In creating a thing, there is implicit a dream of making it appear spontaneously. Apart from the detailed processes of craft that we might call the act of sculpture, there is a small part of the mind that somehow hopes the artwork or object might be conjured into existence from nowhere, as if replicated directly from the imagination.
So when we learn about 3D printing, there is perhaps a sense in which this is what we imagine. Like a paper printer that replicates the screen, that replicates a piece of paper, shouldn’t a 3D printer replicate the imagination, that replicates the world? Anything that the mind can conceive, can come out of the print nozzle and into existence. Whether furniture, food, fashion, or firearms, all you have to do is click “print.”
That isn’t the case, of course. 3D printing is a form of manufacturing like anything else, although highly custom. Many prefer to call it “additive manufacturing,” because this encompasses a range of technologies, from the consumer-grade desktop models that lay down layers of melted plastic, to the laser sintering processes that are used to construct expensive aerospace engine components. Additive manufacturing is not magic, like a science-fiction replicator that can make anything so long as you hit the print button, but uses a variety of techniques to add material little by little, rather than sawing, carving, drilling, or cutting it away.
This doesn’t mean that there is no magic in the process. The Additivist Manifesto, and the forthcoming Additivist Cookbook written and organized by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke seek to explore that sense of spontaneity and power that the limited technology of 3D printing can provide. The Manifesto proposes self-conscious elaboration of this urge: “We want to encourage, interfere, and reverse-engineer the possibilities encoded into the censored, the invisible, and the radical notion of the 3D printer itself. To endow the printer with the faculties of plastic: condensing imagination within material reality.”
What if that urge to physically replicate the imagination was not just used to create new designs of end tables, or produce endless consumer trinkets? What if it could be used to remake ourselves? The call for submissions to the Cookbook speculates that one day we might think of our bodies as flexible as we now consider our identities, and exploring additive manufacturing processes might help us get there. What if it could be used to remake history, as in Allahyari’s own recent Material Speculation: ISIS work, that replicates historical artifacts destroyed by militant groups in Iraq? What sort of objects might additivism create, that are not replications, but are things that have never existed before? Perhaps there are ghosts, glitches, and flaws in these new design and fabrication mechanisms that will take on a life of their own, like our ruins, cracks, fissures, and flaws have in other artistic mediums.
New technology most often changes society by not improving current structures, but by creating new ones. We know this well: it is the idea behind the famous story of Henry Ford saying that if he asked consumers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. But what will new 3D printing technology systems do to sculpture? We tend to think of aesthetics as something more vital, more implicit to humanity than our social structures. Provocatively, the Additivism Manifesto suggests: “The Beyond now begs us to be moulded to its will, and we shall drink every drop as entropic expenditure, and reify every accursed dream through algorithmic excess. For only Additivism can accelerate us to an aftermath whence all matter has mutated into the clarity of plastic.” In what sense this will be true, or simply a parable of humans inclination to believe in their imaginations, only the future knows.