Meet the artist who captured President Obama's voice in 3D

A Frenchman who made a 3D sculpture of Barack Obama's voice in one of France's 20 free-access laboratories was invited to the White House to present his work to the president. Jane Hanks talks to Gilles Azzaro

4 November 2015
By Jane Hanks

Why are you fascinated by the human voice?
Ever since I was a boy I knew I wanted to show what a voice was in some way. I have always felt that it was strange that this part of us could never be seen in a tangible way.

When I was five I was on my own in the kitchen and I created my first experiment to give shape and substance to my voice. I took some cocoa powder, threw it in the air and shouted very loud to see what patterns I could make. Of course my mother was not very pleased and it took a long time to clean it up!

Later I often put my hand in front of my mouth when I spoke, not because I was shy as people often thought but because I wanted to feel the vibrations.

How long did it take before you could produce a voice in 3D?
It was a long process. I became a musician first and studied technology at Toulouse University.

In 1993 I started to create software to produce sound waves in three dimensions. It took me until 2006 to perfect and patent it – but I didn’t really know what to do with it. I started creating jewellery by carving phrases such as “I love you” in precious stones but nobody was interested and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

Then I started attending a FabLab, which I set up with some friends.

What is a FabLab?
It is a public place where equipment is available for people who want to work on a project but don’t have the funds to own often expensive materials. There are more than 20 in France now [www.lefabshop.fr] where the idea has really caught on and the FabLab Artilect in Toulouse was the first French one (www.artilect.fr).

They are all over the world but began in the US when a professor made a lab available for his students and found it was really popular.

They are a magical place because they allow people the freedom to be creative without commercial pressures and are somewhere to discuss and share ideas. I used to go every Monday evening but still didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I would watch and learn.

What made you begin this 172cm sculpture?
I can remember the date, February 12, 2013, when I heard an extract from the State of the Union address by Barack Obama. He talked about the huge possibilities of 3D printers and the creation of 15 manufacturing hubs to use modern technology to turn regions left behind by globalisation into global centres of hi-tech jobs. It made so much sense I knew I had to use his words and turn them into something physical by using a 3D printer.

How long did it take?
It was a massive undertaking and took me eight months when I worked on it every day. I didn’t tell anybody exactly what it was but the great thing about working in a FabLab is there is help on hand and there was advice, for example to get the electronics right.

I used a 3D printer and the sculpture is actually made out of starch from maize. I put it in a glass tube which represents both a test-tube in a lab and at the same time, a message in a bottle. When the sculpture, called Next Industrial Revolution, was finished it was exhibited at the 3D Print Show in London.

At first I was put in an out-of-the-way place but when I switched it on and the green laser traced the contours of the sound waves and Obama spoke for 39 seconds there was immediate interest and the sculpture was moved to the entrance where 3,000 people saw it every day as they came in and went out. There was a lot of media reaction and what I’d worked at for so long seemed to please people.

How did you get to go to the White House?
I sent an email because the president was holding a conference about Fab­Labs and it was the perfect opportunity. I was selected to attend. Imagine my pride when I, the only foreigner there, was placed with my sculpture in the central hall in front of a statue of Lincoln. Then imagine how I felt when my work was moved to be next to the president himself during his speech. I had a place in the third row. It was an incredible experience and I was overcome with emotion. I had to keep my visit secret from friends for security reasons and nobody believed me when they saw the photos on Facebook – they thought I had mocked it up in Photoshop!

Does your sculpture reflect what you think President Obama’s voice looks like and what was his reaction?
For me it really is his voice with the combination of the frequencies and the volume. It is true to my expectations. President Obama joked that seeing it made him feel his voice is too strong and too loud. It must be quite something to see your own voice in a physical form. I really hope one day the sculpture will be on permanent show in the US, where I feel it belongs.

What is the future for voice sculptures?
What has been extraordinary for me has been the media buzz. I am now working on two other projects, both are exceedingly com­plicated. I’m very happy with the way things have turned out. Most people go to bed to dream but I can’t wait to get up in the morning to live my dreams. In French I can say that I have truly found ma voie (my destiny) et ma voix (my voice).

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