This seems to be a breakout year for digital fabrication in art: a number of inexpensive 3D printers have hit the retail market; the 3D Printshow—a fair founded in London in 2012 showcasing the commercial and creative applications of this technology—held its first event in New York this past February (with plans for other venues around the world); and “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital”—touted as the “first in-depth exhibition exploring digital fabrication in contemporary art”—is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York through June 1. While specialists have followed these technologies for decades, the time has come for the rest of us to take notice. [A review of the exhibition catalogue for “Out of Hand” will appear in the May-June issue of Art in Print].
Because Art in Print is a journal for printed art, it seems obvious that a discussion of 3D printing (and related digital fabrication techniques) would be at home here. But the sculpture, design, technical drawings, architecture, and media-based art in “Out of Hand” may fall within foreign territory for many readers of this column. Most works by “blue chip” artists (such as Anish Kapoor, Richard Hamilton, Frank Stella, Barry X Ball and Roxy Paine) are sculptures, with the exception of Self-Portrait/Five Part (2009), a Jacquard tapestry by Chuck Close (illustrated top). Some would say there is little common ground between traditional printmaking and its 3D counterpart aside from a shared appellation and the ability to create art in multiple. On the other hand, most art created using mechanical, reproducible means has traditionally fallen under the “printmaking” umbrella. Artist Bathsheba Grossman points out, “With the advent of 3D printing, this is the first moment in art history when sculpture can be…‘published’” (Ronald T. Labaco, ed., Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital, MAD and Black Dog Publishing, 2013, 21). Though not historically accurate, Grossman’s statement reflects the revolutionary ability of 3D printing technology to accurately and efficiently produce customized sculptural objects in quantity and on demand. Moving forward, the critical dialogue that surrounds printmaking will likely provide the most suitable framework from which to understand and evaluate this new form of multiple.
Setting territorial quibbles aside, it is interesting to observe the new ground that has been broken by these technologies. Ron Labaco, the Marcia Docter Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), notes in his introductory exhibition text for “Out of Hand,” “Discourse is no longer preoccupied with the technology in and of itself. Rather, interest lies in how technology may be creatively applied in the interplay between digital and analog, natural and man-made, biological and cultural, virtual and real.” Nevertheless, a brief discussion of media is necessary to provide a basis for understanding and the exhibition includes a hands-on exploratory area where visitors can handle objects that were created with 3D printers, explore modeling software, and watch printers in action. One of the most popular features allows visitors to pose for a full-body scan; an email follows within 48 hours with the option of purchasing a self-portrait in varying sizes. Artists-in-residence are also on hand to explain their process and guide visitors’ understanding.
While the hands-on area is focused on 3D printing alone, the objects on view in the galleries (and outdoors in Columbus Circle) explore creative expression in three technologies: CNC machining, digital knitting/weaving, and 3D printing. The first two have been in use in industrial settings for decades and are unlikely to break away from those spheres due to the capital investments necessary. CNC machining—a reductive milling process in which robotic arms carve material away based on points plotted on a 3D grid—allows artists and designers to work on a large scale; the technology can also carve surfaces in ways that would not be possible by hand. Digital whole-garment knitting, used primarily by the fashion industry, allows designers to produce a garment that is entirely seamless. Meanwhile, digital weaving—which has been used in textile production for decades and recently adapted for artistic purposes (further discussion below)—achieves a previously unattainable level of precision, color fidelity, subtlety, and complexity for textiles.
Still, a majority of the work in “Out of Hand” was created with 3D printing due to its accessibility; many high-end architectural and design firms have used it for years, and it has recently broken into the consumer market—the manufacturer MakerBot currently has three retail stores on the East Coast. There are five basic approaches to 3D printing, all of which rely on layering (or “additive manufacturing”) with varying levels of fidelity/resolution. Each uses distinct technology and accommodates different raw materials:
1) Extrusion: liquid material is ejected from a syringe, much like frosting, in layers (warmed plastics, clay, silicone, warmed soft metals and edibles such as chocolate); most printers on the retail market are of this type.
2) Granular: metal granules are sprayed and simultaneously melted together using lasers or electron beams (pure metals and alloys).
3) Powder-bed: powdered material is fused together with water or a binder (plaster, sand, marble, ceramic, acrylic).
4) Lamination: sheets of material are laser-cut and laminated together with adhesive (paper, plastic, metal).
5) Photopolymerization: liquid polymer is solidified through controlled light exposure.
Projects in 3D printing are currently limited in scale by the capacity—or “build volume”—of the printers. Machines on the lower end of the market produce objects on a hand-held scale; machines with larger capacities are expensive and still relatively limited—the largest currently on the market has a maximum build volume of 36 x 24 x 36 inches.
The works in “Out of Hand” push the boundaries and maximize the creative potential of these technologies. Labaco explains, “Many of the objects would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to create even a decade ago.” (Lilia Ziamou, Art and Design in the Postdigital World: A Conversation with Ron Labaco, Huffington Post, 3 March 2014). For example, three works by Barry X Ball reproduce existing historical sculptures in an alternative material, enhanced and made “more perfect” (Out of Hand, 122) through the digital production process, which is illustrated in slide shows on small LED screens nearby. The final result provides a viewing experience that is completely distinct from the appropriated original. A number of designed objects achieve previously unattainable topography, such as the Brain Wave Sofa (2010), which is a 3D representation of the designer’s brain waves. Others exploit the technology to produce “impossible” structures, such as a pierced, double-walled teacup (by Peter Ting); a collapsible lamp (by Dror Benshetrit); or the Cinderella Table, a hollowed-out cross-section of a table in Carrara marble. Others combine software and printing technologies in new ways—François Brument’s Vase #44 prints a custom vessel in the shape of the sound wave produced when visitors speak, whisper, or sing into a microphone. Architectural projects present utopian or science-fictional possibilities for dwellings; perhaps the most revolutionary is Contour Crafting, a process developed at the University of Southern California “that has the potential to build housing units in a single day, and at a quarter of the cost of existing manual methods” (ibid., 268).
As previously noted, a majority of the visual artists in the exhibition are sculptors or have created sculptural objects using these technologies. Two unique constructions by Frank Stella join hand-painted abstract 3D-printed forms to create complex and vibrant objects that are reminiscent of his paintings (see John Dorfman, “Working in Space,” Art & Antiques Magazine, October 2013). Roxy Paine’s work is the result of two sculpture-making machines (Scumak No. 1 and 2) that he fabricated and programmed to make random sculptures out of pigmented thermoplastic. The sculptures “take on a form dictated by gravity, temperature and the essential nature of the material” (ibid., 274). In a similar manner, Anish Kapoor developed a system of randomly extruding cement from an oversized syringe; the results are surprisingly organic and warm in contrast to their digital/mechanical origins.
The only two-dimensional work in the exhibition is Close’s Self-Portrait/Five Part (illustrated top), a tapestry based on daguerreotypes of the artist’s head at various angles joined together to form a panoramic view. The subtlety of tone mimics that of the photographic source, an extremely difficult feat in this medium. The complex and time-consuming process is explained in detail on Magnolia Editions’ website. Briefly, digital weave files are created in a collaborative process between the artist and Donald Farnsworth, the technical mastermind behind Magnolia Editions. There are often a number of trials before the final is approved, akin to publishing a print. As the digital file is perfected and calibrated, Farnsworth uses a Sphere Spectrophotometer to measure light wavelengths and uses that data to translate color with complete accuracy from one medium to another. Completed files are sent to a mill in Belgium that has the Jacquard loom required to produce the tapestry. Farnsworth compares the entire process to book publishing, where the artist is the writer, he is the designer/editor, and the loom is the press. The process has been continually refined and perfected over the years; Magnolia’s most recent projects—three tapestries produced with Kiki Smith (recently on view at Pace Gallery)—exhibit a dazzling level of complexity and detail. Though not on view in “Out of Hand,” other artists and workshops have also experimented with the technology, either on their own or in academic/professional settings (such as The Walthamstow Tapestry by Grayson Perry).
As seen in “Out of Hand,” digital fabrication has become a viable tool for artists, so why isn’t there more of it? CNC machining and digital weaving are rarified endeavors and will likely remain so, but 3D printing is still surprisingly rare in the art world. Digital master printers Andre Ribuoli and Jennifer Mahlman-Ribuoli of Ribuoli Digital, who were early practitioners of 3D printing and have collaborated with a number of artists on such projects, note that there is “a lot of interest” in 3D printing among artists but there are currently a number of hurdles, perhaps greatest of which is mastering the software required. Artists must either build the object from scratch in virtual space or scan a pre-existing object that can then be altered onscreen. Another challenge is choosing printing style and materials—not only is there a wide array, but some materials are not archival. Speed and scale are also limiting factors. According to the Ribuolis, printing at the larger end of the scale is extremely time-consuming—a recent project for Gabriel Orozco measuring approximately 23 ½ inches cubed (for which the Ribuolis used the largest printer currently on the market) took a total of 80 hours to print. Andre says, “In an environment when everyone is hustling and on deadline, 3D printing is still too slow.” Depending on the resolution of the machine, the final product can have a rough surface; some materials can be hand-finished but others can’t. Finally, expense can be a major factor—they have “seen entire projects scrapped after hours and hours of work due to the expense involved.”
However, the Ribuolis are optimistic that most of the obstacles that deter artists from diving into 3D printing technologies will subside in the near future as the average cost of printers and raw materials goes down and the machines become increasingly sophisticated, allowing for experimentation and (relatively) immediate gratification. On the software end, they note that there are now a variety of user-friendly programs available that are more intuitive. In terms of printers, they are particularly enthusiastic about new paper-based machines that combine inkjet printing with laminating technologies, and will allow artists to work inexpensively and customize color with more accuracy. They also foresee more artists merging 2D and 3D printing technologies, as in Tauba Auerbach’s (Compression System (Marble) (2013), and Vija Celmins’s Globe (2009-10). Another interesting prediction is that artists will begin to create traditional relief plates using 3D printers or routers, or create hybrid bas-relief work, as in the 3D printed “paintings” of Shane Hope. Andre says, “It’s increasingly affordable for artists to dabble on their own and a lot of young people are experimenting with 3D printing—we’ll see more and more of it in the future.” As a case in point, The Pixel Academy, a nonprofit that recently opened in Brooklyn, offers school children workshops in 3D printing, among other digital technologies.
Sculptor and photographer Lilia Ziamou (in residence at MAD on Saturdays through the run of the exhibition), whose art investigates the perception of the female body, has adopted 3D printing as an integral aspect of her work. She has used digital photography for years, but recently extended her digital practice into sculpture. Ziamou explains that she was not interested in using the technology for the sake of it, but felt that it could take her work further conceptually. (She continues to carve stone by hand, and sees the two endeavors as separate.) She admits that 3D printing has required some adjustments in terms of tools and outcomes, but it has also opened up a new avenues of exploration. For example, her recent series Imprinted Bodies combines handmade and digital information to create new forms that would not be possible using either approach on its own. Imprinted Bodies #2 was based on a plaster sculpture she had made by hand that was scanned into the computer. The owner of this work was then “asked to explore the form and surface of the sculpture by touching and holding it” while hooked to a Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) sensor that measured the resulting emotional response and translated it to digital data. The original object and the emotional data were then combined in the computer to create a new digital 3D file that was printed in high-performance composite powder and finished by hand. The resulting piece is a hybrid digital and analog form that also combines the physical and emotional realms.
Under scrutiny, Ziamou’s apparently flawless surface is marked by subtle striations—a result of the layered construction that is inherent in the 3D printing process. She originally hoped to smooth the surface completely, but eventually realized it was a fitting expression of her intention, integrating the digital origins of the work with its final form. Ziamou’s openness to this unexpected outcome illustrates the flexibility required to work in these new media for artists to break new ground. As creative workshops all over the world expand their offerings in digital fabrication (in addition to those mentioned here, the Centre for Fine Print Research in Bristol and Factum Arte in Madrid are notable)—and artists continue to explore these media on their own—we are likely to enjoy the blossoming of completely new arms of creative endeavor. A walk through “Out of Hand” imparts a sense of wonder and excitement for the possibilities.