Erik C. Rühling is a graphic designer and artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. He recently published a timely little book called Infernal Device with Disinformation press. It’s a book of torture–literally. Infernal Device features three-dimensional models Rühling made of antique torture and execution devices, accompanied by pithy descriptions of their intended uses. You can purchase the book here, and see more on Erik’s website, Occasional Hell. Erik kindly agreed to a conversation with me about his fascination with less-than-kindly interrogation methods.
291: Am I right that this idea–to model torture devices using a 3-D computer program–started as a hobby? I guess hobbies don’t need any justification…but you’ve turned yours into a website and a book. What’s your goal in representing these devices in this way? What do you think is gained by making these old devices “new,” so to speak?
Erik C. Rühling: When I began this project, I’d always envisioned producing some kind of coffee-table/”art” book. In fact, in an early incarnation the project was to be a pop-up book. I abandoned that for various technical reasons, but the three-dimensional aspect remained. I also had always wanted to learn to use 3D modeling software, and this was the perfect opportunity–I had a wealth of objects to model and the time and inspiration to set to work. In a way, it was a means of killing two birds with one stone, or rather tightening one screw on two thumbs… Even if the project went nowhere, I at least was learning a somewhat valuable skill, and often that’s the most important thing.
Once I had a few passable models built, the webpage followed. The workflow was to research an interesting device of which I had some diagrams and photos, spend some time modeling and rendering, and then add it to the online database. Had someone been watching the work over the months, I’m sure they would have seen the quality of the renderings rise.
After I built up a decent database and some passable modeling/rendering skills, I set out more earnestly to produce some kind of printed matter. The amount of interest I had just with the online presence confirmed to me that people really wanted to see what these devices looked like, to read about them in a presentable way. When doing the research, that’s what really struck me–there aren’t a lot of images of these things, and the ones that do exist are reproduced over and over throughout the body of work. It’s one thing to read about torture devices and look at a grainy, often-duplicated photo; to see it clearly with a concise description is much more effective, I think.
As for “Why torture devices?” My answer is that I love machines and I love horror stories. This project brought those together in a unique way. Ultimately, the book that grew out of it is something I would see in a bookstore and buy immediately, no second thought.
During the project I also gained quite a respect for the original creators/manufacturers of these devices. There were many devices that a great deal of work and thought went into–more often than not the metalworkers and craftsmen put quite a bit of personality into creating them. A case in point is the perennial “favorite”–the Pear of Anguish. In just about every example I’ve seen, there is a intricate detail work in the leaves and screw; the top of the pear is also detailed with faces, etc. It seems that no matter what humans create, they strive to put something of themselves into the work. Strange to think in that manner when these devices were used to cause pain and suffering…
I think that although many people react in revulsion to a lot of the tools in this book, what is important to remember is that these machines existed and were actually used. Fascination with brutality, perhaps, is part of the nature of humankind.
291: It’s certainly striking, the amount of creativity that goes into the works–both conceptually and in their design, which comes across in several of the models. It sort of makes you wonder if there might be some postal worker out there who would have been a torture-design genius, if only he/she had been born in another era.
Do you think that the kind of craft put into the manufacture of these devices was in any way related to their acknowledged and (presumably) uncontroversial roles in society? The definition of “torture” has come under a lot of scrutiny recently, and it’s hard to imagine any devices used in contemporary methods of interrogation looking as elegant as the Pear of Anguish. Techniques like hooding and waterboarding are widely condemned, and–consequently?–there doesn’t seem to be anything elegant about the design of the devices involved.
If Bob Woodward or some other investigative reporter discovered a stash of exquisite contemporary waterboards, what do you think the effect on the public might be?
ECR: Perhaps ancient torture-device designers have been reincarnated as engineers for those high-priced ‘ergonomic’ office chairs…
It strikes me that decorating the devices is a way to elicit a psychological response–you still see it today with the bar-owner writing “Peacemaker” on his baseball bat under the counter; the parents writing “Attitude Adjuster” on a paddle for their children (well, the ones that aren’t afraid of a visit from child protective services…); etc. German executioners inscribed their swords with phrases such as, “Whenever I raise the sword, I wish the sinner everlasting life” or “The judges check evil. I carry out their capital punishment.” The Heretic’s Fork was inscribed with abiuro (I recant). It seems this was a way of categorizing the instrument and letting the viewer know right away what purpose these devices served: “I don’t want to have a run-in with that thing; I better straighten up.”
So I think the presentation of the device plays quite a large part in the process of torture. An orifice can be distended just as easily with brute force and a cudgel as with an ornate opening-pear mechanism–but when presented with one next to the other, I would imagine the pear would elicit more of a fear response.
Contemporary torture methods seem to be get-to-the-point affairs that are all business and are specifically designed not to leave outward physical signs, hence the “popularity” of electricity- and water-based torments. And although your comment regarding the exquisite contemporary waterboards is tongue-in-cheek, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the people responsible for waterboarding prisoners didn’t have at least a nickname for the board, like “the dunkin’ device,” or something like that. Of course, if it ever came out that this was the case, there’d be media hell to pay.
291: So you understand this aestheticizing of the torture device as another form of intimidation. What do you think of the historical aestheticizing of torture objects? Shortly after discovering your book, I happened on a fine example of a brank at an art exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery entitled “Mask.” Your book is clearly a part of this process, since it reproduces torture devices in an art book. The difference is that you’ve made artistic representations of torture devices and packaged them together as an art object, whereas the gallery took an actual device used to discipline/punish and displayed it as a work of art. Do you see those two projects as being fundamentally different?
ECR: Interesting anecdote about the art exhibition…I actually made a brank myself years ago during a metal sculpture class. I think it was at that point that I really began to appreciate the devices as works of art, since I began to understand the effort involved in creating them. Modeling them in three dimensions using software was an easier process than investing in a metal shop, but I still was able to appreciate the way these artifacts were engineered. And that’s ultimately what I wanted to convey in the book: that these things are tools constructed by humans–they may be used in a way that we don’t like to think of tools as being used, but they are tools nonetheless. It’s a real testament to the darker side of human ingenuity.
As for aestheticizing the devices, I think it’s similar to the way that people are drawn to horror stories. Of course we never want to be in the role of the person being stretched on the rack or broken on the wheel, but many of us love to read the story of that poor soul. Look at the stories of martyred saints–pretty gruesome stuff. The symbol of St. Catherine is the wheel, another saint is symbolized by the gridiron on which he was roasted (Jerome, I think?). But there’s a morbid fascination going on there–and the torture devices become almost romantic. You could go so far as to argue that the very symbol of Christianity is, after all, a torture device–and I’ve seen quite a few disturbing crucifixes over the years (especially those ones where Jesus’ eyes seem to follow you wherever you are in the room…brr).
I don’t know whether aestheticizing the device is a way of “stealing the horror” from the machine, or whether it is just something that humans do with subjects with which they are uncomfortable–death, for instance. Definitely food for thought, though.
291: It’s interesting that you started making torture devices in three dimensions, then moved into a virtual three-dimensional space. Like you said, it’s easier to construct something in design software than to build it by hand, but there’s a significant difference in the presentation of a real object versus an image from 3D software–namely, the ultimate presentation is still two-dimensional for anyone who isn’t using your program. We can’t walk around your representations, so you have to present them from a single angle…much like the original photographic images and drawings that Infernal Device is intended to update.
Did you find yourself thinking of the final, two-dimensional image when you built the objects? Were you re-creating them with an optimal viewpoint or perspective in mind, or did you approach them photographically after you were finished building them?
ECR: Building the objects in virtual space actually gave me quite a bit of freedom in the final view. Now that these objects exist ‘virtually,’ I can re-render them from any perspective; it actually takes a fair amount of work to get the final two dimensional rendering to clearly show the device yet take on an artistic quality.
But you are right, it’s a shame that I have all these objects in 3D space but the viewer can’t see them from all angles. I’ve actually considered a few options for 3D representation; the software I use has the ability to export the objects in a manipulatable form that I could embed in the webpage. Another option would be to use them in a virtual environment like Second Life. I don’t have much experience with online worlds, but I think it would be really interesting to create a museum with all the objects in various rooms; the users could travel through the rooms and presumably even see how the devices worked using their avatars, a sort of online virtual torture room. The possibilities are endless, if more than a little disturbing…
I’d have to say that ‘owning’ the objects virtually is the next best thing to owning them physically. With a little more practice, I could get to a point where the renderings are near indistinguishable from a photograph. In this day and age, there’s almost no difference between the real and unreal.
291: That would be amazing–a virtual torture museum! I wonder what the politics of virtual torture would be. How do you torture an avatar? Virtual torture would have to be more play acting for pleasure–more like bondage or S&M–than torture, unless you could figure out a way to incapacitate avatars and keep them in devices against the will of their creators. Maybe you could even design “torture programs” that would cause avatars to develop irreversible limps, or lose their hands, or something like that.
It would be great to see your devices in three dimensions in one way or another.
Are you still actively researching and modeling new devices, or did you more or less finish when Disinformation published the book? Do you have any other projects coming down the pipeline?
ECR: It’s only a matter of time–and you heard it here first. It seems that we have an urge to eventually take everything into the virtual world, the good and the ugly. I’m sure there’s someone out there trying to figure out a way to become the first Sims serial killer…
I still collect information on devices, although it’s been quite awhile since I did any modeling. There’s always a slight chance that I could dig up enough information for a follow-up book, but I really think I got most of the best devices in this book. I am, however, beginning a new project which I envision as a “cabinet of curiosities” for the information age. I’ve just started the preliminary research; I’m going to see where it takes me in regards to presentation and format. As for now, I’m just happy to have a project.
All images © Erik C. Rühling.