Lost In Space

How can you sample the Statue of Liberty? What is Wile E. Coyote standing on when he runs off a cliff? Solving the riddles of the universe with digital artist Paul Higham

Higham's method, which he has dubbed "space sampling," works on the same principle as the sampling of sound. Objects from the real world are telemetrically scanned--digitally photographed as 3-D forms--and transmitted into the computer, where they can be manipulated either manually with the haptic brush, or algorithmically by the computer. "The idea," he continues excitedly, "is that the computer becomes self-directing. The sculpture is autogametic--do you know that word?" I nod noncommittally.

"Good," he continues. "It's not made in reference to any existing form, but organic within the computer."

At this point in the process, Higham's sculptures do not exist in any tangible sense; they're bits of information floating around in the circuitry of the computer. In virtual reality, however, they can "evolve," metamorphosing according to preset algorithms. (The best analogy for this is a biological life form, which, once introduced into an ecosystem, changes according to its interactions with the environment.) Higham is also able to extract the models from virtual reality and re-create them as physical objects in real reality. Once the computer has done its work, he explains, the sculpture can be sent online to a rapid-prototype machine, a refrigerator-sized box that robotically builds plastic models from the data. The whole process is like something out of science fiction: Information goes in; complex object that bears only incidental resemblance to anything in the real world comes out. The computer, explains Higham, is now more than a conduit for art. It is an organizing intelligence in itself, a deus ex machina.

He springs suddenly out of his chair, and glides over to the other side of the studio, where a row of three of his sui generis rapid prototype models--which he calls "reities"--are displayed on a shelf. They are small, about the size of a football, and shaped rather like oblate honeycombs--in other words, not objects you'd necessarily pick to put on your mantel if you didn't know that they were cutting-edge conceptual art. The original stimulus for these curiosities was a photo of a famous statue, "Nike" (the goddess, not the shoe), from the Louvre. Now, as Higham proudly points out, they have become something completely different, unforeseen and original.

Eventually, Higham predicts, rapid-prototyping machines will be as common as photocopiers, and 3-D objects will be as simple to extract from the Internet as paper printouts are now. In three to five years he expects that space sampling will enjoy the popularity among sculptural artists that sound sampling currently does among musicians. And he's already thinking beyond it, to a synthesis of the two. "The algorithms that produce the objects," he explains, "can also produce an audio signal. The sound is dependent on the form, so you can create a real-time orchestration." The end result, he says, is a symphony generated wholly from shapes modeled in virtual reality and evolving organically over time--a 21st-century music of the spheres.

"It all stems from the past. In the Fifth Century B.C., Pythagoras said that music was made slowly through time with many numbers." With that, Higham floats off into the intellectual ether.


A few days later, Higham is shuffling around his warren, excited by a recent discovery. He's searching, he explains, for a mimeographed copy of a book by the eccentric 19th-century inventor Charles Babbage, which he dug out of the moldering stacks at the London Museum of Science a few years ago. The inside cover of the book is inscribed by Reverend Dodgson--proof of Higham's long-held contention that the two inventors knew each other and might have shared ideas.

"Dodgson--or Lewis Carroll--was very interested in photography and in mechanical devices. Babbage was interested in cryptography, which Carroll also studied. It's a tangled web. But it was also a small, close-knit society, so these people certainly came across each other." History is another of Higham's preoccupations. As he rummages through the studio's flotsam, he produces a sheaf of Babbage's hand-written notes--research, he explains, for a biography he is planning to write.

Babbage, who invented the first computer--an enormous steam-run abacus called the Analytic Engine--but never got around to building it, is something of an iconic figure for Higham. In the artist's estimation, Babbage represented the nexus of technology and art in the 19th Century. Through him, Lewis Carroll would have met Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the namesake of the U.S. military's computer operating system (and whose life Higham thinks he might someday like to make into a movie). Babbage's designs, Higham contends, also laid the groundwork for much of 20th-century abstract art--and, of course, his own forays into cyberspace.

"The tradition of symbolic logic, which Babbage mechanized, leads right into the work of Etienne-Jules Marey, who heavily influenced the Futurists. If you look at Etienne-Jules Marey's chrono-photography, you see great similarities with Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase,' which was exhibited at the 1913 Armory show, and which kick-started a whole new vocabulary of art--a new dialect, if you like." Higham takes a breath and flashes a lopsided grin. "It's quite a lot to think about."

Higham's deep-seated admiration for his eccentric forbears stems from what he describes as a staunchly Edwardian upbringing. His father's father, he says, owned a large estate on the Isle of Guernsey, which was occupied by Germans during the Second World War. By the time Higham was born, in 1954, the family had relocated to an idyllic farm estate in the Forth of Firth in Scotland. Even before Higham's birth, his parents had registered him for a prestigious boys' school, and Paul spent ages 7 through 17 there, learning Latin declension and the care and maintenance of machine guns. "It was a very unforgiving, tough Victorian place," he recalls. "There were tunnels and a nine-foot wall around the school. Really, nothing had changed since the 19th Century. By the time I was 11, I knew how to strip a Bren gun. We used to practice on the SCS training ground, near Salisbury Plain, blowing up dummy tanks with two-inch mortars."

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