Turn Of The Century Electrotherapy Museum. 1890s - 1920s Crookes, Geissler, & X-Ray Tubes.


two-dimensional spinning patterns


Marcel Duchamp & Man Ray:
Precision Optics
(Rotary Glass Plates), 1920

Marcel Duchamp:
Precision Optics
(Rotary Demisphere), 1925




Marcel Duchamp: Rotoreliefs, 1935

[Disks to be placed on gramophone turntable]



Ray Staakman: Groot Draaiend Vierkant, 1965

Carel Blotkamp: "Ray Staakman."
17, 5 (Oct. 1972), pp.209-214.


Subjective Stroboscopy

Subjective direction reversal, as visualized by VanRullen et al. (2011)

A pattern employed by Kline et al. (2008)

To a human observer, a continuously moving visual pattern with a repetition frequency of ca. 13 Hz. may appear to move in the direction opposite to the actual movement. This phenomenon, discovered by J.F. Schouten (1967), is reminiscent of the "wagonwheel effect" that occurs when a movie-camera records rotating spokes whose repetition frequency approaches or exceeds the camera's sample frequency. To explain his observations, Schouten indeed postulated a periodicity in the behaviour of the cells in the retina.

The subjective experience of looking at motion patterns in the critical frequency range is much more complex and interesting than a simple direction reversal. The demonstrations of subjective stroboscopy in Schouten's lectures outperformed most optical and kinetic artworks.


J.F. Schouten: "Subjective stroboscopy and a model of visual movement detectors." In I. Wathen-Dunn (Ed.): Models for the perception of speech and visual form. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967, pp. 44–45.

Keith A. Kline & David M. Eagleman: "Evidence against the temporal subsampling account of illusory motion reversal." Journal of Vision, Vol. 8, no. 4 (April 18, 2008), Article 13.

Rufin VanRullen & Julien Dubois: "The Psychophysics of Brain Rhythms." Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 2 (August 2011), Article 203.


spinning objects




Jean Tinguely: Sculpture Virtuelle, 1955
[2500 rpm]



Jean Tinguely: Constante Indéterminée. Édition MAT, 1960

[Platform with rotating clamp.
Arbitrary objects can be fixed onto the clamp.]


More instantiations of Jean Tinguely's Constante Indéterminée. Édition MAT, 1960 & 1964



Jean Tinguely: Miostar Nr. 2, 1974

Jean Tinguely: Bosch Nr. 2, 1974



Bruno Munari: Rotore, 1993

spinning monochromes




Yves Klein & Jean Tinguely: Excavatrices de l'Espace, 1958


Reiner Ruthenbeck:
Schnelle Scheibe, 1973

Reiner Ruthenbeck:
Kinetisches Objekt Nr. 3, 1982







remko scha, july 2012