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When Computers Fly

By Alyssa Coppelman

You might assume that Discord, Rutger Prins’s phenomenally detailed photograph of an exploding laptop, was constructed with software. You might also think the work was about blowing up old machinery. On both counts, you would be wrong.

To make Discord (the second photo in his Personal Effects series), Prins started by taking apart an obsolete laptop piece by piece. Using almost 4,000 feet of fishing line, he hung every bit from his studio's ceiling, relying on sketches to arrange the bits so they looked as if the machine was exploding. 

To get what looks like pulverized computer bits exploding into dust, Prins blew powdered sugar, coffee creamer, and ground-up plastic through small straws around pieces of the sculpture while making multiple exposures. He created and photographed even the smoke and flames effects in the studio, using a smoke machine and a small flamethrower he built. In Adobe Photoshop CC, he removed himself and all the fishing line to create the end result: a convincing replica of an exploding computer.

Watch this video to see Rutger Prins making the sculpture “Discord” out of one old laptop, 4,000 feet of fishing line, and a lot of patience.

Click the image above to watch the making-of video.

The “explosion sculpture,” as Prins calls it, comprises only pieces from his laptop, nothing more. He used every piece except for part of the hard drive platters, which burst into tiny slivers when he opened the drive. He's not sure know how many bits are in the final sculpture, saying it was “very discouraging” to keep track of the number, because “especially during the final weeks of construction, I spent dozens of hours just getting all the wires straight and untying knots.”

From beginning to end, it took him nine months to achieve the final photo: seven months to build the sculpture; one month to create and experiment with special effects, lighting, and camera angle; and two weeks in Photoshop to finalize the image.

Elaborating on his workflow while creating the scultpure, Prins says, “During construction I'm constantly taking photos, checking out different lighting setups with Camera Raw, and building comps in Photoshop to see the effects of hanging a specific piece [of the laptop] here or there. While I'm working on the sculpture, I'm also recording time lapses for a process video and editing it with Premiere Pro CC. The eventual photo is edited with Photoshop, and all the heaps of fishing wire are removed using healing/cloning brushes with a Wacom tablet. I went on vacation just after taking the final photo and edited it for two weeks with a laptop and small tablet on the go, then finalized it in the studio. My favorite tool is Camera RAW, as my entire workflow rotates around getting that final photo as good as possible.”

Seeking an excuse to try out After Effects CC, Prins also created a short video that simulates the computer in the act of explosion. After creating a mask for each object in the still photo that would fly around in the video, he taught himself, with some help from the Internet, how to use the software program. Two weeks later, he completed a convincing animation of his laptop exploding.

Watch this video to see Rutger Prins' sculpture “Discord” seem to fly apart in a massive explosion.

Click the above image and watch the computer explode.

Obviously, Prins is comfortable with software. So why did he take the trouble to make Discord in real life? “I think being an artist is all about pushing boundaries,” he explains. “I want people to have that suspension of disbelief when looking at my work. When they discover I’ve done a minimum of post-processing on my photos, they then understand the amount of time and effort that goes into one work. Photography is inherently about the object of reality, and I like to shake people's view on that by going this far with it. Simply using software to create it wouldn't be the same challenge for me.”

In addition to wanting to present a real experience, perhaps the most important motivation of all—and revealing as to why he dedicated so much to it—is what this project means to him personally.

Discord stands for a time in my life when everything around and inside me was changing,” Prins says. “I had entered high school where I was kind of the odd one out. I didn't have any friends and my mother was just diagnosed with metastasized cancer, of which she died a few years later. With turbulent times at home and being bullied at school, I used this computer to escape into the world of games and online chat groups on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). I spent all my earnings from my part-time job on this laptop, which was one of the first to have an optional Internet connection. To me, it was a portal to another plane of existence and I feel it deserves to be an art piece for that reason.” Prins is now at work on Quondam, the next in the explosion sculptures series. For this, he deconstructed an old television set he and his girlfriend used for years. He’s currently hanging 44 pounds of shattered glass shard by shard in his studio, an undertaking far more arduous and detailed than the first two in the series.

Prins’ work often focuses on the ephemeral nature of existence. For him, destructing objects is a “violent valediction, which is suiting because, just like ourselves, the things that define us are ultimately fleeting.” He treats what was once vital and essential with reverence. Of course, you might see irony in the fact that he spent an incredible amount of time creating something new and modern out of something antiquated and useless, which he has effectively memorialized, and even immortalized. When I asked if this was intentional, Prins replied in the affirmative: “I wanted it to be like a portrait of a living thing right from the start.”