Graphite 2004 :: Sophie Kahn

2004 :: Nanyang Technical University, SingaporeI traveled to Singapore to attend and exhibit at Graphite 2004, held at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore. My sculpture, Head of a Young Woman, was exhibited from June 15th-18th in the digital art exhibition attached to the conference, entitled Interfaces and curated by husband-and-wife team Irina Astarkhova and Gunalan Naradjan, who also teach at the National University of Singapore and curate exhibitions of new media internationally.

The non-interactive nature of my contribution to the show provoked a great deal of envy among fellow exhibitors and guilt from me; my installation process took half an hour, while most of them spent days setting up, troubleshooting and tweaking their works. For the past year I have been exploring the peculiar interrelationships between analogue and digital media – which I feel “must be thought together,” as Brian Massumi argues in Parables for the virtual. While the process of making my sculptures involves technology with a combined value of over $100,000, including machines which can only be found in a handful of well-funded locations around the country, the final output, once the analogue has been fed into the digital and out again, is one of the most ancient artforms known – a piece of cast bronze. I have recently been preoccupied with the materiality and corruptibility of digital information, with the result that the objects I make bear the traces of the processes to which they have been subjected.

For the particular piece I exhibited at Graphite, I began with a three-dimensional laser scan of my face, made at RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory. Mark Burry, the head of SIAL, is also project architect on the reconstruction of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, and SIAL staff use the scanner to digitize Gaudi’s architectural models to better understand the architect’s intentions for the incomplete building. After editing the model, it is printed in wax using SIAL’s stereolithography facilities, and finally cast in bronze at a foundry using the lost-wax casting method. The final object, although inert, is recognizably of digital origin: the scanner and subsequent processes have corrupted the information, leading to three-dimensional ‘blur’ and pixilation (or more correctly tessellation). The scanner was never designed to represent a moving body, and the sculptures have areas of confusion where reflective and moving surfaces confounded the scanner’s ability to triangulate reliable spatial data. The model breaks down into polygons or even holes, gaps in the field of supposedly perfect vision.

The reaction to this investigation of technology’s failures, at SIAL and at Graphite, was similarly mixed. The overall response to my work was positive, and the artists – especially those frustrated with the generic look of some new media art, which relies overly on the default aesthetics of certain software packages – were intrigued; but those delegates from more technical backgrounds were bewildered and perhaps confronted by what they saw as an ‘incorrect’ use of technology. As an artist working within institutional and scientific contexts, the overwhelming impression I gained from the conference was that there are many bridges yet to be built between the world of graphics research within universities and new media art. While some presentations were very creative and useful for my own thinking about my practice – Peter Morse’s work at Melbourne University on reconstructing nineteenth-century stereoscopic photographs of Antarctica, for example -many groups presenting at the conference could have benefited enormously by more direct collaborations with artists, and vice versa. The example that particularly springs to mind was a group creating 3d animations of hallucinations for use in treatment programs of psychiatric patients and for raising awareness of schizophrenia in the general public. With input from an artist who understood the language of film, animation and lighting the result could have been extraordinary; as it was it seemed somehow lacking, missing some essential element.

The exhibition, too, felt marginalised within the context of the conference. The curators and the artists were frustrated with the exhibition space, which was more hotel conference room than dedicated gallery space. We also would have liked to have had a conference session to more formally present our work and ideas to other delegates, which would have allowed us to have more in depth exchanges than the coffee breaks and lunches allowed.

Still, as Irina Astarkhova put in, the miracle was that the exhibition happened at all, and she felt our input to conference organisers would be heard and that space was continuing to open up within these contexts to consider art on an equal footing with more technically oriented research.

We felt more privileged to see nascent connections developing, and new opportunities opening up for interdisciplinary practice than we might have felt about a more established paradigm. (This observation could be expanded to Singapore as a whole, where money is suddenly being poured into the arts and a scene of impressively cosmopolitan young artists is flourishing – a result, perhaps, of a government policy that funds promising students to study anywhere in the world on the condition that they return to teach after graduation. A curator remarked that when she first moved to Singapore she was disappointed with the Singaporean art scene, but was convinced to stay by her students and now feels that many opportunities for interesting and challenging work are opening up).

From my experience I know interdisciplinary work within institutions to be fraught with complication and communication barriers, but that is certainly no reason not to keep trying!

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