Artist’s Notebook:
Clement Valla

April 7, 2014 | Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished piece. This week, Brooklyn-based artist Clement Valla talks about a new series of images and sculptures based on explorations of archeological, archival and digital junk piles. His solo show “Surface Survey” opens at TRANSFER Gallery on April 19th.

After my last show IconoclashesI was invited by Don Undeen and Jonatha Dahan of the Metropolitan Museum to visit their Media Lab and work on a project there.

Iconoclashes (2013), a collaboration with Erik Berglin at Art Hack Day at 319 Scholes: “The starting point of these images is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s public web archive; specifically all photographs of objects tagged with the keywords ‘God’ or ‘Religion.’ These source images were randomly grouped and digitally merged with a Photomerge script inside Adobe Photoshop. The script is a common algorithm used to stitch separate images together into longer panoramas. In the case of Iconoclashes, the script attempts to blend these ‘God’-tagged images together, creating chimeric deities, hybrid talismans, and surreal stellae, gods and statues.”

In conversations about their various projects, 3D-digitization of artifacts from their collection came up. They showed me the 3D-models they had already produced. I began taking them apart to see how they had been constructed, deconstructing them into texture maps produced by the software.

They immediately reminded me of archaeological fragments, bits and shards of artifacts to be reassembled into a complete whole…

…and of archaeological illustrations from the late 19th century, at the moment when the illustrations moved away from romantic depictions of ruins in a landscape to a mode of inventory and categorizing finds.

Both types of images implied ordering systems: one aesthetic, scientific and human; the other, technological and efficient. But it was this visual overlap of the two that caught my attention.

In 2004, I serendipitously ended up in Copan, Honduras, working on a dig with a group of archaeologists. I was helping to create a 3D model of a Mayaon tomb that they had discovered. I spent a lot of time underground in the company of spiders (which I hated), making meticulous recordings, and staring at the grids and rulers used by the archaeologists.

The 3D models helped in building digital reconstructions of the tomb, the burial and the architecture above it. That visual world, a world where scientific illustration was employed as a tool for comprehending something wholly alien to me… It really stuck with me.

I got excited by the texture maps, by the way they echoed my experience in Honduras. I decided to make my own 3D models of objects from the Met’s collection.

I spent the summer at the Met, digitizing a large number of artifacts on display.

A few months into the project, the Smithsonian announced it was publishing 3D models of objects from their collection online. Intrigued, I went digging around on the site and found the texture maps, the normal maps, and the light maps for the objects.

The fragments and arrangements are different in these texture maps. They’re much cleaner. This implied a different modeling algorithm at work on this collection.

For the show, I focused on the light maps that capture the lighting information across a 3D model, rather than the color and texture information. The models were probably lit with a blueish light to match the blueish atmosphere they are set in online. The light maps therefore end up looking like blue-tinted x-rays.

The software I was using on the Met project has an interesting characteristic. It’s a cloud-based software. It runs on practically any device, but all the processing is done online. The by-product of this is that by default the software wants to make the files public and shareable.That means that there are tons of models online made with this software. More often than not, these models are of completely mundane objects, likely made not so much to capture a specific object as to test out what the software can actually do.

I like to think of this huge cache of 3D models as a midden heap (an archaeological term for a junk pile). Archaeologists love junk piles, because they reveal so much about day-to-day life. I decided to lift texture maps from mundane objects in the online midden to contrast with the objects I was digitizing at the Met. Typically, I searched for objects titled ‘test’ or ‘first try’ or other variations, objects clearly not captured for the sake of the object, but rather, for sake of trying out the software.

I chose objects based on the color/tonal consistency of the overall show, objects whose texture map palette echoed what I was producing over at the Met.

I didn’t only focus on the texture maps. In cracking open the 3D files themselves, I found that the models where not single solid pieces. They were composed of model fragments that matched the fragments in the texture maps. The show will include some of these fragments, 3D-printed and laid out on tables following the ordering logic of the texture maps.



“Surface Survey,” Clement Valla, Apr 19 – May 10, TRANSFER Gallery, Brooklyn. Opening reception: Apr 19, 7-11pm.

Previous Artist’s Notebook selects:

Artist’s Notebook: Tima Radya
Artist’s Notebook: Parker Shipp
Artist’s Notebook: Eva Papamargariti
Artist’s Notebook: Brenna Murphy
Artist’s Notebook: Genevieve Belleveau
Artist’s Notebook: Andrew Ohanesian
Artist’s Notebook: Saoirse Wall
Artist’s Notebook: A. Bill Miller
Artist’s Notebook: Lorna Mills