HIST3814 Critical Making in Digital History has come to an end. Over the duration of the term, the students first digitized something in the physical world, and then progressively manipulated, translated, and transduced the thing into different forms and mashups. The idea was that we would study the way things break, or fail to work how we think they should, to see if we could understand what the fact of the digital does to our work as historians. The final module involved pushing the digital thing back into the real world. I asked student Alexis Mawko if she would share some of her work. What I like about Alexis’ work is the way she uses the entire process as an opportunity to think about her practice as a historian in its ethical context. Below, we crafted a post out of her various process notes and paradata. The final part is her process notes on how to make a hologram projector
The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.
‘What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters’, Part 1, G. R. Swenson, in Art News 62, November 1963
I deliberately chose Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Soap Pad Boxes” in the National Art Gallery of Canada for the thing for my assignment for multiple reasons. Warhol’s work forced the viewer to contemplate the relationship between art and everyday commercial objects. By replicating commercial packaging and presenting it as an artwork, the viewers and the curators are also forced to contemplate their own definition of what constitutes art.
Maxwell notes in Power is in the Process: The ACCORD project that “…in the end we value human creativity above machines” (Maxwell, 2107). To me, this is why Andy Warhol’s work is regarded so highly. While he uses machines, helping hands, and pre-existing designs and images, it is the way that he re-purposes these images and objects that is what makes his work creative, and thus, art. The technology at his disposal allows Warhol to “seek to introduce the value of human creativity” (Maxwell, 2107) into otherwise, banal household objects. In addition, as Maxell notes, “despite his attempts to hide behind the machine, we are always aware of the personality who created the work” (Maxwell, 2107), and it is that creative personality that gives life and meaning to the artwork.
I think the framework of ideas can also be applied to work we have been doing with 3D modeling. We are more removed from the subject and we use technology to create a copy of the artifact at hand. Simply copying an object and processing it through a program to create a 3D model seems uncreative, and the final result would not be classified as art by many. But in essence, we are doing exactly as Warhol did; we are reproducing and repurposing and object for own use, and giving it a new meaning. While Warhol wished for his audience to contemplate his work and their own culture, our 3D models function as an informative tool that allows others to discover the artifact virtually. Furthermore, there is much more involvement in the creation process on our part. I had to edit photos and fiddle with the program to get the best result, and it required a substantial amount of trial and error. If the process was completely devoid of human creativity, the program would do a perfect job generating a 3D model the first time.
While making a 3D model of Warhol’s “Brillo Soap Pad Boxes”, I also had to remove the background of the images and subsequently, the context of the sculpture, that is, the gallery and the setting. In doing so I changed the meaning and the intent that the artist originally had for his work. While a viewer can look at my model and see a 3D image of the sculpture, it may not cause them to understand the meaning behind the sculpture, or contemplate why a consumer product would be displayed in the gallery.
While trying to copy the packaging of the Brillo soap pads, Warhol also re-appropriated the meaning of the Brillo boxes themselves and changed its “aura”- that is, its essential meaning (Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, 2010). While the boxes started out as packaging designed to promote their product as well as the company’s long history in America, they were seen as something completely different, and more sinister, when viewed in the context of the art gallery. Warhol effectively erased decades of the company’s all American history, and the Brillo Soap Boxes became known throughout the public under a different light.
Finally, the final step that the Brillo Soap Pad Boxes have undergone was its recreation as 3D image, making a facsimile out of a facsimile. When made and viewed as a 3D model, part of the history is lost once again, as the viewer cannot appreciate the context in which his sculpture was meant to be seen in (in a gallery, as mentioned previously). Its meaning becomes an appropriation once again, and the 3D model can only be fully used as a visual supplement, and certainly does not compare to the real thing. Part of the fascination that comes with any artwork or artefact is that that art is has witnessed history, or is representation of the artist himself. Without having that authentic connection and without being able to see the original artefact, part of its meaning, quality, and value is lost.
I had the most difficulty deciding what to do for this final module. I was not quite sure what to create nor did I really know which direction I wanted to take my topic in. The reason for my indecisions really boil down to two main causes of concern.
#1 – I was struggling with how to advance my work in a meaningful way. The point of this module was to bring our digital creations into the physical world. Yet, throughout this course and throughout my own journey with my topic, I have become increasingly conscious of the roles we play as historians and of the potential unexpected consequences we face when manipulating things from the past, whether it be a narrative or a physical object. In Module 2, I focused on the multiple narratives that the Brillo boxes convey, and throughout the Brillo box’s many transformations (from consumer item, to fine art, to a digital 3D model) these narratives have shifted or have been lost all together. Questions of ethics arose as I was aware that each transformation utilized a pre-existing work, which was manipulated for the use and intentions of the creator (myself included). Therefore, I was somewhat hesitant to create a physical copy of a digital copy of a physical copy of an already existing object. (Confused? Me too.) I feared that dragging on this process of copying and reproducing would be redundant, unethical, and meaningless.
#2 – I was also concerned about my practical skills when it came to producing a physical rendering of my object. I feel as though the modules have been getting harder and harder in this regard, and I can admit that technological troubleshooting is not my forte, with my pre-existing technological skills being limited to Microsoft Office and Adobe applications. Thus far, I have been impressed with what I have been able to accomplish, and the discussions we have been having in class about “productive failures” have really helped affirm my less than perfect work and have encouraged me to experiment and move forward. However, with this module I was very unsure of what I wanted to accomplish.
In addressing my first concern regarding the redundancy of repetition, I decided that it was best to just fully acknowledge my role as a historian, as a digital creator, and as an “artefact appropriator” and purposefully bring my digital work from Module 1 back into physical space in the most literal way possible. I therefore decided to create a moving hologram of my 3D model of the “Brillo Soap Pad Boxes” from Module 1. While I was still concerned about how I would actually be able to go about doing this (see Process Notes for this journey, below,) I figured that this option at least allowed me to do some hands on work by creating the actual hologram projector out of plastic. While I am not entirely confident with technology, I am confident in my crafting abilities. Worst case scenario, I would make a hologram out of image rather than a video (thankfully it did not come to this.)
The Brillo boxes have gone through so many changes already, I felt as though making my 3D model into a hologram would intensify the removal of its original context as a consumer product, and its later context as an art piece, making it so steeped with hidden and distorted narratives that its presence as a hologram is a statement itself. The hologram is completely removed from its original surrounding context of a kitchen or an art gallery, and so its purpose and history is completely lost to a typical viewer who may not be informed on this specific topic. Furthermore, as a 3D model, the Brillo Soap Pad Boxes are removed from their setting in a gallery, and as a hologram, the Brillo Soap Pad Boxes are removed from their interactive digital space and physically brought into the world of the viewer. The viewer is then faced with this tiny, broken looking model right in front of them, and they are forced to try to understand what they are looking at and how it can possibly be important.
This got me thinking about a lecture from a few weeks back in which it was said that producing copies and displacing context has the potential to have social and ethical implications. In my case, the ethical implications are very apparent to me. Most of this issue I have already addressed in Module 2, and so at this point, taking this historical object and displacing it further only adds to the already existing ethical implications, yet the extremity may help a confused viewer acknowledge this reality. This idea of ethical implications in regards to holograms has been rather relevant in popular culture as of recent, as there has been a fad of bringing deceased musicians “back to life” through the use of holograms on stage. Discourse surrounds this issue as some people think it is tasteless and improper to seemingly “revive” a deceased musician who cannot consent to the performance. This was discussed fairly recently when a projection of Prince was used at the latest Super Bowl half time performance because he was presented alongside Justin Timberlake, someone that Prince was known to have dislike. Therefore, certain types of holograms do have the potential to cause harm and cross ethical and societal boundries.
As with most forms of reproduction, holograms may present some issues to historians in the future. Failure to represent an object in its proper visual form, or in the proper location or context can have detrimental effects. This has been seen with the reproduction of the Triumphal Arch from Palmyra. As Kamash explains in the article ‘Postcard to Palmyra’: bringing the public into debates over post-conflict reconstruction in the Middle East, “the unfaithful reproduction of an ancient landmark that was not displayed in its home country nor with a proper, informative context proved to be emotionally detrimental to the people of the Middle East AND other viewers who realized the problematic reality of the 3D reconstruction.”
Authenticity in historical artefacts are highly valued because they are tied to the historical narratives it represents. Part of Palmyra’s history is that the ruins were destroyed, and some felt as though that reality was taken away by the attempt at a reproduction. A similar comparison can be drawn to the many reproductions of Brillo boxes. However the scope of those who may have been negatively affected is smaller and perhaps even non-existent today as the Brillo boxes remain as an icon of Andy Warhol’s work, and the Brillo Company itself still remains active and successful today. One could even argue that Warhol’s appropriation had a positive impact on Brillo as his work promoted the company and made them visible in the art and culture world. Either way, it is certain that such a simple object has made a large impact in every form that it has taken.
Process Notes – Building a Hologram Projector
Once I decided on what I actually wanted to produce for this module, I starting making the plastic hologram projector that I would need in order to create a hologram. I figured that making this first was the best course of action because it would allow me to test it out with pre-existing hologram videos on YouTube, and allow me to ensure that it works before I start making my own hologram video. I put my crafting and DIY skills to test and scavenged an old CD case to cut up and use for this project. I followed the instructions set out on this website -> https://makerbus.blog/2018/01/19/building-a-diy-smartphone-hologram-projector-is-it-as-cool-as-the-internet-makes-it-look/ . The tutorial was easy follow and the overall task is quite simple. I opted to use CD case for the plastic instead of the thick, industrial grade plastic that was used in the tutorial because the CD case was easily available to me, and I had the time to spend cutting it.
I first created a paper template of a trapezoid that measured 1cm on the top, 4.5 cm on the sides, and 6 cm along the bottom. I then taped the template onto the CD case plastic and traced around it in pen so that I had an outline to follow when cutting. I laid out the templates so that each sides were touching in order to maximize the efficiency of my cutting.
The plastic was, in no doubt, difficult to cut. I sliced along the lines multiple times with an X-acto knife, applying as much force as I could so that each slice would slowly dig further into the plastic. Once I decided that I had cut into the plastic deep enough, I lined the cutting edge along the side of the table and used pliers to carefully break plastic along the straight edge. I have never cut thick plastic or glass before, but I knew that theoretically, this was the best way to do it. Most cuts and breaks came out fairly well, although I did have some corner piece casualties. Luckily these were the top corners, and it would not affect the overall projection. I then sanded down the edges so that they were not so jagged and sharp, and I carefully tapped the pieces together to form an inverted pyramid. I was especially careful with the tape as I did not want dirty tape obscuring the view of the hologram.
I tested out the hologram projector with some videos on YouTube and it worked perfectly! It was definitely mesmerising to watch. I discovered that the best way to view the hologram is by being in a dark room and turning the phone brightness all the way up.
This was the part of the project I was dreading, as I had no idea of how to go about it at first. All I knew was that I somehow needed to get a synchronized, moving video of my 3D model. I had no idea how to render my model into a video at first, and no amount of googling really helped. All of the articles that came up provided instructions on how to make a video into a 3D model…so it was not quite what I wanted. I looked to Sketchfab to see if there were any applications available through there, and there were none that I could find. I figured that my next plan would be to screen record myself manually manipulating my Sketchfab model, and using that video file.
In order to do this, I had to figure out how to screen record (something so simple and yet I had no idea how to do it.) After some googling I found out that a screen recording application comes already installed on Windows 10 devices, and works through Xbox Live. All I had to do to bring it up was hit the windows button + the “G” key at the same time. After hitting one button, I was then set to record. After stopping the recording, the video would save automatically, and was accessed through This PC > Videos > Captures. To get my 3D model video, I went onto SketchFab and made the viewer full screen, and recorded myself manually spinning my model to reveal all sides and angles. While crude and somewhat simplistic, I think it worked quite well and the cursor is only slightly visible but not overly distracting.
The second portion of this endeavour required me to reflect the video four ways and have them all play consecutively. While researching how to do this I discovered this amazing tutorial that teaches you how to do this in POWERPOINT.
This was fantastic as it allowed me to do everything I needed, in an application that I am already very familiar with, therefore I would not have to download new software and learn a new editing interface.
The tutorial is quite straightforward and easy to follow, and I only had difficulties with the step that teaches you how to sync the videos. After some fiddling around I got that hang of it. I also used a triangle shape as a guide in order to ensure that the videos are positioned the same distance away from the center point. I would align the triangle with the X cross section guide and align the bottom of the videos with the straight edge of the triangle (this can be seen in the images linked in the Object Files).
In order to save the video, I needed to export the file as an MP4 video file. I saved the video in a low quality as it was intended to be viewed on a phone and because the synced the videos did not play smoothly while on a high resolution.
Once finalized, I sent to video to myself so that I could open it on my phone and VOILA! It worked! It was rather tiny (as the boxes could not fit any more into the frame) but it worked. I did notice, however, that it was not as easy to view as the YouTube examples were. This was because the background was grey, and not completely black, because of the default Sketchfab background. I hoped that a grey background would not be a problem but a black background turned out to be necessary for optimal viewing.
I figured out how to change the background in Sketchfab by going into “3D Settings” and changing the background colour to black. After I did this, I recorded a new video and repeated the entire video making process. My final video turned out WAY better and my tiny Brillo Soap Pad Boxes can now be viewed spinning around in virtual space.
Kamash, Zena 2017. ‘Postcard to Palmyra’: bringing the public into debates over post-conflict reconstruction in the Middle East. World Archaeology https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2017.1406399
Latour, Bruno, and A. Lowe. “The Migration of the Aura – or How to Explore the Original Through Its Facsimiles”, In. T. Bartscherer and R. Coover (editors) Switching Codes. Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, University of Chicago Press pp. 275-297, 2011.
Maxwell, M. 2017 Power is in the Process: The ACCORD project, Internet Archaeology 44. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.44.10