More selected projects

Arts Week 2018Arts Week 2018


Casting Code: Reflections on 3D Printing

By Elizabeth Johnson

The letterhead of Henri Lebossé announces that his firm uses a ‘mathematically perfected process’ and a ‘special machine’ for ‘reducing and enlarging objects of “art and industry”’.[i] Lebossé is not the Director of IMakr or Factum Arte or another company that offers commercial 3D printing services. His company was founded in 1865, and it was one of the chief manufacturers of reproduction sculptures by the influential modern artist Auguste Rodin. The idea that Lebossé’s description of his company could cause it to be confused with providers of the latest 3D printing technology suggests to me that the history of sculptural reproduction contains insights that are valuable to critical studies of 3D printing. Here I want to reflect on a recent symposium organised by the Vasari and use it to consider some of the ways that sculpture’s historical discourse could help us to gain some purchase on debates raised by 3D printing.

            The subject of digital 3D technology was addressed at the symposium ‘Casting Code: Reflections on 3D Printing’, held in the School of Arts Birkbeck on 14 May 2018. Early career researchers from different disciplines gathered to consider how 3D printing and the related technologies of digital 3D modelling and scanning are currently reimagining the production, exhibition and circulation of artworks and cultural artefacts. During the symposium it struck me that a number of participants referred to the collection of historical casts in the V&A museum, London. Sculpture, it seemed, kept appearing as an interlocutor in the discussion of contemporary digital 3D technology.

            The connection between sculpture and 3D printing was most explicit in research presented by Mara-Johanna Kölmel (Leuphana University Lüneburg). Although there are many types of 3D printing, one of the most common creates forms by building up material layer by layer; which explains why the technology is also known as “additive manufacture”. The 3D printer extrudes a filament of viscous material (often plastic) that sets solid to create the strata of a predesigned form. At the symposium, Kölmel suggested that there are formal resonances between this momentary viscous state and a lineage of sculpture since the twentieth century – from Medardo Rosso, to Lindsey Decker, to Sterling Crispin – that attends to the liquid or formless. This formal history, Kölmel claimed, charts a progressive destabilization of the sculptural object that echoes an emergent post-humanist reimagining of the body in shape-shifting, fluid terms.

            Haptic perception is foundational to sculptural aesthetics, and it featured prominently in the presentations given by Amelia Knowlson (Sheffield Hallam University) and Xavier Aure (University of the West of England). Knowlson outlined the emerging role of 3D scanning and printing in curatorial practice at the British Museum, considering the intellectual hierarchies that divide original and facsimile objects. Knowlson suggested that facsimile reproductions enabled a type of tactile engagement with museum artefacts that would not otherwise be possible when dealing with originals. Next, Aure presented technical case studies of digital 3D models that describe the precise surface texture of paintings in the collection of the National Gallery, London. His 3D computer graphic visualisations restored a sculptural objecthood to painting that is typically supressed by other types of screen-based digital reproduction.

            The presentation given by Dukki Hong (Bournemouth University) examined the challenges that 3D printing poses to Intellectual Property law. The issues raised by Hong echoed the longstanding, and often heated, debates in sculpture studies concerning the legal and ethical status of three-dimensional reproductions.[ii] Hong suggested that the current legal framework of intellectual property was devised for an age of industrial manufacture and now struggled to accommodate recent 3D printing practice. I would add that even in Rodin’s age the idea that “originality” could secure the notion of authenticity was already strained. Following Rodin’s death in 1917, a group of sculptors, including Lebossé, were tried for producing fake Rodins.[iii] During the trial it emerged that Rodin’s former studio assistants had been involved in producing both authorised and illegal posthumous reproductions. The scandal revealed that there was often very little to distinguish an “authentic” Rodin from a fake.[iv] It is just one example of the weak relevance that the categories of “original” and “copy” have for sculpture, which is now also the case for 3D printing.

            In the symposium’s final paper, Daniel Rourke (Goldsmiths) suggested that we embrace the possibilities of seemingly unlimited reproduction that have been opened up by many forms of digital technology. Responding to 3D printing as a metaphor for what Donna Haraway has called our ‘Chthulucene’ era, Rourke has developed the concept of “additivism” in collaboration with fellow artist Morehshin Allahyari. The principal output of their collaboration is The 3D Additivist Cookbook (2016): a freely available pdf compilation of critical texts, “recipes” for 3D printing projects and free to download 3D models, produced by almost a hundred participants in response to an open call. At the symposium, Rourke described how “additivism” reimagined 3D printing as a creative form of activism which exploits the very conditions of reproducibility that threaten the aesthetics and economics of originality. The collaborative approach of Rourke’s project challenges outdated ideas about art as the work of an individual genius, which also belied the collective nature of sculpture workshops such as Rodin’s.

            It is important to stress that 3D printing presents a radical departure from past forms of three-dimensional reproduction. Certainly, there are areas of 3D printing practice which demand that critical insights beyond sculpture studies are brought to bear. For instance, sculpture is less helpful when it comes to questions about the ecological impact of 3D printing technologies or how to articulate the ontology of a form that has no physical originary model. What I have tried to suggest is that sculpture can have a valuable role in advancing many areas of our critical accounts of 3D printing. A firm understanding of the historical discourse of sculpture can help us to identify what is genuinely innovative about 3D printing technology and how it departs from the forms and debates of the past.

Given that historical and digital forms of three-dimensional reproduction share many concerns, one might expect that prevailing cultural and social structures should readily accommodate 3D printing practice. Instead, the symposium revealed that 3D printing frequently disrupts existing museological, legal and aesthetic frameworks, exposing their implicit values and limits.

[i] As cited in Auguste Rodin and others, Rodin Rediscovered (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1994), p. 249.

[ii] For details on this see Anthony Hughes and Erich Ranfft, Sculpture and Its Reproductions (London: Reaktion Books, 1997). A great example of this type of academic spate plays out in Albert E. Elsen and Walter A. Haas, 'On the Question of Originality: A Letter', October, 20 (1982), pp. 107-09; Rosalind Krauss, 'Sincerely Yours: A Reply', October, 20 (1982), pp. 111-30.

[iii] Anon, 'False Rodin Suit Started', American Art News, 17, 35 (1919), p. 3.

[iv] Krauss, 'Sincerely Yours: A Reply'.