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Special Feature: Van Gogh to Modernism, 3D Printing & The Evolution of Art

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Mar 13, 2015

Marshall McLuhan famously stated in his 1964 text Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that “the medium is the message.” The implied meaning is often misunderstood to be that the content of art is of no significance next to the medium of delivery. McLuhan was saying, rather, that when focusing on content to provide to our audiences, “we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time” by new technology or mediums.

This, McLuhan believes, ought to have been the new discipline of media studies. Pre-figuring the notion of meme, McLuhan says in the very first chapter of his work that “[a]s society’s values, norms, and ways of doing things change because of [technology], it is then we realize the social implications of the medium” that a new invention or innovation introduces.

Going by Lisa Harouni’s 2011 TEDTalk, “A Primer on 3D Printing,” Additive Layer Manufacturing – what we all call 3D printing – has now been around for about about thirty-five years. The fundamental process is simple.

As Harouni explains, a 3D printing interface slices CAD (computer-aided design) data into layers, which can vary in thickness from microns to millimeters. Starting at the base of the design data, these layers are printed one on top of the other using a liquid or material powder that is melted and deposited – or, depending on the type of printer, deposited and melted – such that each printed layer is fused to the previous layer. “Typically,” Harouni explains, “[3D printers have] been too inefficient, too inaccessible and too expensive for most” to afford or use. She did predict, however, that increasingly-available 3D printing technology would disrupt manufacturing’s business models.

"Rapid Prototyping Slicing" by Materialgeeza.

“Rapid Prototyping Slicing” by Materialgeeza.



"Printing with a 3D Printer at Maker's Party, Bangalore, 2013" by Subhashish Panigrahi.

“Printing with a 3D Printer at Maker’s Party, Bangalore, 2013” by Subhashish Panigrahi.


Even only four years later, the scale and pace and pattern of manufacturing is changing. 3D printing has typically been used for prototyping, but now a DIY and bespoke ethos is set to take over, or at least participate in, the 3D printing process. Designs are becoming available in user-chosen iterations, and recent articles in The Guardian and Scientific American speak to the ever-widening circle of potential applications of 3D printing: printing “new objects from post-consumer recycled plastic” and printing viruses whose DNA are tailor-coded to specifically target individual cancer patient’s out-of-control cells, respectively.

What McLuhan called the detachment from values and assumptions about technology that can be found in the current level of conversation about 3D printing will frame many manufacturing and artistic conversations for some time to come.

Is this trend set to be some new kind of Modernism – an enlightened age ostensibly for the masses but set out of common reach by its heady and hyper-educated progenitors? It would seem not. Better technology is available for less and less money, and more and more people are beginning to familiarize themselves with it.

For example, the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Public Library has a desktop-sized 3D printer available for use by patrons, some of whom have so far printed out chess pieces, small sculptures and picnic cutlery. Moore’s law, which states that the power of microchips increases as their cost decreases, will apply to ALM technology, too. It is not hard to imagine in the age of digital democracy that people will eventually begin to produce free designs and DIY kits for workaday end-users to freely retrieve from the intertubes.

In the middle of this shift in larger processes are the artists, those who – as they have always done – appropriate and re-purpose technology for personal vision. Dutch designer Lawrence Beckx, for example, has transitioned his passion for pattern and Fibonacci sequences from his Blake-like paintings into 3D-printed masks.

He says that his ”fascination [with] naturally-created aesthetics led [him] to discover complex patterns of ‘divine’ proportion, called the ‘golden ratio of phi.'” The printed masks, which employ Beckx’s own technique of “using a puzzling weave of shapes,” are fluid, elegant and seem to be made of frozen air. They also seem to employ his desire in his art to “[correlate] to the mind’s multi-layered perceptions in relation to self and truth.”

The larger art world has been affected by 3D printing, as well. A 3D replica of Van Gogh’s sunflowers has been printed by artists Rob and Nick Carter, and architects Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger have 3D printed an entire 16-square-meter room called “Digital Grotesque.” The Smithsonian even created a 3D printed portrait of Barack Obama last year.

McLuhan went on to say in his text that “it [is] not the machine, but what one [does] with the machine… that [is] its meaning or message.” If that is the case with 3D printing, then the message is simple, solid and straightforward.

Find more mind-painting technology put to good use in our art category.

Written by:
Mar 13, 2015

tags: 3d printing, aesthetics, art, barack obama, benjamin dillenburger, Carnegie Public Library, digital grotesque, disruption, divine proportion, diy, dutch designer, fibonacci, fibonacci sequence, Lawrence Beckx, marshall mcluhan, medium is the message, message, michael hansmeyer, modernism, moore's law, purpose, sculpture, smithsonian, sunflowers, understanding media, van gogh