| FEATURES 02 | VIRTUAL AND OTHER BODIES |
Langlands & Bell The House of Osama bin Laden 2003 interactive computer animation
It is easy to see how contemporary scanning and computer modelling technologies resemble the sculptural process of casting. It is a mechanical process that doesn’t require the subjective interpretation of an artist to shape a form. The wireframe meshes of a digital 3D model before rendering even resemble the hollow bronze skin of a cast sculpture in their fine duplication of purely external surface detail. This is not the only visual similarity between a physical and a virtual sculpture. Before a 3D model is given a skin – wrapped in its textured and coloured surface – it has a neutral, of en light-grey appearance that recalls stone sculpture. This presumably unintentional resemblance is another element of technological visual culture that Laric and others have played with in modelling classical statuary. It inevitably recalls the high Postmodernism of the 1980s, with its frequent use of classical references as symbols of the ‘free-floating’ signifier cut loose from any connection to a particular time or place. In the critical writing around digital modelling projects, such that exists so far, the discourse sounds a lot like postmodern problematics 2.0. Questions of originality, reproduction and ownership predominate. The ontological problem of the relationship between virtual and ‘real’ objects is like nothing so much as Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum given tediously prosaic form. Af er all, we are by now well used to thinking of .doc files as real ‘documents’ and virtual desktops as places to dump ‘stacks’ of material.
In contrast to this, given that 3D scanning and modelling techniques are essentially virtual sculpture, would it be possible or desirable to think about them in terms of the traditions of sculptural discourse? In the early days of computer graphics in the late 1960s, the only way to talk about 3D images was essentially mathematical. Writing in the catalogue for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s recent exhibition ‘3D Double Vision’, scientist Thomas Banchof describes the process of mapping a cube onto a computer screen as follows: ‘One simple but ef ective way was just to drop one particular coordinate of each point, thereby producing the front and back, top and bottom,
and lef and right-side views of a structure. More ef ective was to use matrix algebra to get coordinates for an object in three-dimensional space rotated around an axis so we could obtain on screen a whole collection of intermediate views’. The development of visual interfaces and the birth of the whole field of user-experience design mean that these days few people need to think so axiomatically about mapping the three-dimensional onto a two-dimensional screen. The tools, and the metaphors behind the tools, of en draw quite naturally from the established language of sculpture. The popular Z-Brush sof ware, which is particularly suited to creating lumpy organic forms, makes use of the metaphor of modelling with a highly plastic substance. The neutral silvery-grey default stuf that everything begins as is even called ‘digital clay’. One of the many menus of specialised sculpting tools reads like a version of Richard Serra’s Verb List, 1967-68 (Interview AM161). There are tools to ‘pinch’, ‘flatten’, ‘smooth’, ‘nudge’, ‘smudge’ or even to ‘blob’.
Another well-established program, Maya, tends towards more geometric forms and makes use of metaphors like extrusion, extension and rotation almost as if using a potter’s wheel. It makes sense to use this kind of vocabulary because it is a language that everyone understands and means that we are able to visualise the likely outcome of an essentially abstract mathematical operation. Indeed, it becomes so natural af er a while that it is easy to forget that the model is just a representation of a set of data rather than a physical object.
The LACMA exhibition told the story of the development of dif erent attempts to portray and use 3D images in a variety of contexts from the scientific field to the entertainment industry. This history is considerably longer than you might imagine, with stereoscopic drawings going back well into the 19th century. There was a copy of mathematician Henry Vuibert’s 1912 book Les Anaglyphes Geometriques in Marcel Duchamp’s library, which clearly provided material for his experiments in stereoscopic vision. The crystalline structure drawn over a photographic sea in his Handmade Stereopticon Slide, 1918-19, could be straight out of such a textbook. Artists such as Sigma Polke, Bruce Nauman, Richard Hamilton and Michael Snow have all played with the problem using novel media like lenticular lenses and holography, and were all included in the exhibition alongside popular media like red/green anaglyphic comic books and View-Master stereo viewers. But up until the invention of the selective laser sintering process (now commonly called 3D printing) pretty much every image in three-dimensions was destined to remain as just that, an image.
The irony of the huge explosion in 3D is that the vast majority of the models are built to be seen on 2D screens. Within video games and the media, a fully realised
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JUNE 19 | ART MONTHLY | 427