Analysis of Joris Laarman's "Digital Matter"

General / 30 October 2018

Joris Laarman's Digital Matter explores the bridge between digital technology and nature, offering a visualization of natural processes through emerging strategies.  The table designs use the small, basic primitive cube and compound its ability to define volume and surface through a digitally-integrated process.  Laarman’s work extends conceptual designs into fabricated objects through the  programming of software and hardware.  His contribution to the process begins by providing logic to the digital building blocks, which makes way for the autonomous system to generate an experience based on the  predefined rules and constraints.  It reflects a similar process used by Sol LeWitt in his artwork series featuring diverse cube configurations.  The procedural approach behind a small primitive building block opens up the realm of redefining spatial relationships and perceptions.  They exhibit patterns and systems that bridge between digital and natural  environments.

Link to image of referenced artwork by Laarman:

A programmed robot assembled small cubes using a sequential process into the tables of Digital Matter to mimic the structure of minute voxels defining a three-dimensional object in a digital environment.  Much like square pixels on a computer screen coordinated together to create clear images, these small cubes reflect a three-dimensional version of the pixel used in computer graphics called the voxel, or volumetric pixel.  Similarly, all matter is composed of tightly packed atoms with variations in size, shape, and networks.  Each table within the Digital Matter series showcases the same overall shape but with a different size voxel used to define its structure.  As a result, the smaller the voxel, the more refined the edges and overall profile.  There is a gradation among the three tables with one using large voxels and the others using smaller voxels.  The table made with the largest voxels clearly distinguish each cube and appear to blur the details that are more noticeable in the table with the smaller voxels.  Architect and critic Joseph Giovannini qualifies Laarman's digital practice and his furniture as influential by noting "the computer has made individuality and complexity feasible."[1]  To take this further and composing a table with a higher density of even smaller voxels would generate yet another unique table eventually approaching a smooth surface that obscures perception of the individual building blocks.

Digital Matter draws attention to both the simplicity and complexity of matter as we see it in all of the matter around us.  Visually, the rectilinear profiles is reminiscent of the pixelation in old video games and low resolution images, almost like it is unfinished work or a layer of finish material is missing.  In fact, the objects throughout the tables are three-dimensional versions of ducks, clouds, and other game assets from the Nintendo Mario series.  With greater resolution, the images and profiles become more refined and smoother, but it also hides the very nature of their composition.  The camouflage of precision veils the origin and process, but Laarman's Digital Matter stops short in the manufacturing process to specifically highlight the line between parts and finished assembly.  It presents a perspective of enlarging its atomic level to see the intricate network and systems embedded within.  Artist Janet Zweig mentions that by way of digital technology in the art process, "if all the possibilities of permutations are exhausted, there might be a revelation or a transformation on a larger scale."[2]  The three variations of tables in Digital Matter are significant because they showcase the iterative process and an exploration of all possibilities, as well as the capacity of digital technology to participate in the creation process.  Neri Oxman, a professor in material engineering at MIT, also explores the use of voxels for various applications including artwork and notes an initiative to "define a 3D voxel as a physical entity able to include various performance criteria."[3]  This echos the embedded knowledge and learning capacity for such primitive elements as cubes to guide themselves through a process and into a complex system.  It makes one wonder what each cube already has within itself just waiting to be exposed in the given opportunity.  

The primitive cubes used in each of these artists’ work are overshadowed by the process used to fuse each of them into a collective volume completely different and unexpected from its simple origins.  These geometric elements constitute a language that communicates a rich, embedded knowledge and art form.  One might easily overlook a simple cube because it could lack the form to convey context, but in a composition like Digital Matter, it exemplifies the potential built within itself to be a part of a greater system.  Laarman’s application of computer technology exhibits its capacity to spawn variations beyond what was possible in the past and through manual means.  The density of voxels applied are only limited by the technology used in its manufacture, so a high density could potentially reach the atomic level.  Process is a key element in the development and showcase of the artwork, not just for the artist, but also for the viewer.  This initiative draws focus away from the individual building blocks and to the process in action, which references LeWitt’s process-driven principles to create new experiences, amplified even more through modern technology.  

LeWitt's focus was on the process and as art journalist John Carlin notes, "it is most evident in the relation of his rigorously ordered repetitive series to their unpredictable visual results."[4] Laarman takes a similar approach with the aid of digital technology as a modern medium, achieving the same unpredictability and acknowledgement of the process, which he instills.  The computer by itself it simply a machine that operates based on a set of given directions, and it is Laarman's process that is input to drive the assembly of Digital Matter.  His process continues through to the exhibition where viewers are given the opportunity to experience it.  In an interview with art critic Saul Ostrow, Sol LeWitt stated that "people still see things as visual objects without understanding what they are. They don't understand that the visual part may be boring but its the narrative that's interesting."[5] Although the tables in Digital Matter are visually intriguing, the attention is guided towards the story hidden within each of the voxels that is revealed through the process of assembly.


[1] Joseph Giovannini. "Furniture’s Brave New Present," The New York Times, December 5, 2017,

[2] Janet Zweig. "Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer," Art Journal 56, no. 3 (Autumn, 1997): 20.

[3] Ruairi Glynn and Bob Sheil, eds. Fabricate 2011: Making Digital Architecture. UCL Press, 2017: 150.

[4] John Carlin. "Sol LeWitt wall drawings: 1968-1981 {Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; exhibit}," Art Journal 42, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 63.

[5] Saul Ostrow & Sol LeWitt, "Sol LeWitt," BOMB, no. 85 (2003): 28.