Drake-Brockman & Kuhaupt, 2001 - Chromeskin
Essay from Catalogue of the National Sculpture Exhibition: - The National Gallery of Australia
Our intention from the outset of the Chromeskin project, back in mid-1999, was to make an artwork that consisted of two aspects, physical and virtual, arranged in counterpoise. To do this we would blend traditional sculpture with industrial electrochemical processes, 3-D scanning technologies and multimedia techniques in digital image rendering and animation.
In this project we have made use of chrome in order to harness its rich semiotic impact. Chrome is a null surface - a reflection that only quotes the world that it inhabits. Chrome is a cyberpunk reference symbol that signifies a technology-saturated world where street culture is imbued with virtual and body-invasive supertechnologies. Chrome is the sanitised, smudge-free surface of the perfect housekeeper's pristine kitchen appliances. Chrome is an automotive effect from the heyday of American industrial dominance in the 1950s and 1960s when the automobile was celebrated as mechanical fetish and sexual extension. Chrome is a pop culture referent for supertechnology - the surface of the robot in Terminator II - the ultimate 'liquid metal' machine.
The departure point for Chromeskin was a human bodycast. We knew we wanted a male figure - an office worker physique, about 1.8 metres tall and carrying a bit of weight. Drake-Brockman provided an appropriate physical form, while we were able to draw on Kuhaupt's extensive experience with body-moulding during the casting process. We prepared a series of positive and negative moulds; some elaboration of the cast re-established features lost along the way. We ended up with a hollow fibreglass casting that we used as a 'master' for subsequent stages of the project. This master cast became the basis of two initially divergent paths.
One path entailed the preparation of a full size physical Chromeskin - a chromium-plated, mirror-finished mannequin - via electroforming and electroplating technology. First, a layer of copper was electroformed over the fibreglass body elements in a plating bath. After polishing, layers of nickel and chromium were deposited to complete the surface. The process of chrome plating over a non-conductor was similar to that employed by Drake-Brockman in previous artworks.
The second path, which progressed in parallel with the first, was the creation of a virtual Chromeskin 'inside the machine'. To achieve this, the master cast was surface-digitised using a laser 3-D scanner. Then, via 3-D modelling software, the scan outputs were rendered to seem like chrome and the created body was animated within virtual space.
To fully express the virtual Chromeskin in an exhibition context we conceived 'the quadrascope'. Quadrascope is an omnidirectional interface device that displays a large-scale animated version of Chromeskin on each side of a telephone box-sized rectanglar prism. The device displays images derived from the Chromeskin laserscan data, processed against the current visual field around it. Observers are able to walk up to and around quadrascope and approach its surfaces closely. On each face a representation of mirror-surfaced Chromeskin is displayed, with the figure reflecting and reacting to the movements of the viewer in realtime. The device is a kind of 'fishtank', giving the impression of a chrome body floating within a rectangular volume. The machine uses four networked computers, four video cameras, and four 130 cm flat panel plasma displays. Quadrascope is driven by synchronised 3-D rendering software written especially for the artists by the specialist software company headus (metamorphosis). Quadrascope enables a kind of reverse immersion experience, where an audience can walk around and into the presence of a participating digital other.
By placing the virtual chrome-plated man inside the quadrascope, and positioning it alongside the 'real' chrome-plated man, we have set the scene for a kind of collision between virtual and actual agents, which is played out with the audience as participants. All viewers are implicated in this work, it cannot be experienced without a contribution into its feedback loops - both real and virtual. We hope that with this approach the work engages more viscerally with its viewers and can prompt a momentary blurring of the boundary between the living and the digitally synthesised space.
Chromeskin draws a perspective on an important process underway in our culture - it is a contribution to the public artistic dialogue that explores the ramifications of the technological absorption of self. Chromeskin stages an encounter between two aspects of human agency - the physical and the virtual - arranged en tableau. The project has allowed us to extend programs that were already underway through our separate practices, while adding new dimensions through the process of collaboration, the techniques and technologies involved, and the sheer scale of the undertaking. All processes were jointly executed and all conceptualising was done together over coffee, or a glass of wine, or in the studio as we went. Physical Chromeskin acts as a projection of the virtual into the real world. It is a kind of 'export' of a cyberterritory resident into a (relatively) 'low-tech' manifestation. Virtual Chromeskin, realised via the quadrascope, is a feedback loop into the media from which the Chromeskin concept arose. The virtual and physical Chromeskin pair, exhibited together, offer a cross-border encounter by bringing the ultimate machine-concept human face to face with an audience and permiting a strategic comparison to be made between real world and screen-delimited interfaces.
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman and Richie Kuhaupt, September 2001