MADA3 – resolution
MADA3 – Artist statement + reflection
The aim of this project was to create life-size, full colour models of the space passed through by a person in motion. I intended to use two key technologies; 3D figure animation and rapid prototyping. The challenge was to master these technologies. Last summer I was contacted by Dutch artist Peter Jansen, who had essentially already completed my project. His objective sculptures, the expense involved in manufacturing this type of object, and my increasing frustration with the unforgivingness of preparing models for rapid prototyping, saw a major change in my methods, resulting in my current use of hand crafted materials. This new process is firmly in the camp of ‘slow prototyping’, where the pleasure of building something, and the visible effort in the finished models, has more than made up for a large loss in objective accuracy. This change has also forced me into deeper considerations of the aesthetics of visualising motion which has taken me back 100 years to the internal conflicts amoungst the Futurists, who strove to record the dynamism of their time.
At the turn of the twentieth century the Italian Futurists were inspired by new scientific theories of higher dimensions and relativity but a greater influence was a cluster of new technologies which in the popular media phrase ‘annihilated space and time’ – the fast car, the phonograph, the telegram, radio waves, x-rays, transcontinental trains, aeroplanes, ocean liners, global newspapers, and the electrification of cities and factories across the western world. Soon to come would be motion pictures & the telephone, further shrinking the world, fracturing and delivering it to the viewer. The Futurists aimed to encapsulate these compressions in an active, energised art. They were inspired by, but reacted against, the multi-perspective works of the Cubists, seeking a more temporal approach. The chronophotography of Marey and Muybridge leant itself perfectly to this dynamic vision – both had published guidebooks for artists to get poses ‘anatomically correct’. Marey’s Positivist stance was discarded by the Futurists who aligned themselves with Rodin’s view that “it is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies”. Instead they incorporated ideas from the popular philosophical work of Henri Bergson. His complex philosophy attacked the scientific method of reductive analysis – he saw time as the underlying reality, which could not be broken down and understood through measurement. Matter was an invention of our senses and the only way to understand it was through an ‘intuition’ of the constantly becoming. This appealed to artists looking to get beyond vision and they pounced upon (sometimes misconstruing) his ideas of duration, force-lines, simulataneity, flux and dynamism.
“all division of matter into independent bodies with absolutely determined outlines is an artificial division” (Bergson, Matter & Memory 1896)
Despite Bergson stance against chronophotography the Futurists could not resist what they saw as ‘the first images to effectively rupture the perspectival code that had dominated painting since the Renaissance’ (Braun, Picturing Time, Chapter 7). Early paintings were dominated by Marey type images and a frenzy of kinetic force-lines. Given their forward thinking it is strange that the Futurists would excommunicate photodynamism from their movement. This was the invention of the Bragaglia brothers who had created a series of essentially choreographed long exposure photographs. The problem was in the differing interpretations of Bergson’s theories between the continuous photographs and the discrete (but artistically blurred) paintings. Both claimed to be more Bergsonian than the other, indeed Boccioni saw photography as a ‘necromorphic’ act which killed the possibility of becoming in their subjects.
I’ve been aware of this schism between the continuous and the discrete, and its refraction through the dualities of analog and digital sampling, from the inception of this project. However, as this project is not theoretically led, I have had the luxury to explore both approaches. My tentative findings are that the continuous approach ironically appears less motive than the discrete where the sequential spaced out figures lead the eye across the work, re-introducing the element of time. The continuous on the other hand is a more accurate model of all the space passed through, so to me both approaches are valid. I should say that my continuous is, through necessity, actually a mathematical interpolation from the discrete, otherwise, like Zeno’s tortoise, I would still be rendering the infintessimal changes in position to this day. I will give the last word to Bergson who just ‘didn’t get’ what artists did with his theories; in his Introduction to Metaphysics, he writes “from intuition one can pass on to analysis, but not from analysis to intuition”. I hope to continue exploring the ‘unique forms of continuity in space’ with this in mind.
In 2006 I had an idea for a series of art pieces: life size, full color sculptures which substantiated the motion of a human body. I simply wanted to see what these sculptures would look like.
I could see that the project would work for me on three levels:
1) Scientific – the sculptures should be as objective as possible. I am always interested in removing my particular artistic signature from my work, be it through generative compositional techniques, or a drive toward objectivity. My battle with objectivity has been a central challenge throughout this MA, a battle you might say that I eventually lost.
2) Artistic – as far as I knew at the time these type of objects didn’t yet exist. Throughout history artists have attempted to realise motion using traditional art techniques – and technology currently available meant that these objects could now be made. I wanted to see them. I figured other people would too.
3) Programmatic – to realise these objects would involve a fair degree of technical and programming skill which I felt a suitable challenge. Working with 3D mathematics has always been one of the hairier regions of programming, and one which to date I had avoided. But useful 3D algorithms are now available.
The project was feasible, and would result in traditional art objects.
I came across the work of Geoffrey Mann who was working along similar lines with animal motion. He called his project Long Exposure Sculptures and I borrowed his title and expanded it to include Photography and Film as this proved the most effective way to explain what I was trying to do. I chose Camberwell College of Arts, after researching other student projects, and determining that the course tutor Andy Stiff would be interested in helping me achieve my goal.
One of the prime reasons this project appealed to me was the recent improvements in the 3D modelling software Poser. This allows you to model a particular motion and then export these animations as a series of 3D OBJ files, one of the primary 3D polygon mesh formats. I envisioned that these OBJ files could then be merged (Boolean Unioned) in other 3D programs and then sent off to be commercially rendered, either by CNC milling or rapid prototyping. Here’s where my problems started. To render a rapid prototype requires that the file being sent to the printer is watertight; that is, the polygon mesh mustn’t have any geometrical holes or inconsistencies in it. There is a proprietry piece of software which comes with rapid prototyping machines called Magics STL which checks files about to be sent off for printing. This program was telling me that my models contained in the region of 8000 holes. On top of which the merging of different objects (and I was planning merging up to 60) would result in catastrophic breakdowns in the model’s geometry. The idea of hand filling all these holes was something I didn’t want to think about with my rudimentary knowledge of Rhino 3D.
Several months during my first year were spent trying to technically resolve these problems which stemmed from the fact that the object files coming out of Poser were hopelessly inadequate. Poser was designed to produce 2D renders of 3D figures, so when you look in detail at the back of the figures or all the places where clothes touch bodies or where body parts overlap, you can see the shortcomings.
However I was encouraged by the types of 2D renders I was producing. From simple, almost default motions, walking, running, etc. the output figures held a charming and perhaps mythical quality. Eventually I managed to get a one month free trial of Magics STL (retail price £5000) and achieved my first watertight model. I christened it Golem and sent it off to the print technician at Central St Martins. After 9 months I had made my first prototype. Taking 8 hours to render and costing £80 it stood all of 9.6 centimeters tall, and unfortunately looked like something out of a cornflake packet. Most of the detail in the 3D model was gone, several small fingers had fallen off in the process of removing the scaffolding, it was a dull cream monotone, and if I were to scale it up would cost many thousands of pounds. My trial of the essential Magics STL had run out and I was completely stuck as to how to proceed. About this time I received an email from a Dutch artist called Peter Jansen saying, “Hello, I think you might be interested in my project…”
Peter had already done my project! What is more, he had used exactly the same pipeline: Poser to Magics STL to rapid prototype. He had just successfully exhibited these objects at the Turin Design Show and received a lot of praise for them. Thus, I finished my first year. I wrote my PGPD essay on ‘The Impossibility of Originality in Digital Art’ and went away to consider where to take my project.
Anaysing Peter’s impressive achievement closely I started to think carefully about the gap between objective and subjective approaches to visualising motion. Peter had made his own version of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ and the gulf between the two versions suggested that a more subjective interpretation might be scientifically weaker but artistically stronger. The static-ness of Peter’s sculptures also told me that what I was really attempting was not to express motion but in fact, what can be seen as its opposite – to freeze time. I started thinking about other works which I had made throughout the year.
I had successfully been applying long exposure techniques to video data, and real time webcam footage to create pieces which recorded motion as a trail or trace. These were achievable because at any given moment I knew where every pixel was, and could recombine them algorithmically at will. In 3D the figures were made up of thousands of triangles. Whether any particular triangle crossed another in space was unknown to me, they were just huge lists of unmanageable data.
About this time I saw a video of a technical talk given by a young American artist called Nathan Wade. He had made a 3D model of a head slowly turning using medical data available in the public domain. He had written algorithms to decimate and rotate this data, and described what he was doing as Data Mining – the attempt to find new ways of extracting information from pre-existing data. Crucially the data he was using was scanned – effectively a series of bitmaps – so he knew where every pixel was.
This made me think, why don’t I take my awkward 3D data and convert it into something that I can understand and work with – a 3D array of pixels, or voxels as they are called. And this is what I did. This finally resulted in me writing Voxeliser, a Java program to convert the geometric data into an array of small cubes. The beauty of this approach is that the problem of Boolean Unioning simply disappears. Each 3D object ‘frame’ given to the program just fills in certain boxes. The next frame then just does the same, if the box is already filled it moves on, it doesn’t care, but if the box is empty then it fills it. I didn’t think there would be any point in sending these voxel objects to a rapid prototyping machine as the poor resolution and associated lego aesthetic weren’t what I was looking for. However once I had the array I could output it as a series of slices and these could be sent to a laser cutter and then the slices could be glued together into a 3D model. This would become the backbone of my approach for the rest of the course. I finally had a production method where I could control all of the stages.
This method started me off on a series of cardboard works called Slugmen, which model the space passed through in a single stride. They were eventually shown as part of XHIBIT09 in the Arts Gallery at UAL. To scale up these models meant I would trace the slice outlines from a projector onto large card – which involved some artistic approximation.
The messy inevitabilities of hand crafting, have started to take over the work, which I’m fine with for now. To generate one of these models objectively has defeated me (particularily budget wise), but I know that within my crude models lies a core of an objectively realistic model which creates an interesting counterpoint. I think the sculptures work on a simple visual level too, the materials and colour are friendly.
At the start of the project I suspected that the content wasn’t too important and that each sculpture would generate its own narratives or readings and I think I’m starting to find that is true. The main subjects I’m currently working on are to do with balance, the artist being pushed off a plinth, vaulting over a balcony into space, falling off a bench. These address figurative balance, notions of collapse. They could be read as metaphors for my future as an artist, which too is in the balance.
As I have worked through the MA, many future themes have been thrown up, including Sporting, Science Fiction, and ideas of capturing the explosion of people through a city, one hundred years after the Futurists. I have been accepted onto a Phd at Camberwell where I will be developing software tools for manipulating voxel data in a deeper more generic way, but with traditional artefact generation in mind. I am really excited about future developments within this project which I feel can look both backwards and forwards at once.
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MADA3 – Symposium 2009
This video briefly introduces the work of artist Tim Pickup on a Digital Arts MA at Camberwell College of Art.
The final outcome of this project has been to render life-size, full colour sculptures of the space passed through by a human being in motion; effectively a long exposure sculpture.
The bulk of my time on the course has been spent working out exactly how to use a mixture of java programs and 3D modelling packages to convert animated motion sequences into a format that can be physically rendered. The final sculptures are constructed from over 1000 meticulously cut out and glued pieces of corrugated cardboard, which are then covered in papier-mache and painted. Apart from being a fun hands on solution, the contrast between the high-tech ‘behind the scenes’ calculations and the low-tech finish adds a friendly element of intrigue to the pieces – just exactly how were they made?
Throughout the course I have carried out experiments in long exposure digital photography and video as a means of checking progress, and have also contextualised my work by examining historical artists and scientists. The key inspiration has been the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey, and the way in which twentieth century avant-garde artists, and in particular the Italian Futurists, interpreted his images almost exactly 100 years ago.
I have chosen to model two actions which both address issues of balance. One piece models the artist falling off a plinth (or has he been pushed?), and in the other the artist vaults over the balcony of a stairwell. Both pieces could perhaps also be read as metaphors for my future life as an artist, which too is in the balance.
MADA3 – Assessment Links
This page is a collection of links to previous blog posts to aid the assessment of my MA. I’ve arranged a categorised Site Map of all the posts to the blog, and have highlighted several key posts below.
I. Project Development
- Problems with Poser/Rhino
- The artist falling off a plinth
- The artist vaulting over a balcony
II. Final Show Build
- One of the big payoffs of creating physical objects has been the ease of installing them. Each of the two models took approximately a month to make. ‘The artist falling off a plinth’, which was a half size model, was built in one piece and weighs about 30kg so was simple to install. The other, ‘The artist vaulting over a balcony’ was made in several parts, each weighing about 10kg and although large were OK to lift alone. The main problem was getting the entire thing to balance on a small foot, but the hand attachment to the balcony, PVA glue and several internal rope ties, locked the parts together strongly. Five wires through the sculpture and around the balcony insured the sculpture couldn’t slip sideways. In the end the concentration of the weight downwards gave the sculpture more than enough stability. People have commented on how weighty it looks and also precarious, but it is stable, and the overhang reminds me of Modernist architecture.
- I’ve been involved in all aspects of the show, from organising, curating, marketing, documenting and just the basic slog work of storing stuff away and painting walls white. Simon for organising, Susanna and Zai for curation, Noel and Dan for design and websites have also put in a lot of work. There have been several major changes in space allocation but I think everyone’s happy with what they have got, including the onliners. Although not everything was installed when I left on Friday I think most people are pretty close.
III. Symposium Presentation
- This was run as a video showreel with a short Q&A afterwards. Several interesting questions were raised … am I becoming a sculptor?
IV. Artist Statement & Reflection Paper
- This essay gives a good summary of my two years and the changes in my project’s outcome.
V. External Exhibitions
- I was lucky to show in XHIBIT09 earlier this year with the Slugmen models which were the first to use the voxelisation method.
- Throughout the course I was involved in several smaller shows in the college and also in the House Gallery.