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Artists at Play: Claudia Hart’s Sensitive 3D

From character rigging to texturing, in the multibillion dollar commercial 3D game design industry an abundance of meticulous considerations are taken daily. But among the vast parts that comprise this machine, one detail has been historically neglected–gender sensitivity. Artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago instructor Claudia Hart utilizes 3D animation technology to respond to male-dominated gaming culture with her feminine, anti-violent, virtual sculptures and performance objects.

Claudia Hart began her career as an intermedia artist, creating a variety of work ranging from paintings to super 8 films. When she saw Toy Story upon its release at the Berlin film festival, her eyes were opened to the potentials of 3D animation as a new medium. “I saw it in terms of a post-photographic medium, that it was somehow a hybrid between the language of perspective, Renaissance painting, sculpture, and photography,” says Hart, “I got very excited about it as an artist and felt I wanted to learn it.”

Machina, 2004. Quicktime video on custom framed Mac Mini computer. Image courtesy of the artist.

She began by taking 3D animation classes at NYU, at the time only offered on Unix operating systems; the code-based programs were a far cry from today’s more user-friendly interfaces. Most of Hart’s fellow students were pursuing careers in commercial game design. “It was me and a bunch of 21 year old boys,” she remembers.

Hart attributes 3D technology’s masculine leanings to its militaristic origins. “3D came from the Department of Defense,” explains Hart, “It was used in military simulations and war games, so it was a very particular culture. When commercial games evolved, the people who knew the ‘magic’ language and the technology, many of them were military or ex-military, almost 100 percent guys.”  A predominant use of 3D for first-person shooter games and violent film special effects was the result. “When I first started using 3D, those were the only contexts it was used in,” says Hart. She soon found herself countering a language that she felt “was only being used in one way, but could be anything.”

Ophelia, 2008. 10-minute 3D animated loop. Image courtesy of the artist.

When Hart entered the commercially-oriented 3D animation program at Pratt Institute, she witnessed first-hand an industry tainted by sexism and machismo.  “There was a lot of brouhaha, because there was an attractive young woman who was a full time professor who had come from Disney,” remembers Hart, “She was being harassed, literally harassed, by these sexist, hyper-macho kind of kids that were attracted to this [3D gaming] culture.” That professor was Claudia Herbst, who has since written a book on women in coding culture called Sexing Code: Subversion, Theory and Representation. Herbst found a kindred spirit in Hart both in name and in shared adversities, and invited Hart to teach at Pratt. “As women in 3D, we were very rare,” says Hart.

Together the two Claudias worked on theological papers for the College Art Association, critiques discussing the iconography, vernacular, and culture of 3D. “It wasn’t just gaming, where you have aggressive war, but also a kitsch culture where the virtual reality representations were always women with giant bosoms. They look like they’re straight off of a Playboy from the ‘50s,” explains Hart. In one paper, she likened the industry to “boys playing with dolls.”

These issues spurred the artist to find her own reactionary voice within the 3D medium. “When all of that happened with Claudia, I very intentionally started working with erotica and sensuality, and a language that was taunting that in a way,” she remembers, “I thought, ‘I’m going to make hyper-sensual things that are from my point of view.’” Hart adopted characteristics like imperfect bodies countering traditional 3D’s hourglass-shaped heroines, and contemplative hyper-slow motion challenging commercial 3D’s usually frantic pacing. She intended to “invert aggression; It was like an inverted game,” says Hart. “It started as a rebellion, as this idea that ‘I will be decorative, I will be femme, I will be Rococo, I will be pretty, and I will be slow, and I will be everything that’s the opposite [of expected 3D traits].”

Hart’s 3D animation video object Caress is one of many figural works which personify this rebellion. The piece features a 3D modeled figure tightly contained within three shelf-supported computer screens. Despite her graphically rendered appearance, she resembles a classical sculpture.  Her dreamy closed eyes and slightly parted lips sensually complement her front-facing odalisque sprawl. Slowly but surely she shifts her limbs into subtle position changes in what Hart calls an act of “camera-to-figure sex.”

Caress, 2011. HD quicktime video, custom wood box, shelf, computer. Photo courtesy of the artist. Video excerpt at end of post.

Hart began to use her digital body films as demos in class as “a subversive act” with her conservative male students. “They would get very uncomfortable, so I knew I was on the right track,” says Hart, “they would be trying to taunt me or Claudia Herbst by modeling a girl with giant breasts wearing gladiator equipment, and they would think that this would upset us. I was doing this and they would get really upset, because it was sensual, slow, and there was a high culture aura to it. ”

The artist’s motivations soon evolved past rebellion after Hart began as a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She met Mark Jeffery, an instructor in the performance department, who told her, “You know, what you do is really performance.” The comment pushed Hart to harness her interest in experimental dance.

In 2011 Hart produced Recumulations, a collaboration with performance artist Roberto Sifuentes and composer Edmund Campion. The piece, which combined sound, live performance, and choreography on virtual 3D bodies, was partially inspired by the work of experimental dancer Trisha Brown.

Recumulations installation, 2011, Black & White Project Space, Brooklyn. Image courtesy of the artist. Video excerpt at end of post.

The group rehearsed Brown’s choreography and had Sifuentes improvise similar movements in a motion capture studio. Sifuentes hung on strings so that he wasn’t restricted by gravity, a restriction heavily addressed in Brown’s choreography. The motions were then applied to Hart’s 3D modeled figures, which were projected alongside Sifuentes as he performed in a live event at the Black & White Project Space in Brooklyn. “The idea was that in the 3D environment, you don’t need gravity,” explains Hart, “[Brown’s work] was all about a certain kind of control and pattern making, and Roberto was making it out of control.”

Recumulations performance, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

To maintain the utmost versatility in her practice, Hart constantly adapts to an ever-growing plethora of 3D technology. “Right now I’m making a piece in fact where I’m using a rag doll technology that’s usually used in games when a character drops and dies,” she says. The technology allows the animator to apply dynamic forces to a virtual “doll” made from geometric parts.

“I’m doing things like throwing it against a wall, bouncing it like  a yo-yo, shaking it in a box,” explains Hart, “and then taking the motions from that and making it a basis for a choreographic or pattern language. One of the things that interests me is the virtual experience,” she continues, “and what could happen there that couldn’t happen in the real world. What could a digital body do that a human body could not?”

Hart has helped cultivate a platform for innovative 3D discourse while working with the students at SAIC. She is thrilled with the program’s diversity–“I have 50 percent women, sometimes more, and gay men. That never happened before I came here.” Her classes consciously guide students outside of the industry’s typical “assembly-line consciousness” that she feels “lends itself to cog-like thinking.” In courses like Digital Bodies, she screens experimental dance and performance films for her students and encourages them to find their own voices in 3D graphics. “I’m sure it will become boring, just like anything else,” laughs Hart of her up-to-the-minute medium of choice, “but it’s a good time for it.”

“Caress” (2011) by Claudia Hart from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

“Recumulations” (2011) by Claudia Hart from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

Claudia Hart will next exhibit in Politrix Books: Advice for the Aspiring at the Twilight of the American Century, Oct 14, 2012 – Feb 14, 2013 at the University Library Gallery of California State University-Sacramento. The show will accompany the publication of A Child’s Machiavelli as an i-Book by Flicker Labs and will travel to Kasia Kay Gallery in Chicago in spring of 2013. To view more of Hart’s work,

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