Eyal Gever: Israeli artist uses 3D printing for 'disaster' art

By Dougal Shaw
Technology reporter


You walk into Eyal Gever's Tel Aviv apartment and you feel you have stepped into an idyllic scene from a glossy magazine; pristine modern furniture in an open plan arrangement, with a light sprinkling of children's toys.

Little do you know, metres below your feet terrible catastrophes are unfolding.

Mr Gever is busy in his basement plotting disasters. Literally.

On a typical day the programmer and digital artist spends hours meticulously recreating all manner of scenarios, from bus crashes and oil spills to tsunamis hitting skyscrapers, all using his self-designed 3D animation software, while family life carries on above him oblivious.

"I'm like a serial killer," he says of his compulsion. "I detach my emotions and just look at the disasters in a research way, [focusing on] the physics and mathematics of it, I'm not judging it."

image captionEyal Gever's studio is adjacent to the room where he codes in his basement

"It is a search for the sublime," he says after a pause. "I'm trying to find the beauty in catastrophe."

And the results are evident in his basement studio - sculptures depicting frozen moments of horror in arresting colours, exported from his computer screen thanks to the very latest 3D laser-printing technology.

Mr Gever's life, like his house, is built on a binary proposition - on the one hand a lifelong interest in art, on the other a passion for programming and internet entrepreneurship, which saw him at the forefront of Israel's e-revolution in the 1990s.

"I suppose I developed my own process, my own toolbox, to combine my two worlds," he says while sitting at his workstation pondering his seven computers in the depths of his house.

If Mr Gever is drawn to disasters, perhaps it is because they have punctuated the key turning points in his life.

The first occurred when he was doing his compulsory military service in the Israeli army. After two years as a paratrooper, a serious injury forced him to withdraw.

Following multiple operations he was able to redeploy to a computer unit, the springboard for so many Israeli technology entrepreneurs.

He specialised in advanced programming applications.

"This is how I got exposed to computers," he recalls, "and they were doing cutting edge 3D simulations at the time."

image captionGever develops animation software to mimic natural phenomena like smoke

Mr Gever then spent two years at Jerusalem's Betzalel Academy of Art and Design, returning to his childhood passion for art. But while he was developing his artistic skills, he found that people wanted him for the computer prowess he had picked up in the army.

"It was the early 90s, cable channels were really taking off, and there was a huge need for people who could make computer graphics for TV," he explains.

And so his first company Zapa was born. Specialising in the creation of multimedia communications for the emerging internet space, it picked up an enviable array of corporate clients including NewsCorp, Apple, IBM and Mattel.

image captionGever created tsunamis hitting buildings before Japan's 2011 quake

While his friends partied through their 20s, Mr Gever experienced the heady ride of being an internet entrepreneur, employing by his own estimate more than a thousand people in a decade. A poster boy for the emerging internet generation, he graced the front pages of Red Herring and Wired magazines.

The exposure paid dividends. John Sculley, former chief executive officer of Apple and president of Pepsi, spotted Mr Gever in Red Herring in an article called LSD of the Internet, and immediately invited him to New York. After an intense five-hour conversation in his kitchen, Sculley became active chairman of Zapa.

In 2001, Mr Gever experienced his next crisis. Just as he was about to sell Zapa after a decade of nurturing, the dot.com bubble first, and its valuation plummeted.

Term sheets from three international companies had valued his creation at $170m (£108m; 130m euros) Mr Gever recalls, but within a quarter the value suffered "very fast deterioration".

image captionGever deliberately makes his sculptures in arresting colours

"The grand finale was September 11," says Mr Gever, which he experienced in New York.

As the market lost its faith in all things internet, so too did Gever. "I had to lay off 80 people," he recalls. The two events taught Mr Gever that "the world is unstable" and it was time to pursue his dream "to make something tangible". He decided to direct his energies back to art.

Simulating disaster

It is the slowly maturing technologies of rapid prototyping and 3D printing that have allowed Gever to combine his passions for computer code and art.

"Personal fabrication, creating physical objects out of the computer is going to be huge," says Gever.

image captionA skull design made from a 3D printer in Gever's studio

"Up to now it was impossible for a sculptor to recreate something that was so quick," he says, as he watches a model of a truck wrap itself around a pillar.

"But when I fabricate a frame from a 3D simulation I've developed," he says, switching to a 3D model of a black wave crashing, "a moment is embedded there."

The embedded moment of the crashing black wave sits on a plinth in his adjoining studio.

"Up to now people could only recreate those sublime moments from memory or photos of an event."

A click unleashes a tsunami on a skyscraper.

"This technology allows the viewer to concentrate on something you would normally never get a chance to consider, because either you don't experience it, thank God, or it happens so fast."

Not satisfied with off-the-shelf products, Gever developed much of the code himself with other programmers.

image captionGever uses 3D printers to make his sculptures

The artist has developed proprietary engines for his animations, some based on open source code, some plug-ins for established software available on the market.

Sitting on the board of the Israeli company Object, which specialises in 3D animation, he has also had access to their latest tricks.

Coded crashes

Asked if he would do a recreation of a real disaster, Gever says that he is not interested in "memorials" or real events.

"I leave the connotations to the viewer," he says. "I will show you crashes of rectangles that your brain will connote to things you've seen in the news, but for someone else it's just shapes crashing."

Gever says he simply has an "urge" to make these kinds of sculptures, one of many avenues he is exploring.

image captionA waterfall appears to descend from a building

His real motivation, he says, is seeing what you can make with ever more sophisticated code, and ever faster computers.

If coding is the new Latin, Gever is every inch the Renaissance artist, a digital Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.

"I'm like an artist creating his own pigments," says Gever of his obsession with coding.

"You build the elements like a mini-god," he says, looking at a breaking wave, which took him a year and a half to model, "but you don't interfere, the code has its own internal rules."

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