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Surreal Sculptures and Prints Subvert Copyrighted Files

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez disguises copyrighted files inside remixed sculptures and image files in ‘Hard Copy.’
October 28, 2015, 3:50pm
Merge Simpson, 2015. Matthew Plummer-Fernandez. SLS Polyamide, Resin, Paint, 41 x 22 x 55 cm.

Bringing glitch out of screens and into three dimensions with algorithmically-altered sculptures has been London-based artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez’s M.O. for the last few years. This distorted work can take the form of commonplace items like kitchenware or generative recreations of classic sculptures, as he did with Venus of Google, which was based on Venus de Milo.

For his first solo exhibition, Hard Copy, Plummer-Fernandez shows a series of new sculptures and prints, all based on familiar cartoon characters, that have been built out of the same basic data. The work is at once a comment on the practices of remixing, copying and file-sharing, but also how to hide all of this activity from mass online surveillance.

In Hard Copy, Plummer-Fernandez derives his four sculptures from 3D models of Mickey Mouse, Marge Simpson, Goku, and Spongebob. He converts the 3D models into an image file, which works to conceal the original source. The 3D model’s geometry is then mapped onto an RGB color range, creating a flat but colorful remix of the character.

“I'm using the STL file format that lists all the 3D mesh faces, each containing three corner points, each of which is described by three numbers comprising an XYZ coordinate,” Plummer-Fernandez tells The Creators Project. “That is nine numbers per face. When translated to the image this takes up nine pixels. The tenth pixel is black to separate each face dataset. Sure it doesn't matter what you process through my system, it all ends up looking roughly the same when translated to RGB pixels.”

In Hard Copy, Plummer-Fernandez was interested in boolean operations, the digital process of adding and subtracting 3D shapes (polygons) to and from each other. He says the names of the sculptures and images files—Spongebool, Merge Simpson, Every Mickey—are clues to the processes they’ve been subjected to.

Plummer-Fernandez picked pop iconography for Hard Copy because he’s interested in the tensions between commodified mass culture and people’s desire to do more than simply consume it. They may want to share, copy and remix it, and Plummer-Fernandez likes that digital technologies facilitate this desire, resulting in an explosion of fan art and file-sharing. His goal is to warp this desire into something that becomes cultish and irrational.

“I'm inspired by how dominant religious and cultural iconography can get distorted by people through a process of acculturation and intermingling with local folklore to create weird branches of religion and culture,” he says. “I think cartoons work like global enculturation programs, seeding in the minds of children around the world the values and rituals of the more global culture.”

Rather humorously, Plummer-Fernandez says the he was raised in Colombia on the “daily teachings” of The Simpsons, Disney, and Nickelodeon. He speculates that cartoons deviate toward the arcane (secrets known to a few people) as a way of resisting total assimilation to mainstream culture. “In Colombia it was not unusual to find weird looking Disney murals on nurseries and I've recently come across terracotta Homer Simpsons,” he says.

Plummer-Fernandez says that Hard Copy grew out of his work on the app Disarming Corruptor. This app disguised 3D model files as “glitched artefacts,” allowing users to reverse the glitch back into the original source. Disarming Corruptor, as Plummer-Fernandez then noted, was a reaction to a time of “prolific online surveillance, crackdowns on file-sharing, and a growing concern for the 3D printing of illegal items and copyright protected artefacts.”

“I like the legal concept of 'plausible deniability' with which you could claim you had no idea you were in possession of something illegal, [and] I thought converting the file format to a seemingly benign flat image could be the perfect cover,” he says. “How could abstract images ever be monitored or known to possess 3D print data? It’s a type of steganography but rather than hide data within an existing image, the data becomes the image. The derived images have their own particular aesthetic, which could be used as an argument for possessing such an image.”

Plummer-Fernandez say some other artists, like Constant Dullaart, are beginning to explore steganography—concealing data or message in non-secret text—but he has yet to see this translated from 2D to 3D as a physical manifestation in a gallery, as he does in Hard Copy. With the NOME representation, he was able to present these two manifestations of the same data side-by-side as sculpture and image file.

“It also seems to me an interesting statement to make within the context of art, that for us emerging artists working with digital tools there is no dichotomy between images and sculpture, they both stem from data stored on our computers,” Plummer-Fernandez says. “Their geometries are all different; therefore the files are composed of different data. They all originate from files I downloaded online and cut up and messed around with until new objects emerge.”

“Their component origins may be visually traceable but the resulting artefacts are, in my opinion, distanced enough to be original works,” he adds. “It is similar to music made from sampling other music and found recordings.”

The digital archival prints portion of Hard Copy is, Plummer-Fernandez says, a step toward these files reaching “total dissociation from their copyrighted origins.” When he converted their XYZ geometries into RGB values of a PNG file, they became totally abstracted. They bare no visual resemblance to the sources, though he says there may still be a case for copyright infringement.


“Those files still retain all the data necessary to recover their 3D file origins using the conversion software in reverse,” he says. “I’m in the process of making the software available to use in browser so anyone can use the service to conceal, share and recreate 3D models from PNG images.”

Ultimately, Plummer-Fernandez wants viewers to unlock some of the different readings and influences of the works themselves. But, a big bonus for him would be for the audience to realize that both the sculptures and prints are simply hard copies of the digital files.

“It is the infinitely versatile digital file that we should be celebrating, not the lumps of matter that we then produce with them,” he says. “But I'm aware of the paradox of the gallery space being a place where we glamorize the physical, and my role in that.”

Click here to see more of Matthew Plummer-Fernandez’s work.


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