3D printer deployed for the cause of art

Exhibition poses questions about technology and art

Technology and art have always sought inspiration and new techniques from each other.

From the invention of paint, through to the printing press, photography, video and computers, artists have been quick to deploy and employ new technology to create new, challenging and beautiful things.

Bronwyn Holloway-Smith’s exhibition, “Ghosts in the form of gifts”, commissioned by Massey University in Wellington, uses a technology that really is new. In fact, it’s still very much in development.

The 10 symbolic objects in the exhibition are replicas, printed on a 3D printer called a RepRap. The conceit is that these are artefacts “imagined as lost, hidden or misregistered” when the Museum of New Zealand occupied the former Museum Building on Buckle St, now used by Massey University’s College of Creative Arts.

The objects include an adze, poi, a whale’s tooth and a tapa beater among others. A Maori fishhook (Matau) sits next to the Utah teapot, a standard object used in graphic design, and a New Zealand giant snail shell.

The exhibit is backed by as website, where anybody can download digital files of the objects and print them on a RepRap – or even modify them under a Creative Commons licence that allows sharing and modification with attribution.

“I’m interested in technology and the possibility of being able to print things out in a domestic setting,” Holloway-Smith explains.

RepRap is an open source project, allowing others to participate and develop the technology, with all improvements released back into the project.

Founding team member Vik Olliver, of west Auckland, says the aim of the project is “wealth without money”, the ability of anyone, anywhere to print whatever they need.

The RepRap can, with the addition of some standard components, also print itself. For that reason, Olliver is unsure how many are actually in the wild – perhaps up to 3000 he estimates.

And the RepRap isn’t just used to reproduce existing things – the real benefit is that it will allow modification, customisation and also print brand new objects.

In his workshop, Olliver is running his RepRap off a One Laptop Per Child computer, designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab for use in third world countries and now distributed by a non-profit organisation.

The RepRap is a challenging piece of technology, promising to create a new front in the intellectual property wars by moving that into the world of 3D objects. Its ability to be copied and reproduced will allow it to be transferred across borders and enable the local creation of all kinds of objects. That will challenge concepts such as embargoes, trade and ideas about obsolescence.

Olliver expects intellectual property issues to emerge once the RepRap is fully developed. In fact, he expects that conflict to be even more intense than that over digital media.

“I’m expecting governments to try and make these things illegal,” he says, adding that because the printer can print itself, that’s going to be very hard.

“Cuba, Iran, Gaza, Bangladesh – I want them to have access to this technology to use it for themselves,” he says.

Olliver has developed the second generation of the printer (dubbed Mendel after the biologist) that is smaller, more probust and simpler than its predecessor, dubbed Darwin. His next goal is to include multiple printing heads with different types of printing stock, including low melting point metals to allow the printing of printed circuits and maybe even motors.

Holloway-Smith says she wanted to work with the RepRap because she respects the project and its ethic of making something that will be accessible to a multitude of people.

“It’s challenging ideas about making art,” she says. “Is something a sculpture if you print it out from a machine?”

Echoing open source ideas, Holloway-Smith says the concept of her exhibition and the downloadable files is of a gift that the artist gives back to the creative culture from which they drew inspiration and to invite others to build upon that gift.

“The creative act always builds on the past,” she says.

So what about potential Maori claims to property rights over their objects included in the exhibition?

Holloway-Smith says she deliberately chose objects that were very old and of unknown origin. The fish hook, for instance, is a very efficient design and was made by most iwi in New Zealand. She describes them as “orphaned works”.

“I chose them to draw that out,” she says.

“Ghosts in the form of gifts” will be on permanent display in the foyer of the Executive Seminar Suite, Block 5, Gate A, Wallace St, Mt Cook.

Review: Doctorow’s Makers pops and fizzes with ideas

Fifty years ago, science fiction writer Damon Knight wrote about a “Gismo”, a device that could duplicate anything.

“If a person had a Gismo, he would never have to work again,” the pulpy cover blurb of A for Anything gasps. “And he could control the earth. Until one day there would be too much of everything … Except oblivion.”

Machines that can duplicate are one thing, and Knight was not the first to right about them, but Cory Doctorow takes the idea a big step further in his latest futurist novel. In the very near future of Makers, 3D printers are as ubiquitous as computers are now – and these printers don’t just duplicate, they can be used to customise existing objects and to create new ones.

In Makers, Doctorow is exploring the concept of “post scarcity economics”, or as he terms it in the book, superabundance.

Major industrial corporations are failing and searching for a new way. Kodak and Duracell merge to form Kodacell, which then closes all of its traditional businesses to use its remaining $4 billion to create a new economy. And the RepRap-like 3D printer is central to that vision.

Kodacell recruits thousands of innovators to become an ideas factory and to make quick profits before margins are eroded by intense competition. Two such innovators, techno artists Perry and Lester, sign up.

Kodacell’s model, dubbed New Work, succeeds – but only for a while, until the inevitable crash. But Perry and Lester don’t stop innovating, creating an open source theme ride that brings them into inevitable conflict with Disney.

Disney comes up with a different kind of printer, one that uses proprietary “goop” that has to be bought from the company and will only print designs from the faceless corporation.

Doctorow is not a master prose stylist (“Her voice sent a thrill up her spine.”), but his book fizzes and pops with ideas and is propelled by a compelling plot and engaging characters.

While it has an overriding sense of positivity about human nature, Makers is neither a utopian nor, as in A for Anything, a dystopian vision. In a moving epilogue the hackers and makers, Lester and Perry, are still hacking and making – but Disney appears to be thriving too.

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Tags RepRapvik olliverCory Doctorowtechnologymakersbronwyn holloway-smith

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