Eventually, all tools find their way into the hands of great artists. And sometimes the medium is the message—sometimes the medium changes things. Doesn't it? Just as you can wonder what Che Guevara would make of Twitter in 2011 Egypt, you could ask what Walter Benjamin—author of the 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"—would make of a desktop 3-D printer.
"Art is not traditionally an open-source practice," an artist awkwardly announced to the New York Times during a recent open house for a 3-D printer called the MakerBot at an art gallery in Brooklyn. Meaning: The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction—whether it's 2-D or 3-D—is the same as ever, dummies. It's all about originality and selling. And yet the history of art is full of little revolutions that meld science fiction, politics, and aesthetics over the burner of new technologies. How will the 3-D printer enter the world of art? It can rapidly spit out anything that can be designed in a 3-D computer file—up to about eight inches to a side, at this point.
"We're all pretendgineers in here," says Matt Westervelt, standing in a subterranean warren of rooms that is lit like the lizard room in a zoo. "I'm surrounded by robots."
The warren of rooms is Metrix Create:Space, a hacker den on Capitol Hill that opened a year and a half ago. It has a small army of 3-D printers, including two MakerBots and a Clonedel, available for by-the-minute rental. Some of the printers make objects in plastic, some using powder. Westervelt sees the powder printer more as a maker of fine art objects because you can cast and glaze and fire them, too, while the plastic printer makes objects that "look like something you could just go out and get."
To make prettier, traditionally artier objects, that's certainly true. But Westervelt also gets involved in unconventional art. He helped create the from-scratch robot that artists SuttonBeresCuller installed at the Henry Art Gallery last year, a remotely controlled camera that allowed you to whiz across art objects in a distant room in the museum, zoom in and take a picture, and create an entirely new collection from the details.
As soon as the MakerBot—designed by Bre Pettis, a former middle-school art teacher in Seattle—arrived at Metrix Create:Space, Westervelt and the other pretendgineers used it to make the parts for another 3-D printer, the Clonedel. (I wish for three more wishes, genie!) The MakerBot sells for $1,300, and makes smaller "prints" than the Clonedel, but it is very cute. A box with windowed sides, the MakerBot looks like a miniature movie-popcorn dispenser. You can buy all the nonmetal and nonelectronic parts for the Clonedel for $50 from Westervelt; the total price will be about $500, a deal compared to the MakerBot.
These "prints" are scattered on tabletops at Metrix Create:Space. One is a green bunny sliced open. On the inside, the bunny is a web of plastic skeins in a loose but absolutely perfect 3-D grid. Its creator, controlling the horizontal and vertical axes, decided to make it light, not dense. The bunny looks otherworldly, like a drawing in space. "It's obvious that this is a 3-D printed bunny," Westervelt says, with the particular pre-nostalgia of an early adopter. (He printed me a bracelet. The bracelet did not work.) "Imagine in five years when you print a 3-D printed bunny, it'll be perfect! Then, when you pick up something from now, you'll know it was from now."
All hackers know each other. Seattle's academic equivalent to Westervelt's den is University of Washington mechanical engineering professor Mark Ganter's magical lab. Ganter is himself an artist on the side, with a bachelor's degree in studio art, and he agrees with Westervelt that the powder printers are potentially more world-changing than the plastic bots. "We've printed in sugar and salt, dirt and rice flour," Ganter says. "You could send these machines to the developing world. We've printed in wood. We announce something new every third day. It's what we do."
I call the mechatronics department at UW's Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) and ask James Coupe what other cool new toys artists are working with, and he hesitates—the last thing artists want to be known for is their technology. They want, rightfully, to be known for the way they interlock ideas and materials. But Coupe offered a few: Microsoft's Kinect, the camera that maps your body in three dimensions and projects an avatar of you in real time (used most often for video games, but "what immediately happened is it's being hacked"); the software program Predator, a software that can track moving objects and bodies and, if automated using demographic information, can identify people according to traits ranging from age to "trustworthiness," Coupe says. He recently installed a piece at a UK museum that consisted of cameras that tracked visitors as they walked through the galleries, then cast them as demographically determined couples in a film using their captured images and based on Harold Pinter's play The Lover.
Coupe's work is often about surveillance. "The technology," he says, "is catching up with the fiction."
Inside the DXARTS warehouse in Fremont, there is a bright-eyed woman sitting behind a desk wearing a smart skirt with a shiny belt and black boots, her hair pulled back, librarian-style. The lights are low, and her skull is dotted with electrodes. She is trying to perform an artwork using only her thoughts.
Her medium is a brain-computer interface that an average person can buy for $500. These machines were originally developed in the 1970s to offer neuroprosthetics to people who'd lost control of physical faculties. You train the computer so that it performs certain responses to certain brain movements. Your brain might give the computer a signal that tells it to project a series of words on a large projection screen, like a novel being typed, as in the case of this artwork. Or a simulated voice, based on the artist's voice, might start to speak. But there is no direct path to becoming a virtuoso at brain performance. This artist, Meghan Trainor, says she's not even especially good at controlling her own thoughts. An unrelated word she speaks while she's connected to the interface will unconsciously trigger a thought she's been having a hard time replicating consciously. Sometimes she'll think the "right" thought but a "wrong" response will happen, one that's supposed to be tied to a different thought.
Trainor's brain performance piece, her final project for her PhD at DXARTS, is unfinished yet—but it also seems destined to retain an unfinished, messy, essentially un-closed-system quality. The work centrally involves the text of William Burroughs's book The Soft Machine, in which a time traveler goes back to free Mayan slaves who labor because their minds are being controlled by priests. Trainor, in this performance, is not the slave, or the priest, or the time traveler, or the storyteller, but some other force, as yet undeveloped and undetermined. Who knows what dreams she will conjure up from the depths in her silent seat with her headgear on?