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Bathsheba Dorn uses the creative tools of this metaverse to build sculptures that evolved from "real world" editions of 3-D bronze and stainless steel prints that you can order over the Internet. Below is our interview, done in SL on February 20, 2007.
ArtWorld: Do you like that there are things you can create in SL that are impossible outside?
Bathsheba: Absolutely, it's a sculptor's wet dream. I'm really bored with the 3D printing medium in RL. It's very limited as to materials, and the particular form of it that I've focused in on, metal printing, reduces the options to one material, one finish, one resolution. Here I can get color, light emission, moving parts, flexibility, and texture—all the stuff that's either flat impossible in RL, or costs a mint. And furthermore everything may have code in it. Getting from algorithmic object to physical object involves me in tremendous hassle and expense in RL. Here the link is direct. It's so intimate it's not even a link at all. The code is the object is the code. Voice-controlled geometry is the first thing I made here.
ArtWorld: Yes. And every time I see you the avatar is different – now you're a woman, earlier you were a tendrilled caterpillar, last week a furry, before that a geometric object.
Bathsheba: I like the geometric object. I'm just being human to be interviewed...normally I'm a cross between a kangaroo and an anglerfish. That's my favorite av, and I didn't even make it. I keep a male av also, for completeness, but mostly I use my alt, Foo Spark, to be male in. Not that I have sex here – just gender. An even greater pleasure to me here than the sculptural freedom is that I'm taking a completely non-commercial tack, which is very different from how I live RL.
ArtWorld: Your commercial website is quite efficient looking
Bathsheba: It moves the product. I've just hired my first employee, after a year in which I did nothing but run the business, no new art. I never expected it to grow this much, and I didn't have a plan.
ArtWorld: You didn't know you had a plan?
Bathsheba: No, I actually didn't. My plan for 15 years was "become professional sculptor" and by "professional" I mean "write it on the tax return." I expected to get there at the age of 60, so when the business blew up and I was 39 I had no idea what to do next. I still don't, really.
ArtWorld: How do you feel about the impermanence of art you make here?
Bathsheba: It's another respect in which SL is perfectly opposite to RL for me. My RL work is both very archival in its physical form – the metals I use are silicon bronze and stainless steel, which are very robust and do not corrode – and has a very good shot at immortality in the digital form. Digital artworks have been the most long-lived ever since the invention of writing.
ArtWorld: How do you mean?
Bathsheba: Well, the process of digitization is the process of encoding a work in discrete symbols. The most ancient example is writing, which encodes speech (analog) in letters (digital).
ArtWorld: I see.
Bathsheba: And as a result we have with us some very ancient texts (my father is a poet, so I've heard a lot of ranting about this). Ancient graphic works are much rarer since they are mostly inscribed in unique copies on analog media, which are also perishable, whereas texts tend to exist in many copies of digital media. Later on in the history of art, pictures got more digital.
ArtWorld: Ancient graphic works predate writing by about 25,000 years.
Bathsheba: Yes, in the form of cave paintings. OTOH, one unwise graffito and they're gone. Whereas it would take a tremendous amount of work to destroy, say, the Iliad.
ArtWorld: Homer was oral history before writing.
Bathsheba: Yes, and with writing it became digital, and thus immortal. There are no more Homeric praise-singers, but the text lives on in writing.
ArtWorld: So the digital destroyed that art.
Bathsheba: Embalmed it, rather. Froze it in a single form and made it eternal in that form.
ArtWorld: Is the written version the same as the oral?
Bathsheba: Certainly not. But the written version is what we have, what we can keep. Something was lost, something was gained.
ArtWorld: How long did they keep the oral going?
Bathsheba: Not long enough for me to hear it...
ArtWorld: That's because of the writing.
Bathsheba: Exactly. Then later on it began to happen to images with the advent of picture-printing and reproducing technologies. Still later it happened to music.
Actually it happened to music twice: once with musical notation and again with recording. Now – right now—it is happening to sculpture. I'm one of the first sculptors whose work originates in its digital form. This is the Gutenberg moment for sculpture.
ArtWorld: Great point of view.
Bathsheba: Well, everybody's the center of their own Copernican universe. But apart from ego, this is really true...sculpture has always been a bastard child of the arts because of the difficulty of reproducing it, transporting it, bringing the experience of it to many people. One learns about it from slides and once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages to see the canonical works.
ArtWorld: I think you meant Ptolemaic.
Bathsheba: Well, you might have a wee point there.
ArtWorld: Next question: Do you find SL becomes an obsession? Does it take you from family or outside activity?
Bathsheba: It is an addiction. For me it doesn't rise quite to the level of an obsession.
I can quit any time... but I don't want to.
ArtWorld: That's what all addicts say.
Bathsheba: As noted I've been rather crushed by my RL business lately and I have needed to give myself permission to take time off from that to play, which I did very little of while working on Life Goal #1 (the sculptor thing). I got knocked out of my creative groove, and to get back into it I feel that I should do what I like. So I am willfully playing a game here on a platform that probably won't exist 5 years from now (or at least I won't be interested in it). It's a jeu d'esprit.
ArtWorld: Does that mean you see your work here as ephemeral?
Bathsheba: Absolutely. Don’t you? LL did a great thing in creating this platform, but the centralized model is blatantly unsustainable, and I think it very likely that they'll go down in flames trying to either sustain it (as their VC's would like) or open-source it, as their stated ideals require. But what the heck. Yeah, this is a game platform. Accomplishments here are about as permanent as Everquest levels. Fun is all. :-)
ArtWorld: I am planning to make an archival paper edition of ArtWorld.
Bathsheba: That'd be nice...then if SL does go down in flames, there'd be a wee bit of documentation.
Bathsheba: An analog snapshot of a digital world.
ArtWorld: It's sort of like conceptual was in the 70's.
Bathsheba: How so? I know little of conceptual.
ArtWorld: The documentation is all that remains.
Bathsheba: I have a hypothesis that the nature of conceptual art is defined by the property that hearing about it is as good as actually experiencing it, i.e. the description is as good as the object, performance, or whatever constitutes the thing. It transmits as much meaning.
ArtWorld: And what happens here is that you can actually experience concepts that previously could only be imagined.
Bathsheba: But the experience (or "experience”) has its own value... I like to think that the flying ammonite isn't conceptual art, because riding on it is more fun than being told "there is a flying ammonite in Second Life."
ArtWorld: Absolutely. I only meant that in the future the documentation would exist even if the platform were gone.
Bathsheba: Will it be something like reading the Iliad in post-oral times?
ArtWorld: It may be like reading about phonograph records today – lol.
Bathsheba: Maybe so...
Bathsheba: Would one be incorrect to say that much conceptual art that exists only in the form of documentation was made for the sole purpose of being documented?
ArtWorld: Yes – the documentation was the process.
Bathsheba: I think we can safely say that SL rises above that... most people here don't think much about documentation, seems like...
ArtWorld: I expect there will soon be 3D versions of SL with immersion. They have it now.
Bathsheba: What 3D immersive setups have you tried?
ArtWorld: None – just read about the work done after SL went open source.
Bathsheba: I got to go in a CAVE a few months ago, at Urbana-Champaign. It's a room-sized 3D display setup that they use mostly for math research. The basic trouble with all forms of 3D VR that are extant is that they make you look like a major, major dork – the gloves, the glasses, the gestures, the stumbling around blindly. I bet we'll be on flat screens for quite a while yet.... it's something I think about a good deal, since 3D I/O would be a big part of my life in the event that I were designing.
Bathsheba: Sounds like Second Life with 3D glasses on.
ArtWorld: Yes. Give it 5 years.
Bathsheba: That's not quite the same as a haptics-driven immersive environment
ArtWorld: or 20 years.
Bathsheba: I gave it 5 years 5 years ago – the tech hasn't advanced.
Bathsheba: I'd still have to wear glasses and look like a dork. I think it's a hard problem.
ArtWorld: Well, what's wrong with looking like a dork? I happen to look like a dork.
Bathsheba: Nobody wants to, that's what.
ArtWorld: Maybe I should do a Geico commercial.
Bathsheba: The target market is gamers. Gamers and the military are the money powers that will drive this tech into existence. Both of 'em hate looking dumb.
ArtWorld: Yes. Maybe dorks will drive it because they can, or geeks.
Bathsheba: Hard to say what geeks will do, now that they have a few dollars. They seem more interested in space travel and making over the 3rd world, curing smallpox and stuff. And robots, they seriously get off on robots.
ArtWorld: And maybe that's good.
Bathsheba: Sure, but it won't butter the baby as regards viable VR.
ArtWorld: How did you get into the math/art field?
Bathsheba: I started as a math major, which subject I got into because everyone in my family is a writer. I was getting towards the end of the math degree and thinking that I was going to be a mediocre mathematician. I had taken some sculpture and drawing courses as electives, and one day the sculpture prof let us into his studio, and it turned out he was a major mathematical sculptor, which he had sedulously hidden in all of his teaching. We'd seen nothing but naked people. But I went in there, and his studio was full of doubly and triply periodic minimal surfaces. And I walked out thinking, if this is art that's what I want to do.
ArtWorld: What was his name?
Bathsheba: Erwin Hauer
ArtWorld: What school and when?
Bathsheba: Yale, class of 88.
Bathsheba: He had studied with Albers there, along with Robert Engman, who was my adviser in grad school. I took an MFA at U Penn to learn how to make sculpture. Hauer and Engman are/were master metalworkers, moldmakers and all that amazing classical-skills stuff. My problem was that I couldn't learn that. I'm a hack in the studio. So I had to figure out how to do it with software, which I'm good at. For a long time after getting out of art school – 7 years – I attempted to make geometrical sculpture by hand. I have a dozen or so objects that I made that way, and they're very nice, but they were extremely difficult to make, and there wasn't a living in it. Meanwhile, I was working halftime as a programmer. Then, several things happened at once: I started using CAD software for design. 3D printing began to hit the street – so I could make stuff – and the third piece was that the web arrived – so I could sell it. Suddenly, I had a job instead of a quixotic hobby. All that happened in about 1997. I began by 3D printing in cornstarch using the ZCorp process and doing the lost-wax process on it to produce bronzes. Several years later it became possible to use direct metal printing. No more casting for me! And that's where we are now.
ArtWorld: Great story!
Bathsheba: It has the virtue of coherence… the strange thing was that when 3D printing did arrive I had the perfect sculpture style to take advantage of it. The stuff I was doing could easily be switched to CAD and algorithmic generation. It exploits the strengths of 3DP exactly. And because of the universal quality of the designs, they can be sold in a publishing model: They don't require artificial scarcity to maintain their value. I was wandering in the wilderness, and then I was standing in the center of a network... I'm still adjusting.
ArtWorld: Why are some of your works sold with permission to modify the work but not to sell or transfer it?
Bathsheba: Most items for sale in SL are either mod/copy/no transfer, or no mod/no copy/transfer, because otherwise you can have people messing with the work and then reselling it. You can do what you like to your ammonite, but I don't want you to, say, write graffiti on it and then hand it on to somebody with my name still listed as creator.
The alternative is that we treat the item as a privileged original, and you can resell it but not do anything else to it. That's the traditional artwork model. Personally I prefer to mod everything I buy. There aren't many things I don't feel like I can improve, at least to my own satisfaction. And I imagine that everyone is exactly like me, and therefore would also want all their stuff mod.
ArtWorld: That's because you're an artist. Art collectors don't want to mod. They want the artist's original.
Bathsheba: Ah, well, I'm committed to subverting that model. As a crossover from the math/computer world I believe in open source and free ideas.
ArtWorld: In rl you cast your work in metal. It's no mod.
Bathsheba: But I also make it available for free download. People have manufactured it in stone, paper, glass, plywood, metal.… Only a few pieces are open source yet, but they're all going there.
ArtWorld: I saw them on your website – they're great.
Bathsheba: The Downloads page is the most important part of the site, though small as yet. I have to get a living out of the stuff for a while. The big mystery is how open source will be compatible with anyone making a living. I'm hoping they'll solve it for music and then I can piggyback.
ArtWorld: That's great for those who want to create more from your work.
Bathsheba: And remind me again who it's bad for?
ArtWorld: For the collector, having your work intact and original provides a documentation of the contribution
Bathsheba: Anyone can have it. The original is the data file. I do not like to make things that only one person can have. I prefer a publishing model. If you own, say, a Stephen King paperback, is it worse because a lot of other people own it too? I mean, do you enjoy reading it less for that reason?
ArtWorld: Well, you're in my territory now
Bathsheba: So I am! :-)
ArtWorld: I make limited edition books that are more of a pleasure to read than a paperback, because of their tactile properties.
Bathsheba: OTOH, I will never be able to have that pleasure. As a non-wealthy, non-privileged, non-plugged in person I look askance at models of art distribution that lock me out…. I live in a small town. The culture I can enjoy is the culture I can download.
ArtWorld: Did I give you my book?
Bathsheba: No, can I have one?
[Bathsheba Dorn accepted your inventory offer.]
Bathsheba: It looks just like a book. Of course, my tactility I/O device would be on the blink this week.
Bathsheba: I.e. online I don't get the tactile part.
ArtWorld: Yes. That's why I like the haptic object.
Bathsheba: Ah well, can't have everything. Where would you put it? There's a great deal to be said for objects. After all, I still bother to make them. ;-)
©2009 Richard Minsky