‘Touch the Ceiling’

On the first day of my BA in Interaction & Moving Image, I was set a short brief called ‘Touch the ceiling’, in which I would need imagination and to make quick decisions.

‘You have until Friday to devise a method and construction to touch the floor and ceiling. You have to start on the floor, then touch the ceiling and finally touch the floor again. You personally do not have to touch the ceiling, but an “object” that you have created does, in a deliberate, designed and possibly controlled manner.’

I started by brainstorming ideas in a sketchbook.

First things first, I needed a method of creating lift. I figured this would be one of the essential problems to overcome, because surely once my object had reached the ceiling, gravity would be there to bring it back down. But then this raised the problem of controlling the way in which gravity would return it to the floor.

I began to explore the method of using air to lift something to the ceiling, like when a child blows bubbles and they float upwards before eventually bursting. I thought to myself, why can’t I just do that? If I blew a bubble from washing up liquid mixture then if it hits the ceiling it will burst and its remains will fall to the ground. However there are several flaws with this. First being that how would it start from the floor? I could blow the bubble close to the floor but I couldn’t see how it was going go directly from the floor. Also once the bubble had popped then my object has changed, it wouldn’t be the bubble itself returning to the floor, but the bubble in another form as such. These were enough problems for me to dismiss this direction.

I then started thinking about balloons, similar to bubbles in the way that they are filled with air and pop! A balloon filled with the air from our lungs, will not rise, but what about a balloon filled with regular air and with helium?.  My theory was that this balloon’s content was unbalanced, it would bob up and down. When I looked it up,this was sadly untrue. It turns out a balloon filled with half helium, half regular air, is simply suspended in mid air, Shown in this video Half air Half Helium Balloon. Although I know this isn’t the most reliable source on the internet, but the physics behind it makes sense.

The next balloon related method that came to me was, a balloon filled with helium is held to touch the floor, when it is released it will float up to the ceiling where it will be greeted with a grid of pins, which will burst the balloon and it will fall to the floor. Problems with this method were : gaining access to helium for a single balloon, if the balloon will float in the direction of the pins, if the pins will even burst the balloon, and once the balloon bursts it will be virtually impossible to control it’s return to the floor. With all these things to consider, I scraped this idea.

This brought me to hot air balloons. Hot air balloons are controlled by the principle that hot air rises and displaces cold air. By filling a balloon with hot air it will lift everything attached to it up with it with enough power, and by removing the heat source, it can be lowered. I started to look up how to make your own miniature hot air balloons and came across this video, which was really interesting (minus the really irritating girl giving the tutorial). It’s called making a tea bag hot air balloon and involves taking an empty tea bag and setting light to both sides. It quickly burns down, but at the very last second, when the tea bag is at its lightest, the heat from the flame sends it flying up into the air. The remains then slowly float back down.

My Tea bag hot air balloon attempt

More than anything this was very fun to do, and it cost me ALOT of tea bags. What I found to be more successful than I had expected was that when the flame has extinguished and it floated down, it was very slow and easy to control and catch if need be (it cooled down very quickly). It ticked almost all of the boxes set by the brief, except an essential one, the flame only sent the tea bag a few feet into the air, it didn’t hit the ceiling. This was a huge shame. I tried slotting tea bags into each other, which increased the height it got slightly, but it became apparent quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to get it to hit the ceiling (without the aid of something like petrol!).

So I went back to making mini hot air balloons. Through following directions on a wikihow page or something like that, I came up with the one shown below. Which did not work in the slightest. The candles burnt the string and melted the balloons. It was swiftly sent to the bin and I went back to the drawing board.

I started thinking that perhaps I was over complicating this and went back to my initial ideas in my sketchbook and re read the brief. It was after this that I decided to starting playing around with the idea of using a hairdryer’s air to send something to the ceiling. My younger brother told me that if you place a small ball on a hairdryer and turn it on you can balance it and suspend it in mid-air. It turns out that I’m not very good at this but it got me thinking. When I was a little girl I used to play a game called ‘Elefun‘, which is the main source of inspiration for my ‘Touch the Ceiling’ construction.

The diagram here demonstrates the vision for my method.

I made sure that the principle of the idea worked first of all. I rolled up an A1 sheet of paper into a tube and placed it around the end of my hairdyer, put a ping pong ball inside and watched it burst out when I turned the fan on. This simple prototype provided me with almost all the information i’d need to build the real thing.


The first thing I noticed is that as soon as the ball left the top of the tube it was pushed away from the tube and fell to the ground. I wanted the ball to remain in the tube so that when I turned the fan off, it would return to the floor, meaning I would remain in control of it at all times. To keep the ball within the tube, I would need the tube to reach as close to the ceiling as possible. Because I made the mistake of not measuring the height of the studio, I would need to be able to adjust the height of the tube on the day. The easiest way to do this would be that the tube was made up of several shorter tubes that could be pushed inside of each other. Of if worse comes to worse, be able to cut the tube on the day to fit the studio.

The prototype also showed me that the narrower the tube, the further the force reaches. In a tube with a wider diameter, force is lost more quickly. In relation to this, the lighter the ball, the easier it is pushed upwards.

Although the paper roll prototype worked, it was obvious that it would be fair more exciting if you could see the ball being highered and lowered, meaning the tube would need to be clear. So I began the deceivingly difficult task of finding where I could get clear tubing from. This was probably the most challenging part of the brief for me, as I spent the following hours on the internet looking through pages of plastic tubes that were either really expensive, wouldn’t be delivered on time, not transparent etc etc. Eventually I found some, along with a small polystyrene ball that would act as my object.

The next day I arrived at the studio with my four tubes, hair dyer, a polystyrene ball and clear masking tape. I started setting up, first by modifying my tubes slightly. I cut slits in the top end of each tube and then taped it together so that the circumference of the top of the tube was now smaller. This meant that I could now slot each tube into one another fairly easily, providing me with an even stronger structure than before. It also meant that because now the tubes simply slotted into one another, it meant it was very easy to disassemble it.

I plugged my hair dyer in and taped it to the floor, to ensure that it remained pointing towards the ceiling before taping the first tube to the bottom. Because of the way the hair dyer was positioned it meant that it was quite difficult to turn it on. Where I use it every day i knew where all of the buttons were, however when someone else attempted to turn it on, they had a lot of difficulty. This would one of the key things to change if I were to improve my structure.

However there was one very vital problem had become apparent whilst I attached my tubes, that I didn’t have enough to reach the ceiling. It was very important that they reached all the way to the ceiling or else the ball would escape the top of the tube and fall out. I didn’t have any more clear tubes so I used a rolled up sheet of A4 paper, which although, did the job of keeping the ball inside the tube, it meant that you couldn’t see the ball hit the ceiling which was very disappointing for me. I think it would have made a big difference. What I learnt from this is that I should have measured the height of the room and made sure I had enough tubing, something that could have easily been avoided.

Overall the structure worked really well, just as well as i’d hoped. It was clear that my hard work trying to find the clear tubes had paid off, as the effect just wouldn’t have been the same with opaque cardboard tubes. Watching the ball glide up and down the tube as the air pressure was altered was so simple that it was almost elegant. What would have been even better would be if I could have controlled the air pressure using a dimmer switch, meaning I would have full control over the height the ball reached, instead of just ceiling and floor.

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