Rise of the machines: 3D printing and traditional sculpture

By Kat Hayes

3D Printing is a type of Rapid Prototyping process that can produce 3D objects from a CAD drawing in a matter of hours. Somewhat disappointingly one of the most high-profile fruits of 3D printing technology is the printed gun (disappointing unless you have ambitions to be a cut-price gangster).

Yet, aside from the slightly uncomfortable heralding of a world where anybody with a chip on the shoulder and access to this printer and could rush home and knock up something particularly lethal; What I am more interested in is what this means for the artist. And somewhat selfishly, as my primary practice is sculpture, is what this kind of technology means for my ilk.

Don’t want to buy that piece of art? Print it instead. You may even find you like it. One thing’s for sure, it’ll be cheap as chips (which the technology will be eventually) and flawless.

But is this really the main concern for creatives? After all, the ability to replicate is nothing new- we have been making copies of famous artworks for centuries­– even my parents have a miniature of Michaelangeo’s David (that I used to stick blue-tack boobs to as a child) and no garden centre would be complete without a concrete Venus de Milo.

As with some things, out of fear comes love (or something) which led me to think that perhaps at the bottom of my concern is my own admission to being bewitched by this machine-led creativity.

My sorry tale began some time back I came across a machine designed to pre-cut bespoke bricks . Despite its humble purpose, I was enthralled by the results– beautiful curves cut into the clay with pin-sharp precision. I became obsessed, how would I lay my hands on this technology? I could make so many beautiful things in a matter of moments….these weren’t merely bricks, they were objects of beauty!

Then, inevitably, I had to sit down. Feasibly I was never going to get hold of one of these machines– for one thing, my looks aren’t what they were and I am not heir to a vast brick-using empire, (alas) so my chances of blagging one was (and still is) relatively slim.

Yet, in all my rapture with this new technology, I didn’t stop to think about what it would mean for my practice if I had, by some means been able to lay my grubby mits of one of these beauties.

With one of the printers, sculptures that would usually take weeks or years in the making, could effectively be dashed off in a matter of hours– and they would be beautiful. You could make absolutely identical pieces and double, triple (and more depending on how many you make) any price it could be sold for, in theory.

And that’s just it, ‘in theory’ being the operative words here. How much does it matter if the artist is the one making the copies? Does that make them any more authentic? And what, if anything is the ‘original’ when I have a hundred or so absolutely identical pieces?

And perhaps most importantly, who is the sculptor when the machine does the  ‘sculpting’?

Full colour miniature face models produced on a 3D Printer. Photo: Creative Commons/S zillayali
Full colour miniature face models produced on a 3D Printer. Photo: Creative Commons/S zillayali

The answer is, well, like so many early 90’s rom-com slush– it’s complicated. But at least there’s good company in confusion judging by this new discussion on LinkedIn  and many more like it. At a quick canvas,  it seems opinion leans towards the school of ‘as long as the artist comes up with the idea, then that’s ok’. And if that’s the case, then the machine is cast as a mechanised assistant  which artists have had for centuries– and if you’re a big name, you certainly still have (as the Chapman brothers recount their experience in Gilbert & George’s studio ). But is 3D printing quite the same?

I’d have to say no in this case and I’ll explain why with the help of the video of the making of Rachel Whiteread’s Whitechapel leaf motives  on show in the same gallery.

I am a fan of Whiteread but I have to admit to feeling a certain sense of slight disappointment when watching the short film. The bronze-pourers (there’s probably a more technical term for this), mould-makers and gilders all gleefully tell the camera about what fascinating and intricately technical thing they did to make the end product– but there was not a sniff of Whiteread.

To me, having the artist not being intimately involved with the production process doesn’t sit right– but perhaps I am a dying breed and as Mike Smith, artists’ assistant (who has produced work for artists, including the Chapmans) says “”The moral outrage – the idea that we’re all being duped because we’re paying all this money for work that’s not being made by the artists themselves – is ridiculous.”

Or perhaps it’s a simple case of editing, after all it’s not immediately apparent that anybody would want to see a famous artist scuffling around the workshop in a boiler suit, peering over the moulds and barking orders– all apart from me that is.  Or maybe it’s a little bit of envy, as one’s career would need to be at lofty heights to call upon a crack team to do your design bidding.

Reluctantly I can concede that, as in the Whitechapel’s case, there are a great many skills that are beyond an artist that would need to be outsourced– particularly if you wanted to make something bronze and stick it to a building (beyond industriously strong gaffer tape I’d be stumped). I also accept that delegating work to skilled professionals is just part of the ‘artist as designer’ role that you’ll need to take if you’re going to pull off something ambitious.

Yet, in the case of 3D printing and rapid prototyping, the process is quite different. Theoretically (and when/if they become commercially available) you’d just need a basic maquette, to scan and render on CAD programme and you hit print, and that’s it. The technology still has a way to go (as can be seen in the first attempts to print a house) but it will get there.

If you’re a process-driven artist (where the act of ‘making’ is intrinsic to your practice) this removes what is an essential part of the art. The mistakes and flaws in each piece tell a story or make an unintentional but beautiful nuance in the piece (happy accident). And will our tastes change? Will the art-buying public want to see the mark of the human hand or will it be viewed as imperfect? Would this be an even bigger step down the road of art as product or commodity? If something can forever be duplicated, what is its true value?

That said, perhaps there is another way of looking at it.

Maybe we artists should be the first to embrace this technology– after all Grayson Perry said in his Reith Lectures that artists should be at the forefront of new technology. Why? Because in a way it could bring the artist closer to the ‘art’. One room, one artist and one especially clever printer. No team of assistants, no highly skilled helpers– an altogether more intimate arrangement.

I wonder whether this would be so bad?

It's just me and you, kid. The ORDbot Quantum 3D printer. Photo: Creative Commons/Bart Dring
It’s just me and you, kid. The ORDbot Quantum 3D printer. Photo: Creative Commons/Bart Dring

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