Date
Volume 22, Number 2
0 By Alexander Gelfand 0
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Print Making

Artist explore 3D printing's possibilities

Vincent Chen, Memento Mori, 2014, 3D printed plastic.
David Lobser, Traditional Basket #3, 2014, PLA 3D print.
Francis Bitonti Studio in collaboration with Michel Schmidt Studios, 3D-printed gown for Dita Von Teese, 2013; photo by Albert Sanchez Photography, courtesy of Francis Bitonti Studio.
Suzanne Anker, Remote Sensing (5A), 2013, plaster, pigment, resin, glass Petri dish.
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Suzanne Anker, chair of SVA’s BFA Fine Arts program, is leaning across her desk on the fifth floor of 335 West 16th Street, with a piece from her latest series of sculptures, “Remote Sensing,” in the palm of her hand.


The work is impossibly detailed and somewhat otherworldly: delicate spires in various colors and hues emerge from a dense plaster-and-resin substrate, clustering together to form dense, spiky eruptions and finely ridged, curvilinear curtains. The material looks something like coral, and evokes an alien landscape in miniature, or some rare and exotic crystal.


In fact, “Remote Sensing” is the culmination of 12 years’ worth of Anker’s experimentation with 3D printing, a technology that first appeared in the 1980s and has lately been heralded as the Next Big Thing. A 3D printer works somewhat like a conventional inkjet printer. But instead of depositing ink on paper to create two-dimensional images, it deposits layer upon layer of material (plastic, ceramic, metal) in order to build up three-dimensional objects. Industrial manufacturers and commercial designers were quick to seize on the technology’s possibilities, and a number of items from all stages of the production process, from action-figure prototypes to fully functional aircraft parts, are now routinely printed rather than sculpted, cast or injection-molded.


As the technology matures and the price of a decent 3D printer continues to fall, more and more people in the creative communities are also embracing the technology—either as a complement to traditional fabrication methods or as a thing unto itself. European artists like Nick Ervinck, in Antwerp, and Erik van Straaten, in Amsterdam, commonly produce sculptures using nothing but 3D printers. In New York City, multimedia artist Shane Hope combines 3D printing with traditional painting techniques to produce colorful abstract forms inspired by molecular structures, while architect-turned-fashion designer Francis Bitonti has employed 3D printing to create a variety of objects—most notably, the racy black gown he conjured up in 2013 for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese.


Yet the road to 3D-printed art and design has not been entirely smooth. When Anker first became interested in the process more than a decade ago, the machines were prohibitively expensive and difficult to find. The more sophisticated printers are still pricey—the professional-caliber models in SVA’s Digital Sculpture Lab, four floors down from Anker’s office, cost upward of $35,000 each—but a simple desktop consumer version can now be had for less than $1,000.


Beyond issues of cost and access, however, Anker also had to confront the challenge of determining how best to exploit an emerging technology. “It took me quite a while to figure what to make,” she admits. Her first effort, an attempt to create shapes based on the morphology of the human brain, went nowhere (she eventually used ordinary ceramics and classical techniques for the works) and it was several years before she ultimately succeeded with a series of monochromatic pieces inspired by Rorschach tests.


“Remote Sensing” represents Anker’s first stab at 3D printing with color, and the results illustrate one of the most exciting aspects of the technology for artists and designers alike: the potential for creating objects they could not previously have conceived, much less produced. Anker says that she could never have imagined the continuous gradations of color the printer created around the edges of the various pieces in the series, an effect produced by the particular algorithms the machine employs. Nor could she have achieved the crystalline texture of the pieces through conventional means. “It was made by a machine,” she says, “but it looks totally organic.”


To create the “Remote Sensing” sculptures, Anker used computer software to generate 3D versions of images from a previous series of inkjet prints, and then tweaked them until she got the effect she was after. She then used other software applications to slice the resulting three-dimensional images into layers, and to generate detailed sets of instructions in a programming language called G-code, which told a large ZCorp printer in the Digital Sculpture Lab precisely how to layer the mixture of pigment, resin and powdered plaster it uses to build its shapes.


There was a time when each step in this process would have required the assistance of trained technicians. Just as the prices of 3D printers have plummeted, however, so has the level of difficulty associated with the software that makes them work. Printing something reasonably sophisticated still requires several different applications—one for rendering or manipulating a 3D model, one for slicing it up into layers, another for integrating all of that information and generating the G-code—but much of the grunt work is now automated. “You don’t need a team,” says Luis Navarro, who runs the Digital Sculpture Lab and teaches a 3D printing course for BFA Fine Arts students. “You just need to learn a little bit about a bunch of software.” The lab’s workstation is equipped with a variety of computer-aided design and 3D-modeling software (SolidWorks, Modo, Geomagic Studio), any and all of which might be required for a particular project.

 

Leif Mangelsen, director of the College’s Visible Futures Lab—a high-tech “maker space” open to all SVA graduate students as well as selected artists-in-residence—says that it was precisely this confluence of increasing user-friendliness and declining costs that made it feasible to equip the lab with its own digital fabrication machines. Tucked away behind an expansive wood shop is an area packed with compact 3D printers made by Stratasys and MakerBot. The student-made objects filling the shelves illustrate just how versatile the machines can be: there are prototypes of adjustable wrenches and over-the-ear headphones printed in red and blue ABS plastic, along with abstract shapes whose curved, perforated surfaces enclose small plastic spheres—sculptures that would have been excruciatingly difficult to fabricate by hand.

 

Despite the technology’s recent advances—and students’ eagerness to experiment with it—Mangelsen is careful not to overstate the current capabilities of the machines (a hesitance that marks him as notably level-headed: the IT consultancy Gartner recently published a “Hype Cycle” chart, illustrating how quickly expectations for the technology were inflated by proponents). For the most part, he says, 3D printers do not turn out what he would consider to be finished products. Rather, they are most useful for generating multiple iterations of a concept in order to arrive quickly at a “highly developed prototype” with “some degree of refinement”—or as he puts it, something that isn’t just cobbled together from hot glue and Popsicle sticks.

 

In the right hands, however, today’s 3D printers can push the boundaries of their capabilities. Consider the work of David Lobser (BFA 2000 Animation). As an artist-in-residence at the Visible Futures Lab last year, Lobser bypassed 3D modeling software altogether and mathematically generated his own G-code, causing the printers to produce what appeared to be tiny baskets woven from incredibly fine wire. No one, including Lobser, could have predicted how these algorithmic sculptures were going to look.

 

And Mangelsen and Navarro both emphasize just how helpful 3D printing can be when it is paired with other fabrication methods—producing molds for bronze casting or vacuum-forming, for example, or creating small but intricate details for larger works in wood or plaster. It’s no accident that the 3D printers in the Digital Sculpture Lab and the VFL share space with other tools like robotic routers and laser cutters.

 

“You can do 100 things with a 3D printer,” Mangelsen says. “But you can do 100,000 things with a 3D printer and a band saw.”  ∞

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