Additive manufacturing technologies, often called 3D printing, don’t necessarily change sculpting as much as they do our understanding of the sculpting process. As bespoke processes of creation involved into what we now know as industrial manufacturing, a pivotal feature of the newly produced objects were that they were more closely identical, that is, mass produced in replication of an ideal object. Previously, objects like cookware, machinery, and even dwellings were certainly mass produced, but each individual object had variations and inconsistencies that showed the fingerprints of the individual builders.
As more of our objects transition from physical to digital, there is a sense in which we think of this regularity as increasing. Every copy of a sound file or an ebook is supposed to be exactly the same, even more so that the manufacturing imperfections of a compact disc or the pages of a bound book might be. However, the digital aspects of additive manufacturing enable a new sort of bespoke customization. Using durable materials once limited to large, expensive production runs in a factory, now the produced objects can be slightly different, modified for the deisgner or the user, using algorithmic alterations based on a nearly endless series of variables. Perhaps it is not the objects that customized, so much as the production process— such that the minimal tolerances between design and finished product are now accessible across a wide range of productions, not just those that economically justify the outfitting of a large factory.
In actual terms, the result of this sort of newly custom production are on display at the Design Museum Foundation’s exhibition Bespoke Bodies: The Design and Craft of Prosthetics. Prosthetics are nothing new, of course, being produced to aid human beings missing body parts for thousands of years. However, changes in technology, like 3D printing, are enabling new advances in this time-honored craft.
Most of these advances happen on the functional level, and rightly so. Cheaply produced, durable mechanisms allow more functionality in prosthetic limbs at decreased cost. The precise customization available with these technologies unables better fits to the wearer’s body, which also increases functionality as well as comfort.
But additionally, the prosthetic (from the Greek: “adding things”) is related to the aesthetic (from the Greek: “perceptible things”). As naturally as humans adapt their tools to work in concert with their bodies, we still look at prosthetics as different, unexpected, unusual from the body parts we expect to be there. But in this domain, additive technology is really breaking new ground. The customization is allowing new materials, as well as the wearer’s own artistry, to alter the prosthetic from simply a replacement, to sculptural augmentation. The pop artist Viktoria Modesta’s riveting performance Prototype starring (not in spite of) her custom built prosthetics; Aidan Robinson’s Lego Arm, and Dani Clode’s Third Thumb all showcase the ways in which humans visualize changing not only their shape, but their look, given the ability to easily do so.
Perhaps our bodies themselves are our original sculptural medium. As fragile as we can be, we also can remake ourselves to be far more than we were, given the inspiration and the tools to shape ourselves.