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Digital Sculpture

Original title: "La sculpture numerique", by Christian Lavigne.
First published in French magazine, "Computer Arts", September 1998.
English Translation by Marie-Paule Jiccio and Robert Michael Smith

"During the early sixties at the Renault corporation, where I was an engineer at the time, I went to see my supervisor to tell him that I had found a new mathematical method for drawing curves that would replace all previous rough calculations and other lathed shapes and models. He saw my project, looked at me, and said, 'Monsieur Bezier, if your thing worked, the Americans would already be using it."…Over eighty-five years old, Pierre Bezier, with acutely mocking eyes, is still laughing at his beginnings in an atmosphere of typical French reticence that unfortunately hasn't left us. Like Monsieur Jourdain with his prose, all of us in "computer arts" use his theory without knowing it: the famous Bezier Curves that have permitted the emergence of computer drawing. Dear Pierre Bezier, since then the Americans are also using your work, you are renown worldwide, and amongst other things we owe you for the birth of what you named, "computer assisted sculpture"

S.A.O."untitled", Pierre Bezier, 1990

Abstract Sculptures, Renault Co.,France, 1970

By the end of the sixties in the Renault prototyping studio, the engineers, like during the Renaissance, became artists, drawing abstract figures on their drafting tables, sometimes manufacturing wooden pieces simply to please the eye with their numerically controlled milling machines. At the same time Dr. Georg Nees, in Germany, for his thesis, produced some sculptures in wood and aluminum by similar methods. First attempts without follow-up.
In the seventies, digital sculpture truly entered the art world. The German sculptor Eberhardt Fiebig was already drawing his monumental projects with the assistance of a computer as he still does today. Aided by IBM, the Spanish sculptor Jose-Luis Alexanco visualized anthropomorphic figures by stacking thick disc shapes that he realized later in resin. The researcher and French artist Yves Kodratoff used a numerically controlled machine to carve blocks of plaster in an art gallery according to public choice: an interactive work of art long before this word has become fashionable. These two artists abandoned this direction. Why? Too complicated, too difficult to put into practice at a time of punch cards and scarce machines.

Eberhardt Fiebig, Rotulus, simulation, Allemange, 1997

Eberhardt Fiebig, Hanging Sculpture

It had to wait until the conjoined emergence of micro-computing and rapid prototyping technologies for the rebirth and blossoming of "computer sculpture". Despite an ostracism that we will discuss later, this fusion is now revolutionizing all methods of visualization and/or fabrication of modeled objects: art, design, architecture, public art…the computer will be the primary tool in the sculptor's studio of the 21st Century.
A practice inscribing itself in history

Before presenting the whys and hows, let's take a closer look at what this is about as your favorite magazine, "Computer Arts", informs you here of a subject matter that is rarely explored by the media. Since Egyptian or Chinese antiquity certain sculptures have required simple or complex machinery to add the dimension of time to their three-dimensional physical presence. This means that they integrate mechanisms to create motion effects, sound effects, lighting, etc. These are inscribed for a generally programmed duration; from articulated statues in ancient temples to amusement park automatons, such as "le Canard de Vaucanson" for figurative works; from the clepsydre to kinetic art mobiles through sound sculptures for abstract works. Contrary to accepted ideas the technical evolution involved in these creations has not followed the progress of technology but has often preceded it. It's impossible to list all examples here, let's simply remember that art and technology have the same origins in all civilizations; specifically in ours the figure of Daedalus, constructor of the Labyrinth, sums up the matter.

Eberhardt Fiebig, Sculpture Cinetique

H. Lagrange, 1969

With a logical view of History, therefore, an electronic sculptural art has developed in which circuits, motors, monitors, and all sorts of do-it-yourself handiwork or refined inventions animate the works. It is effectively a form of "Computer Sculpture" (the subject was approached at the 1998 International Sculpture Conference at Chicago during the Computers and Sculpture Forum program). But not what we call "Digital Sculpture", that uses more computing processes and robotics to produce an object rather than form the constituent elements of this object
A little vocabulary

The generic term, "Digital Sculpture", in fact covers three different activities that can be complimentary:
1) Creation and visualization by computer of forms or constructions in 3-dimensions, or even 4, the evolution of time.
2) Digitizing real objects and their eventual modification made possible by computer calculations.
3) The production of physical objects by numerically controlled machines that are used to materialize the synthetic images (Rapid Prototyping technique) by either subtraction or addition of material, as since earliest times when man began to "give life" to his dreams.

Digital Sculpture has also been referred to as, "InfoSculpture" (Vitkine and Coignard), "RoboSculpture" (Lavigne - 1988), or "TeleSculpture" (Lavigne and Vitkine - 1995) since it is now possible to create in one location and to operate a machine by remote control for manufacture in another. The first transcontinental TeleSculpture occurred in September 1995 during the preparations of InterSculpt, a biennial tele-conference exhibition between Paris and Philadelphia devoted to these new disciplines.
A CyberSculpture (Lavigne - 1995) or Virtual Sculpture is a non-material digital sculpture presented in the form of a 3D image either locally or via the Internet. When several Virtual Sculptures are collected it is called a Virtual Gallery. On the Web Virtual Sculptures are either seamless sequential images presenting all angles around the object (QuickTime VR) or truly 3D objects described in VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) code from which any view and orientation can be chosen.

Tim Duffield, 1994

Pierre Bezier

These precisions, a little long, are useful to understand "the revolution of objects", in the same manner that the importance of "new images" was grasped. It must be said that despite the hospitality or indifference of their professional circles, sculptors, architects and designers began to produce 3D images of their art projects with the rise of micro-computing during the mid-eighties. The development of programs and formats for these types of images encouraged a vigorous growth of Virtual Sculpture, without a truly noticeable upgrading of art instruction, nor any interest whatever from art criticism, which is extremely reactionary in this regard.

In the beginning isolated artists formed groups in 1992. In the USA the Computersand Sculpture Forum was founded by Bruce Beasley, Rob Fisher and Tim Duffield.In the same year in France Ars Mathematica was founded by Christian Lavigne andAlexandre Vitkine. Then artists went on-line with virtual galleries of works in VRMLon the Internet. Or since 1996 in the virtual sculpture park of DAAP founded on ActiveWorld (a meta-world where one can walk through with the appearance of an avatar and converse with other visitors) by Derick Woodham, sculptor and professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Art.

Digital modeling

Today, most digital sculptors use computer tools to conceive, visualize and present their projects that will eventually be traditionally realized. They use various software, including "home-made" software. 3D Studio MAX seems to be the most widespread while scientifically trained artists willingly use Mathematica. The cost of equipment and programs still curbs development of the discipline. It is noteworthy that many American artists are teachers or researchers within public or private institutions that put the necessary materials at their disposal, which is absolutely not the case in France. Hence the concept of Ars Mathematica is to create an International Sculpture Research and Educational Center, an interdisciplinary location on-line in partnership with schools, laboratories and corporations.

Tim Duffield, 1994

Rob Fisher, Cybernauts,1992

At the Center for Creative Inquiry (Carnegie-Mellon University, Pennsylvania) Rob Fisher (USA) works on personal or ambitious collaborative projects. To create his "Cybernauts" he utilizes software that simulates the growth of crystals to produce complex polyhedral forms that will then be materialized by large assemblages of neon and lights triggered by computer.
Reknown American sculptor, Bruce Beasley (USA), has realized his abstract bronzes for many years thanks to computers, doubly useful in this case. In fact, they are geometric blocks overlapped within one another that the artist manipulates onscreen and in which the spatial assembly would have an improbable physical balance if the center of gravity of the entirety was not verified by computer calculation.

Daniel-Jean Primeau

Leading sculptor and landscape architect, Tim Duffield (USA), digitally designs gardens with sculptures, fountains and various furniture, then creates realistic animation to better inform his clients.
Lacking space, let's stop there. However, let's mention the singular work of Daniel-Jean Primeau (Quebec), who models by computer the growth of his "Parasitic Trees"; trees that absorb within their trunks various objects against which they grow, grating, walls, forgotten tools, etc. It you have a bit of patience in sixty years you will see the physical results of the artist's installations

In all these examples it can be said, like in industry of virtual models, that the final intention is to realize the objects by usual techniques. But a very recent tendency of digital sculpture envisages only the production of immaterial works presented on the Internet and/or in "Virtual Reality", the CyberSculptures.

Robert Michael Smith, Urchanticede, Virtual Sculpture, 1998

Robert Michael Smith, Sun worms, Virtual Sculpture, 1997

Formative sculptor, teacher of computer visualization at Pratt Institute of New York, Robert Michael Smith (USA) is involved more and more with the creation of abstract sculptures in VRML, works of great symbolic force.
Derrick Woodham (USA), abstract artist of musical elegance, is the founder of "Virtual Sculpture Park" of DAAP that one can visit on ActiveWorld. Besides his own sculptures one can see the works of his students, his friends and fellow artists, like the famous "Virtual Caves of Lascaux" created by Ben Britton (USA). Derrick Woodham will be in charge of the on-line section of the InterSculpt'99 Exhibition, since DAAP is also a place for direct dialogue.

Derrick Woodham, Twister, 1996

3D Digitization

During the last International Sculpture Conference at Chicago an American foundry presented the possibility to enlarge a traditional sculpture, modeled manually, by the use of a 3D digitizing system followed by the milling of styrofoam at the required scale. The old question regarding spatial pointing (pantograph), that so excited the imagination of artists and engineers of the Renaissance, is definitely resolved. The procedure will be standardized and no doubt help the most reticent of traditional sculptors, devoted to sensual contact with materials, to integrate new technologies into their practice

Derrick Woodham, Geocolumm, 1994

Lavigne, Hierographic Primordiale, 1998

It is thanks to a French team that we possess the first artistic works by 3D digitizing essentially used for public conservation. From the beginning of the 90's sculptors Roland and Benoit Coignard, archeological restoration specialists, worked with the Mensi Company on the development of a 3D scanner capable of analyzing the geometry of large pieces. This "optical mold", as they call it, has the enormous advantage of not touching the original piece. With the obtained data files one can simulate restorations, try virtual assemblies of scattered fragments, establish an archive, recreate the original piece at a different scale, etc.
At about the same time in the United States the American artist, Dan Collins, used Cyberware systems to develop anamorphic or metamorphic 3D scans of his face, his body or other models not overly concerned about recognition in the final work. After working with the digitizer to obtain 3D models the artist uses them for milling in plastic or materialized by other rapid prototyping processes that we will cover at the end. Since 1995 Dan Collins has been a co-founder and co-director of PRISM at the University of Arizona, an interdisciplinary research laboratory for the modeling and production of three-dimensional objects for art, engineering, medicine, geology, etc. A good example from which France could take inspiration…even though since 1988 we have proposed this kind of innovative crossbreeding location.

Alexandre Vitkine, D125-6, 1985

Rapid prototyping

From the beginning of "computer assisted sculpture" we have seen the preoccupation to visualize and also to fabricate the dreamt object exactly has been present. In the 70's numerically controlled milling and lathes developed. In the 80's a combination of computerized cutting machines appeared: laser cutters, water-jet cutters, plasma cutters…very few artists were persistent enough to gain access to these machines reserved for the advanced technology industry. I was one of those and since then I have not stopped utilizing all types of new technologies for my works inspired simultaneously by poetry, mythology and mathematics. As it is not my intention to talk too much about my work I direct the reader to my Web site.
Amongst the pioneers Alexandre Vitkine (France) and Masaki Fujihata (Japan) must be cited. Alexandre Vitkine is today a young man of 88 years who, since the 60's, has produced electronic images with televisions and oscilloscopes in the fashion of Professor Tournesol. He is in particular the inventor of the Sonoscope that transforms sound into images. From 2D he went naturally to 3D and creates small wooden sculptures designed and manufactured with his own personal programs.

Masaki Fujihata, Sculptures nanoscopiques, 1998

Masaki Fujihata, Forbidden Fruits, 1990

Masaki Fujihata, as his name indicates, is a mountain of imagination. He began his work in video and digital visualization and soon became interested in objects and interactive installations. He was probably one of the first to use stereolithography. He also realized the smallest sculptures in the world with the manufacturing techniques for integrated circuits. If you don't have an electron microscope it's needless to try to see these works that are between 10µ and 100µ.
The 90's will remain in the history of arts and techniques as decisive years for rapid prototyping and new materials, with all due respect to the uninformed fascinated only by the virtual aspect of NT (the problem is that these uninformed have responsibilities in all types of institutions). Systematically promoting aloofness through the bias of the numerical universe is not a sign of good mental health. How is cyberspace relative within our society? Wouldn't the modern force of hypnotic nature be better used to cure the innermost pain of our frustrations, failures and absentmindedness? What economic truth is behind the seduction of images?

Masaki Fujihata, Forbidden Fruits, 1990

Masaki Fujihata, Sculptures microscopiques, 1998

The return to the real is one of the goals for the 21st Century. Reality does not conflict with virtuality: it is the complementary aspects of a similar space of life. For those who imagine objects then desire to hold them in their hand, there is coming the age of 3D printers. Various processes are now available, the principle is always to cut up a digital object - STL format- into fine slices that will be materialized and stacked up.

* Stereolithography: a laser sweeps the surface of a liquid resin that polymerizes while passing across.
* LOM Process: paper sheets are laser cut and fused one on top of the other.
* FDM Process: A plastic thread in fusion draws the outline of the object to be realized, level by level, like the ancient technique of colombin.
*Frittage powder: layers of plastic powder conglomerated by fusion effected by a passing laser ray are added one to the other.
Afterwards the artist, designer, is free to make a mold or a lost wax to cast a piece in metal.

Stewart Dickson

Stewart Dickson (USA) who works in special effects for Disney Studios is also a specialist of mathematical surfaces. In particular he has realized entirely by stereolithography a series of sculptures inspired by minimal surfaces.
Arghyro Paouri (France-Greece), computer visualization specialist at INRIA, produces animations on the classic theme of metamorphosis and chooses moments of these transformations for materializing the corresponding real objects by stereolithography.

Arghyro Paouri, Metadata,1996-97

Michael Rees, Aonaline, 1997

Michael Rees (USA), after years of classical sculpture declares, " It is a conversion experience, my practice of manual sculpture is accomplished; the Rapid Prototyping technologies bring an incomparable freedom and poetry". He creates strange biomorphic forms and is interested by the question of color in these new processes.
Keith Brown (UK) creates animations with complex abstract shapes from which he sometimes gets a physical object with the LOM system. He has founded a group for artistic research, FAST-UK, dedicated to digital sculpture - encouraged in England by the CALM Project (government funded).

Keith Brown, Continuity of form, 1997-98

Keith Brown, Time form, 1996-97

For reasons of accessibility, of cost and also of mentality, that I have already evoked, digital sculpture is still out of reach for most. However, there is an exponential growth in the number of artists, architects, designers who are interested in it. The cost of equipment and materials is decreasing. Technological support is always possible. In France places such as AFPA, CREATE (Central School), CRITT Water Jet, CIRTES, Lycee Diderot Paris; companies such as Autodesk, Canon, Charlyrobot, Chateauroux-Fonderies, Laser Decoup, Laser Industries, NEC; an organization such as the French Association of Rapid Prototyping; etc…have brought their support to artistic projects. The (French) Senate even received the InterSculpt'97 Conference. But it is time to move at a faster pace like in USA and England.
We were the first, will we be the last? Answer at the next InterSculpt in October 1999, where we invite all readers of Computer Arts. Whatever it is, the 21st Century will be the one of digital sculpture real and virtual

Christian Lavigne, May/June 1998



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