Despite the headline-grabbing hype, the promise and the premise, artists remain mixed about the viability and use of three-dimensional printing in their work. Some have embraced this new technology while others are skeptical about certain limitations (namely, scale of objects produced) at this still-early stage of the technology, which is traced to a 1984 patent, but has become more common in the last decade. With 3-D printing, hoary debates about the “artist’s hand” are mute because computer technology has evolved as a necessary standard in much sculpture created today. 3-D printing allows an individual to make an object in, for example, Alumide (a hybrid material of aluminum dust and nylon), steel, plastic, brass, silver, bronze, sandstone or ceramic. Objects are built up layer by layer directly from a computer file. And while some prominent artists are wary of drawbacks found in using this process, they are endorsing it for their students who must simultaneously distrust and embrace this method. An internet search reveals that Jeff Koons is a supporter of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms which marries computer science with physical science to “study how to turn data into things,” that Frank Stella has used 3-D printing to create metal and resin components for sculpture, and that Alice Aycock first used this technology several years ago to create a piece that was around two feet high.
“I have not yet used it myself but we are introducing the technology for our studio classes this year,” commented sculptor DeWitt Godfrey, the president-elect of the College Art Association and a professor of studio art at Colgate University. According to Godfrey, 3-D printing is “an essential tool for our students to be familiar with, whatever art or design field they might enter.” Godfrey cautions that “the danger in any new technology is its perceived promise, the magic bullet that can do anything. As art educators we need to teach these innovations critically, we need to learn what tools, what materials to use when, to meet our expressive needs.”
At the School of Visual Arts in New York where sculptor Alice Aycock teaches undergraduates, there are 3-D printers for student use. “I encouraged my school to get 3-D printers,” she said in a phone interview. “Any process, any technique that is available that is useful, I will use,” Aycock emphasized. “It’s just the idea has to be good enough. It’s the idea, not necessarily the technique… The 3-D printer is part of an overall revolution for me in how I get to work and how to examine complex phenomena structures such as fluid dynamics that I’ve been thinking about for years.” Aycock’s next exhibition, on the Park Avenue Malls, will open in February 2014 with seven or eight monumental sculptures, all of which has been rendered with computer technology, but not via a 3-D printer due to limitations of scale still hampering the technology.
Three-dimensional printing may seem cutting-edge to the general public, but the automobile and aeronautics industries and the military have evolved the technique over several decades. Artists have been open to using computer programs to design and fabricate their work for some time. A current exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital” features artists, architects and designers who work with 3-D technology. As part of the show, a representative from Shapeways, an online site where 3-D printing and commerce collide, stands in the galleries to assist visitors in making objects or in answering questions about the creative process.
Shapeways is a commercial venture where a consumer has an idea, uploads it to a web site, and selects the material for fabrication. Shapeways’ Duann Scott (whose business card reads “Designer Evangelist”) said that his firm receives over 60,000 uploads per month and that they print around 100,000 objects per month. Although Scott can’t identify the exact number of artists making objects in this manner, he suggests that “artists have definitely been a major component of the early adopters” of 3-D printing and that many use laser sintered Nylon for its versatility, malleability and strength. Through EOS printers, the scale of objects ranges according to the consumer’s wish: tiny objects visible only through a magnifying glass to life size bust of a figure.
The continuation of 3-D printers to make sculpture may be generational as younger artists assume this technology as the definitive tool for their needs. For today, the issue of scale may be the hindrance to the ubiquity of 3-D printing. By eliminating the need for a professional fabricator to realize computer-derived objects, the 3-D printer may be an accessible, cost-effective means to create new work.