David J. Keskeys,
Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education,
Cheltenham, UK.

Electronic mail: dkeskeys@chelt.ac.uk
Telephone: +44 (0)1242 532.296 Fax: +44 (0)1242 532.207 Click here for audio statement. Speaker ICONAIFF (131k)

Sculpture - Physical -v- Metaphysical

David J. Keskeys

Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

Pittville Campus, Albert Road Cheltenham GL52 3JG


Many artists and designers of the 'old school' feel threatened by the encroachment of digital arts and now, increasingly, by virtual technologies. The new products and practices associated with computer technology are perceived by some to be attempts to subvert established forms and methodologies. Sculptors - the carvers, the modellers, the builders of physical objects and environments - have, perhaps more than others, felt uncomfortable with the concept of a metaphysical representation of their art form. The case for either a broadening of the definition of 'sculpture' to embrace the digital domain or for the acceptance that the art form is now beyond definition is explored through an examination of the relationship between traditional sculptural forms and ways of working and the new visualisation, manipulation, production and display opportunities being afforded by computer technology. It is proposed that virtual sculpture, work which invites and enables the viewer to become an active participant in the process of the development and evolution of a piece of work through the immersive and interactive capabilities of virtual reality technology, will take it's place alongside physical sculptural works as an accepted manifestation of the art form.

Will 'Virtual Sculpture' dispense with the need to make 'real' objects?

A rhetorical question? Yes, but one that can be posed to open up the debate over the place of three-dimensional computer works within the art form known as 'sculpture'.

A recent conference paper I presented, 'Towards an Environment for Virtual Sculpture' [1], prompted a wide ranging and lively discussion among the delegates. One of the central points of debate was the extent to which the builders and exponents of computer sculpture environments are attempting to subvert established sculptural practices.

One way to draw the sceptics and technophobes into the debate is to suggest, (with tongue in cheek), that we are about to witness the slow but inevitable decline of traditional sculptural forms and practices in favour of a move towards computer generated, manipulated and displayed 3D work:

What a great way to cut costs in our art schools - why spend thousands of pounds every year on metal, wood (an increasingly precious commodity) and plastics, etc. when we could give every student access to a computer with a modelling package?

Young artists of the future, brought up on a diet of video, computer technology and interactive entertainment will reject all of those old fashioned techniques and materials in favour of the high-tech alternative.

It is clearly nonsense to suggest that computer technology in general, and virtual reality technology in particular, present any kind of threat to traditional forms of sculpture. Rather, a broadening of the of the definition of the art form is necessary as new technologies are opening up original and exciting possibilities for exploration and experimentation to those who are prepared to embrace the opportunities on offer, to such an extent that new practices and types of art object are emerging. It may even be the case that we should look beyond the establishment of broader definitions towards breaking the concept of defining an art form altogether, as new practices and methodologies cross over the thresholds which previously separated one art form from another. One only has to observe and note the way in which 'Printmaking' was interpreted by submitting artists and the selection committee for the ArCade [2] exhibition to appreciate that there are areas where old and new technologies can come together to produce dynamic, inspirational works, many of which utilised both traditional and state-of-the-art technologies.

There is certainly a resistance among many sculptors working in established media to the concept of computer based sculptural forms. The idea that objects which exist only as digital information or as images on a screen or monitor can be called 'sculpture' is anathema to a number of traditionalists. The emergence, in recent years, of virtual technologies and their use by sculptors to facilitate a form of interaction with and manipulation of their sculptural works may have further increased the sense of disquiet among some sculptors of the 'old school'. Maybe we should adopt the view of Alvy Ray Smith in his assertion that:

'...they will come along in time just as they did for abstract expressionism, photography, and video, to name a few previous changes they have managed to sluggishly incorporate. As in these cases, the Establishment has to come to terms with an idea before it can proceed with it. [3] '

My own preference would be to try to bring together the techno-artist, technophobe and technosceptic through persuasion and education. It is important to the development of new art and design technologies that they are seen to be adding to the wide variety of tools and techniques available to the artist rather than as threats to any existing way of working. It is accepted that artist have traditionally been ready and willing to embrace the use of new materials, tools and technologies in the quest for a means to express an idea and explore new concepts within their work and there is no reason to suppose that virtual reality technologies will be any different.

There are areas of traditional practice which may profitably be improved upon by the adoption of new computer manipulation, visualisation and production techniques, there are also completely new avenues of expression emerging with each new generation of machine, but there are also areas of traditional practice which it would be foolish to suggest will ever be enhanced by the utilisation of computer technology.

It is worth exploring these areas in more depth to demonstrate where old and new technologies and methodologies can be seen to complement each other and to expand the potential for artistic expression rather than to limit or close out any avenue of creative endeavour.

Where then can or are computers being used to enhance and improve upon established working methods within the arena of sculptural practice?

The facility for computer visualisation at various stages in the development of a sculptural work, to modify and view the work from any perspective has been utilised by sculptors for a number of years. Where the sheer size and complexity of a project makes traditional prototyping difficult, if not impossible, the computer comes into its own as an aid to the design and production process. An early pioneer of computer modelling, Robert Fisher, whose involvement with computers goes back to 1980-81 when he worked with a programmer on the 'Northern Lights' project for the Playboy Atlantic City hotel complex, is an exponent of the use of available technology to improve upon and extend traditional practices.

"Back and forth from fabrication of actual materials to computer simulation, from data sheets to final assembly, computer graphics was integrated organically into the sculptural process. [4]'

"t gives me the freedom to pursue forms that I would never attempt otherwise due to the enormous number of pieces, the complexity of composition or the scale of the project. [5]'

Fisher's complex spatial forms and environmental sculptures have benefited from computer visualisation and the ability of the artist to study form and structure, chaos theory and randomness using the computer to emulate the processes of nature.

It is clear that there are areas where the computer can be seen to complement traditional design and production methods rather than act as a threat to them. Which then are the areas of sculptural form and practice which will not or can not be enhanced by the introduction of, or 'interference' from, computer technology?

In order to answer this question it is necessary to attempt an analysis of some of the physical manifestations of the art form, to synthesise the 'qualities' that they convey that can not be replicated in a virtual environment or enhanced through computer input. For thousands of years sculpture could be said to have been limited to the production of replicas, echoes of the real world - not necessarily imitations of natural form but expressions of the inspiration of nature. It is only in the twentieth century that artists felt free, possibly obliged, to explore alternatives to the representation of nature - the camera was beginning to capture the image of nature in a detail beyond the realms of the painter and sculptor. It is not, I believe, until we start to look at the 'environmental' art works of the 1970's, when sculpture ceased to be purely concerned with the notion of an art 'object', that we begin to find an answer to the question. The works produced by artists such as Christo and Robert Smithson rely on a sense of 'place', of being related to the space and environment in which they are situated, to elicit an emotional and physical confrontation, a reaction to the specific piece in relation to a specific locality.

Smithson's site-specific earthworks such as 'Spiral Jetty' (1970) and Christo's large scale environmental projects such as 'Valley Curtain' (1970-72) 'Running Fence' (1976) are examples of an art that transcends the bounds of the 'object' to bring a sensation of the relationship between the natural world and influence of the activities of man upon it. This sense of belonging of the work to the place in which it resides is a prime example of a sculpture's physicality in a particular time and location being the essence of the piece which could not be replaced through visualisation or replication in a digital domain. This tradition of the art and the space being integral to each other has continued in the works of many sculptors in the 1980's and 1990's with the 'Installation' having a high profile in recent years.

'Public Sculpture', celebrations of the great, the good and the god, a major feature of the art form, can be traced back to the third millennium B.C. in the temple figures of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations and has continued uninterrupted into and through the 20th Century. More often than not, over the past thirty years, public sculpture has been used as a decorative art, a complementary appendage to a corporate edifice or a point of interest in an otherwise open space, but it should also be appreciated that these works often provide a different perspective on the urban landscape in which they are set. Their purpose is not to exist in isolation, to be appreciated for their own form, but to serve as a counterpoint to the space and objects around them.

These are just examples of where the requirement for the physicality of objects in a physical space can not be usurped by the technological revolution moving through the art industry. There are many other examples that I and others might point to in order to demonstrate that a variety of materials, methodologies and manifestations of an art form are essential to it's existence. One might point to the need for the touch of a 'real' object, to feel the texture, the surface quality, to feel the mark of the artist on the work. The exigency to elicit a physical response from and towards a sculptural piece could, however, be used as a counter argument in favour of virtual sculpture. Two way responsiveness - the action and reaction of the user to the work and the work to the actions of the user - is what pushes the potentiality of virtual sculpture beyond that of the physical.

The capability of the technology to deliver a variety of sensory feed back to the user continues to improve rapidly to the extent that it may soon offer a tactile experience to match that of the auditory and visual sensations already available. Tactile gloves such as the 'Feelie Cyberglove' [6] being developed in the USA can generate the sensation of different textures and edges of objects. How long before a full tactile body suite can offer the sense of resistance to a force in a virtual environment?

While the case for traditional physical sculpture making is a compelling one, an equally convincing case can be made for virtual sculpture environments achieving more prominence as we move towards and into the new millennium. The march of technology in the art world is an irresistible force. We have seen the emergence on 'sky-art' using laser technology, the holographic installations of Sally Weber and others and the 'Electronic Café of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, a virtual performance and interaction space through networked communications. All of the artists working in these media have and continue to push the limits of the available technology in the desire to express their vision, a vision of the future.

A few pioneers of virtual art experiences are exploring the concept of the interaction with, and immersion of, the viewer in the art work itself. Myron Krueger and now Natalie Stenger both seek to involve the user in the execution and evolution of the work - each relies upon an participatory element to complete an organic cycle of response and reaction. It is the facility to involve the viewer in the development of the piece through the interactive capabilities of virtual reality that, I believe, is the power of the medium, that which will ensure continued use and experimentation with the technology by a growing number of artists. Many early virtual worlds were concerned as much with the interface between the user and the virtual environment and the process of interaction as they were the aesthetic of the work. Virtual art works can be said to function on many different levels - from largely passive journeys through a linear narrative to true voyages of discovery which invite the viewer to take an active role in the creative process and evolution of their experience. As the capacity to generate responses to gestural and auditory cues become available in affordable systems, so we are likely to see virtual sculpture becoming a more common phenomenon.

My own most recent work, 'Sculpture Interactive' (1994-95) [7] explores the concept of interaction, participation and user choice over the form of an art work. 'Sculpture Interactive' is a screen based environment in which the viewer can determine the nature of the work he/she wishes to view or produce, through the selection of object attributes including shapes, colours, backgrounds and movements within the composition. The piece is designed as a prototype virtual, immersive environment which demonstrates the potential offered by the emerging technology for the artist to become an orchestrator of an artistic event, a facilitator of the opportunity to explore the act of art making as well as the art object itself. There are currently four animated sculpture 'galleries' within the piece. 'Sculpture Interactive' is not intended to be a definitive work but one which grows and evolves with new 'galleries' being added and others deleted as ideas develop or drop by the wayside. It is designed to be viewed as a way of exploring new avenues of artistic endeavour which reflect a new technology. Computer arts in general are now being increasingly recognised and legitimised and as the prejudice against technoarts continues to break down, computer environments, virtual realities will take their place beside the physical art works.

Virtual sculpture will undoubtedly become an accepted medium, one which will complement the traditional and established sculptural practices and not be perceived as a threat to them. Either we must broaden the definition or accept that the art form has gone beyond that which can be defined.

'Contemporary sculpture has come to define itself purely by the transformation of space, by the addition or subtraction of matter or energy, leaving it, in effect,

without definition and without boundaries. [8]'

Notes and references

1 KESKEYS, David 1995, 'Towards an Environment for Virtual Sculpture'

'Digital Creativity '

Conference on Computers in Art and Design Education Proceedings, pp. 66-72

2 ArCade, International Exhibition of Electronic Prints, University of Brighton Gallery,

4th - 22nd April 1995

3 SMITH, Alvy Ray 1994, 'Computer Technology and the Artistic Process: How the Computer Industry Changes the Form and Function of Art.', SIGGRAPH 94 Conference Proceedings, ACM SIGGRAPH, p. 495

4 FISHER, Robert 1985, 'Computer Aided Sculpture: Visual and Technical Considerations'

Leonardo, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 133-143

5 FISHER, Robert 1991,

Sculpture, Art and Technology, May-June pp. 76-77

6 Further information from: 'The feel -glove factor' INFOTECH

The Times, June 9. 1995 p. 29

7 'Sculpture Interactive' 1994-95

Runs in MacroMedia Director v.4.0

Models produced in Swivel 3-D Pro.

8 MAHONEY J. W. 1991,

Sculpture, Art and Technology, May-June p. 71


Sculpture Interactive'

D. J. Keskeys

Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

Department of Design, Pittville Campus

Cheltenham GL52 3JG

'Sculpture Interactive', (1994-95) explores the concept of interaction, participation and user choice over the form of an art work. It is a screen based interactive environment in which the viewer can determine the nature of the work he/she wishes to produce through the selection of attributes including shapes, colours, backgrounds, and movements within the composition.

At the present time, 'Sculpture Interactive' offers the choice of four animated sculpture 'galleries' in which the user can experiment and interact with the objects which occupy the spaces. l view this piece as the prototype for a wide ranging, multi-layered toolbox of options for the creation of sculptures by one or more participants in a virtual studio space. The role of the artist becomes that of the provider of the opportunity to participate in the creative process, to communicate through actions and deeds, and to explore the act of art making as well as the art object itself.

Each of the sculpture 'galleries' contains the means for the viewer to alter aspects of the work through a mouse click or the movement of the pointer over a symbol or representation of an option for change. The shapes of the constituent parts and colours of the sculptures can be changed while the movement of the whole continues uninterrupted. The movement of the forms can be slowed down or speeded up or the direction of the animation reversed.

One of the 'galleries' contains a single spinning object, the shape of which can be changed by interaction and a second, a third or a fourth object added to the space, each object spinning independently and existing in it's own space. This area has been designed as an example of a kinetic assemblage space in which the user can select from a wide range of object shapes in a variety of colours and surface textures to assemble a collection of linked, articulated or independent mobile sculptures.

Another 'gallery' explores the possibility of random, unpredictable behaviours to the viewers actions. Each selection option within the space gives no indication of the possible result of choosing that option. A number of anonymous 'buttons' enable the user to click without any idea of whether the action will initiate a colour change, a change in the object shape, or bring forward a completely new sculpture into the space. Selecting the same 'button' will not bring about the same result each time. Such an element of behavioural unpredictability maintains a circular flow of action, event, reaction or response so essential to a successful application of interactive technology.

Sculpture Interactive' is not intended to be a definitive piece but one which grows and evolves with new 'galleries' being added and others being deleted as the ideas develop or drop by the wayside. It is designed to be viewed as a way of exploring new avenues of artistic endeavour which reflect a new technology.

A single user. computer based interactive sculpture environment. Runs on an Apple Macintosh Power Mac 7100 16MB RAM Software - MacroMedia Director



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