Microsoft's Kinect sensor has found itself at the centre of a major art world scandal.
As reported by Hyperallergic, the drama began last month when a couple of artists allegedly used the Microsoft peripheral to scan the bust of Queen Nefertiti, a highly esteemed Egyptian artifact held at the Neues Museum in Berlin. This was done without the museum's permission, mind you, as it's the museum's prize gem and off limits to photographers.
The artists in question, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, released data from the 3D scan so anyone could recreate the esteemed heirloom with a 3D printer. The artists did that very thing and manifested what is now referred to as The Other Nefertiti.
The reason Al-Badri and Nelles pulled off this covert stunt was to reclaim the Egyptian artifact for what they believe to be its rightful home in Cairo. The 3300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti was removed from its country of origin upon discovery in 1912 by German archaeologists in Amarna. Ever since then Egypt and Germany have been at odds over who owns the storied relic. In the meantime, The Other Nefertiti will reside permanently in the American University of Cairo - arguably as a sign of protest - in lieu of the real McCoy.
"The head of Nefertiti represents all the other millions of stolen and looted artifacts all over the world currently happening, for example, in Syria, Iraq, and in Egypt," Al-Badri said. "Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of important objects can be found in Western museums and private collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic struggles."
Indeed there's more at stake here than simply returning the head of Nefertiti to Cairo, as the artists behind the replica take issue with the Neues Museum's lack of explanation behind the heirloom. One could argue that without the proper context the artifact becomes a sign of conquest rather than a respectful tribute to Cairo's history. In other words, the Berlin museum's presentation of the piece has altered its meaning.
But now The Other Nefertiti's significance has been called into question as 3D experts are finding the artists' alleged story - of using a modded Kinect to scan the bust - increasingly hard to swallow.
"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 in a new report on the matter. "The Nefertiti bust has over 2m. 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."
Furthermore, Kahl noted in a blog post that the bust was kept in a glass case and reflections from that would have interfered with the scanning process. 3D modeling expert Paul Docherty also detailed his doubts as to the authenticity of this story.
Al-Badri hasn't outright denied claims that The Other Nefertiti is a hoax, either. In fact, she even offered that explanation as a possibility. "Maybe it was a server hack, a copy scan, an inside job, the cleaner, a hoax," Al-Badri told Hyperallergic. "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."
The Other Nefertiti is clearly a stunning replica and the leaked 3D dataset is exacting in detail. That much is known. The controversy stems from how that data was acquired.
One popular theory is that the scanned data was an inside job. Indeed the Neues Museum commissioned a company called TrigonArt to scan the bust of Nefertiti in 2008. Artist Cosmo Wenman compared TrigonArt's scans to those of Al-Badri and Nelles' and found them to be very, very similar.
"Of course a scan of the same thing looks the same," Al-Badri said to Hyperallergic in response to this theory.
If the Kinect scanning story was really a hoax, it would make sense for Al-Badri and Nelles' to remain tight-lipped on how the data was actually acquired. If someone who worked at the museum - or TrigonArt for that matter - were in on it, that could lead to imprisonment and/or a hefty financial fine.
Another theory is the artists scanned a replica. The Neues Museum actually sells very detailed copies of the bust, based on its internal scans, for €8900. So it's entirely possible Al-Badri and Nelles made a copy of a copy and concocted the Kinect heist story to add an air of protest and adventure to The Other Nefertiti. After all, not many museums would exhibit a 3D printed copy of a souvenir - no matter how detailed - but a replica obtained through a slick museum heist in defiance of the law over a highly contested 3300-year-old heirloom? Now that belongs in a museum!
"What we strived to achieve is a vivid discussion about the notion of possession and belonging of history in our museums and our minds," Al-Badri said of the stunt. "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."
You can watch a video of Al-Badri and Nelles secretly performing the scanning stunt in the video below: