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Creative Technologist Interview: Jonathan Monaghan's Leda and the Marsyas

Don Undeen
November 26, 2013

Jonathan Monaghan's Leda and the Marsyas is a 3D mashup of Jacques Sarazin's Leda and the Swan (ca. 1640–50) and Balthasar Permoser's Marsyas (ca. 1680–85).

«At the Met, we've been experimenting with ways that museum visitors can use 3D scanning, hacking, and printing to enhance their experience of works of art. In light of our recent explorations, we caught up with Jonathan Monaghan, a creative technologist who participated in our 3D Hackathon back in 2012, to ask him some questions about one of the works he created that weekend and about his work with 3D printing and CGI animation.»

Don Undeen: What is Leda and the Marsyas? What does it mean to you?

Jonathan Monaghan: In June of 2012, a number of digital artists and programmers and I descended upon The Metropolitan Museum of Art for its first 3D Hackathon, a two-day event in which participants scanned objects from the Met's collection, posted the files online, and created mashups from the 3D content. I created 3D models of the late Baroque sculptures Marsyas by Balthasar Permoser and Leda and the Swan by Jacques Sarazin using photogrammetry techniques with ordinary photos and the free web service 123D Catch. I then decided to create a mashup of the two works called Leda and the Marsyas by affixing the screaming Marsyas onto the head of Leda's swan, making Leda's sensual, romantic gaze contrast with his painful, transfixed scream. It was a simple and fun gesture that I think illustrates the mutability of 3D models and the ease with which users can create new content out of what already exists.

I find it very interesting that one of first things people tend to do with 3D models is transform them into something new, typically by combining and remixing them. It's about contributing to the online digital community of 3D printing.

Don Undeen: What made you decide to create Leda and the Marsyas?

Jonathan Monaghan: I chose to capture Leda and the Swan and Marsyas because of their subjects' storied histories in Western and contemporary art, but also for their sculptural qualities; I thought their forms would translate well into 3D models. Mixing them together was the obvious next step, a simple hack and my contribution to the event.

Don Undeen: What do you like about working with objects in the Met's collection?

Jonathan Monaghan: Museums, especially the Met, provide an endless source of content for me to draw on as an artist. Most of the time, these references end up subtly in my animations. The procedures we developed at the Hackathon offer a much more literal way to integrate historical works of art into my working process. These kind of digital techniques turn museum objects into active content from which to build, which is exciting and something that has implications for the museum viewing experience. In fact, in April 2014, I will exhibiting in IM Material Artefacts at the National Museum of Cardiff; the organizer gave 3D scans of objects from the ceramics collection to artists to reinterpret, and the 3D models will be exhibited alongside the original objects.

Joachim Friess's Diana and the Stag and a still from

Left: Joachim Friess (ca. 1579–1620, master 1610). Diana and the Stag, ca. 1620. German, Augsburg. Silver, partly gilt, enameled, set with jewels; movement of iron, wood; H. 14 3/4 x W. 9 1/2 in. (37.5 x 24.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.746). Right: Still from "Mothership," Monaghan's animated work inspired by Diana and the Stag.

Don Undeen: What was your impression of the curators you met during the 3D Hackathon?

Jonathan Monaghan: Curators from the Met's various collections spoke with us about the works before we captured them, providing us with some fascinating context and background beyond the wall text. It was wonderful to see one of the most venerable museum institutions so open to being "hacked." During the Hackathon I was reminded of an anecdote in Picasso's biography in which he was actually in possession of several Iberian sculptures swiped from the Louvre. He used them as inspiration for several of the women's faces in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Picasso took the masks' formal qualities, remixed them with his own and created something new. Our technique of appropriation provides the same effect. Art builds on art.

James David Draper, Henry R. Kravis Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, speaks to Hackathon participants about a nineteenth-century vase in Gallery 553.

Don Undeen: What other kinds of work do you produce?

Jonathan Monaghan: I primarily create CGI animations, which I exhibit in galleries, film festivals, and museums. My most recent piece, "Mothership," just premiered at the Moving Image Art Fair in London and will also be exhibited in Post Pictures, a group show at Bitforms Gallery in New York opening December 19, 2013.

Don Undeen: How did you get started in 3D printing?

Jonathan Monaghan: I first had access to a 3D printer during my undergraduate studies at the New York Institute of Technology. The ability to fabricate physical forms of the models I was already creating in 3D software was liberating and exciting. The first big project I worked on with this technology was the Autodesk Digital Stone Exhibition. I acted in an assistant role to a number of notable sculptors, where we created virtual forms, printed them out, and had stone carvers use the 3D prints as maquettes for large granite sculptures.

Don Undeen: Could you tell us a bit about your process and the software and tools you use? Do you have a 3D printer of your own, and if so, what kind is it?

Jonathan Monaghan: I have been working mainly with 3D Studio Max for the past thirteen years, and that is for most of my modeling, rendering, and animation needs. I mostly print on my MakerBot but also occasionally send out for the more complex prints.

Don Undeen: Do you have any other ideas for works you'd like to make with objects from the Met's collection?

Jonathan Monaghan: Anytime I need an idea, I go to a museum like the Met.

This interview has been edited from its original version.

Don Undeen

Don Undeen was formerly the senior manager of MediaLab in the Digital Department.