Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital

Principal Curator Matthew Connell explores some of the origins and inspirations behind 3D manufacturing in this excerpt from the Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital exhibition catalogue.

From the scrubbing clean of Joseph Beuys’ Untitled (Bathtub) to the tidying up of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, contemporary artworks that straddle the intersection between art and life are, on occasion, at the mercy of overzealous cleaning staff. With this in mind, one fears for the plain disposable cup that sits atop Who This Am by Korean artist Kijin Park. The cup, 3D printed from polylactic acid, crowns a pallet of carefully tied reams of A4 printer paper. The pages contain all the ones and zeros that describe the cup’s form for the 3D printer that printed it. Who This Am is a startling illustration of the amount of information implicit in the analog or material form of the cup, but it also underpins one of the fundamental implications of the digital world — that everything can be reduced to ones and zeros and as such can be copied exactly, manipulated, recombined and sent anywhere.

Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs? Series by Aki Inomata, 2009-16. © Aki Inomata courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.
Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs? Series by Aki Inomata, 2009-16. © Aki Inomata courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.

3D printing and digital knitting and weaving are examples of additive manufacturing; CNC milling and turning are examples of subtractive manufacturing. These are new terms, although both techniques have long histories. But now both can be controlled by computer where code specifies the structure and shape of the object to be manufactured. The ones and zeros representing an object may be created on the computer or captured from the material world by some scanning process. They can then be manipulated. These new techniques allow new forms, new geometries, quick experimentation, easy replication, expanded levels of complexity, perfect patterning and opportunity for increased sustainability. The possibilities and implications are not predictable but the potential is too high for things not to change.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences is presenting Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital, a new iteration of the very successful exhibition developed and shown at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York in 2013. Curated by Ron Labaco, the original exhibition was one of the first to acknowledge the consequential role of digital manufacturing processes in creative practice. It will include material from the New York exhibition but will also highlight the Australian and Asia-Pacific experience. The exhibition explores the place and impact of digital technology in the conception and material production of objects in art and design, recognising that these techniques are defining new possibilities, understandings and expectations in these fields.

The MAAS installation of Out of Hand is framed by seven thematic sections: Analog to Postdigital, Modelling Nature, New Geometries, Rebooting Revival, Patterns as Structure, Remixing the Figure and Process. Each section is introduced by an object from the MAAS collection, as they represent an earlier manifestation of ideas that have reappeared in 21st-century technologies. These objects help explain the technology and also remind us that ideas develop over time, have their day and emerge from a context — technological, economic, cultural. Innovations rarely arrive as completely new concepts.

Untitled (#5) by Richard Dupont, 2008. Photo courtesy of Richard Dupont and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Untitled (#5) by Richard Dupont, 2008. Photo courtesy of Richard Dupont and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Modelling nature

In Sydney in the late 1800s Lawrence Hargrave was captivated by the various ways in which animals propelled themselves. The young inventor and scientist wanted to know if the locomotive processes he was keenly observing could be abstracted and adapted for human-engineered transport systems. Best known today for his pioneering work on human flight, Hargrave also modelled the motion of snakes and eels in a system he called ‘trochoidal motion’. He even speculated that these undulating movements might be used to propel a ship.

Hargrave’s work reflected the scientific interests of the day but his specific approach seeking solutions from the natural world fell out of favour in the early 1900s and became something of a joke for much of the rest of the 20th century — it is still easy to laugh at the early aircraft designers who took the mimicry of birds as far as literally flapping themselves into oblivion. However, in the 1980s things started to change as roboticists began to explore processes from nature, leading to a resurgence of biomimicry in science and design.

Biology, evolution and ecology have today become powerful signifiers in art, design and computational science. Generative and evolutionary algorithms at the heart of the artificial life movement helped to produce computer graphics and simulations with an incredible resemblance to real natural systems. A few simple rules became the basis for complex structures or behaviours. They have also been used to generate incredible but believable alien ‘biologies’. In this exhibition, Michael Hansmeyer uses just such a process in the generation of his subdivided column, A New Order. A study in architecture rather than biology, his columns are nevertheless the expression through algorithms of simple rules to produce a wondrous alien form, structural but organic, the rules evident in the symmetry and self-symmetry but the complexity defying [something].

Trochoidal motion model ship made by Lawrence Hargrave, 1883, MAAS Collection.
Trochoidal motion model ship made by Lawrence Hargrave, 1883, MAAS Collection.

Modelling natural forms can also tend toward the simple and the spare. Zaha Hadid was inspired by the behaviour of water and used the shared transparency of water and acrylic to deliver her Liquid Glacial furniture. Joris Laarman goes beyond the stylistic reference of nature with his bone-inspired furniture and draws on digital tools that evolve the most optimised design, mimicking the process by which bones and trees can adjust the amount of material required to maintain integrity of structure.

Visualisation has been one of the triumphs of computer science, allowing patterns of truth to render the invisible visible, over time, through space, across domains. Measuring Cup and Weather Bracelet by Mitchell Whitelaw are constructed from climate and weather data to form objects that relate poetically to their subjects. Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s visualisation, Museum of Copulatory Organs, is more iconic, being scale representations of electron micrographs of snail penises (love darts) and pollen.

Today we recognise, as perhaps Hargrave did, that millennia of evolution have produced some extraordinary ‘designs’. New digital technologies give us a new capacity to mimic and model the natural world, in homage to natural forms, to better understand the natural world and to find new solutions to the problems in the world we construct for ourselves.

Out of Hand is published by Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Media, available from MAAS Store or online at mass.museum/store.


This article first appeared in MAAS Magazine, Winter 2016. To access a digital version of the magazine go here. To receive a printed copy, become a MAAS member.

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