Exhibition Offers Digital Design Utopia

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We’re living in the future.

That’s the basic take-away from the exhibition Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital, currently on view through June 1 at The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) on Columbus Circle. The show, curated by MAD’s Ron Labaco, presents an impressively diverse array of technologies, processes and applications for stepping up the digital game in artworks and design objects of all kinds.

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Bespoke_Fairings_Soccer
Bespoke Innovations
Fairings, 2011 / via

These digital technologies can be used to scan physical objects and manipulate the cybernetic renderings. Other processes can pull these renderings out of the virtual to create physical, tangible things back in the real world. Digital manufacturing technologies can be either additive (3D printing, sintering) or subtractive (laser cutting, milling or machining), all with dramatic, computer-controlled precision. The number of materials available for these processes is just as diverse: Out of Hand includes objects in metal, marble, wood, paper, glass, cement, fabric and a dizzying variety of plastics.

Out of Hand is an engaging show, occasionally spectacular, but the argument it makes for these advanced technologies can feel scattershot. It’s hard to tell which of these approaches to the diverse technologies on display are creative solutions to previously insufficiently solved problems, which have something exciting to contribute to culture and which are merely gimmicks, however lovely or clever the results might be.

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Among the seeming gimmicks is a design by Nike for 3D printed football cleats (the cleated soles, that is, the rest of the shoe is made normally). This seems like a perfectly reasonable application of the technology—and a perfectly brilliant opportunity for marketing—but I don’t imagine that these cleats, functionally, will be any different from the cleats worn by football players for decades, manufactured using less flashy technology.

An example of what seems a more direct solutions to a real-world problem via these technologies is the Fairing, 2011, by the firm Bespoke Innovations. A fairing creates a more natural, limb-shaped contour to fit around a prosthesis. The shape can be generated by digitally scanning a healthy limb, and the open-ended possibilities of digital manufacture can allow the final object to be customized to material, design, decoration, pattern, and on and on.

Object Breast Cancer
caraballo-farman, Object Breast Cancer, 2011, bronze

Perhaps the most complex, humanist project in the show is by Leonor Caraballo and Abou Farman, Object Breast Cancer, 2011. After Caraballo was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent an MRI, the two artists used digital imaging technology to isolate the tumor from the MRI and reconstitute it, digitally, as a 3-dimensional rendering. They could then produce a variety of aesthetic objects using the precise shape of the tumor. At MAD, they showed a large bronze cast, a gold-plated amulet pendant and a silver fob attached to a string of worry beads. While some of these were produced with various 3D printing technologies, the bronze objet, designed with the avant-garde digital tools, was cast using traditional, millennia-old technology. You can see Caraballo and Farman discuss the project in a video on MAD’s Web site.

Anish Kapoor Untitled at MAD show
Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2008
3D printed concrete
Photo by the author

Some of the wittiest installations self-consciously undermine and deconstruct the precision implicit in the drive to use these manufacturing technologies. Artist Anish Kapoor uses a large 3D printer to print with concrete, creating abstract, blobby piles of the material. Markus Kayser built an ingenious low-tech 3D printer—the Solar Sinter—which he brought to the Sahara Desert to use sand and magnifying-glass aimed rays of the sun to print a glass bowl from the melted sand. The exhibition includes a video showing the charmingly rough process, also viewable here.

An implicit theme uniting the collection of “postdigital” items Labaco has put on display is a kind of Utopian view of a world suffused with this technology. Everything has a sheen of a positive, open, even playful possibility, with a strain of aspirational consumerism. This latter quality is evident in the next-gen-technology-made furniture, jewelry, clothing, house wares and bric-à-brac, all very stunning and very high-end. The other side of that coin is the installation of small, modest, fun items that anyone could make with a relatively accessible 3D printer.

The Fairing best exposes what’s missing from the show, what would complicate and disrupt the positive outlook and add some contrapuntal richness to our understanding of how these technologies can affect the world. In the Fairing, we have an intelligently-made device to help improve the lives of amputees; what the show leaves out is how the technology could be used create amputees, more broadly, how weapons might be digitally designed, 3D printed or laser cut.

Last year, news of a 3D printed plastic gun made the rounds, threatening to push security procedures based on metal detectors into obsolescence. This and similar objects demonstrating the darker side of this free-wheeling technology don’t appear in the show, leaving it feeling very boosterish for these digital processes. If the at least moderately well-know 3D printed gun didn’t make it into the show, I have to wonder—worriedly—toward what shady and violent end the full force of the military-industrial-NRA complex might adapt the technology.

We’re living in the future. MAD thinks it’s a bright and beautiful future, even if that’s not necessarily the full picture of what we can expect.