Digital Materiality: Expanding Sculpture Through 3D Printing
Meredith Hoy

Since the inception of the Graphic User Interface, the screen has become the primary conduit through which computer users experience the output of digital computation.  The computer reads and executes code, producing an array of glowing images that dance before our eyes.  The digital, then, is associated with invisible processing and the screen-based interface which enables the user to view the results of that processing or activate new processes. Often, the digital image is noted for its seeming immateriality; the image on the screen flickers out of existence once computation ceases to operate, leaving no material trace or substrate, as opposed to the way that the cinematic image relies on the celluloid strip for its manifestation.

But what happens when the “object” of digital computation is eminently material, no longer an illuminated screen image but a sculptural object? Of course, we are all familiar with printed text and image, the 2-dimensional object-world built by the transmission of encoded instructions to the inkjet or laser printer. But there is another material realm instantiated by rapid prototyping, or 3-D printing, that actuates the production of digitally-generated objects that occupy the world in three dimensions. 3-D printers translate immaterial data into physical forms that can be handled, assembled, and even put to work. The functional potential for 3-D printing seems near limitless: it is possible to build working machines, such as clocks, or even the necessary parts to assemble a fully operational assault rifle.  As opposed to sculptural practices that carve away material from a block of clay or marble, 3-D printing is an additive process, in which thin layers of material are layered on top of one another until the object is fully rendered. The shape of the layers is determined by individual cross-sectioned slices of the object modeled on the computer, and the material out of which the object is fashioned varies, but is most often plastic.

3-D printing has been gradually emerging in the art world. Most often, it is a technology oriented toward utility or design.  How it becomes relevant to artistic discourse has yet to be resolved.  The exhibition Art2Make moves in this direction by exploring the conceptual and aesthetic territory that can be covered by projects in 3-D printing.

3-D printing can be thought as initiating a new phase in contemporary sculpture. The proliferation of media and conceptual strategies for sculptural production have expanded the field of sculpture since the 1970’s.  As such, there is no unifying theory underlying contemporary sculptural practices against which 3-D printing can be measured. Nevertheless, 3-D printing intersects with algorithmic sculptural methods enacted by artists such as Sol LeWitt, whose Incomplete Open Cubes in the 1970’s envisioned a generative strategy for building serialized models of partially constructed cubes. In 1977, Rosalind Krauss imagined LeWitt’s Cubes in comparison to the absurdist narratives woven by Samuel Beckett.  According to Krauss, for most writers considering LeWitt’s

Variations, the primary innovation of his practice consists in a demonstration of the powers of rationalism. Donald Kuspit, for example, argues that LeWitt’s Cubes take up the Western tradition, visible from classical antiquity, through the Renaissance, and up to the present, of “the pursuit of intelligibility by mathematical means.” (Kuspit 48) For Krauss, however, LeWitt’s art does not merely demonstrate a rationalized form of production, but rather an absurd proliferation of, as Donald Judd would put it, “one thing after another.” According to Krauss, “the babble of a LeWitt serial expansion has nothing of the economy of the mathematician’s language” (Krauss 253) His Incomplete Open Cubes revel in the very fact of the possibility of producing multiples. LeWitt’s Cubes, and indeed his wall drawings, create an algorithmic process for sculptural construction, a practice that can also be considered generative insofar as it cedes the control of the artist over his own practice, giving control instead to the permutational process itself.

3-D printing extends the intuitions of LeWitt into a computational context. The reproducibility of the algorithm generating each design echoes LeWitt’s excercises in proliferation.  But instead of the sculptural model itself revealing the algorithmic process underlying its own production, 3-D printed models conceal their algorithmic underpinnings, producing discrete objects whose origin in computational code is not necessarily highlighted. LeWitt’s Cubes were necessarily permutational and serialized in order to convey his conceptual fascination with algorithmic processes. But 3-D printed artifacts do not necessarily operate self-reflexively, reveling instead in the power of the conjoined computer and 3-D printer to create any object imaginable to a seemingly infinite degree of detail. This possibility of creating such fineness of detail has been capitalized upon in various fields, from the production of weaponry to couture design, such as that of Daniel Widrig, whose 3-D printed designs resemble delicately ridged shells or the carapaces of insects. In inspecting these strangely organic designs, one might revel in their intricacy of detail, without becoming instinctually aware that they are generated computationally and rendered by a 3-D printer. However, in considering the ways in which 3-D printing contributes to the canon of contemporary sculptural and digital practice, the fact of the artifact’s derivation from encoded computational processes cannot be forgotten, nor can the legacy of LeWitt’s introduction of algorithm to sculptural production.

In Art2Make, artists Jonathan Anderson and Ming Tang emphasize the permutational nature of their own printed artifacts, stating that their project, which produces a series of computationally modeled “shells,” “combines the notion of ‘mathematic’ with the notion of ‘morphology.’” Likewise, Holly Holmes writes that “digital fabrication and 3-D printing extends the capability of traditional art making. It is a force multiplier combining the ability to make impossible forms variable and in series at the touch of a button.” And Leo Selvaggio explains his digitally fabricated model of his face as representing “a mathematical algorithm…. However, it is also a key portion of my identity.” Each of these artists seizes upon the mathematical origins of their materialized artifacts, showing the relationship between materiality and algorithm to be relevant to contemporary sculptural production. In each case, a fabricated object is one of many possible objects, both in the sense that they can be infinitely reproduced as well as infinitely subjected to mathematical permutations.

One of the inherent properties of 3-D printed objects is that, armed with the proper code, printer, and materials, anyone can reproduce that object identically. Outside of the art world, this fact became urgently apparent in 2012 when Cody Wilson began a website containing instructions for printing gun parts that, when assembled, would produce a viable, working firearm. The dangerous implications of this were immediately apparent, and the ATF quickly responded by interrogating Wilson as to the legality of his open-source 3-D printing project.

Wilson was subsequently granted a federal firearms license to manufacture and deal his product, which he named The Liberator. Free exchange, or the rhetoric of gift-giving, was in this case turned towards the sinister, and while Wilson argued for the validity of his practice based on principles of Free Speech and the right to bear arms, it became rapidly apparent that the free circulation of information had potentially profound effects in the physical, social, and political world. No longer is information disembodied and immaterial, but attains the power to not only become embodied, but also to destroy living organic bodies. The conceptual framework underlying the objects fabricated for Art2Make relies on the same principle of potential reproduction and multiplicity, but instead of engaging directly with the political implications of 3-D printing, they stage artistic interventions, meditating on the nature of objecthood, of seriality, of mathematical and algorithmic variation.  There is no unified aesthetic in this exhibition—each object is rendered with its own particular aesthetic sensibility. But what does unify the artifacts contained within the exhibition is their mutual fascination with the possibilities inherent in (as well as the failures of) rendering computation material.

Not only must the algorithmically generated nature of these 3-D printed artifacts be emphasized, but also it must be noted that this exhibition contains both objects and instructions for these objects to be reproduced.  As Holly Holmes claims in her artist statement, “Digital fabrication and 3-D printing extends the capability of traditional art making. It is a force multiplier combining the ability to make impossible forms variable and in series at the touch of a button. Like cells we can make one or many thousand.” In this way, the exhibition participates in the tradition of relational artworks, which hinge for their conceptual and aesthetic success on the notion of gift-giving. Felix Gonzales-Torres’s Candy Spills and Rikrit Tiravanija’s Dinners are ready examples of this vein in contemporary art practice, in which the “form” of the artwork emerges through a material and social interaction with the components of the piece. In Gonzales-Torres’s Candy Spills, for instance, the visitor is encouraged to take candy with them away from the gallery space, changing the shape of the work over the course of time, as well as calling forth references to the transformativity and diminution of the body over time. Nicholas Bourriaud characterizes works like this in terms of “relational aesthetics,” conceived as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather that the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (Bourriaud 14). In the case of 3-D fabrication, the objecthood of the printed designs is maintained, but the implication of making public the instructions for producing multiples of these objects throws this form of production into a social sphere which hinges on relationality and exchange. Bourriaud speaks of form as a “bonding agent” (Bourriaud 20). Form is born of a lasting encounter, whether that encounter is constituted by the meeting of paint on canvas, or zones of conviviality catalyzed by such works as Tiravanija’s, in which the cooking and eating of food presents the opportunity for interactions between strangers.  In the case of 3-D fabrication of multiple objects of the same design, this space of conviviality is not necessarily created. However, the culture of sharing, such as that advocated by supporters of the open source movement, is nevertheless supported by projects like these.

The notions of the “copy” versus the singularity of the “original,” and the individuated agency of the artist, is brought into (literal) relief in Suk Kyoung Choi’s Les Cartes: (I make (therefore) I am.  The work consists of a useable object, namely a sleeve for business cards, that can be produced by any user. The surface of the card prints in relief an audio spectral analysis of the statements “I am” and “I make,” an implicit reference to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” but updated for a new age of what Choi calls “distributed originality.” The translation of the audio spectral analysis back into speech would create an echo of the voice of the speaker, and thus hearken back to some distant “original,” but in the process of making and remaking the card holder that ghost of originality becomes ever more distant. The presence of the user, his or her deployment of the card holder to announce their own practices of being and making, becomes more proximate than the distant originary voice. In this way, the act of distribution, of offering up the instructions for creating the holder, is also an act of self-renunciation by the original speaker/creator/artist.  Agency is given over to the new user, and the point of origin is merely a ghostly whisper.

Another theme running through the artworks collected in Art2Make is the notion of failure. This exhibition does not merely present a utopian view of the capacities of digital 3-D fabrication. As Jim Jeffers states of his piece, How to Fold a Bunny (two ways), “I kind of like the failures inherent in the technology.” The aesthetic of his piece is one of dissolution and spillage rather than intricate and neat resolution. It brings into view the failure of the object to cohere, and calls into question whether this lack of coherence is in fact an instance of technological success (the object, in its very dissolution, is morphologically beautiful) or failure (the object, in its very dissolution, may reveal technological error). In Christian Oiticica and Nina Palomba’s PoiLomba Ticica, a collection of 10 roughly cat-shaped toys, though the objects are notionally identical, failure is built into the production of the objects. “The files are meant to fail to some extent. When the plastic sags and warps in areas, it creates a unique aesthetic to each edition making them individual objects.” This piece sets up a tension between indenticality and uniqueness, between mass reproduction and the auratic, singular object which traditionally constitutes a work of fine art. This piece intersects with the notion of the glitch, or the appearance of errors in computational processes. One would suppose that digital fabrication would produce identical objects, as there is, in theory, no degradation of the digital image in each instance of its (re)production.  But materiality stubbornly clings to imperfection and uniqueness. It is precisely the failure of the process that ensures its success as an art object, if the demand for aesthetic success of an art object is idiosyncracy and individuality.

Michael Kozien’s Slow Burn: Mud Pies engages with this very idea of the valuation of a work of art. Unlike the pieces mentioned above that build failure and glitch into the body of the work in such a way as to call into question the perfection of technology and the uniqueness of the art object, this piece builds an instance of permanent objecthood out of an ephemeral activity usually reserved for childrens’ play. The making of mud pies produces a temporary object through the ludic act. Here, the energy of a childlike imagination is channeled into the production of an abstract 3-D printed sculpture. It both references its origins in play and “exceeds the transitory nature of mud,” transforming an object with imaginative value (the child’s game) into one with artistic value (the formation of a sculpture).

The question of value is one that pertains to all works in this exhibition. Despite the fact that the instructions for making these pieces are open source, the problem of access to the technology and the expense of that technology persists. Although the cost of 3-D printers has diminished, and individual companies such as Makerbot and RepRap have made relatively low-cost DIY 3-D printers a reality, the feasibility of creating a truly distributed network of these objects is far from guaranteed. It is, perhaps, the imaginative possibility of this network of reproducible objects that both adds conceptual value to the works and at the same time diminishes the monetary value of each individual object.

Overall, the primary artistic contribution of the projects collected in Art2Make lies in their envisioning of the possibility of expanding the sculptural field by producing physical objects whose shapes are determined by computational processing.  These objects are both truly digital and emphatically material, revealing the extent to which the material dimension of digitality must be considered.  As Ashley Zelinskie states of her project Reverse Abstraction—Mobius, “humans and computers perceive the world through different languages, and what is concrete for one is abstract for the other.” Nevertheless, her project, which creates Mobius-strips that contain the hexadecimal and binary codes through which they are computationally generated, attempts to resolve the gap between abstraction and materiality and to create objects that are both meaningful for human perceivers and also make reference to the language of computational processing. This work and others in the exhibition meditate on the capacity for computers to enact generative, permutational strategies in service of making material objects, thus working against the notion that digital processes are inherently disembodied and ephemeral. 3-D printing lays new ground for art practice, creating a conceptual and material territory in which digitally fabricated objects create new intersections and dialogues with traditional sculptural methods.



Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, trans. Les presses du réel, 2002.

Krauss, Rosalind. “LeWitt in Progress.” In The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge; MIT Press, 1985. 244-258.

Kuspit, Donald. “Sol LeWitt: The Look of Thought.” Art in America, LXIII (September- October 1975).