Helena Lukášová: The only one out of billions

6. January 2021
An interview with Helena Lukášová on the future of artificial intelligence, the philosophy of art, and curiosity as the main drive in life.
Helena Lukášová: The only one out of billions

Helena Lukášová studied sculpting and even worked as a sculptor. At 28 years old, however, she discovered the beauty of digital technologies and redirected her creativity toward multimedia. She’s also a teacher, designer, and forensic artist; in cooperation with historians and anthropologists, she can digitally reconstruct the way a dead person looked using only their remains.

You studied sculpting at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia, right after the Velvet Revolution in 1989…
Yes, we were all pretty surprised. Those were strange, changing times, and nobody was ready. Not just in politics, either – all the teachers were replaced as well. We were suddenly allowed to get creative, which was something we weren’t used to at all.

After graduation, you spent some time teaching at a high school only to leave overseas in 1998. As an artist from the former Eastern bloc, what life lessons did America offer you?
A lot. Mainly, for the very first time I saw how digital technology can be used in sculpting. I applied for a study program at a foundry: nothing creative there, just pure craft, foundry, and masonry work. And when you’re supposed to work on somebody else’s project for eight hours a day, and it’s hard work on top of it, you start to think about ways to simplify it. There was a great crew and I even met some artists who not only saw 3D scanners and CNC machines as ways to speed up their work but were already using this technology at the conceptual level. And I very much liked it.

When did you realize that you’d bring the digital and art worlds together in your career?
After spending five years in the USA, I returned to Brno and started to teach at the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University at the Studio of Graphic Design and Multimedia. I had enough freedom to adjust the lessons as I liked and I decided to continue with what I’d learned in the USA. That’s why I applied for a post-graduate program at my alma mater in Bratislava, choosing “digital sculpting” as my main field of study. It was an opportunity to explore something brand new, and my stay in the USA put me one step ahead. The main message of my final thesis was that it’s possible to approach sculpting in a conceptual way as well.

Helena Lukášová is a digital sculptor, teacher, and multimedia artist who interconnects her art with the digital world. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava and in 1998–2003 studied and worked at the Technical Institute of Sculpture in New Jersey, USA. Among her major achievements are winning the LIAEP grant, the Czech Grand Design 2015 award in the Jewel category, and a nomination for the 3D Print Show Global Award (London 2014). You can find her work displayed in the Moravian Gallery in Brno and in Grounds for Sculpture, New Jersey. She’s the head of the Studio of Graphic Design and Multimedia at the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University.

Koschei’s egg of a digital sculpture

You only started using a phone and a computer around the age of 28. How does a person like that become a multimedia artist?
I bought a computer mainly because I was afraid of breaking other people’s computers when writing my emails. And this complex about not being able to do these things has brought me to where I am today – I just felt the need to learn it all. I spent the biggest amount of time at the computer when on maternity leaves. Once the kids were asleep, the 3D space was a kind of escape for me. Some people play games, some read books, others sleep, and I spent my time working on virtual sculptures. At first I was doing it all only for myself; later on, though, I started preparing them to be digitally printed, so I started to think about them as paintings.

You deal with what’s called a “representation of source file”. What is that about?
I like to contemplate what the original actually is – the digital sculpture or the pile of numbers in the computer? Basically, it’s about where the proverbial Koschei’s egg of the digital sculpture is. When I create virtual objects, they can be made tangible anytime, even without me being there, which is fascinating to me.

In digital sculpting, this next question might be a touchy subject. A sculptor works with their hands, manually shaping some mass. However, digital technologies give them an opportunity to create a sculpture without anybody touching it at all. Isn’t this purely manual art seriously threatened then?
I don’t think it is. Whenever a new technology or medium emerges, people get scared and think the old things will disappear. When photographs were invented, everybody kept saying that people will only take photos and painting will disappear. True, painting lost its position and painted portraits were replaced by photographs, as they’re more precise. Yet painting didn’t cease to exist! And photographs didn’t just disappear when films arrived. All those things are still alive, side by side. After all, digital sculpting still requires a lot of manual work. Its postproduction is demanding, so I don’t really worry about the future of classic sculpting.

Stupid artificial intelligence

There has been a lot of talk of machine learning, artificial intelligence… Do you think machines will create art some day on their own?
Those who deal with this topic don’t really consider these scenarios realistic. In fact, the artificial intelligence is still pretty stupid with no general intelligence like people have. It’s unable to connect things, understand their meaning, connections or metaphors. Unless artificial intelligence gets to understand all this, it makes no sense to expect it to create anything meaningful. I think artificial intelligence will be used in arts as a means to criticize – to criticize itself. Some artists have already started dealing with this.

How about artist Lauren Lee McCarthy who created a human version of a smart household? She turned herself into artificial intelligence, watched people in her home for 24/7, and tried to help them instead of the technology. Is this the criticism you mean?
Yes, Lauren wanted to point out how we let artificial intelligence into our most intimate space without realizing the consequences. When the artificial intelligence was replaced by a person, the feelings of the people watched suddenly became full of contradictions. All this very much adds to the discussion of artificial intelligence which will then become the basis of very interesting artistic outputs.

Digital reconstruction reminds of a detective’s job

You deal with digital reconstruction as well. First, you did the reconstruction of the Egyptian princess Hereret whose mummified remains lie in the museum in Moravská Třebová. Then you worked on Jobst of Moravia, and your digital reconstruction of Baron von der Trenck drew a lot of attention.
Yes, the last one was very ambitious, as a lot of institutions needed to get involved. Baron Trenck was an infamous warrior who died imprisoned in the Spilberk Castle in Brno. Buried in the Capuchin crypt, his remains were naturally mummified thanks to a good ventilation system of the crypt. Digital technologies weren’t the only important things there; for three years we cooperated with anthropologists from Masaryk University, historians from the Brno City Museum, and the Capuchin brothers had to join as well. And they were very excited!

You even got the Brno Funeral Services involved…
According to the law, dead bodies may be transported by a funeral service only and Baron Trenck had to undergo a CT exam in the hospital. The funeral service thus became our sponsor and we were proud to mention it in the official materials. Anyway, this allowed us to take CT scans using which we put together a model of the bones. However, some tissue and tendons were found as well, so there was a lot of new information for anthropologists. We wanted to depict how Baron Trenck had looked when he had been in Brno not long before he died. We didn’t want to idealize him at all, as he was a very contradictory historical persona. We just wanted to create a dignified portrait matching the skull, no caricature.

The output – the reconstructed face of Baron Trenck – was a bit spotted on one of the sides. Why was that? Some kind of injury?
One of the historical records mentions that a barrel full of gunpowder once exploded when Baron Trenck was nearby, leaving some permanent damage in his face. Historians did research on what gunpowder may cause and found some people who work with historical weapons and have been injured like that as well. The fragments of gunpowder get under your skin and look, let’s say, like tattoos, which is what we put in the final version of his appearance. Concerning the colour of his eyes and hair, we listened to the recommendations of anthropologists who did research on his family origins. And just like detectives we continued finalizing his appearance.

Our curiosity is just immense

Can your job get sometimes humorous? Is there any fun in doing digital art?
Well, this job is about scientific research and our own interpretations, so there’s not much fun in those. Of course, Baron Trenck could have had protruding ears, but that’s something we can’t find out for sure anymore, and we can’t tell from the skull either. Some versions did look funny to us, and we could have put those protruding ears on him, but we try to eliminate things like that and imagine some likely average look. The same happened with the size of his genitals; originally, we wanted to create the whole body, so we were dealing with this level of detail. Still, we have to keep in mind that he’s a historical persona, a man who actually lived, and to respect him. I keep ethics in mind as well; whether we do the right thing, why we actually do it, why we want to see those people, why we won’t leave them be in the past… Well, as people, our curiosity is just immense.

In addition to being a sculptor, you’re a designer and have won prestigious Czech Grand Design in the Jewel category in 2015.
What a situation that was! I started documenting my younger daughter using photogrammetry, which is about creating a 3D model based on a set of photographs. I installed it in various positions, such as an angel rising or in the position of an embryo, and then I created 3D models of my husband as well. All just very intimate records, but what to do with them? So I started doing compilations, like cutting off hands, heads, mouths, and combining or mirroring them in various ways. All this resulted in opulent gold brooches, and designer Denisa Nová used them in her collection of recycled Persian lamb fur coats. And Karin Zadrick then took absolutely fantastic photos of the entire set, replicating the method of deconstruction, so the models had their hair over their faces and looked like somebody turned their heads with their faces to the back. Well, the photos totally overwhelmed me, so Karin deserves a lot of credit for our achievement as well.

(Photo: Karin Zadrick)

You’re head of the Studio of Graphic Design and Multimedia. What do your students do after they graduate?
Our graduates find jobs easily, as they are good at coding, know a lot about graphics, they are good at designing and at communicating with designers. Our studio is a part of the Department of Visual Computing at the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University, and we’re absolutely unique among the schools where informatics is taught, as we interconnect graphical design and informatics. There’s a seminar which interconnects students with real clients, as we accept orders – either from within the university or from third parties – and our students create proposals of the assignments in a competition.

You cooperate with your students on your art projects as well, and with one of them – Jakub Valtar – you created a program visualizing brain activities. What is it about?
Jakub created a program working on the principle of EEG waves. I kept repeating a children’s rhyme, turning it into a bit of a mantra, while the data from my brain was distributed into 3D space. The way I was pronouncing, feeling, and repeating it was very important, as the virtual trajectory was changing accordingly.

And you used the trajectory as a source for some sculpture in the future again?
Yes, it was a kind of scaffolding that I eventually stuffed with content. A major experiment prepared for my residency at the Centre for New Art at William Paterson University, New Jersey. That’s where I had an opportunity to implement these sculptures using a robotic arm, so I wanted to come up with something big. It turned out to be a big surprise, which I enjoy. I’m very curious and want to know the results of my projects, and that’s my main drive.

You say our curiosity is just immense and it’s what drives you forward. Is curiosity the energy you’d like to evoke in your audience as well?
Yes, I like it when people come and say: “Wow, what’s that?”. And I reply: “Well, it’s up to you.” I’m not saying I want to do weird things; I just do them because I’m interested in their outputs. There are all kinds of processes; some of them lead nowhere, others end as expected, and others surprise me. I give various leads to people, for example through a title, and I’d like them to do the discovering at least to some extent the way I did it. Like I created a crossword puzzle and people resolved it.

(Photo: Michaela Dvořáková)

It feels great to be one of the billions

In one of your interviews, you mentioned three most important things in your life: family, beauty – mainly the beauty of nature – and consciousness. I understand the family and beauty, but what did you mean by the consciousness?
Consciousness is a means which allows me to experience the world. I can be in the world, explore it, interpret it, I can see it, and I can explore it using my senses. Of course, fine art is only one of the types of interpretation. This may get a bit too esoteric, but I do think this current consumer world may improve when people start creating things themselves. We earn money to buy what we need. Of course, lots of things just cannot be made at home, but everybody can do some minor creative act during the day. Just decide to take some other way to work today, or try what you haven’t tried yet, to discover new options.

Do you think this could push us forward as individuals?
Every single creative act pushes forward not only individual people but also the entire society. And that’s where I see a huge potential of collective consciousness. Also, it’s great to do something, no matter whether good or bad, something five or twenty people will see. In the given universe, I have done something unique. And suddenly I’m the only one out of billions – isn’t that just great?! I’ve done something what hasn't been here before. In this way, I contribute to the diversity of the world, and that’s incredibly motivating!

Read more about the topic

LANIK: a family business of global significance
27. April 2021
LANIK: a family business of global significance
Material for the foundry industry? It isn’t hard to imagine a more attractive business than this. Yet it’s often the inconspicuous companies with no distinctive marketing that the innovative businesses in #brnoregion relies on. And LANIK is one of those, as it’s been carefully developing its own technologies in Boskovice for over 30 years.
Karel Novotný – a brand doctor
15. April 2021
Karel Novotný – a brand doctor
Karel Novotný has been in marketing and advertising for over 20 years now. He spent some time working for agencies before starting his own business as a lecturer and consultant. He’s held workshops all over the world and, in addition to large companies, he’s been helping non-profit organizations with their marketing as well.