In today’s #FridayDHSpotlight, we welcome Pomona College Senior in Art History, Ariane Lo, who reflects on her research on the practicalities and ethical implications of 3D printing.
It is past midnight in the High-Performance Computing Laboratory at Pomona College and for the sixth time, I recalibrate an uncooperative 3D printer. For the past semester, I have been trying to critically assess the use of new technologies, like 3D printing and Virtual Reality, in Art History. Professor Patricia Blessing very kindly supported and supervised my foray into this intersection of art and technology in the form of an independent study; she met with me weekly to help make sense of every new confusing knot I would reach in my research. By now, I should have printed 15% of a plastic version of the statue of King Uthal from the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Instead, the failed attempts pile up in a little blue mound. Artist Morehshin Allahyari created this 3D model of King Uthal as part of her Material Speculation: Isis (2015-2016) series, along with 11 other artefacts destroyed by ISIS. Her haunting transparent statuette contains files stored on a USB thumb drive, like a time-capsule of sorts. The transparent filament in our Lab demonstrably disliked slight changes in temperature, so our King Uthals are in festive blue and yellow.
I first encountered Allahyari’s work in April 2019, at an exhibition on utopias in a refurbished biscuit factory in Nantes, France. I was stuck by the strange “3D Additivist Manifesto” she wrote with Daniel Rourke – it reads: “We declare that the world’s splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of crap, kipple and detritus.” The Material Speculation project falls under clause 5 sub-clause ii which calls for “technical methods for the copying and dissemination of artworks.” The premises laid by this seemingly total embrace of 3D printing (as the rest of the confusing manifesto carries some somber undertones) unsettled me and stayed in my mind over the summer. I work with 3D printing and Virtual Reality at the High-Performance Computing Lab on campus, so I know first-hand the excitement of printing and transforming an idea into a material object. The HPC lab (now baptized InTheKnow Lab) provides a unique environment for students to explore parallel computing (which we define as anything requiring more than one computing unit) and thoughtfully examine the different tools they encounter. Asya Shklyar, the director of HPC, guided my groggy self on Wednesday mornings to troubleshoot my project and keep me abreast of the latest devices employed in art institutions. Two HPC members, Jan Charatan and Jude Iredell, also dedicated their time to help me.
I appreciate the use of new technologies to document artefacts, from Professor Andrew Tallon’s invaluable scans of the Notre-Dame Cathedral to the 360-degree tours on the website 3D Mekanlar (which I used to write a paper on mosques in the Ottoman Empire). Yet, in those instances, technological innovations simply serve as sophisticated aids for documentation and a means to complement pre-existing tools, like photography. Cultural institutions, like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, frequently upload 3D object files onto online repositories like MyMiniFactory, Thingiverse or Sketchfab. Passionate individuals like Geoffrey Marchal or Cosmo Wenman also made a great number of scans available on the Internet, and their followers actively print these models and share their results on forums. But what happens when we print these 3D models for an art historical purpose? Do they bring forth a new and enlightening perspective on their originals?
When I returned to the lab the next morning, a sepulchral figure had emerged from the printing plate. Past the initial elation of successfully participating in part of Allahyari’s artistic project, I considered the practical applications of my print and struggled to see how they could enrich my understanding the original artefact. Museum websites often promote the possibility for visitors to touch 3D printed replicas of artworks, but the blue plastic in my hand just felt like plastic. Further, it was only a fraction of the size of the actual statue in Iraq. My miniature King Uthal sadly did not shed light on some unprecedented aspect of the destroyed original, but it did confirm my decision to narrow my research to two fields: haptics (touch) and scale. In other words, I was having a hard time determining how 3D printing could inform us about the touch, texture, and size of historical artefacts. For the sake of time-management and after experiencing a dozen dizzying Virtual Reality museum tours, I concentrated my efforts on 3D printing and set the parameters of my project to a more basic and affordable printer, like the lab’s trusty Snapmaker. We did not own a million dollar printer that could print a mammoth tusk in one-go, nor was it efficient for me to slice a cathedral or an Assyrian Lamassu into multiple sections and spend a whole year printing them: so how could a college student use 3D printing in Art History?
While I agonized over this problem, I read about scales and haptics. In The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), Emanuele Lugli recounts the introduction of universal standards of measure in medieval Italy (I enjoyed this book greatly). Our modern-day conception of measures finds its origin in a deeply political process of centralizing state power and measurement systems. Prior to the establishment of the meter, people did not measure but approximated the size of things – this speaks to conceptions of universality, fairness and accuracy in the West. Does 3D printing enforce or slowly corrupt our understanding of the size of art objects? I am still mulling over this book, but there are some potential, and perhaps interestingly misleading, connections to be drawn between pre-metric Italy and the “democratisation” of artworks through 3D printing. Regarding haptics, David Parisi’s Archaeologies of Touch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2018) served as my introduction to the field and its long unfulfilled promise of touch in virtual reality. Museums promoting 3D printing also deal with imperfect forms of haptics, as they privilege the form rather than the feel of objects. In the British Museum, some stands invite visitors to touch “less valuable” artefacts, like a garum (fish sauce) saucer or a shard of ceramic inscribed with imitation-Arabic. While I work on assembling a mysterious haptics package from the lab next semester, I will be contacting researchers at Stanford University (who participated in a Scripps College exhibition) and the Interact lab at the University of Sussex about their work in haptics.
One article, entitled “A Conversation on Digital Art History” and published in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, was critical in distinguishing the diverging opinions in my mind. I found myself swayed by either side of a heated email exchange between two art historians, Johanna Drucker and Claire Bishop, who simply could not agree on the value and potential of digital humanities (DH) in their field. Although their discussion concerned DH in general, Bishop echoed my doubts on 3D printing being a “[tool] for the possibility of analyzing something at some specified point in the future – rather than exciting/polemical interpretive proposals in their own right” (325) but I found myself incensed by Drucker’s point: “You can resist digital work by saying that it has no intellectual excitement, or you can do the work of understanding its intellectual contribution” (326). I decided to find a more suited artefact to 3D print and try my hand at 3D scanning. For the former, I settled on printing a full set of Lewis Chessmen, a group of 12th century walrus ivory chess pieces found in Scotland. Conscious of the capabilities of our lab printer, I wanted to study something beyond the feel of an object’s surface. The haptic dimension of these chess pieces transcends the feel of ivory to include the way they fit in a player’s hand – their 3D replicas would allow someone to revive the ludic element of these artefacts now on display in museums. Further, we would be able to match their dimensions to those made public in museum collections online. So far, the rooks Jan and I have printed look promising. We used a special type of filament which we then smoothed with alcohol mist in the Polysher machine at the lab.
My second ambition is to scan and print an art object from a museum on campus and draw a more educated comparison of the two. Mr. Kirk Delman at the Williamson Gallery was incredibly patient in showing me the museum reserve and the different objects available for scanning. As my attempt to 3D scan using the Occipital Structure Sensor went awry (I see people scanning human faces in detail so I will try again with better lighting), I will move on to acquire some photogrammetry (photographs and adjusted measurements) skills with the help of another HPC team member, Ino Tsichrintzi.
My work this semester served as a preliminary hands-on exploration of the difficulties in apprehending scale and haptics in the 3D printing of artefacts. While perhaps unglamorous and at times frustratingly slow, my research helped me frame key considerations that I will develop as these technologies grow increasingly sophisticated. Learning about the current technical difficulties in reproducing the touch and size of objects in a college lab, and my apprehension in valuing my first plastic King Uthal, led me to reevaluate my ways of understanding art. After a restful winter break, I anticipate another brain-scrapping dive into problems of originality – after I finish printing my chess set and learn to properly operate the 3D scanner.
Born and raised in Singapore, Ariane is Franco-Taiwanese and studies Art History and Politics at Pomona College. She joined the High-Performance Computing Lab in 2018, and has since led team projects exploring the intersections of art and technology