Last month, we reported that a pair of artists scanned the bust of Nefertiti, currently on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin, without the permission of museum officials. Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles had also released online, under a Creative Commons license, what they claim is the most precise 3D dataset of the artifact. While all types of creative iterations of Nefertiti have since surfaced, so has major skepticism of the legitimacy of the scans.
“The Other Nefertiti” was primarily an act of cultural repatriation intended to reassess ownership of artifacts and make them available to all, but the increasing fixation on the authenticity of the artists’ data production now also spurs deeper conversation on the value of material objects — what the artists describe, in this case of a politically contentious sculpture, as “the fetishization of sacred, staged artifacts.” Rather than outrightly rejecting their critics’ claims, they’ve maintained a cryptic attitude towards them: perhaps bound by ethical or legal reasons, or perhaps to highlight larger issues pertaining to cultural heritage.
“Maybe it was a server hack, a copy scan, an inside job, the cleaner, a hoax,” Al-Badri told Hyperallergic, addressing all major allegations or explanations. “It can be all of this, it can be everything. We are not revealing details. We are standing by the fact that we actually scanned it, but we don’t want to dismiss the other options at the same time.”
Calling hoax are those well acquainted with the scanner Al-Badri used back in October: a hacked Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect Sensor, a game controller that many people adapt to scan objects in an affordable way. The Kinect, however, as countless 3D-scanning professionals and enthusiasts have noted, is unequipped to produce such incredibly detailed results.
“From my own extensive experience in scanning with the Kinect, I seldom capture a scan with more than 500k triangles in it,” artist Fred Kahl told Hyperallergic. “The Nefertiti bust has over two million. The Nefertiti scan shows a much finer resolution of scan than any Kinect setup can ever capture. There is simply no way this resolution is possible with a Kinect, PERIOD.
“The quality of scan they share is possible as a photogrammetry scan, meaning they could have taken 45–120 sharply focused high resolution images of the statue from every possible angle and used software to analyze them for shared points and generated a point cloud and ultimately a 3D model of the statue,” he continued. “More likely, is that it could have been captured with a laser scanner or some other high quality system.”
In a blog post, Kahl also notes that the conditions under which Al-Badri scanned Nefertiti were less than ideal for data collection: the bust is kept in a glass display, which introduces reflections and refractions that may tamper with RBG information. Other issues include the apparent lack of a power source and the detailed results of the Egyptian queen’s headdress, which would have required Al-Badri to hold the scanner directly above the work — a move that isn’t exactly covert. Al-Badri also covered and uncovered the Kinect she hid under her coat, as documented in a video the artists shared, which also means the scan was not continuous, likely resulting in disrupted data. Many others have echoed Kahl’s observations, including All Things 3D president Michael Balzer, who recently interviewed a tight-lipped Nelles; and Paul Docherty, who has previously experimented with constructing 3D models of Nefertiti from crowd-sourced photographs and details his doubts about “The Other Nefertiti” in an extensive blog post. Docherty, like Kahl, writes that the use of photogrammetric 3D reconstruction is possible, although unlikely.
Al-Badri confirmed to Hyperallergic that she did physically scan the museum bust, over the course of six hours divided between two sessions in one day — which, she also admitted, represented her first time using a Kinect. In terms of scanning the headdress, she described the task as a simple one — that she did just move the Kinect above Nefertiti, in the open, and not one guard noticed. The pair refused to provide concrete explanation on much else, however, although when pressed about the tool’s power source, Al-Badri said, “Of course it’s possible to have a power supply in the jacket. Of course. A small laptop, or a small battery. That’s it.”
The crux of the mystery, however, centers on the authenticity of the relationship between the collected data and the produced scans. As the artists explained, after they collected the data, they gave it to a group whom they only described in an email as “some friends, specialists in IT [who] helped shape this wonderful dataset, which was a lot of work and hence is not really something one could do with more objects.”
According to Al-Badri, this group is also responsible for modifying the Kinect she used. Al-Badri and Nelles, however, rejected all further inquiries about the specialists’ identities, only saying they are now traveling.
“About the technical aspect: the source of the used data we can’t verify, because we gave the data away to be processed and weren’t present in this process,” Al-Badri offered, explaining that the artists were in Cairo preparing for an exhibition.
“We cannot reveal this process because it is not replicable,” she continued. “And we request your understanding that we cannot reveal our hacker source. We can only applaud to hackers, whistleblowers and citizens who might go on and free the data, which actually belongs to everybody.”
For a project that champions open access to data, the staunch secrecy comes off as incredibly odd and hypocritical. It also contrasts starkly with the general attitude of the digital 3D modeling community: on Sketchfab, for instance, the main hub for 3D model enthusiasts, many users who share their models are more than happy to make the files available for all to download and often also provide details of the scanning processes. Balzer also questions why the tech team would hide its technique, as one that yields such precise results from a relatively cheap Kinect’s sensor would be, in his words, “earth-shattering.”
The accuracy of the scans has led others to conclude the artists actually hacked into the museum’s servers and constructed an elaborate coverup story: the Neues Museum does own scans of Nefertiti, which it commissioned from TrigonArt in 2008 and keeps inaccessible to the public. Artist Cosmo Wenman actually made comparisons of the artists’ scans and screen captures of the museum’s, available on TrigonArt’s website — which also details the company’s own pretty complex process. The images are very similar, and coupled with Wenman’s knowledge of the Kinect’s limited capabilities, make him believe that the artists did derive their 3D model from the museum’s scan. He also contacted a TrigonArt representative, who declined from providing comment on the situation. Hyperallergic received a similar response to sent queries. When mentioned, these claims seemed to amuse the artists. Al-Badri simply replied, “Of course a scan of the same thing looks the same.”
That hypothesis, if true, would nod to the project’s second name, “Nefertiti Hack” (“We won’t comment on that,” Al-Badri noted). But it may also explain the artists’ reticence as they may very well be protecting a museum insider who helped them in some way, such as simply leaking the information to them.
“If you look up hacking laws in Germany, there is a section code that identifies the process of obtaining non-tangible material illicitly, and punishment — if found guilty — is either a severe financial fine or imprisonment,” Balzer said. “With this in mind, they would be foolish to say they acquired the mesh file from the Neues Museum or the scanning service company who was contracted to create the mesh model.” For its part, the museum described the scans as those “of minor quality.” The pair hired lawyers a few months ago, although the need for legal advice could stem from myriad possible reasons here.
Another theory is that the artists instead scanned one of the detailed replica sculptures widely available, as others have done. The Neues Museum even has 8900€ copies for sale — produced from its very own hi-res scans — making this possibility quite valid. But it is this very haziness surrounding the nature of the scanned bust that brings up some significant questions about how we bestow meaning upon cultural artifacts, especially ones as charged as Nefertiti’s bust.
“What our art piece is dealing with is the questioning of origin and singularity as well as about ownership,” Al-Badri said. “Is the bust in the museum — as people have raised in the past — original? And is this even meaningful? I don’t know…
“What we strived to achieve is a vivid discussion about the notion of possession and belonging of history in our museums and our minds,” she continued. “A discussion on the originality and truth of data as well as material objects is necessary. Because in the end, one concludes that the institutional practice of today’s museums and collections all around the Western world are corrupted. Museums are telling fictional stories, their stories, just because they control the artifacts and the way of representation.”
Whether or not you agree with that stance; and whether or not you trust the source of the artist’s dataset, the fact remains that an incredibly precise scan of Nefertiti’s bust, previously withheld from the public, is now available for the taking. Will it matter if concrete evidence proves that their method of procuring the data was a hoax? Does how the information was liberated influence people’s attitudes towards it and how they use it? How would potentially stolen data affect the meaning of the artworks it inspires? Al-Badri’s and Nelles’ lack of answers towards their technique, undeniably a crucial part of their project, naturally frustrates; and many will likely continue to denounce them for lack of transparency or attracting worldwide attention with a sexy PR stunt or — as the experienced all agree — stubbornly lying to us all. But their commitment to ambiguity does raise intriguing and difficult notions about the provenance and attached value of not just an artwork but also all its replicas — ones that will only become more prevalent and necessary to grapple with as technologies continue to evolve and museums, hopefully, increasingly embrace the public domain.
“The whole question about originality and authenticity is the same in data as well as in artifacts, and as well in our effort,” Al-Badri said. “And, of course, that is our point.
“Why worship the original, while we have all the beautiful remixes as of today?”