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Jean-Pierre Hébert’s physicalised Computer Art

Now 69, Jean-Pierre Hébert was born in Calais and spent his early years in the South of France. Though his ambitions were artistic, he trained as an engineer and worked for IBM in the 1960s before becoming a financial analyst in the 1970s. Around 1976, he discovered various algorithms for generating abstract images on his plotter, and has developed forms of increasing complexity and density. This enabled him to make unique physical artworks with a computer, and he is further investigating this physical aspect in conjunction with his programming. Hébert is also notable for bringing together the Algorists as a loose alliance of similarly-minded computer artists.

[Plate XXXVI: Jean-Pierre Hébert, plotter drawings, exhibited at SIGGRAPH 1999]

The works Hébert has produced on his plotter are most notable for their intricacy in their physical realisation. Hébert is insistent that these pieces, which take up to three days to draw, are termed “drawings” or “renderings” rather than “prints”, except when he has made print-outs using a laser or inkjet. This is because the plotter pieces involve the gradual building up of lines and textures, producing an essentially unique artwork through the interaction of pens and paper. This unhurried rendering is quite different from the swift application of laser toner to paper, hence Hébert views his laser prints as “sketches”. He regards standard digital printing methods as:

too quick and easy […] and that is why prints are so boring, leaving marks on paper that are thin, lifeless, depthless, deprived of substance, with the substrate barely marked at all (not to mention their questionable permanence).[1]

Hébert has a fascination with algorithmic forms, where the computer generates simple or complex works from sequences of commands. Yet he also possesses a countervailing appreciation of the physical qualities of ink and paper, and prefers to have his works displayed as drawings because paper allows for much larger and more intricate execution than does the computer screen. It is somewhat ironic that a work conceived on the computer is too detailed to be meaningfully shown on the 96dpi resolution monitor.

The dense textures of the plotter pieces are built up very effectively from closely-spaced lines, and the geometric forms that emerge from these can either be intentionally included in the design, or simply “leap out” from the background where they emerge from looking at the image structure.

These lines on paper, given substance by the variable flow of ink, are “non-computable” and for that reason add to the piece’s beauty, according to Hébert. He also deploys the play of light across embossed features in several paper reliefs he has made in an hydraulic press, pressing woodblocks against hand made paper sheets at Atelier Richard Tullis. Light and darkness also play a role in several of his larger, heavily textured works, sometimes by using two different-coloured pens to describe two layers within the image.

Hébert’s pens and paper vary quite widely, and he has experimented with very thin papers, as well as canvas and a variety of handmade Chinese and Japanese papers. All differ in terms of ink diffusion and pen resistance. Also, the multi-layered designs he creates can lead to banding and ink buildup in certain areas. Moreover, a complex design runs the risk of the pen drying up in the course of a four-day plotting session, so usually the pen never leaves the surface as it draws. In other words, many of his designs represent a continuous movement from one corner of the sheet to the other, or a line spiralling out from centre. For this reason Hébert’s first show was named “Sans lever la plume” (Without Lifting the Pen).[2]


My interest in Hébert’s work began after seeing a most intriguing artwork at SIGGRAPH ‘99. In many ways, it was the single most impressive piece of Computer Art in the exhibition attached to the main show.

[Plate XXXVII: Hébert, Ulysses]

This work, Sisyphus, consisted of a plinth, the top of which held a sandbox. On the sand was a little ball bearing, which was moving apparently of its own accord. The computer was placed out of immediate view, so there was no overt computer presence. One could watch the ball as it began tracing an intricate pattern in the sand, guided by some invisible hand along paths that formed these dense mathematical shapes. Sisyphus developed JPH’s fascination with algorithmic harmony in a new physical medium.

Hébert works with harmonious, mathematical shapes and frequently alludes to natural processes; as he says “I ally myself with Nature”. He is not simply referring to the physical quirks of his art. He also describes the processes he invokes, the exposition of form through instructions; and the randomising effect of physical factors like sand density and quality. By using sand – his masterstroke – he gains much of the malleability of the screen without sacrificing this essential physicality. His work is the product of all these factors combining to make an impression, an image that grows before one’s eyes, a little impossibility that somehow exists in the physical world.

[Plate XXXVIII: A finished Ulysses work at Jean-Pierre’s studio. The rock was added at the completion of the print; also Ulysses, view from inside his studio; Ulysses open before assembly at the Computing Commons Gallery, University of Arizona, 2001.]

It has a most calm and meditative presence, drawing as it does on the Zen garden for inspiration. It attracts viewers who sit for minutes, even hours, watching the image unfold; and after it has finished, JPH sets a few stones and shapes in the sandscape.

As this photograph shows, Ulysses sits on a wide, sculptured base made of three tiers of walnut, giving it a presence even when at rest. At SIGGRAPH the computer was not hidden from view – it was just sidelined to ensure it was not the focus of the work. At Arizona, the computer was hidden behind one of the mobile wall partitions the gallery used.

Images from Ulysses can only be captured and reproduced as photographs. When his current Ulysses device is installed in his house, he photographs its sand pictures with an 8×10 plate camera in order to make large-format images which he sells through a print agency. This is currently the only way to commercialise the Ulysses output.

These photographs have an interesting property of their own which was remarked upon by one of the viewers at the art gallery at Arizona State University. They are taken using a low-angled light source to illuminate the contours of the grooves in the sand, making for very dramatic prints. Due to the absence of any obvious reference points, the grooved sand takes on the appearance of dunes, and whole image looks more like a landscape. This scaling effect of the photographs gives the Ulysses image a microcosmic appeal.

Perhaps this is partly due to Hébert’s interest in the Zen garden, which certainly imbues Ulysses with a peaceful and meditative atmosphere. The audience is absorbed by the slow movement of the ball gradually pushing its patterns through the sand, which is quite contrary to expectations of computer speed and spectacle. Ulysses makes physical form dynamic; by using sand (inspired by the Zen garden) Hébert has arrived at a material which can demonstrate movement and change. There is also a subtle and unspoken connection between sand and silicon, the base material for present-day computers. [3]

After each image, JPH carefully combs the sand back into a regular pattern, from edge to edge. Occasionally he brushes the surface blank with a fine-haired wide brush. This has also has a Zen-like, ritual quality. He also sets the ball bearing at the centre point of the magnets, which return to the middle of their axes. Thus the image only remains so long as the sand is undisturbed after the ball has finished its work. Of course, the underlying pattern is stored as an algorithm: a case of physical transience versus digital stability.

Ulysses defeats a viewer’s expectations that computer images must be fast, violent and photorealistic. One might think of the vast chasms and the infernal Balrog depicted in the recent Lord of the Rings film, or any of its magical events that blend seamlessly with real landscapes and actors. But these demonstrations of graphical prowess are an exercise in special effects, that furthers the telling of a tale.

Hébert’s art, by contrast, lies in careful understatement in a medium which is both solid and transient. Although these shapes are simply the results of algorithms, like the plotter pictures, it is their physical realisation that matters most to Hébert. Why else would he create such a large device, based on obsolescent plotter technology, and set as a sculptural feature in a mahogany plinth? It is heavy and cumbersome; I know this from experience because I helped him load his exhibition in Santa Barbara, California and take it to Tempe, Arizona.

Ulysses runs counter to the “SIGGRAPH” aesthetic of graphical showmanship; it is slow and gradual, with a definite physical presence. It is not a demonstration of graphical effect, but rather allows an image to develop over time. Another factor in Ulysses’ appeal is the way that the image is not contained in a screen, but located in physical space with the viewer. Its tactile presence distinguishes it from most Computer Art. Even so, it evokes a sense of wonder in its audience because they see the ball moving apparently unaided, laying down a sequence of lines as they watch it.

In spirit, Ulysses is very close to kinetic art, but the computer gives it aesthetic purpose, since, in a sense, it is demonstrating the underlying mathematical foundations of the artform. [4] Ulysses also proves that the material component of Computer Art need not be limited to paper, film or magnetic disks: Hébert ‘s choice of sand was inspired because it lends itself to being endlessly inscribed and erased, while remaining a very tangible and tactile medium, suitable for creating fine lines.

[1] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002

[2] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002

[3] See Hébert’s notes at

[4] Hébert, Jean-Pierre, “Ulysses: Sand as Medium”,