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Digital Raw Materials

Joan Truckenbrod
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Digital Raw Materials

The contemporary art practice of making form engages a dynamic, fluctuating state of digital and physical realms. The hand moves intuitively from envisioning on the screen to physical sculptural form. Intersecting art practices / materials now include the digital seamlessly. We create form with our hands simultaneously through the digital and the material. Embodying this spontaneous interaction of physical material with digital software, hardware and processes, is the mythology of the bricolage - creating with whatever material is available. Digital crafters negotiate and renegotiate a wide and sometimes unrelated body of materials and processes. bricolage originates from the French verb bricoler – equivalent to the English "do-it-yourself", much like the current grass roots focus on making stuff with the DIY movement including websites and publications like Craft magazine. Embedded in this movement is digital crafting, and imagine-ing in the digital. Digital crafting through rapid prototyping, laser cutting and water jet utilize CAD files as form. The hand becomes digital – connecting computation with fabrication. In his book FAB, The coming Revolution on Your Desktop – from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Neil Gershenfeld discusses a class at MIT in digital fabrication in which students, inspired by traditional arts and crafts, are creating physical material forms through the digital or the virtual. They are envisioning in the material world, and then using digital technology they move back into physical crafting. The digital practice involves additive fabrication, putting material where you need it, rather than taking it away or removing it where you don’t want it. Creating form through digitally augmented processes utilizes innovative new “raw materials”. This is a radical shift in the artist’s studio embodiment of materials.

Rich materiality is intimately intertwined in ritual and ceremony in indigenous culture. Distinguishing the digital realm is its ritualistic nature. Parallel to ritual performances in indigenous cultures, digital rituals open portals to other realms of experience. With the Internet, the computer becomes a portal to alternate dimensions of experience, a conduit to other realms. Parallel to indigenous rituals that function to connect people to their ancestral or spiritual world, digital rituals link people in many different geographic locations rituals serve to create community, and through the Internet digital communities are created through blogs and sites such as Second Life. In virtual communities people transform their identities, or take on multiple identities. Rituals in indigenous cultures also function to transform identities as they are performed during rites of passage ceremonies. These ceremonies are laden with rich material costumes and ritual objects. These ritual objects are material objects that operate at the threshold of the everyday and the ancestral or spiritual realms. Shamans activate ritual objects so they become the intermediaries, negotiating with the spirits. They are empowered material objects that also reside in other than physical realms. Rituals produce highly charged, visible material records as physical traces are deposited at these ritual sites. Ritual and ceremonies leave material traces in the physical world. In the digital realm, rituals also deposit material traces. (Joan Truckenbrod, “Digital Ritual and Ceremony,” Paper Presentation, CAA Conference, 2008.) Material culture is inherent in these digital rituals, as there are physical residues left by ritual and ceremony. A studio practice in the digital realm parallels the functioning of ritual and ceremony in indigenous cultures, in which there are deposits from, or physical traces of the digital practice.

In social interactions, there are usually physical traces left behind though the materiality of sociality. As people interact with materials, cultural constructs such as identity, social roles and political position and power, are created. Each cultural relationship ascribes a different form of meaning to objects within social interaction. (Barbara J. Mills and William H. Walker, Editors, Memory Work, Archaeologies of Material Practices, School for Advanced Research Press, 2008.) These authors refer to the material culture of the physical world with memory construction a part of everyday life. Memories are made through repeated social patterns that engage social and material practice. Memories involve recalling, shaping, forgetting, inventing, transmitting, etc. But memory includes our experiences in the digital / virtual world in which there are clear traces of the material world. The digital is in fact social, with a materiality that is precipitated out of the interaction. The digital studio practice embodies this materiality with continual fluctuation from the physical to the virtual, with a material culture inherent in digital art making.

My artwork speaks about the projection of digital imaging from paper through the virtual world, embodied into physical materials. The hand is always evident in my digital artwork – from paper to fiber, incorporating water, and handmade physical objects. I collaborate with the digital as my work embodies digital handcraft – injecting the hand into the digital crafting process. Tensions erupt between the impulses to create by hand, and the drive to compute form. Physical objects are critical in the creative practice of digital artists, paralleling Sherry Turkle’s examination of the role of physical objects in the creative life of scientists. She postulates that “neither physical nor digital objects can be taken out of the equation” of creative endeavors. “Object passions bring us to the same enthusiasm for what-is that computation inspires for the what-ifs”. We envision in the digital the waves and the echoes of our explorations as to “what kind of sand is best for building castles, on the stubborn complexity of soap bubbles, and the details of light bent by a prism.” (Sherri Turkle, Editor, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, MIT Press, 2008)

For my recent commission for a public art sculpture in Green Bay Wisconsin, there was a juxtaposition of hand drawing, handcrafting of the model and the digital construction of CAD files that were materialized with computer controlled machines. The creative process creates fuzzy boundaries, overlapping the physical and the virtual realms.

I used a dichroic ecoresin for abstract forms of salmon jumping at a falls, mounted on ten to twelve feet high brushed stainless steel abstract vertical forms of seaweed. The dichroic material has nano-particles that interact with natural light to create color transformations. I choose this material because it changes color with the light in the environment, and with the position of the viewer. Throughout the day the color of the fish shapes undulates with the most intense colors occurring at sunset. This installation is sited along the Fox River and the river walk so the colors also shift as viewers or boaters move past the sculpture. The installation is interactive with the environment and the viewers. The installation is part of the Life of the River Project. A Quicktime video illustrates the undulation of color.

Joan Truckenbrod has integrated digital imaging into her artwork from the hand into algorithmic imaging. In 1988 she published a book titled Creative Computer Imaging. Her artwork continues to transform into multimedia video installation and large scale public artworks modeled and fabricated with the aid of the computer.