Duplex: What does the title Decimate Mesh mean?
Ryan Woodring: Decimate Mesh is a command in 3D software that reduces the amount of faces in the geometry while trying to retain important shape information, like the relationship of a jpg to a raw image. But also the word decimate has its roots in destruction and murder. Someone at work sent me an article that claimed that ISIS was using rudimentary visual effects in some of their videos. So for example they digitally made themselves look taller while walking prisoners to their deaths. I guess identifying as an artist who has worked in the American film industry for several years; I had a strong reaction to these claims.
D: How did you dive into this subject matter?
RW: I have been really interested in digital remembrance for a long time, and in another body of work I’ve been extracting YouTube videos of people on rides at amusement parks. In the piece Great American Scream Machine Sendoff Footage, I used footage capturing the final ride of the coaster before it is dismantled. I layered 20-something frames in resin to try to recreate the scaffolding of the coaster and get at that impossible space where memory sits. I was kind of relieved to at least know that there was camera footage from the destruction of Mosul and Hatra. It gives a lot of importance to the camera operator because he could have just as easily filmed the floor. I am therefore interested in the exact amount of frames that were recorded. The camera holders in these videos have all the power. Not only do they show the strength and brutality of this group, but also, they are educating people on these sculptures right before they are broken apart. That is why I am really focused in on what the camera angles themselves make available to be printed.
What I am really troubled by is that these objects are being simultaneously introduced to a world audience at the time of their destruction. How many of us from the West would have actually gone on a trip to Northern Iraq to see these sculptures in the first place? Really only a lucky few. There is a crazy contrast between the destructive nature of these videos and the odd fact that in some way they are educational. That is why the camera is so important; because these sculptures could have been just as easily destroyed offscreen. We could just be reading about it. The fact that this destruction was also used as propaganda, to show the group’s power to destroy cultural history, they had to focus on these things just long enough that there is some educational value to be extracted. I recently spoke with artist Morehshin Allahyari who is working with historians and researchers to recreate the exact sculptures with 3D modeling and printing. She is working to embed USB drives of the model information inside each resin print. I am really excited about that work, and knowing that there are artists and cultural institutions doing such exact recreations frees me up to do this work. I focus not only on what was lost but how that loss is being digitally stored and disseminated.
D: How did you decide how big these 3D pieces were going to be?
RW: They are the pretty much the size that I saw them on the computer. In Man Hammers Himself into a Void it is much less an exact replica- it was actually a huge wall of the Iwan in Hatra, the same location used for the shooting of the beginning of The Exorcist.D: What accounts for the crag like shape?
RW: The crag is basically the software’s inability to interpret the footage in a meaningful way. I really tried not to tweak these too much despite my painting instincts to add on. I found it most relevant to match the rebuilding process with the software we have at hand, even though I am approaching this with a visual effects background, I am also looking at ways 3D printing is used across the board.
D: Did you know going into this project that the cost of 3D printing was high?
RW: Yeah, I have experience working at Laika, a stop motion film company where they 3D print characters’ faces for every single facial expression, and I’ve been told it’s like 50 bucks a face. Which is where my job at Laika comes in, I remove seams and rigs used to hold up all of the puppets.
D: Your day job is essentially taking away this information; your work seems like a response to that.
RW: Exactly, in my visual effects day jobs I am usually taking still images and sequencing them to create animation. My own work often heads in the opposite direction. I take fluid streams of video and dismantle them in order to extrude them back into physical space. But yeah the video pieces in Decimate Mesh come out of my experience as a digital paint artist. I pulled these videos from YouTube and then removed the men committing the destructive acts…getting back to that paradoxical revealing of the sculptures before they break apart, re-granting some agency to the sculptures themselves and titling them accordingly… 2000 Year Old Sculpture Alerts World to its Demise, which is the title for a two-second loop of a sculpture un-tarping itself before it meets a sledgehammer.D: What software do you use?
RW: I am using Agisoft PhotoScanPro for these photogrammetry extractions and getting them printed at RapidMade in Portland. It’s intended to analyze multiple photos of a still subject from different angles and create virtual 3D models. I am using only the footage that was released by these terrorist groups to recreate the actual physical objects that they destroyed. I’m interested in how the shape and definition of the recreated objects are determined by how much screen time they are given. If a sculpture is on screen for only one second, let’s say that equates to 24 frames, the software might not have enough camera angles to build from. In the instance of replicated Hatrean Goddess Usurps Her Dethroning, the camera operator panned around the sculpture long enough before it was destroyed, so there is enough information to actually round out the form a bit- it’s a more accurate replica than the others. Where the sculpture turns black, that’s where the cameraman didn’t continue the pan. That is where it ends.
D: The software you are using to send to the 3D printer recognizes not only the shape but the color as well?
RW: Yeah, it projects an averaged image back onto the model. I think I’m most interested in how it captures in some way the camera movement too. In my visual effects work for Laika, I use software called Nuke, which is the workhorse for the visual effects industry. There is a tool in there called Camera Tracking that takes footage and places thousands of different tracking points on a frame based on points of lumiercontrast. In the next frame it looks for those again. From that information, it emulates the camera movement.
D: Do you mean for Decimate Mesh to be a political statement?
RW: I know this work seems really political and yes, I do have my own thoughts on ISIS and other terrorist groups, but do I see this work situated in a political act against them? No, not as much. I see other artists who are taking more extreme and courageous steps. I am interested in digital memory taking shape back in the world. Whether the footage is something as innocuous as an amusement park or as serious as a terrorist group committing cultural genocide, it is still the idea of the object’s agency in being remembered that I have the most questions about.
D: Do you think by removing images of the perpetrator, you highlight that or take away their power?
RW: I think if you were involved in that day of sledgehammering and destroying sculptures and saw yourself removed, that would seem like a direct effrontery. I do think the video pieces come off more politically charged than the 3D prints but my aim for those is to redirect the agency back to the sculptures. I know I am treading on a fine line- I felt that way with previous series. I used amateur videos of the Japanese tsunami in 2011 to create abstract monotypes in which I was printing every frame of the video on the same sheet of paper. I was trying to convey the fatalism of watching a video from across the world from a small computer screen. At the same time, I definitely tripped a bit on what it said about empathy. In this case there was a definite choice to use videos of the destruction of objects, not humans. We know that unfortunately there are very graphic videos released from this same group that show the careless destruction of life. I would never use those videos in my work.