Robert Michael Smith
First published in the July/August 1996 issue of Sculpture
During the International Sculpture Centerís (ISCís) 1990 biennial conference
in Washington, D.C., sculptors Bruce
Beasley and Rob Fisher
began a series of conversations about the digital technologies for the
production of sculpture. These discussions eventually led to the formation
of a rapidly expanding grassroots organization called the Computers
and Sculpture Foundation (CSF) . The group developed further during
the ISCís 1992 and 1994 conferences, with lectures and demonstrations
highlighting the emergence of the Electronic Revolution.
|The group has been held together
mostly by a newsletter, the Platform, published by CSF cofounder Timothy
Duffield for the past four years. The individual sculptors in the group
represent various aesthetics, finding common ground, shared interests and
effective teamwork solely in an emerging technology.
David Smalley, another founding member of CSF, has spearheaded the Biennial
Symposia of Arts and Technology at Connecticut College to continue this
new collaboration and the exchange of digital research data for artists.
Ars Mathematica, based in France, another organization promoting digital
technologies for sculpture, has collaborated with CSF on a couple of significant
events this past year. In September a slide lecture and panel discussion,
"Computer and Sculpture in the USA and France, " was presented
at ISEA 95 (International Symposium on electronic Art) in Montreal, Canada,
featuring work from members of both groups. In October this connection
became more literal with a video-conference event between two exhibition
sites, Silicon gallery in Philadelphia and Gallerie Graphe in Paris. "Intersculpt
Ď95" was the first opportunity for many of the members of these groups
to exhibit together and meet on-line to discuss a variety of aesthetic
and technical concerns. The electronic connection was further symbolized
by the creation of a shared project, "the Temple Hands," a concept
by David Morris. Participants from both sides of the Atlantic contributed
scans of their hands to be digitized for a CNC tool path file to control
a milling machine for routing the shape of each hand in a dense urethane
panel. Hundreds of these panels were assembled to form a large cylindrical
structure open at one side to offer access to a central meeting space.
This metaphor of hands reaching across the water has been documented on
video. Both groups plan to repeat the "Intersculpt" exhibition
and to include other international sites in videoconferences.
The following interview with four founding members of
CSF was conducted via e-mail. I asked each to respond to 10 questions
regarding the formation of the Computers and Sculpture Forum, the impact
that digital technologies have on their opinions regarding the interface
between sculpture and the Electronic Revolution. The following is an excerpt
of the on-line conversation with Bruce Beasley, Rob Fisher, Timothy Duffield
and David Smalley.
What motivated you to form the Computers and Sculpture Forum?
Fisher: After the panel discussion on the subject at the 16th
International Sculpture Conference í90 in Washington, it became increasingly
clear to Bruce Beasley and me that the computer was emerging as a profoundly
useful tool for sculptors and that there was growing interest and curiosity
about what it was and how it could be applied. There were clear misconceptions
early on that the computer somehow impeded creativity or imposed itself
on the sculptor. Yet our personal experiences were quite the opposite,
and the rich variety of computer-assisted sculpture we began to identify
illustrated that the medium conformed to the sculptor no matter what their
process and material. Bruce noted that the early ISC sculpture conferences
were focused on new processes for the sculptor. Thus, the idea of focusing
on the computer as a tool for sculptors emerged.
Duffield: Loneliness! . . . Initially I had no idea whether any
other sculptors had stumbled upon the computer. I found out about conferences
like SCAN (Small Computers in the Arts Network) in Philadelphia, where
artists who had begun to use the computer huddled together for protection.
It seems as if right from the start anyone interested in computers tried
to find others and then was excited to share his or her experiences. It
seemed natural to form mutually supportive groups rather than pursue oneís
In what ways has the collaboration between sculptors in this
group been successful?
Beasley: There have been very real exchanges of direct factual
knowledge about specific techniques, programs, etc. There has also been
a very important expansion of understanding of the different ways that
computers can be used in making sculpture.
Fisher: The forum grew from an informal collaborative effort by
Bruce, Tim and me over a period of several, years. David Smalley offered
his considerable resources and contacts at Connecticut College in the
production of a videotape. The computer: A Tool for Sculptors. Christian
LaVigneís group, Ars Mathematica, has paralleled our U.S. efforts and
we are now working together co-presenting at conferences and exhibitions.
During the conferences a great deal of Cooperation occurred between sculptors
in organizing the equipment and presenting our extensive poster sessions.
Smalley: I am now collaborating with a group at the Center for
Arts and Technology to finally come up with a viable sculptural VR (virtual
reality) plan which we hop to show this summer. Not a "re-creation"
of a real world 3-D situation, such as a gallery, but a "game"
in which the goal is to create wonderful combinations of forms and sounds.
How important is the use of the computer in your work?
Duffield: The computer has opened up many creative possibilities
for me. Three-dimensional, computer-assisted visualization has become
an important commercial, entertainment and instructional item.
My familiarity with it has led to the possibility of new avenues for
earning a living.
Beasley: The computer has become fundamental to my work in a very
wide range of aspects. I donít separate the computer into one area any
more. I begin a sculpture on the computer, I view the piece at different
sizes, I produce the patterns for the final piece, I work out the patinas,
I use it to determine photographic views, I use it to work out complex
packaging arrangements for shipping, I use it to prepare proposals and
competitions, I use it to determine pickup points for the crane. It is
simply there as a part of every aspect of the work.
Fisher: Sometimes the computer is an essential process necessary
to realize a concept. Sometimes it has no application whatsoever. It is
project-specific. If it feels natural to the production of a piece, I
donít hesitate to find a way to make it work for me. But when I make the
choice, knowing that it will be time-and-energy-consuming, I seek to discover
something new about the use of the computer as a tool to keep the process
alive and continually interesting to me. Thus, each project involves an
inventive application of the computer to my work, which at times has required
hiring programmers to write new software for my use.
Does the computer enable you to do anything that you couldnít do
Beasley: For myself, the computer is not just
a convenience that lets me work faster or more efficiently at something
I was already doing. My core use of the computer is to see and understand
the sculptures before I make them. My sculpture involves very complex
intersections of geometric forms. The computer allows me to play with
many variations of the sculpture before actually cutting any metal and
making the piece.
It gives me great spontaneity and freedom to try many variations of the
composition without the distraction an clumsiness of continually cutting
and gluing material for models to see the composition. In effect I make
all my mistakes with electrons and work with real material only when the
sculpture is as good as I can make it. This freedom allows me to deal
with a level of complexity in my work that would simply not be possible
Fisher: My basic philosophy is never to use the computer if I
can accomplish what I need to accomplish what I need to accomplish by
any other means, like maquettes, sketches, crude mockups, etc. But I have
used the computer continually since 1979 and the many and varied applications
are quite revealing: animated walk-throughs of a space showing a large
sculpture from many vantage points; stereo 2-D views of monumental-scale
works; "growing sculpture" through the application of scientific
algorithms of polycrystalline growth, used in conjunction with engineering
of space frame structures; engineering CAD (computer-aided design) to
do structural analysis of cantilevered form; use of the computer to organize
and compose thousands of visual elements into a unified whole; the study
of quasitransparent objects that change in character as one walks around
the form; quick color studies; hard copy used in the construction of conventional
maquettes; photometrically accurate computer light studies used in creation
of an animated illumination of a skyscraper.
Duffield: For me, its use is primarily in the area of the visualization
and presentation of ideas. I have only just begun to think about the possibilities
in the production of sculpture. Also, the computer has led to the potential
avenues of expression that I could not have begun to consider previously.
I have always been an artist who has drawn as much as sculpted. I now
find myself with the ability to "animate" my ideas. This is
immensely exciting. Who know what may eventually open up?
What can sculptors contribute to the Electronic Revolution and/or
what can the Electronic Revolution contribute to sculpture?
Smalley: I would like to think sculptors can do with electronics
what David Smith said they could do with steel: "It's time for this material,
so often used for arms, to be shaped by the peaceful hands of the sculptor."
Fisher: Having been involved in the computer field for more
than 15 years with conferences, exhibits and publications, I have come
to view the contribution of sculptors to the field as being fundamentally
different from other developers of the medium. our perspective, based
on years of familiarity with form and space, process, toolmaking and
producing real-world objects, creates a context for our use of the computer
which is vastly different from that of the animator, graphic designer,
engineer, painter or filmmaker.
We project that context onto what is before us on the screen and it
affects our needs and thus how we use the computer in our work. I believe
that it gives what we do a "feel," a sense of tangibility, a real-world
sense of mass and weight that is intrinsically different from "computer
Duffield: Sculptors can contribute their souls-in broad terms,
an insistence on the quality of expression rather than gee-whizzery.
The essence of being an artist is to explore. We now have new and quite
extraordinary tools. Why resist them? The possibilities for exploration
are infinite. Note that the computer makes nothing easier. You will
have to learn how to use the computer as well as you now use a modeling
Beasley: Sculptors have a great deal to contribute to the Electronic
Revolution because we understand three dimensions and find it natural
to work directly in 3-D. Most of CAD has grown out of two-dimensional
approach to design and is still dominated by this two-dimensional approach.
Sculptors are natural builders and model makers, so we dive right into
using the computer in a more three-dimensional way. We can help program
designers understand how to make better three-dimensional tools. The
Electronic Revolution has a lot to offer sculptors. It allows us to
see and respond to our compositions before we build them. We can see
them at various scales and we can, at least temporarily, suspend the
realities of the physical world, such as gravity.
What impact do you envision the computer will have on sculpture?
Fisher: It will surely affect us conceptually as
it extends what is possible to construct and envision. It will impact
on fabrication, on the creation of hybrid forms that evolve from the combining
of several disciplines and on our capacity to design and present to ourselves
and others new visions of sculpture. It will allow us to share images
across the Internet and to collaborate long distance with other artists,
architects, galleries and agents.
It will impact on the control of robotics and interactive
sculpture with cheaper and more dependable technology. Most importantly,
the computer will become just another tool for sculptors which we can
use of not use depending on the situation. It will lose some of its glamour
and superficial glitz as its use becomes more common.
Duffield: Computers will impact us in several ways.
Technically, computers will make some processes more efficient, and will
aid the development of new processes. Aesthetically, the computer will
blur the definitions we use. The essence of sculpture has always been
its substance, its concretion. As we are able to look more deeply into
space and time and matter, that actuality becomes too simple. Tangibility
ain't what it used to be! The computer begins to give the possibility
of expressing a more complex view of the actuality, or otherwise of our
world. On the computer screen we can create virtual reality, and I foresee
the possibility of blending both the actual and virtual in the same piece.
What kinds of work are being done by sculptors using
Fisher: I think Bruce Beasley's work exemplifies
the holistic approach to computers and sculpture in the way the computer
has permeated every aspect of his process from form manipulation to output
of maquette patterns, lighting studies, business forms, etc. Tim Duffield's
animations are exemplary in their use of the medium to show an object
in landscape. Helaman Ferguson, Masaki Fujihata and Stewart Dickson have
demonstrated the possibilities of translation of mathematical forms into
real-world objects of stone and resin. Michael O'Rourke illustrates the
power of 3-D visualization of previously unimaginable forms like smoke.
David Smalley's animations are wonderful illustrations of kinetic sculpture.
Steven Porter has taken the term photorealism to remarkable ends. Robert
Smith has shown us the future of the Internet as a tool. My own use of
science and the growth of crystalline forms is another application.
Has the use of computers altered the definition of
Fisher: Not any more so than the invention of welding or casting.
All these did was introduce yet other materials or processes to the artist.
The idea of sculpture seems for the most part a continuum. With few exceptions
the things that motivate and excite us today, the compulsion to be a sculptor
is probably unchanged from the first crude cave sculptures of 20,000 years
ago in southern France.
Duffield: The easy answer is yes. A truer answer is that probably
any previously accepted definition was overly simple and that the computer,
by expanding what we can do, will help us to achieve a more complex understanding
of an art that is centered on the manipulation and expression of from
and space. It is form and space that is important, not the word "sculpture."
Smalley: I don't think so. Sculpture in the last 20 years has
become so "multimedia" anyway that this is just one more aspect.
Do you place more importance on actual sculpture over virtual sculpture?
Beasley: I am interested in actual sculpture in the real world.
I am only peripherally interested in virtual sculpture. I think the most
interesting aspect or virtual sculpture is to make three-dimensional objects
that could not live in reality. However, I am hooked on making actual
Fisher: Yes, I like virtual sculpture as a study or presentation
But I am perhaps old-fashioned in my love of the tangible, tactile experience.
Duffield: I see my work heading in the direction of combining
the actual with the virtual. I see myself becoming involved with dance
in the creation of an animated stage that combines actual from with virtual
from and movement as a setting for the actual from and movement of the
Would you consider the use of digital technologies to be a significant
movement in the history or art? If so, now or only in the future?
Beasley: I think it is becoming one, but it is not yet. It is
such a diverse tool that I don't expect it ever to produce a recognizable
style, like Cubism. However, the computer offers such incredible extensions
(not replacement) of our own abilities that it is bound to become of great
significance through these enlargements of our own capacities.
Duffield: Yes. Except that I donít know that movement is the right
word. The development of oil painting was not a movement, but it led to
radical change in the arts. It was a new tool. It was a fact of life that
artists had to come to terms with. I see that advent of the computer as
very similar. It's a new tool, it's a fact of life. It is not a banner
to follow into battle. It doesn't demand any stylistic, ideological or
political allegiance. There is, I think, a further parallel with oil painting.
Both the computer and oil paints became available at a point in history
when man's perception of the world was changing: oil paints as we were
abandoning the perception of every facet of the world and every event
as symbolic of religious significance; the computer as we are assimilating
new knowledge of matter and existence underlying surface appearance and
certainty. For each change a tool was found to express it.
Fisher: It was clear from the initial rejection of the computer
by the art world that they saw it as a threat. What they misunderstood
is that they thought that digital technology meant a rejection of all
that the history of art stood for; that it would become a new form obviating
| What they failed to appreciate
is that we who use it are still the same artists as before; that we use
it as a tool to aid in our work, that it is we who shape the output, not
the computer. The significance of the medium is just being revealed and
will continue as more and more artists engage with it. Its impact will surely
be seen in new kinds of forms, new concepts of hybrid origin uniting sculpture
with science and technology, among other combinations.
I encourage everyone to ask questions, give opinions, pass information
or make suggestions about computers and sculpture by writing to me via
Robert Smith is a sculptor and instructor of bronze casting, mold
making, 3-D computer visualization and multimedia for Web page authoring
in New York City.
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West Chester, PA 19382
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