Voiceover: You’re listening to a State Library of Victoria recording. For more information go to slv.vic.gov.au.
Introducer: Trinh is the inaugural Georges Mora Fellow at the State Library of Victoria. She teaches at Monash University in multimedia and digital arts and you’ll see that her teaching and her creative work are obviously coming together beautifully in some of the things that she will be talking about today. Trinh, actually as part of her fellowship, Georges Mora Fellowship, spent time here at the Library using the resources of the Library and using the people in the Library and the place itself to think about her work and develop her ideas about her work, but also received support through the Alliance Française and the French government to spend some time in Paris, which I must say we’re all of course insanely jealous of her for this, but we know that she spent that time very well and we’ll hear how well now, because Trinh will join us. Please welcome Trinh.
Trinh Vu: Good evening everybody. I said before, I enjoy making work in the studio, but the task standing here isn’t what I really enjoy, but I will do my job. I think I will go through three different sections – the first one will be the background to my work, the methods I use, and the work itself. Well in regards to the Paris trip, it was good.
OK, so you’ve seen here are pictures of one of my early works, not the one that I produced at the Cité des Arts in Paris, but it’s related to what I’m doing now so I will talk about the background of the projects.
In recent years, we have seen an intensified debate around the impact and influence of technologies on creative arts. Too often we hear pessimistic visions of art and technologies, for example fear of an alien reality has been a common topic and the general view that artists have the uncanny ability to see what is wrong with the world then turn it into art. Well, I don’t know if I’m going to do that [laughs]. Occasionally, there are more positive readings of the interactions between art and technologies. My work draws on the proposition that artists have become more accustomed to the cultures of digital tools and techniques and therefore they have developed new methods of exploring possibilities and ideas that may come along with new developments in technologies, so my work fits in that kind of category.
I will not look at what’s wrong with the world; I’ll look at what we can do with technologies in the fine arts. So the method is, in this project, I will … I experiment with a process that integrates theoretical analysis with visual codes, or characteristics in visual culture and practical applications of 3D-modelling software. It is important to note that this project is not intended to be technical research, in the sense that it’s purely concerned with intervention, innovation or change. However, it does suggest that with technological advances, changes in our thinking are inevitable. Its main aim is to experiment with technologies as a visual art creative process. It looks at how technologies primarily developed for design and entertainment can be adopted in the fine arts.
Now, access to technologies in visual arts is always difficult and rare. However it can be said that we all use some forms of digital devices in our everyday activities and therefore are familiar with the basic principle of user interface. The first thing we do after turning on the device or launching a software program is select the menu and then an option, and another option from a sub-menu, and so on. So selecting from menus of options and libraries of predefined elements has even become standard as software packages today are designed in this logic. In the same way, sets of readymade simple models called primitives can be found in any 3D software applications. They usually include a sphere, a cube, a cylinder, a cone and so on. Seen as basic shapes of common objects of the real world, these primitive objects are provided as starting points from which software users construct complex models. Once an appropriate primitive object is chosen, the process of creating a 3D model depends on the user selections of combinations of predefined elements such as tools, functions and operations from numerous menus and libraries in the interface.
What I’m saying is, this is not to say that the whole process of creating original work depends on how one is competent with the software or hardware, but to emphasise the fact that the cultures of using readymade and predefined elements in commercial software has created a new discipline which directs our efforts on modifying, adapting existing structures and elements.
This is still the background of my work so I’ll have to go on a bit more before I can show pictures. Now, 3D software was originally developed to simulate forms, objects and space of our real world. Visual codes in 3D technology were designed based on our perceptions of the world. As we embrace the technologies, new models of creative activates emerged. One of the major shifts in regard to synthetic reality is that more and more simulated objects and virtual spaces are based less and less on physical reality. In the fine arts we have seen this trend over the past few years, for example in the work of Korean artist Lee Bul who uses advanced 3D tools and industrial materials such as rapid prototyping devices and synthetic resin, and even foam rubber, to create her mythical monsters and futuristic cyborgs. Australian artist Peter Hennessey’s Moon Landing exhibition at Tolarno in 2005 is another example of this practice. He created objects based on the images and measurements found from the internet and chose to work with materials that ensured that his objects would not be mistaken for the actual things.
Now the second key principle in 3D technologies is that models are not mathematically described, therefore we can develop and modify them simply by changing the parameters and variables that defined the initial ones. This means that 3D models can exist in different, potentially infinite variations. Now, I’m going to show you what I’m doing here … [shuffling sounds] This is the picture of the same models but presenting as wire frame, here this is the main concept – it doesn’t work with me, so with the cultures of commercial software using readymade and predefined elements, we simply direct all of our efforts on modifying and adapting existing structures and elements. I found a sprig of flowers, I still don’t know the name of the flowers, however it suits my idea because it seemed that I could use one single object and modify it, repeat it and arrange it, and it will look like the real object, so here you go.
Before that, I also have to emphasis the fact that I also focus on these three distinctive characters, or four, oh no three – three distinctive characteristics of 3D, that is their weightlessness, excessively perfect or unnaturally realistic, and infinite variations. Now, here, this is what I mean by using predefined models. So I started with a sphere, which is one of the primitive objects in 3D software, and a cylinder. I simply stretch it and copy it and rearrange it, so from one sphere and one cylinder it will turn into that shape, and that basic shape would be copied once again, and rearranged until I get to that. And same thing, I put them together and it looks like that. Now the idea isn’t about creating a faithful copy of the real sprig of flowers. It’s what … I think I’ve lost one page … [off-topic remarks]
Trinh Vu: OK, so translating from one format to another is not just common but inevitable in digital environments, so we often have to export and import files in order to work with different programs, and hardware losses and changes of appearance often occur in these processes of translation. Put them together – the principle 3D imagery described above and the materials of the real world – I construct and reconstruct the model several times, switching from the initial models – normally a real object or an idea of an object – through the virtual or the software models and then to the physical form. My goal is not to mimic the real world through the use of 3D graphic applications but to look closely at how real things are created in digital space, and to achieve a better sense of how we now perceive the world around us. My works may have seemed to focus on plant forms; in fact I borrow familiar forms in nature as the basis of my study of visual culture in 3D-modelling programs. So this is one of the examples of using nature forms as a study.
Now, the finished works appear complex. The fact is that it was simply a group of two primitive shapes. Most viewers read it as an image of a plant form, and this was fine with me: it proved that the distinction between representation and procedure could be resolved in 3D digital modelling. In a similar method, my current project explores potential new concepts and perception through the process of analysing existing structures, form, and putting them in new ways. I selected natural forms and objects that have significant meaning in our culture, so that they’re still recognisable after a series of translations, redefined by the following process.
There are three stages. In the first stage, the basic form of familiar shapes and objects are described or constructed in a 3D software program; again, unnecessary details of the original models are eliminated. Next, 3D models will go through the second process of translation that will be unfolded in another 3D program to convert it into a physical, beautiful model. In the final stage 3D, oh two-dimensional drawings of the beautiful models will be once again reconfigured, ready to be printed out on paper. Following this will be a painstaking task of assembling the parts to construct the physical models.
So you see these are the three major steps of my process. As I explained, I select objects that are familiar to everybody in Australia. For example, the gumnut: the tiny one on the left-hand side is the real gumnut, the one in the middle is the software model, and the right-hand side is a paper-based sculpture of the original one based on the original gumnuts. The next one is, well it’s supposed to be a banksia. The left-hand side is the banksia and if you can see, the real banksia has more spikes than my banksia – well even I modify it, simplify it, I still have about 1600 pieces to put together. So the second model next to the real banksia is a computer software model and then the two-dimensional drawing and the one on the far right is the nearly-finished banksia I made in France.
Now, OK, I got this as my birthday gift after I returned from France, so you can see even that, they modify the whole city of Paris into these blocks of timber. They used my idea [laughs]. To be able to come to the final stage, I have to think of what would be the appropriate primitive shape for my objects, for my real objects, so I chose a sphere and I modify, I stretch it and it becomes an elongated sphere like that. Now with the idea that I would have to translate it and send it to another 3D program, so I have to make life a bit easier for the second one to understand the structures I built in the first program. When we export things from one program to another one, the software tends to try and triangulate every face, and then it would be a tedious task to join two triangles to make up one four-sided face, so I have to find a way to cheat with the software. So here you see the idea – once I’ve got the basic shape, I pull out every single face to make up these boxes which is, here, these boxes here. And then the top of the boxes will be put out one more time and joined together to make up the spike. Well, when you look at the pictures on the left-hand side, it’s one bend of the 20 to make up the models, it looks like this. So you need a core object and then you have each about 20 bends to cover the surface to make up the final shape. Now it should be like that.
When I open it in the second 3D program, I have to find a way to unfold all the 3D structures into two-dimensional drawings. The reason was that I need to make this object, so the software would help me to analyse how it can unfold it, but it would leave me with the job to assemble all the pieces together. So it took a few days to put all of these pieces together, so all the triangles and rectangles are joined together to make up this funny shape here, and each one is a spike. And the top bend, that bend there, is one of the blue bends to make up the boxes where the spike would be inserted in. And the long one on the left-hand side here is one of the bends to make up the core object. Now here you can see that once you’ve cut these shapes out of the paper and you fold it, it looks like one of the spikes here. So that bend, when you join it together, it will give you the blocks and then you can insert the spike.
While I was in France, every time I mentioned the word Ikea, [pronounced eye-kee-ah] people would correct me, they say I should say Ikea [pronounced ee-kee-ah], and I was saying to them that I think I’d like to make my model the way that Ikea would do their flat-pack productions so that I can take my banksia home to Melbourne. And so I was struggling to find a way to design a model that was … I’ve got everything with the idea that they will be glued together. Also, the fact that I couldn’t find the same kind of materials in France, so I had to modify the projects. So anyway, I travelled to different places, learned more about fabrications from designers. I’m from the fine arts so I don’t have these skills, and in fact I trained as a painter, not a sculptor, and so my 3D skills are really something just newly acquired. So after seeing a couple of exhibitions like Skin + Bones, the exhibition about the parallel practice between fashion designers and architects, I look at the way they construct objects and I realised that I’m on the right track, I just have to cut it carefully because if you want to interlock, you have to cut it precisely.
So I spent the first two months of my residency at the Cité des Arts cutting! I’ll cut it neatly, and here, this is what happened next. So I joined them together – see, each bend here will be halfway cut through and interlocked with the opposite bend – and so this is the beginning of constructing the physical model and more to come; and by the way, I’m very proud of this invention. Do you notice that I roll up all of these bends of paper using elastic bands? Without elastic bands, I wouldn’t be able to put them together. So here you go, as I went up higher I found that the elastic band was so useful – now I’ve got into trouble because it doesn’t work anymore, they all dropped down. So I invented another thing – I cut a foam core board, make up a disc and I suspend all of these bends on that disc. Next problem is they’re not balanced, so they’re falling, all dropped on the floor again, so I start from scratch. So I think, where’s my invention? I think I’ve lost it. I did, I forgot to include that picture. I found a simple way to keep the whole thing balanced on that disc, just use a tiny map book of Paris, I put it on the top of the disc and it’s held everything in piece.
Now when I got to this stage I got really excited – I couldn’t wait to put the spike on, so I stopped the construction of the bends and fold a few spikes, glue them together, quickly put on and I was very pleased with that. Until, well, I realised that I cannot just cut a few, I have to cut all of them because I would lose the numbers, so I had to know which spike would go into which box and yeah, this is 100, 1600 pieces sitting together.
OK, here this is my invention. That’s the map book that holds everything together …
Trinh: … and so I put everything together and it looks good, I was pleased, and then Robert emailed me, he asked for a picture for the advertising of this talk. I said oh my god, I haven’t finished it, but Robert insisted it’s important to send, so I was wondering: should I send this unfinished, or should I send that? So I took all the spikes out and took this picture and sent it to Robert. And that’s when I realised one more thing – if you notice the top, the top there, I could move the whole structure up to fill up the core structure. In Paris I did not find the right materials so when I made a few mistakes I couldn’t build the inner structure of the shape, so I had to fake it with some foam core and it held itself quite well, until I start I start putting the spikes in and they stopped there and so I could not raise it up to the top. Now, and by the way, this is my studio at the Cité des Arts. And here, I used a wide-lens camera to make it look fabulous.
Trinh: Anyway, that’s all I have [laughs]. Oh, by the way, through the window, when you look out you will see Notre Dame and you look down, you see the same. OK, so after finding out I would not be able to get the material to complete the structure in Paris, I decided to take it down, and here, this is what it looks like when you take the thing apart. It’s not too bad, I’ll show you the next one. So this is the main thing. Without this core shape, the structure will not form properly … and that’s what I’m doing at the moment. And the good news is the day I arrived here, Monash University informed me that they got two toys for me – they bought two new laser cutters. And so I went straight to the training session, and I’m waiting for this presentation to finish and I will go there and I will cut all of these bends and you will see the big, big paper sculpture in two weeks.
And so, after I pack and I put my banksia in a box, I decided: time to travel. So I travelled to London to see the ‘gherkin’. Before I left Melbourne to undertake the residency at the Cité des Arts, many people mentioned the gherkin, they said that my prototype objects in my office look like the gherkin and I’ve got no idea what they’re talking about. So here, this is mine and that, that’s the gherkin.
Trinh: The cousin, I can tell, OK. I even found a cake in the shape of a gherkin
Trinh: And by the way, the day I came to London, it was quite a traumatic day – I took the train, so I got to St Pancras Station and my friend met me there and he told me, ‘no, we can’t go home, there was a bomb next to the studio’; and so I said, ‘what kind of bomb?’ and he said, ‘a serious one, about 1000 kilos, one of the biggest ones they ever found in the past 30 years’. And it’s a Second World War bomb and so I said, ‘are you serious?’ And he said ‘yes, the police told me not to come home until they explode it’. So my friend got excited, he kept ringing the police, ‘can we go home now?’ And they said ‘no, don’t come home’, so I dragged my luggage and my friend and I went to see all the exhibitions in London and that’s where I saw the Skin + Bones exhibition, and I learned a few things.
And when I returned to the Cité des Artsin Paris, I realised that the sunflowers that I collected in the backyard, in the garden of the Cité, had exactly the same structures as my banksia, except that it looks more like a mushroom shape. And so I’m looking forward to making it. I’m dreaming of seeing it here, each one is about three, two-to-three metre diameter rolling on the floor with all of the spikes sticking out. Yes, I’m excited about that with the new toys Monash has. I think I can make it.
OK, so I packed my banksia, I put it in a Colissimo box and sent it to the post office. They had a good look there and they agreed for me to pack and send. The day it arrived in Sydney, Australia Post didn’t think that this is safe. They reckoned it looked like real plants, so they cut it open and they ruined it and they gave me that sticker ‘pass granted’, yes. And so the project isn’t just about the use of technologies. I think the creative process I just described to you has proved that I do not choose to use technologies to free myself from tedious tasks or because the work I would like to create cannot be done by hand, because I cut all of them by hand. It aims at exploring different ways of understanding existing and familiar concepts to advance new ideas and technologies.
Well, I’ve got something here I don’t want to read but I think I’ll read it. In 2004 Lev Manovich wrote that ‘the amount of labour involved in constructing reality from scratch in a computer makes it hard to resist the temptation to utilise pre-assembled, standardised objects’. And what he’s saying, he’s more concerned about the problem with standardised – and I think the concern is the relevant question, but I like to look at the same issue from another aspect. If we focus on today’s technology’s language, visual codes and characteristics to define a new method of creating from, what do we come up with? In other words, can digital technologies be used as a visual art creative process?
The paper-based sculptures I produced while I undertake the artist in residency at the Cité des Arts is one of my 3D works based on that formula. Natural form was translated and then was subjected to a process of reverse engineering and then to finally create 2D shapes and patterns when the 2D drawing was assembled, construct the physical model, it leads to other questions. So how do we make use of, how do we integrate the materials of the real world and the software model together? Well I’ll show you – it has some good results as well as creating a few questions for me to deal with in future. The residency in France was an invaluable experience – I travelled extensively to collect interesting natural form and learn more about fabrication techniques, along with the repetition and modifications of existing form. Modularity is another characteristic of 3D modelling that I’d like to further explore in my next project.
To conclude this presentation I would like to thank many people without whose dedication and support I would not have had this opportunity. First of all I would like to thank Caroline Williams-Mora and her family; Louise Vigar, Mary Delahunty, the board of the Georges Mora Foundation and its sponsor for providing me the fellowship and the generous support. I would also like to thank Shane Carmody, Dianne Reilly, Robert Heather and the staff of the State Library of Victoria for enabling my research at the State Library and for organising this presentation. Many thanks to Adrian Wagner, Patrice Pauc, Sylvie Christophe, and the embassy of France in Canberra for their sponsorship and valuable advice while I undertook the artist-in-residency at the Cité des Arts in Paris. Furthermore, I would like to offer my gratitude to Professor John Redmond, Dean of Art and Design; Professor Anne Marsh, Professor Robert Nelson, Associate Professor Arthur De Bono, Kathie Barwick, and my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, for making possible and sponsoring my research. Many thanks to Guy Abrahams and Emily Rose Davis, to Alexandra Boyle who was my host in Menton, to David Harley my host in Frankfurt and Richard Skinner my host in London. I would like to thank everybody who came to the presentation this evening, thank you.