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by Sophie Kahn

“Derived from petrochemicals boiled into being from the black oil of a trillion ancient bacterioles, the plastic used in 3D Additive manufacturing is a metaphor before it has even been layered into shape.”

- The Additivist Manifesto, Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke

In certain spheres of the art world, a suspicion hovers around 3D printed sculpture, not unlike the one that dogged photography fifty years ago, or cast sculpture before that: the artist’s contribution was only to push the button; the machine did all the work. This mistrust bleeds over to the art market too: institutions and museums have been slow to acquire 3D printed work, citing archival concerns around materials1 (though plastic will linger in landfill for millennia) or worries about originality with an object that could be mechanically reproduced (though the art market has shown itself to be capable of commodifying far more ephemeral artworks). 3D printed pieces are exhibited with designed objects more often than with contemporary sculpture in other media.

Digital fabrication is widely used by blue-chip sculptors, as an improvement on the pointing machine, which allowed artists to scale sculptures up or down. Artists like Jeff Koons and Charles Ray rely on high-end 3D scanning and CNC milling, although all traces of the digital are literally erased from their works: the milling lines left by the robotically controlled drill are polished away (although a cool eeriness remains). More recently, though, a new generation of contemporary artists have turned a more critical eye on 3D scanning and printing. In various ways, these artists are challenging the assumptions behind these technologies, and coming to grips with the philosophical question of what it means capture and then fabricate a digital model. What follows is not a comprehensive survey, but a few examples of artists whose work interrogates the technologies employed in its making, and which addresses certain qualities of the digital: namely, the fact that a file can be duplicated, altered and distributed via a network before being materialized as an art object in a gallery.

Morehshin Allahyari, #dog #dildo #satellite-dish from the series "Dark Matter." 3D printed ABS plastic, 2014

Morehshin Allahyari’s Dark Matter series is a bizarre, humorous mashup of 3D printed items that would be banned in the artist’s native Iran. A dog sprouts a dildo that morphs into a satellite dish; a pig is melded into a machine gun. Allahyari’s series reads as the imagined plastic detritus of a future black market, the first step towards a world in which which objects can be pirated and circulated as readily as .mp3 files; yet the works also seem to express an understanding that a small, plastic 3D print is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Rokudenashiko, various images from the creation and performance of Man Boat, 2014

A number of other artists have also addressed the distribution of taboo data via 3D printing, among them Rokudenashiko (née Japanese artist Megumi Irashi, whose pseudonym loosely translates as “good-for-nothing-girl”) whose creation of a kayak from a 3D scan of her vagina led to an arrest under obscenity charges. Irashi was cleared of obscenity, but fined for distributing ‘pornography’, i.e. the 3D scan file itself.

Addie Wagenknecht, Untitled (Vases 1-3), 3D printed nylon, 2016, photograph courtesy of bitforms gallery

Close inspection of Addie Wageknecht’s untitled vases reveals that the elegant, skeletal white vases are made up of parametrically arranged, 3D printed guns. Wageknecht created these from files released by Defense Distributed, who published their 3D printable gun files for public download in in 2013. Wageknecht’s subversion cuts both ways: the 21st-century sword is wrought into a ploughshare, made inert and decorative; but the designed object, in the traditionally feminized realm of decor, now reads as sinister and filled with the potential for violence.

Josh Kline, Productivity Gains, installation photograph by Joerg Lohse for the New York Times

Photographers have long explored the eeriness of duplication, especially when it comes to the human body. The still image has variously been compared to a doppelgänger, a corpse,2 or a mummy. The theory of the uncanny valley posits that the closer to verisimilitude a simulated human becomes, the more disturbing it will be.3 Many contemporary artists working with 3D have mined the strangeness of digital simulation, from Jonathan Monaghan, whose work imagines ruptures of varying kinds in glossy rendered corporate utopias, to Josh Kline, whose 3D printed and plastic-bagged human figures were described in a Times review as ‘mortuary’.4

Oliver Laric, Kopienkritik, 2011, installation view at Skulpturhalle Basel; photo by Gunnar Meier

Artists like Oliver Laric or Tom Burtonwood, who have both conducted extensive 3D scanning projects within a museum context, situate the digital copy/paste/remix aesthetic within an older tradition of casting and copying sculpture, for educational ends (or perhaps for the purposes of forgery).

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Portraits and samples from East Hampton: Sample 1, from Stranger Visions, color 3D print, 2013

Others replicate the human face and body to more pointed ends, as in the case of Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions which critiqued the disturbing development of genetic surveillance by creating a series of speculative 3D printed identikit portraits created from found DNA.

McArthur Freeman, Balloon Bump, resin cast from 3D print, 5.3” x 13” x 5.5”, 2014

McArthur Freeman’s sculptures walk the fine line between elegant and grotesque. The bulbous, intricate forms imply the body without depicting it; they contain a myriad of references, from the bodily excesses of the Baroque era, to early twentieth-century Disney cartoons, and to contemporary depictions of hybridity and racial identity. The artist writes “The work is about... exploring, confronting , and creating distorted images of self in the form of myths, stereotypes, and fantasies, particularly around ideas about blackness and race."5 The artist’s sculptural practice, too, is a hybrid one, bridging traditional clay and bronze casting with ZBrush ‘virtual clay’ sculpting and high-resolution, highly finished 3D printing processes.

Geoffrey Mann, Shine, cast bronze with silver plate, 2010

Some of the most visually striking artworks use technology against the grain, pushing it to the point of failure and examining the artifacts that result. Geoffrey Mann’s Shine was created from a ‘poor’ scan of a Victorian candelabra, one which captured spikes of reflected light as well as the form of the candelabra itself. Instead of correcting these, Mann had the original glitchy scan 3D printed and then cast in bronze and plated in silver. The resulting object retains the traces of all the digital and material operations it has gone through. Taken to its extreme, there is a kind of existential terror in the notion of a chain of diverging, failed digital copies. Geoff Manaugh, writing on the 3D reconstruction of King Tut’s tomb, says: “we could perhaps expect to see a series of these “exact” copies gradually diverge more and more—a detail here, a detail there—from the original reference space, a chain of inexact repetitions and flawed surrogates that eventually come to define their own architecture, with, we can imagine, no recognizable original in sight.

Sophie Kahn, Triple Portrait of E, 3D printed nylon, life size, 2014

I write this essay not as a critic but as an artist myself, working with the same tools used by the artists discussed above. In my own work, I misuse 3D laser scanners, and create sculpture from the damaged data and conflicting spatial coordinates that result from attempting, and failing, to capture the moving body. I aim for a subtle and poetic subversion in my work; a teasing-out of the unintended emotional resonances of new imaging technologies that claim, and fail, to freeze time and record every detail of our lives. Heather Dewey-Hagborg is more direct in her challenge to artists. On genetic surveillance (although the same could be extended to many other technologies), she writes: “it is the complexities, limits, biases, and weaknesses of these new technologies we need to excavate... The media will talk about how it all works, but to fully understand, to appropriately educate others… and to form strategies of resistance, we need to know how it breaks.”6

1 Little information is available on the archival properties of 3D printed materials. Carolien Coon, a UK-based researcher, is one of the few conducting research into this field:

2 The Ontology of the Photographic Image, André Bazin and Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), pp. 4-9



5 As quoted in Michael Harris, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Number 21, Fall 2007, pp. 110-114