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Tool versus Medium: The Use of Rapid Prototyping in Contemporary Sculpture

Thursday 16th September 2004

Heidi Reitmaier (Head of Public Programmes, Tate Gallery)

Christiane Paul (Curator of Digital at the Whitney)

Keith Brown (Artist), Annie Cattrell (Artist), Roger Clarke (Artist), Bruce Gernard (Artist)

For a transcript of the symposium, download the file here: Symposium transcript (195kb, MS Word document)

A picture of the plenary session from the symposium

During her opening address and welcome to the symposium Tool Versus Medium - the Use of Rapid Protoyping in Contemporary Sculpture, Heidi Reitmaier, from London's Tate Britain, gave a description of rapid prototyping as a process of the transformation of the concept to the object, the removal of things and the subsequent consideration of what is then left. She asked what it means for, and whether it changes, the role of the artist. Increasingly, as technology becomes more advanced, the worlds of business and the arts converge and interact, and questions of authorship, authenticity, expression and 'the agency of the artist' emerge. Ms Reitmaier raised the issue of what rapid prototyping might alter for both the viewer and the creator of a work of art, and asked whether we are translating our world in hitherto unimaginable ways and should re-examine the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.

Annie Cattrell speaking at the symposium
Annie Cattrell speaking at the symposium

Annie Cattrell

The sculptor Annie Cattrell opened her talk by explaining she works frequently in collaboration with scientists, using scientific information or new technological materials, for example fibre optics cables (see her piece Gazebo).

She discussed her creations that came about as a result of being given access to watch brain surgeons at work (for example, Neuro-navigation). What fascinated her in particular was how surgeons found out as much as they could through scanning in advance of operations.

While working at Oxford University and as artist-in-residence at the Royal Institution, London, she began to use MRI scanning, posing such questions as whether it would be possible to make consciousness visible, and then, by removing the brain, allow the active areas for first seeing and then hearing to be represented.

Ms Cattrell explained the appropriateness, for her, of using rapid prototyping: she is able to work straight into a computer and bring out the piece the other side without actually touching it. Her work with laser technology while on a fellowship at Berwick-upon-Tweed included a piece about the language of sunshine on one particular day. Ms Cottrell's installation - strips from a sunshine recorder were scanned into a computer and laser cut - covered 64 days and is an ongoing piece.

Annie Cattrell is currently teaching and researching at the Royal College of Art and Wimbledon School of Art. The recipient of many awards, she has held the Fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, and a residency at Camden Art Gallery. Currently she holds a residency with Microsoft and continues to exhibit internationally.

Click on the following links to download a copy of Annie's Curriculum Vitae (46kb) and Bibliography (44kb). Both are in Microsoft .doc format.

Bruce Gerrard speaking at the symposium
Bruce Gerrard speaking at the symposium

Bruce Gerrard

The Symposium's sixth and final paper came from sculptor Bruce Gernard who spoke of the relationship in his work between virtual technology and the materials he used.

The first piece for which he used rapid prototyping was a stereolithograph epoxy resin. He explained how, in virtual modelling, surfaces are permeable and why, with his interest in the Boolean intersection - when two objects are joined, there is an intersecting space where they overlap - he was able to work with this area where one object had left an imprint in another.

Bruce Gernard spoke of his work with the Torus shape, the serpentine shape and the way he works with commission sculptures, for example a piece in the Chelsea Physic Garden. He demonstrated how, with computer modelling, he was able to take architectural forms and distort or deform them to give ambiguous perspectives.

In his work for the museum at Tornio, Finland, he took a ground plan and a photograph of the museum's elevation, made several distortions, changed the angles and tilted the piece.

When he came to work on the fable of the tortoise and the hare, Bruce Gernard explained he was drawn to consider the nature of digital space. He began with the assumption it was a Cartesian space, with x, y, z co-ordinates extended infinitely but empty, and ultimately came to see it as alive because everything in it is calculable. It became for him a womb-like, metaphoric space where he 'grew' his animals before they entered the real, material world.

Bruce Gernard is Senior Lecturer in Sculpture at Central Saint Martins, London. He has held an AHRB grant working with the European Ceramics Work Centre and currently is undertaking a residency funded by the Art Council. He is a contributor to Digital Fabricators, a working group sponsored by the Building Centre Trust in London.

Christiane Paul speaking at the symposium
Christiane Paul speaking at the symposium

Christiane Paul

Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Director of Intelligent Agent, followed with a paper on digital sculpture and the processes involved. Emphasising a distinction between the use of digital technologies as a tool in the creation of an object and their use as a medium, she pointed out digital media translate 3D space into the virtual realm and vice versa, allowing almost instant transformability.

Guest Book, a piece by John Klima, is an example of work that involves fluent transitions between different manifestations of information.

Christiane Paul outlined the history of the art form, beginning with one of the technique's pioneers, Chuck Csuri, and discussed its aesthetic characteristics. She spoke of organisations set up in the 1990s devoted to digital sculpture, including CSF, Intersculpt, FAST UK, The College of Design and Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati and the PRISM Lab at Arizona State University. Work in the virtual realm is not bound by physical laws and digital sculptors tend to explore the interface between the physical and the virtual; few work in one realm alone.

In Robert Lazzanni's work, Christiane Paul looked at how the complexities of virtual representation may be translated easily into physical objects. And in Michael Rees, an artist who has worked consistently with medical or anatomical data sets, she pointed to pieces that borrow from medical anatomy in an exploration of what Rees himself refers to as 'spiritual psychological anatomy'. he discussed pieces by William Latham, an artist who has worked on the idea of artificial life and mutability of form in the virtual realm, and John Klima, who has worked with geographical data, observing we are at a point where scientists and artists work with identical data sets. The mark - or signature - of an artist is evident in the choices made in the creation of a work of art and it is possible to trace the evolution of a digital work over time.

Christiane Paul noted sculptors are beginning to explore and work with this concept of a form in time.

Christiane Paul is the Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Director of Intelligent Agent, an organisation dedicated to digital art. She teaches in the MFA Computer Arts Department at the School of Visual Art and is author of Digital Art [Thames & Hudson, 2003. 224pp. + 245 ills. ISBN-10: 0500203679; ISBN-13: 978-0500203675]. The curator of numerous exhibitions, both at the Whitney and abroad, Christiane has spoken on the subject of digital art across the world, from Bilbao to Dubai.

David Wimpenny speaking at the symposium
David Wimpenny speaking at the symposium

David Wimpenny

In the first paper of the symposium, Professor David Wimpenny, Director of the Rapid Prototyping Manufacturing Group at De Montfort University, observed that the arts community is pursuing a line of development identical to the one taken by the manufacturing and engineering sectors, one in which electronic forms of production rather than manual, craft-based techniques are employed.

He presented an overview of rapid prototyping, from its definition as an automated, rather than manual, process which manufactures components in layers and deposits material precisely where required, to explanations of the different techniques involved in stereolithography process, laminated object manufacturing, fused deposition modelling and laser sintering.

Professor Wimpenny noted how, although most techniques are based on lasers, printing is emerging as an alternative and offers a wide range of rapid prototyping methods. The benefits of rapid prototyping are that it is relatively fast and cheap, and nothing is lost in the process.

Professor Wimpenny set out a number of uses for rapid prototype models, ranging from a Chrysler gearbox to Anthony Pagett's Millennium Sculpture. He highlighted increased links between artistic practices and medical scanning, as well as the benefits, drawbacks, possibilities and limitations of computer-aided design.

The process of rapid prototyping has become a means whereby artists may develop ideas and communicate with clients - just as it has always been in the engineering industries. It allows artists to concentrate on the creative process and, as a new medium, stimulates fresh ideas.

Professor David Ian Wimpenny is Director of the Rapid Prototyping Manufacturing Group at De Montfort University. He has worked in the field for over fifteen years and is a Committee member of the UK's Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing Association [RPMA].

Click on the link to download a copy of Ian's Biography (88kb - .doc format)

Keith Brown speaking at the symposium
Keith Brown speaking at the symposium

Keith Brown

In the third talk of the day, Professor Keith Brown traced the development of his work through his use of computer and related digital technologies to give form to sculptural objects that could not be conceived of or produced by other means.

Having realised the potential of the computer as a design tool to visualise complex physical structures before proceeding to make them as actual objects, he worked for many years within the virtual environment where he found new sculptural possibilities and came to see the technology as a medium in its own right.

In the mid-1990s, as one of the few digital sculptors working in the UK, he was invited to join the steering committee for the JSC CALM [Creating Art with Layer Manufacture] project. This provided him with an introduction to rapid prototyping and brought him full circle to producing actual objects again.

Since then Professor Brown has explored many different rapid prototyping techniques as a means to create his cyber sculpture. 'For me RP has become much more than a prototype technology and in many instances transcends this position to become end product.' His current work involves the torus and explorations of the possibilities made available through manipulating forms in the cyber environment. Through his work with technologists at De Montfort University's Engineering & Computing Sciences Department, the 3D Biomedical Technologies Imaging Group, he has been projecting three dimensional sculptural objects into actual space. deally, he explained, he would like in his installations to unite the cyber seamlessly with the real.

Professor Keith Brown is Principal Lecturer in Fine Art at the School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University and Director of Art and Computing Technologies MIRIAD. He has exhibited work using rapid prototyping methods in Japan, New Zealand and Los Angeles, and has moved from the virtual to the real in his most recent practice. He is President of Fast-uk [Fine Arts and Sculpture Technologies, UK].

Roger Clarke speaking at the symposium
Roger Clarke speaking at the symposium

Roger Clarke

Roger Clarke began his talk by illustrating the extent to which his working practices as a sculptor have changed over the past twenty years and how his finished sculptures are inconceivable now without the computer as a tool.

He explained what drew him to computer modelling and how, at first, he used the technology to record shapes, to visualise his work before he started, to solve colour and proportional combinations and to plan installations. This led him to explore the ways computer modelling was used in other disciplines, and to software that enabled him to find the atomic co-ordinate files of a molecule and to see these in different formats and from different angles.

He discussed his work Testarossa and the difficulties he faced with it which drew him ultimately to a process whereby he was able to manufacture a piece of work straight from a computer model - rapid prototyping. However, he encountered problems of scale, materials and cost with the process.

Roger Clarke's current research involves looking at what takes place when visual representations created by the transformation of data enter real space and whether the information they contain can become clearer than when they are virtual.

Roger Clarke lectures in Sculpture at Bath School of Art and Design. He studied at both Chelsea College of Art and Design and at the Slade School of Fine Art and has exhibited extensively throughout Europe. He has been awarded the Rome Scholarship in Sculpture at the British School in Rome and the Henry Moore Fellowship at Winchester School of Art.

De Montfort University