Documentary Sculpture



This exploration is concerned with what we consider to be a new type of documentary products – based on new technologies of capture and registration. They are made of tens of thousands of individual photographs projected upon three dimensional scans. The scanners concerned are operate on LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology which uses laser to measure the distance to surrounding objects, bodies or environments. The laser scan produces a multiplicity of points hovering in mid air that are called “point cloud”. The photographs are then projected and mapped onto the point cloud. This effectively produces high-resolution digital models with a potential accuracy of less than a millimeter.

In recent years these scans started supplementing photography as a means of forensic documentation of crime scenes in the context of criminal cases and also in the context of war crimes and human rights violations. The scans of crime scenes are meant to be viewed digitally, allowing investigators, juries judges and lawyers to undertake walk and fly through studies of the relations between objects in space.

When printed (in 3D) the results are three-dimensional snap shots whose relation to sculpture is similar to photography’s relation to painting. They are in short: “documentary sculptures”. Peter Coles, a Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics and I collaborated on an exhibition titled Beyond Entropy in Venice in the summer of 2010 where we showed them for the first time.[i]


The advantage for [war] crime scene investigators is obvious, photographers have to take decisions regarding what should be documented and measured. Obvious things like bodies, bullet casings, weapons and blood will be identifies and measured. The scanner allows one to record all aspects of the scene and also capture unexpected items.

The scans of crime scenes used here have been provided courtesy of the manufacturer of the technology – Leica Geosystems. They are part of a large archive of such scans of crime scenes. For reasons of privacy, the dead bodies of victims, captured in the original scans, were deleted when handed over to us and all details about the event and its location were not divulged. When crossing the boundary from the context of law to that of art, or academic research, the dead body had to disappear. This facts turns these documentary sculptures into petrified crimes without context, place and victims.

The first one displayed here is of what is obviously a traffic accident. There are two cars in the middle of the road. A group of people stand infront of one of these cars around the missing body on the ground between them. The scene is quite cinematic – there is a narrative relation between these people, the cars, the street corner, the empty bench, the tree and the road sign.

There are also several interesting features in this documentary sculpture that are specific features of the technology – the empty circle in the far end of the model (from the cars and people) is the span of the tripod – the area under the scanner that the laser beam could not have registered. Behind the traffic sign we can just about make a straight groove in the earth. This is the “white shadow” of the pole. White shadows should be the name for those areas outside the vision capacity of the machine. The bodies of the people standing by the side of the road are like empty shells, they are constructed from one side because this was the only perspective of the machine. Some of the figures seem to lack parts of their bodies – hands, shoulders, parts of legs, the reason is that they are standing in the white shadow of other figures.

In short, what these prints – three dimensional sculptures – do is to ossify events – in a sense of hardening them into bone like solids. Organic and inorganic matter are made the same material, like a marble sculpture. The face captured by the laser beam is an artificial bone.

The scan of the destroyed building had also two dead bodies that were deleted from the file before we could print it. Most curiousing however is the model of the landscape. It could be anywhere and anything. But we also know that some human rights groups are using airplane mounted scanners to undertake renderings of the surface of places suspected to have graves in them. What they look for are micro scale shifts from the patterns of “natural” topography, areas where the morphology of the surface of the earth no longer reflects the way that water and wind are sculpting it – an interruption, a dig, a site of mass grave perhaps.

This image of death further open up our investigation and points to future direction of research work.

The landscape – the surface of the earth—now increasingly called upon to perform as evidence/witness in political negotiations, international tribunals and fact-finding missions —is not an isolated, distinct, stand-alone object, and nor did it ever “replace” the subject; rather, it is a thick fabric of complex relations, associations and chains of actions between people, environments, and artifices. It always overflows any map that tries to frame it, because there are always more connections to be made.

[i] “Gravitational Energy”, Eyal Weizman and Peter Coles in Beyond Enthropy, the Fondazione Cini, Venice opened: 14.8.12