International Sculpture Center
Facebook Twitter Instagram

Sculpture cover


Virtual Armatures
                                                            by Robert Michael Smith

First published in the July/August 1996 issue of Sculpture Magazine

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.

Rob Fisher

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.

Bruce Beasley
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 explorations alone.

Timothy Duffield

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.

Bruce Beasley

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 without it?

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.

Rob Fisher

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 otherwise.

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."

Rob Fisher

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 graphics."

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 tool.

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.

Bruce Beasley

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 computer today?

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 sculpture?

Rob Fisher

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 sculpture.

Fisher: Yes, I like virtual sculpture as a study or presentation device.

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 dance.

David Smalley

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 the old.

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.
Bruce Beasley

I encourage everyone to ask questions, give opinions, pass information or make suggestions about computers and sculpture by writing to me via e-mail:

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.


The Platform
Timothy Duffield
1551 Johnny's Way
West Chester, PA 19382

Ars Mathematica
Christian Lavigne
1, Cour de Rohan
75006 Paris