At the Powerhouse Museum there is currently an exhibition called ‘Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital’. This exhibition explores the ways in which digital manufacture processes have had an effect on art, science, fashion, design and architecture. One artist who has multiple works in the exhibition is Louis Pratt, a Sydney based artist who is using his work to explore how 3D printing can be used in art. The work of his that I found to be particularly engaging was Torrents.
Simply put, Torrents is a sculpture of a man, that had been distorted. To look at individual aspects of the work, one would think it is just a very realistic bronze sculpture. The details, such as the hands and the hair, give the sculpture an extremely life-like quality, as does the expression of shock on the figure’s face, and the position of his body. He looks as if he has just received a fright, which adds to the eeriness of the way he has been distorted. The edges and back of his body have had angular chunks cut out. This gives an effect reminiscent of a computer glitch, as if some pixels haven’t loaded right. This association seems to be a deliberate reference to that way in which the sculpture has been made.
Torrents is reminiscent of a sci-fi movie or a video game. The work veers close to the uncanny valley, in that the realistic parts of the sculpture are very real and familiar, but the sculpture as a whole just feels a bit wrong. The texture of the material reinforces this, with the front, unmanipulated part of the sculpture slightly rough and unpolished, and the back and sides where indents cut in, are polished to be smooth and shiny.
Pratt’s process of creating this work is one that involves many steps. First, he obtained what he calls ‘organic data’, which he put through a series of algorithms. He then 3D printed a cast, from which he cast the sculpture in bronze.
When Pratt first began using ‘organic data’, it was in the form of a photorealistic scan of a random man that he download off of the internet. Pratt has since progressed to scanning his own subjects, such as is the case of Torrents, as well as using himself as a subject. Pratt uses a 3D laser scanner in order to create a digital copy of his human subjects. The data he obtains from the scanner is essentially a 3D photo of the subject, that contains great detail. This scan then allows him to change and distort the image in any way he wants.
Another technology Pratt uses in his process, is algorithms. After importing the ‘organic data’ into his computer, Pratt uses algorithms to distort the images in different ways, such as erasing part of the image (as in this work), stretching parts of the body, or making the sculptures appear to be in impossible positions. Because Pratt usually works with human subjects, this distortion gives an unsettling effect to the final work. Of the algorithmic principles used in this particular work, Pratt says;
The concept behind Torrents is based on English mathematician George Boole’s work on symbolic logic, known as Boolean logic; it was developed around 1850s, well before computers existed, yet still underpins today’s computer machine language. – Louis Pratt (Connell et al. 2016)
Boolean logic is a form of algebra in which all values are reduced to either true or false. It is the same logic used in computers today, as it is the same basic principle as binary code. Boolean logic is an interesting choice because of its binary nature, especially when it is applied to a seemingly more fluid practices such as art.
After editing and distorting the data, Pratt reverses the image in order to produce what will become the cast, through the use of a 3D printer. Because Pratt’s sculptures are often life size or even larger, the cast must be printed in sections, as the 3D printer is not large enough nor does it have enough materials to print the entire cast in one go. Printing the cast in sections comes as an advantage later, when it must be removed from the metal sculpture.
The final major step of the process is to use the 3D printed structure, to cast the work in metal. Metal casting involves filling a hollow cast with metal, either by applying metal to only what will be the outer edges, or filling the entire cast, making the final product solid. Past works, such as Backwards Attitude, have been cast in aluminum and have been hollow on the inside as to allow for extra support to be placed inside, as the work was quite large and needed to be counterweighted. Torrents, is cast in bronze, and is solid. This is probably because it would become too thin because of the indents.
Almost every step of Pratt’s process, utilises technologies that have been unavailable up until very recently. Pratt’s whole work is an exploration of the possibilities and boundaries that these new technologies allow.
Pratt became interested in 3D printing in the early 2000s, but at that time the technology was only still being developed, and was extremely difficult and expensive to access. In 2009, Pratt and a friend Simon Bethune built the first open source 3D printing machine in Australia. These days, 3D printing is increasingly more available with commercial services available, and some 3D printers available to buy at less than $100. In fact, all of the technologies used in Pratt’s work can now be readily accessed. Apps can be downloaded on your smartphone to be used as 3D scanners, and anyone can manipulate data on any computer. But although the technologies Pratt’s work uses are now readily available, he is still using them in ways that haven’t fully been explored.
Pratt’s work not only explores new technologies but also some that are ancient. What I think is one of the most interesting parts of this particular work of Pratt’s, is the way it mixes the new and the old. Laser scanning, algorithmic manipulation, and 3D printing are all extremely recent technologies, and yet the end result is cast in bronze. The first evidence of bronze casting can be traced back to 2500 BC. The work is not just evidence of what new technology can do, but also displays the way new technology can interact with the old, in order to create something else entirely. Even if you were unaware of the process that went into the work, the final result is still enough to bring these concepts to mind. The fact that the work is a bronze sculpture makes an automatic connection in our minds to the fine arts of old, while the way the sculpture appears distorted brings us right back into the digital age.
In fact, even the new technologies used throughout Pratt’s process also have roots in extremely old concepts. Original concepts for 3D scanning can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, in the way they used plaster cast to model a mummies head. The word algorithm can be traced back to the ninth century, and have existed almost as long as maths itself. 3D printing is probably the only true new technology used in Pratt’s work, originating in the eighties, and even that can be compared to the centuries old practice of sculpture.
This dichotomy between the old and the new, can also be viewed as a contrast of the physical and the digital. Pratt describes his own work as “A metaphor for how we live our lives now”. His use of both digital and physical, works as a commentary about the current state of society, with people pulled between the physical and digital worlds.
Torrents refers to the flow of data that I often used to produce my sculptures. This work represents the idea of a near future where humans are so enmeshed in technology that personal data feels like a part of them and the loss of it would be painful. The digital tools I applied to this data have both historical and contemporary relevance. – Louis Pratt (Connell et al. 2016)
This feels especially relevant as I do my research and view the sculpture through photos I took on my phone. Pratt’s work presents the physical and digital as less of two binary points, and more of a constant conversation. His work flows from physical to digital and back again. Starting with living, breathing human subjects is about as physical as you can get, but he then takes the ‘organic data’ from them in order to use the digital to manipulate it, then finally returns them to the physical but again through digital processes. While the end result may be a physical object, the process behind the art is what really asks questions. Pratt even describes his own method as “process orientated“.
Overall, Pratt’s work is more about the process than the end result, but the end result does do an excellent job of conveying these processes. Pratt’s work isn’t just exploring what new technologies can do practically, but also what the use of these technologies enables artists to say, and the way in which the technologies inform the final result in ways that traditional methods might not. While Pratt’s intention is to make people think about their relationship with technology, he does so by engaging with technology himself and asking questions, rather than being critical.