Interviews

Robert J. Lang On Origami, Sarah Morris Lawsuit

A small sample of Robert Lang compositions (via langorigami.com)
A small sample of Robert Lang compositions (via langorigami.com)

Two weeks ago, Hyperallergic had the opportunity, to interview Robert J Lang, the origami artist who, along with several others, has filed a lawsuit against painter Sarah Morris the artist who, they say, infringed on their copyrights when she produced 24 of her Origami paintings based on crease patterns.

In the following article, gleaned from some of Lang’s lengthier responses to our questions, we are treated to insights regarding Lang’s art, the many forms and practices of origami artists now and in the past, and the diversity of its uses.

The article, comprised of Lang’s responses, is followed by a transcripted interview in which Lang addresses, among other things, his lawsuit against Sarah Morris.

Robert J. Lang Discusses Cranes and Flowers

Robert J. Lang (photo courtesy of Lang)

Origami, the traditional Japanese art, existed as not much more than cranes and flowers for a couple of hundred years. Then, in the mid-20th century, several Japanese artists began developing their simple folk art into something new.

One man, more than any other, set origami on its new trajectory: that was Akira Yoshizawa, who is now widely regarded as the father of modern origami. He created thousands of new figures, but, as importantly, his works were artistic, lifelike, graceful, and so established origami as something worthy of respect and pursuit.

He also established the notation that has been adopted worldwide as the lingua franca (or “lingua folda”) for communicating origami folding sequences. Yoshizawa’s work kicked off a worldwide renaissance of folding arts that led to the creation of thousands of new designs — but even more importantly, to entirely new techniques for design.

A Brief History of the New Oragami

There are new patterns — 95% of all published origami designs are less than 50 years old — but most of those patterns were made possible by new techniques.

by Dr. David Huffman
Curved form by Dr. David Huffman, an example of computational origami (via skypape.com)

Let me back up and give a little history to explain why:

We find the roots of many of these new design techniques in works created as far back as the 1950s. But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, we saw the stirrings of a new school of origami: so-called “technical folding,” or “origami sekkei.”

This school of folding began investigating the fundamental laws that define what is and is not possible with folding. Through a combination of mathematical laws and geometrical concepts, some explicit, some intuitively understood, modern folders began to create figures that were literally orders of magnitude more complex than the traditional designs: instead of taking two or three minutes to fold, some of them took days of continuous folding.

The technical revolution started origami on an exponential growth curve that continues to this day. The things people are doing today would have been thought impossible ten years ago; and the ten-years-ago figures would have been considered impossible ten years before that. There is no sign of a plateau ahead of us, and so it is a heady time to be an artist in this field.

Lang and his Peers

I think I was fortunate to come into the field right at the knee of the curve: I took up folding in the 1960s, when origami in the West was in its infancy, and got to observe, meet, and interact with some of the early pioneers of Western folding (and eventually, the pioneers of modern Japanese folding).

During the 1990s, I was one of several people who were really pushing the techniques for designing, an exploration that took place in both the West and Japan. My 2003 book, Origami Design Secrets, describes many of those techniques. But I was not alone in this exploration; there were many other origami artists who were advancing the art in various ways, including my colleagues Kawahata, Kamiya, Hojyo, and Meguro, in Japan, and Montroll, Brill, Joisel, LaFosse, and others, in the West.

Complexity and Beauty

Now, a lot of the changes that took place were innovations in pure design: the ability to create greater complexity and sophistication. Complexity is not at all the same as artistry; something complex is not necessarily something beautiful or meaningful. But we created tools and put them into people’s hands, and as they learned to use those tools, artists did indeed create works that are beautiful, meaningful, and, we hope, artistically significant. Whether an artwork is any of those things is of course a subjective assessment, but the audience response we’ve seen to exhibitions in traditional art venues such as MOMA would tend to support that notion.

The Many Origamis

One thing to understand is the diversity of modern origami. There is not a single thread of origami: rather, it is an art form that radiates in many directions at once as it grows, and the different rays of growth may propagate in different, or even opposite, directions.

So there is still origami on the level of “cranes and flowers” that is practiced for its own sake, its practitioners seeking nothing more than the simple joy of creation.

There are artists who set their own boundaries of complexity as artistic limits and then work within those boundaries to achieve their results, while others try to push as far into complexity as the properties of the paper and their understanding will allow them.

Paul Jackson's folded sculpture
From Paul Jackson's one-crease folded sculpture (image via oragami-artist.com)

Subject matter varies; there is representational origami, still probably the most common subject matter; some representational origami artists strive for complexity and richness of texture and line, some strive for spare, minimalist lines.

There is also purely abstract origami that looks like nothing in particular but that appeals to the human response to pattern and form and the associations we make with those. Geometric origami, for instance, draws upon mathematical structures that reside within the richness of geometry and polyhedra.

And then there is origami that explores conceptual limits: is it possible to create something meaningful with only a single fold? (Yes, if you’ve seen the “postmodern” one-crease work of Paul Jackson.) If we want to fold with “no cuts,” then can we eliminate even the cutting that creates the original square and achieve a positive result?

Origami’s “Tendrils”

Further, there are the tendrils that origami extends out of the conceptual box of “folded paper” to include connections to technology and the study of the underlying mathematics of folding as a formal discipline, which can be wholly divorced from the manipulation of paper.

Origami conceived in higher dimensions, or curved spaces, can only be described in a mathematical or conceptual way, and is, at best, only approximated by physical objects.

And there is also an extension to new media where works are folded from other materials such as leather, plastic, metal, or mesh. From there, the use of patterns and forms that begin within origami can grow as artworks outside of that form: rendering a folded shape in metal or ceramic.

Then there are the patterns themselves, that arise through the process of origami design, which can be used as pictorial artworks in other ways, such as design motifs, or as stand-alone artworks. The use of crease pattern designs as stand-alone graphical art by myself, by my collaborators, and by many of my fellow artists falls into this last category.

So, the main false impression I would like to correct is the notion that origami can be pigeonholed into a small box or a simple category. It is a broad and diverse field, with many practitioner artists, and many forms of expression. And crease patterns, in particular, cannot be pigeonholed as having a single, simple intention.

The Art of the Crease

Trilobite, a crease pattern by Sipho Mabona

If one takes the narrowest possible dictionary definition, a “crease pattern” (CP) would be “a set of lines that is a representation of some subset of folds in an origami shape, real or imagined.”

But the deeper question is, what does a crease pattern represent to some person? And that answer varies with the person.

At one extreme, and at the most personal level, to an origami designer, it is an extrinsic form of memory: a way of recording one’s ideas and the relationships among those ideas in a level of detail too great to carry around all at once in one’s mind.

To a (fairly small) community of folders, it is a guide for how to fold an object; a CP does not include all of the creases in the folded artwork, so it is something more than a hint, but something less than a full plan, and not all that many people can make use of it in that way.

To a broader community, which includes both folders and nonfolders, it can be a “proof certificate”: an indication that a folded object really is what it claims to be; even though the observer can’t make the connection between specific lines in the pattern and folds in a figure, he or she knows that such a connection exists and that any given line, if investigated deeply enough, would correspond to something in another representation of the subject of the fold.

That proof certification can be appreciated even if one does not see the folded object or even if the object does not yet exist: there is the knowledge that it is connected to something immanent. Along the same lines, a CP serves as yet another way of representing an object or concept, just as the folded form is, itself, a representation of an object or concept.

Cray Fish by Sipho Mabona
Cray Fish by Sipho Mabona

And then, to the largest community, the lay observer, a CP is a beautiful pattern whose subpatterns and symmetries evoke memories and associations, an evocation that is made richer by the knowledge that the lines are not random, but in fact follow some inner order. The observer may not know the rules of the inner order, but at some level, he or she can perceive that an order is present, and that knowledge can enhance the overall visual experience.

And it almost goes without saying that these roles for a CP are by no means mutually exclusive; any given person might well experience the same CP on multiple levels. I’m probably the only person who experiences my own CPs in that first sense, but I also experience it in all of the other ways as well to varying degrees — and, I imagine, those who’ve seen my CPs in exhibitions probably experience them in ways I haven’t anticipated here. And, I expect, other artists would describe their own relationship to their and others’ CPs in different ways as well.

*   *    *

Interview With Robert J. Lang

Cat Weaver: Does your personal practice differ from other origami artists?

Robert Lang: Of course, it has to. Think of any artist: would a painter say that his or her practice is the same as other painters? Every artist pursues his or her art for unique reasons, and those reasons, plus one’s own aesthetics and skills, dictate what one creates and how one goes about creating.

I personally am interested in pushing limits of complexity and realism in my representational work, and in creating new forms that haven’t been realized in the past (and that people might have thought were unrealizable) in my abstract/geometric work. Because I am fairly comfortable with mathematical techniques, and I recognize that using such techniques can take me much farther than I could go working on my intuition alone, I tend to use mathematical concepts and tools more than most other origami artists. But I would say that we all view ourselves as different from all the others in some way.

CW: I noticed that you call your works “compositions.” Is the crease pattern a composition?

RL: Yes.

CW: Or is the 3D folded object a composition?

RL: Yes, the folded object is a composition, too.

CW: You sell crease patterns as art, by themselves, without the folded object. Is there an active market for such work?

RL: Yes. I have my own customer list. I can’t speak for my artist colleagues who sell their own crease patterns, but I imagine they keep customer lists as well.

CW: Do you think that the market for paintings like the ones Sarah Morris did overlaps with the current market for your own work?

RL: I don’t know her market very well, so I can’t say. I imagine that information will become better known in the future.

CW: May I ask how much they go for?

RL: Less than Ms. Morris charges.

CW: Do you ever use color? How?

RL: I’ve always used color in my CPs, both as a decorative element, to make them more visually interesting, and to signify levels of information that are not easily conveyed in other ways.

CW: Do you use a computer program to generate your crease patterns?

RL: I create the original designs using some combination of pencil and paper and computer tools; but pretty much everything that I’ve published has reached final form via a drawing program, typically Adobe Freehand.

CW: How does it work? Is it rocket science? Or could I learn to do it?

RL: I think that anyone could learn to design origami, and that’s really the point of [my book] Origami Design Secrets. ODS teaches people how they can design their own original CPs and original origami figures, and I’ve heard from a fair number of origami artists that they learned how to make their own designs from ODS.

There’s a certain irony in the situation that some of the artworks at issue here are examples presented in ODS — when the techniques to create something truly original are in that same source, there for the learning.

CW: Most people think of origami as starting from a square piece of paper. Do you ever cut paper or start with alternate shapes?

RL: Yes. I like to try new things and have dabbled, at the least, in nearly all genres of origami, including cuts, non-square paper (one of my mentors used a lot of rectangles, and I still do so too, now and then), and multiple sheets (known as composite or modular origami, depending on the style). Most of my work is no-cuts, single-sheet, from-square; that’s what holds my interest longest. My only hard-and-fast rule in my folded work is to “say what you do” — if I use weird shapes, or multiple sheets, it will say so in the “medium” part of the work’s description. If it’s a single uncut square, it will say that, too, as most of them do.

CW: What has been your most ambitious piece to date?

RL: One that I still haven’t finished folding. (Alas, I don’t like to say what I’m working on till it’s ready, so the subject will have to remain a secret, for now.)

CW: When you create an original origami piece, do you always publish the crease patterns, or do you keep some secrets?

RL: I don’t publish them all, but it’s not so much that I want to keep things a secret; I’m only going to publish a CP if it is visually interesting and of decent quality. I value CPs for their own appearance; I try to design works whose CP is interesting as well as the folded form. If the CP is boring, I still might fold the work it is connected to, but if the CP is interesting, that’s a big plus, and increases the likelihood that I’ll publish it. If it’s something that’s not interesting, or is just a scribbled sketch and I haven’t gotten around to making a nice-looking representation, I won’t publish it.

CW: Origami crease patterns have been compared to architectural drawings; do you agree to the similarity?

RL: I see similarities: both are a partial representation of another form of artwork; both can be artworks in their own right. I’ve seen architectural renderings exhibited as standalone artworks in museums. There are differences, though: in an architectural rendering, once can usually perceive the 3D finished form, while in CPs, the connection to a 3D form is more opaque, and so to most people, the pattern must be interpreted and appreciated on its own terms.

CW: I see them more as a Sol LeWitt line drawing. He gave instructions for producing them and they could be made by anyone, but they remain Sol LeWitts.

RL: I could do the same thing as what you describe; I could supply a digital file of my design to someone else and ask them to render it and still call the work my own. When I’ve sold limited edition CPs, I’ve worked both ways; I’ve had a third party create prints from my digital file for some; for others, I’ve printed them myself. I am, of course, already relying on others for many aspects of my art (as is the case with most artists). Someone manufactured the pencil and paper with which I composed a crease pattern. Someone programmed the computer that I use to create an electronic drawing. Someone created the paper from which the work is folded.

CW: Why are you so sure crease patterns can be copyrighted?

RL: That’s because copyright law protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression, which can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated,” including “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works.” Our crease pattern artwork meets that definition: they’re original works of authorship (by us); they’re fixed in a tangible medium of expression (paper and/or electronic media) that can be perceived, reproduced, and communicated; and they are pictorial and graphic works.

CW: Why did you choose to sue Sarah Morris?

RL: She was the creator of the infringing artwork, even if she hired others to do the work.

CW: How did you decide who would sign on to the suit?

RL: If an artist had created a work that Ms. Morris had (apparently) infringed, he/she could join the suit.

CW: So, how is the case is going?

RL: It’s at the very beginning, so there have been no notable developments. (Note: Lang notes on his site that: “As of May 4th, 2011, Ms. Morris has not answered the complaint. We have identified 24 of her works that are unauthorized copies of origami crease patterns by modern origami artists.”)

CW: Do you expect to go to court?

RL: Yes, that was the purpose of filing the complaint, and I expect that is where the matter will be settled.

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