Paper for the Symposium:
Tool Versus Medium, The Use of Rapid Prototyping in Contemporary Sculpture
De Montfort University, 16 September 2004
This text is not a transcript of September's symposium talk. Rather, I would like to address more particularly some of the issues of the theme of the symposium which avail themselves through writing more than through talking around a sequence of images.
1. The Un-erotic Object
I'd like to focus on the RP object in its strict definition, and exclude other computer aided processes, like CNC routing, or the more craft based techniques I have developed to make my sculpture which I will discuss in Part 2. But first, a little diversion.
I remember one of the first sculptures I (consciously) made as a teenager. Someone helped me pour a weak mix of plaster into a cardboard box which gave me a block. I carved it with a spoon and recognised that the curvy convolutions and cavities were completely contingent on the shape of this tool. It was a magical spoon (I wish I still had it). I felt I was merely an agent. The experience was a kind of revelation --- of the importance of process which has continued to condition my approach to sculpture.
How different then, the rapid prototype object which arrives untouched by human hand. The pleasure of handling material, moving stuff around in the studio, making things in the workshop are displaced elsewhere: to the virtual environment of the computer and the machine which produces the object. I can only think of the RP object as a product of a process interruptus --- the outcome of an interruption and a closure on further action. It's an odd sort of anti-erotic object. Is there anything to redeem it apart from its novelty and technical fascination?
In contrast to the example I just gave of carving which is a direct mediation of hand - tool - material, the mediating activity of an RP object happens elsewhere at another time in a digital realm. Because of this "delay", the RP object has something of the quality of a found object, tinged with a familiarity and desire yet strange because of its disconnected appearance. Or perhaps it's more like a readymade where the object and concept have a simultaneous instrumentality: they have a mutual use for one another. There is also the sense in which the RP object is like a natural object; like a seashell, it's difficult to improve upon it. I cite these object examples because they, too, are not the outcome of an embodied process.
Looking more directly at the kind of object it actually is, RP technology was developed to make small component size engineering objects. In this sense it is a model, suspended, as it were, in the provisional space all models inhabit. It is a radical object, unique in its arrival untouched by human agency, apart from the "code" determined via its virtual modelling.
My experience in making sculpture rarely included drawings, preparatory or otherwise. My predilection was towards direct engagement with materials. So digital modelling was both an alien activity (as "drawing for sculpture") as well as alienating because the experience is a disembodied one. The RP object accentuates this de-natured aspect all the more. Perhaps I ought not to dwell on its nature as an object in itself, an object somehow compromised by the severing of its conception from its production. Rather, I should acknowledge its instrumentality to evoke an imaginative space which is what models are meant to do. This gives me a link back to issues of process and the virtual environment in which modelling takes place.
In working with 3D modelling software one is both looking at a flat screen and looking into a chamber, but a chamber potentially vast in its dimensions. There is an involvement in the ambiguity of "looking at" and "looking into". The screen as an interface provokes analogies to be drawn between, for example, the virtual space of the "chamber" and a physical room space, between modelling grid and floor, between surface qualities of rendered object and the textures of real things.
Some of these virtual spatial conditions are redeemed in the work by bringing unfamiliar spatial and object conditions into our own embodied space. For example, surfaces and volumes in digital space are permeable: they don't resist the impingement of another object. This seems like an obvious thing to observe because we encounter this continually in drawing with a pencil. Nevertheless, this awareness is heightened because of the three dimensionality of the forms and the persuasiveness of the geometric algorithms employed. This capacity for making complex intersections (called Boolean operations) gave me a way to work, a rationale for becoming involved in the relationship between the virtual object/space of the computer and the material realm. My interest was to embody these unusual and unexpected conditions of virtual objects. To date, all my RP objects have been dealing with this feature of boolean intersections.
I discovered (ironically) that trial and error, that most primitive of process strategies, was fundamental to this sophisticated technology. Traditionally, trial and error is seen as a cumulative process over generations because of the effort involved in handling the material world. In virtual space action is virtually effortless. Working with boolean intersections, for example, trial and error was an essential method in order to achieve a coherence of form, getting forms to cut through one another without producing fragments.
However, working with the RP object remains a marginal, occasional pursuit for me, beset by a sense of termination and sterility. Again, like a found object, it is difficult for me to continue to work on an RP object apart from making a mould and transferring it into another material (porcelain, bronze, cast iron). Yet, I wouldn't reject opportunities to continue working in this area precisely because of its innovative technology and the continuation of learning skills. I need to adapt further to fully engage with the RP machine, that other, more removed hermetic chamber which constructs from coded instructions.
2. Out of the Womb
My involvement with 3D digital modelling began to locate itself more centrally in my practice and the relationship between the digital and the material became a kind of subject matter, not only to make sculptural objects that had a kind of 'otherness' but also as a means of engaging in the current cultural debate around electronic media in art and beyond. I had to develop techniques other than RP in order to achieve the scale I wanted and not to be reliant on expensive technology. But most importantly, these techniques allowed me to maintain a direct hands-on involvement from the initial printout on my A4 printer (scaled up) to the building of a model to its moulding and then casting.
I have described these techniques elsewhere (Serpents and Snails: Digital Modelling and Material Process, 2001, EKWC, and "Festina lente : make haste slowly" , 2005, Beeldenstorm /Daglicht). They are craft based techniques involving either a contour sliced model in polystyrene or a tessellated printout (an unfolded diagram) which when mounted on card can be refolded to produce a volume.
Initially, the sculptural forms I made were in response to learning the software, making boolean intersections, morphing one shape into another, contrasting nurbs meshes with facetted structures, deforming and distorting forms. I wasn't thinking about subject matter. Or rather, the subject matter was this process of working with elementary, primitive shapes --- angles and arcs combined to produce virtual 3D objects through extrusions or lathing.
I began to get a sense of how objects might look in real space. However, despite being able to transfer these digital forms into material models fairly quickly, I continued to have difficulty in understanding how they would operate in the material world. My project is a desire to bridge this gap between an abstract knowledge, a coded information, and palpable experiences like surface textures and the affects of orientation to gravity.
As my competence increased, I learned how to deform the shapes I made. These distortions were both pragmatic (to maintain boolean integrity) and playful or whimsical (lets see what happens if...). However, working within the virtual environment, varieties of viewpoints and perspective systems can be employed to look at the form one is making. And in this sense, everything on the screen is distorted. The perceptual adjustments one continually makes in real space to integrate our conceptual understanding with our perceptual experience operate differently in virtual space, whether one constructs a model space as an architectural environment, or allows objects to float or tethers them to a ground-plan graphic grid.
These distortions are less evident in curvilinear or organic forms than they are in rectilinear structures. I began exploring these latter structures and found that making generic architectural forms would allow me to make distortions which would appear as such in real space. That is, I needed a representational mode in order to reveal the distortion. (The distortion of an abstract form is merely another abstract form.) So, a fundamental change took place in my work away from abstraction towards representational references. These distorted architectural models formed in material (cast iron, polyester) appeared to possess their own perspective, a kind of psuedo-anamorphism. For me, this was an interesting sculptural conundrum: by giving an object a particular though unfixed viewpoint, perspective as a relative structure (shifting in relation to the viewer's position) is bound into the object itself, thus emphasising its object character, giving it a kind of autonomy.
Earlier I described the RP object as un-erotic. This stems from my experience working with materials in the studio as pleasurable, as a kind of erotic experience both because of its haptic qualities and the fact that it is, for the most part, process driven, extendable, unpredictable. These features don't present themselves in the RP object. However, there has been a shift in my practice which encourages me to question this distinction, at least as regards the issue of process. The shift is partly due to a change in subject matter: the modelling of animals, the tortoise and hare in the "Festina lente" work. One doesn't so much construct as 'grow' an animal in virtual space. This process makes me think differently about the virtual space. It's no longer the denatured, abstract Cartesian space of co-ordinates and algorithms, but other kinds of rhythms unfold in a more nurturing environment. Its strange how one's attitude can shift so radically. Instead of an infinite space, the virtual becomes like the space of a womb where one might dream. Of course the point of being in a womb is to get out and actualise the virtual.