For many years0001, I was primarily a painter, and I exhibited paintings, objects, and photographs in the contemporary art context, first in New York beginning in 1988 and later in Berlin. Then in the late 1990s, I began working with three-dimensional, or 3D, computer imaging for the first time. In the mid-1990s, 3D animation software, or Maya, as it is called, was not available for the personal computer. It was supported exclusively on the UNIX operating system, typically available only in large corporations or academic institutions. So in 1997 I began taking classes at New York University's Center for Advanced Digital Applications in order to gain access both to Maya and to the center's sophisticated computer labs.
Learning 3D animation was quite challenging, and although I was an early adopter of computers, nothing I had previously done prepared me for the mathematical and technical rigor of spatial 3D imaging or the culture that surrounded it. When it came to courses in Maya or virtual reality simulations, there were hardly any women enrolled in classes. I was also one of only a small coterie of contemporary artists working with this software, since, until recently, 3D animation and imaging existed completely outside the purview of contemporary art discourse. There are a number of factors that explain this situation, one being that the technology was still quite novel, having been previously used mainly by the US Department of Defense to create flight simulations, and another is that the gaming industry that has since popularized 3D animation was then only nascent. And although Maya has since become an entertainment industry standard, in many ways this technology is alien and remains a challenge conceptually, because it represents a distinct break from the analogical, photographic model of representation that has been the cultural standard since the nineteenth century. Reality is simulated in 3D animation not through “capture” like photography but rather by modeling a parallel universe “inside the computer” and then outputting it. In that sense, 3D animation is truly “post-photographic,” and as such it is still little understood both inside and outside the art world.
In 2000 I started teaching as a visiting instructor at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute in a department then called Computer Graphics and Interactive Media. Although Pratt is a serious fine arts school, at that time its computer art department was “production oriented” and more or less an extension of global engineering culture. I began to understand the students' needs as vocational in nature; they desired entry not into the world of contemporary art but into what historian of science Timothy Lenoir (then chair of the program in history and philosophy of science at Stanford) identified as the “military-entertainment complex” (2000). The program was very demanding, as it was believed that mastering the elaborate Maya software interface required hours of memorization by rote. Its ultimate purpose was to train digital workers to staff proscribed stations in the production pipelines of multimillion-dollar Hollywood effects films or elaborate shooter games. Soon this art school training was to serve mainly as boot camp for the armies of the military-entertainment complex0002.
Professional mainstream 3D game culture has always been largely homosocial, and its users generally form a kind of hypermasculinist boys club. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my colleagues and later my students tended to be somewhat more rigid in their outlook than the typical art student was; they were not interested in seeking out the unfamiliar, and they were closed to reflective thought and resistant to an analytic reading of the world around them. As a woman and as a contemporary artist submerged in this militaristic and highly macho-oriented pedagogical environment, I experienced an unanticipated pedagogical/political awakening. I was making art as well as teaching, all while coming to terms with this particular subculture of male-dominated digitality, and I found that I wanted to subvert earlier dichotomies of “woman and nature” as pitted against the “civilized,” scientistic, masculine world of technology. Hence I started exploring themes that incorporated unequivocal romantic imagery, predominantly the 3D female figure, often nude, moving slowly and sensually.
Before long, my art and my pedagogical work began to merge when I produced a series of short films as in-class tutorials for 3D character animation. These shorts fed into the process that developed my current body of work: sensual virtual images of the female figure moving within mechanized depictions of “nature.” Introspective and slow moving, these works present a distinct departure from the way women are depicted in first-person shooter games, which is usually pornographic or extremely violent and dehumanizing. By using the same 3D medium to create figures that reference romantic femininity while eschewing ubiquitous strategies of speed and endgame shooter mentality, I am positing feminine beauty and erotic sensualism as a kind of refusal0003.
Ophelia (2008) (figs. 4 and 5) is one example of such slowed-down sensualism and subversion of the shooter game. Inspired by British artist John Everett Millais's 1852 painting depicting Hamlet's Ophelia drowned in a stream, I was interested in using this image partly for its Luddite pedigree. Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite, part of a movement that promoted a return to medieval arts and crafts at a historical moment that coincided with the birth of the Industrial Revolution. His was an époque that, like our own, sustained a tremendous technological paradigm shift. With that in mind, I thought that I would invert the Luddite mantra and make my Ophelia the harbinger of the new digital era.
Also, Ophelia is the embodiment of romantic tragedy, a feminist figure who embodies the Electra complex, a madwoman who drowned herself for love of a man who murdered her father. There is even a third tragic subtext here: the collision between the technological and the natural worlds. My mechanized Ophelia floats at the bottom of a sea littered with refuse and plastic bags, an ode to our own, possibly lost, natural world. In a sense, Ophelia is symbolic of my own artistic practice: she represents the transformation of nature into a kind of automaton in which the “artificial” and the “natural” come together in an uncanny way. She is at once dead and fake and yet hyperreal, alive in a tense, uncanny fusion. This is also reflected in my still lifes, or “timegardens” (fig. 5), slow-moving animations that fuse multiple time schemes into single, apparently integrated scenes that portray nature as an elaborate asynchronous clockwork: Chaplinesque mechanical visions for a technological age.
Soon after I began teaching as an adjunct at Pratt, traumatizing world events intervened, and in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a hard and decisive shift toward a boot-camp mentality occurred in the popular culture of 3D animation. Changing along with it was the demographic of students enrolled in computer graphics programs at Pratt and all the other engineering and vocationally oriented schools where I later taught. Students now flocked to the vocational training schools connected to art schools, community colleges, and polytechnic universities to learn 3D animation techniques they believed would lead to a job. Notably, a plethora of shooter games were produced that became a significant part of an at-war American military consciousness; later, during the Iraq war years, 3D games were to grow into a larger, more profitable industry than that of 3D-animated children's films. This change bears a direct relationship to the strategy of economic cross-fertilization promoted by the US military in order to develop simulation technologies for military training enactments (Lenoir 2000). Lenoir in his various writings on the subject describes a history in which military scientists entered the commercial computer game industry, with its vastly superior commercial production budgets, to further develop technologies used for flight simulations and war games. Later, after development in the commercial realm, these popular interactive shooter games could be redeployed by the military.
In my earlier experiences teaching 3D animation, I blamed everything on the militarist game industry. But the “3D problem” is also attributable to a consciousness limited by reductive thinking, a result of pedagogical structures borrowed from the corporate industry production pipeline reified in the name of the production of blockbuster effects films. These skills are taught with an eye toward rigorous, narrow specialization. Students are taught to resist “big picture” thinking, which also means to resist thinking that is conceptual, holistic, lateral, or creative. Indicative of this trend are course titles that are typically named after technical terms: Modeling, Rigging, Character Animation, Rendering, Texturing, and so on. Unlike other areas in fine arts curricula, these courses are conceived in the name of production-line manufacturing expediency, as opposed to educating thoughtful citizens or even independent, creative workers. Educational online tutorials and the burgeoning DVD tutorial business offer formalized exercises as homework assignments that reflect assembly-line consciousness: “make a cartoon walk cycle,” “model a grisly humanoid monster,” or “create a highly lacquered sports car.” What is interesting is how educational tools inadvertently promote the (unacknowledged) production of a specific company style or brand. They teach not just skills but aesthetics conveying the values and ethos of an industry—not the industry of design and high-end consumer products but one that is without any particularly edifying aspirations. While the seduction of Hollywood with its perceived lifestyle of glamour and creativity is certainly the carrot on the “learn-3D-and-make-it-big-in-the-entertainment-industry” stick, it was the assembly-line production model of education that I believed was destructive for my students. I began to think that it actually prevented them from using this new tool in unexpected ways rather than endlessly repeating whatever ads they had recently seen on TV.
Hence I had my “pedagogical/political awakening.” I gradually developed and put into practice “x3D” classes (Hart, ca. 2007–2010) in which clusters of complementary skills were grouped together in unorthodox ways for their aesthetic and expressive potential. Surprisingly, students from performance, painting, sculpture, and experimental design departments who had previously been uninterested in 3D animation registered for these courses and joined in. The classes evolved into a laboratory with students creating extraordinary things that still surprise me. Many of these students became and will become artists (fig. 6), but others enter the commercial gaming and design industry with portfolios that are fresh and unusual compared to the typical 3D portfolio reel. Four years after beginning the x3D project, these kinds of creatively motivated students continue to fill my classes (which are now also taught by former graduate students), while the more production-oriented students have left and gone elsewhere. I believe that this parable of 3D animation is not merely about the evolution of a specific medium but about the liberating function of contemporary art education in an otherwise frighteningly uniform, corporatized world.