Midnight Joke

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Stephanie Owens used to teach a class at Cornell, ART 3799, Digital Media: Special Topics. The special topics when I took it and she taught it, back in 2016 or 2017, revolved around digital 3D modeling and photogrammetry.

If you take enough pictures with your phone of a well-lit object from all different angles, software can use the information to triangulate a digital 3D representation of that object. We did this to scan objects into our computers that we could modify digitally if we so chose to, and we could print out back into the physical world, “modified” or not.

What you get, once you print, construct, or otherwise physicalize the digital representation of this object, is a copy that’s very different. It certainly isn’t the same object— and not even in the Theseus Ship way, in which at some point it was. This is a wholly different object, yet by the nature of its construction, it is a copy of the original.

Cornell has a museum in-site— the Johnson Museum— and Prof Owens arranged for a project that involved a visit. We picked an object from their collection of artifacts to scan. I selected a mesoamerican figurine made of clay. It enthralled me. It wasn’t particularly aesthetic or anything special, but it captured my imagination that this figurine, like I, was away in Ithaca, so far from the mesoamerica that built it.

Why was this figurine here anyway? Was it stolen, and if so, when? Was it found, and if so, why wasn’t it handed to a museum in Mexico so it could stay there? My grandma used to tell me stories about farmers finding archeological artifacts in hometown, a small village about a 3 day walk from Guadalajara, when plowing the ground. Did a local or a foreigner find this figurine? How many hands decided that it’d eventually end here? The history of this figurine will remain unknown to me, beyond the plaque stating that it was found in the state of Nayarit, not to far from the soil I grew up in.

Once I scanned the figurine I didn’t modify it, and I printed it hoping to be as close to the form and dimensions of the original. The resulting figurine was as close as I could reconstruct the original. I wished it were the original. My project wasn’t one I could complete during the semester, and I made Prof. Owens aware of that.

Come winter vacation, I flew back home to Guadalajara and brought the figurine with me. I put it in the ground, on my grandma’s front yard, and sent a picture to Prof. Owens. I had returned it home.

It was a symbolic act, of course, because the original was still tucked away in a room to be barely noticed by people with barely any historical connection to this object. But it was home too. A copy of it. A symbolic representation of, what at the end of the day, is a symbol anyway. A modern version of it made of 3D printed plastic. A modern adaptation, a second edition that took hundreds of years to make, a child conceptually, an artifact by a descendant of the same people. It was a simple act, but it was meaningful. I think about it.

Today I thought about it, when a friend as me what San Francisco and Home “represent” to me. It’s been 10 years since I first set foot in the USA, it’s no question that I am the figurine. I wonder which one though.