Digital Development

Gears have shifted, and for the past two weeks I have been focusing on preparations for line->plane->volume which is going up in less than a month now (February 20th). Almost all of this work has been on the computer. Though I think it will turn out well in the end, there is a strong element of uncertainty in not having any physical evidence of the project. In fact, I won’t have much to show for myself off of the computer until the last five days before the opening.

While I have reconciled myself with the process, I imagine it may seem worrisome for anyone used to seeing sketches, models, or half-finished paintings. I would like to dispel some of that worry, provide a look at the methods I’ve been using to design my installation, and generally prove that I’ve been doing something over the past couple weeks even though the most notable change in my studio is a new plant on my desk.

A screenshot from Blender

Initial design using a model of the gallery in the program Blender.

Though I made a few sketches very early on to help me think about possibilities, my primary design tool has been a computer program called Blender. Blender calls itself a 3D content creation suite, putting it into a group of programs, such as 3ds Max and Maya, which are used for making animated films. Of course they have many other uses. More generally they help to visualize three dimensional objects, and it is for this that I have been using Blender. Way back in September, when I started thinking about this project, I took a tape measure into the gallery and constructed a digital model of the space accurate down to a quarter inch. Armed with this canvas, I have been defining my sculpture in Blender’s virtual world. As the screen shot at right shows, it can get quite complicated! However, trying to do the same with pencil and paper would be almost infinitely more complex – almost impossible.

graph of string

A graph showing one plane of string.

I should probably say a bit more about the structure of the installation. The installation will consist of heavy thread strung back-and-forth between sections of steel bars. running along the walls, ceiling, and floor. The thread will be grouped into eight different planes which all intersect at one point in the middle of the gallery, about 16 feet off of the ground. Each plane will be a variation of the illustration at right, where the string is black and the two steel bars holding the string are blue. As the illustration shows (click the thumbnail to see a larger version), in each plane the start and end points of the string are chosen so that each string just touches the edge of a circle. Since each of the circles is the same size, and the center of the circle (green dot) matches up with the centers of the circles on all the other planes, the circles all lie along the surface of a sphere. (i.e. they are all great circles of the same sphere.) Neither the circles nor the sphere will be drawn in the installation, but the string lying along these circles will define, and suggest the presence of, the sphere. If you click on the screenshot thumbnail you can see the sphere, in white, and the black lines of string wrapping around its edges.

View from Blender of string in the gallery

These were tricky—wouldn't want someone to hit their head on steel when they walk in.

Blender has been great for this part. In it I can create each of those planes, pick a point for the center of the sphere, and rotate the planes in space to find a configuration which has no strings intersecting and has all of the strings hitting the walls at places where there aren’t windows, doors, or other conflicting hardware. This isn’t easy, but with Blender it is fairly straightforward.

The next question, of course, is how to get back to real life and create all of this in the gallery. For this I need to know exactly where each line of thread comes in on the steel bars. Blender is great for “sketching” in 3D, but in this application it wasn’t particularly suited to giving exact numbers. Enter Mathematica. Mathematica is a program for computation, like a really complicated graphics calculator. In Mathematica I recreated much of what I had designed in Blender, but at a lower level. Instead of drawing the gallery out of cubes and planes, I gave Mathematica a list of numbers which represent the locations of the eight corners of the gallery. Instead of drawing a sphere in the middle I typed in coordinates and a radius so that Mathematica can create a mathematical representation of the sphere.

graph of installation

Graph produced by Mathematica showing all of the string (black) and bars (red).

Of course much of this is what Blender ends up doing in the process of displaying my sketches. However, most of Blender’s math is internal and not as easily accessible. Mathematica, on the other hand, is built just for this sort of thing – creating and manipulating equations and data (among many other things). The graph of the plane of string, above, is one example of the output I get from Mathematica. After typing in data from Blender and writing a bunch of equations, Mathematica prints out graphs of the string as well as lists of coordinates for accurately placing all of the bars.

Screenshot of imported lines

The lines, imported into Blender from Mathematica.

The final step was to bring this data back into Blender, mostly for verification. I wanted to be sure that when I measured up the wall for where to drill the first screw I didn’t find myself looking out a window! In Mathematica I saved the coordinates for all of the string to a file as a list of numbers. I then wrote a short script in Blender which reads those numbers and uses them to create lines in the model. No windows! But taking this step did make it easier to see a few issues with the design, such as colliding strings, that were hard to pick out from looking at numbers. Using the script it was easy to tweak the numbers in Mathematica and update the lines in Blender to check whether my changes had fixed the problems.

Now it is time to use those numbers! Because I now know exact lengths it is time to order pieces. Today I ordered 75 plastic spacers to go between the bars and the walls, and tomorrow I’ll order the bars themselves. Later in the week I’m headed to the cities to visit an industrial sewing supply store for 3,000 yards of heavy weight thread (3,029.94 to be precise)!

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