Paul Higham, ADA, 2003. Laser-sintered rapid prototyped in polycarbonate powder

Digital Sculpture: Ars Ex Machina

In the mid-19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes hailed the photographic, dual-image “stereograph,” a term he coined, as mankind’s greatest achievement because its three-dimensional illusion allowed “form henceforth divorced from matter.”1 Since that time, form has repeatedly asserted its independence from matter in myriad photographic and cinematic inventions. Today, however, the substance of the “stereo” is returned from the illusionistic, virtual world. In a truly transcendent moment, many sculptors are using new technologies (including some dubbed “stereolithography”) to realize forms created in computer environments.

Today’s stereolithography is an ontological breakthrough—until recently, the virtual world has remained separated from actual space by the computer monitor’s proscenium arch. Digital sculptors use virtual space as a creative locus but realize their works in physical space. These sculptors accomplish their pieces through 3D modeling software, rapid prototyping (RP), and other machines that are becoming standard equipment in engineering and industrial design laboratories. The RP machine is a three-dimensional “printer” that allows an object that exists only in the virtual realm to become physical. This ontological shift is profound, since these RP objects of resin, polyester, or other materials are crossovers from another plane of existence—they are paradoxes of a virtuality that, up until this point, has been a one-way looking glass.

RP allows new forms to be modeled in virtual environments, including intricate works such as Kenneth Snelson’s Atom I (2003) or Keith Brown’s Shoal (2003), which are reminiscent of the visually complex 17th-century ivories and contrefaitkugel that demonstrated their carvers’ virtuosity. These contemporary works are impossible to sculpt with the human hand and show the new sculptural possibilities brought by digital technology. In addition to new forms, RP may redefine the function and reception of sculpture in arts institutions. Digital sculptors work in a medium of repetition with, arguably, no original object and infinite reproducibility. In their raw states, RP sculptures seem to deny the sculpted material’s aura of authenticity (as posited by Walter Benjamin), especially as the electronic data used to make these works can be shared instantly across the globe and, theoretically, reproduced by anyone. These works suggest a “conceptual” primacy that resides in their digital coding. They may subvert the normal arts infrastructure, since they are not subject to shipping costs or customs duties, transcend international boundaries, and (in small-scale machines) cost only a few dollars worth of material.

Keith Brown, Geo, 2003. Laser-sintered rapid prototyped in polycarbonate powder.

International RP exhibitions are symptomatic of technological globalization and the sincere desire of technology-oriented arts organizations to share information, techniques, and ultimately, artworks. Groups such as Manchester-based Fine Art Sculptors and Technology-UK (Fast-uk), the U.S.-based Computers and Sculpture Forum (CSF), and the French Ars Mathématica have international scope and have been responsible for major RP exhibitions. Recent shows, including the “Intersculpt” biennials and the “International Rapid Prototyping Exhibition” (2003), exemplify RP’s transcendent aspects. More than just webcasting and videoconferencing, these exhibitions have been physically realized and presented in multiple and simultaneous yet independent venues. The “telemanufacturing” phenomenon allows disseminated electronic code to be realized in RP machines anywhere in the world.

“Intersculpt” started as a single-venue exhibition organized by Ars Mathématica in 1993. Since then, it has been developed through the cooperation of many curator/artists including Keith Brown, Dan Collins, Christian Lavigne, and Michael Rees. In the latest of these simultaneous biennial exhibitions, telemanufactured works were shared by artists located across the globe and realized by RP machines in 10 international venues as diverse as Auckland, Dakar, Hong Kong, Manchester, New Orleans, New York, and Paris. The recent “International Rapid Prototyping Exhibition,” curated by RP artists Mary Hale Visser and Robert Michael Smith, was originally shown at Southwestern University in Texas and has since been re-exhibited with sculptures newly printed at each venue, including New York Institute of Technology (NYIT); Pennsylvania State University; University of Houston; Yeditepe University, Istanbul; and Manchester Metropolitan University.

Kenneth Snelson, Atom I, 2003. Laser-sintered rapid prototyped in polycarbonate powder, 8 x 8 x 8 in.

Though born from and developed within the engineering discipline, RP was almost immediately recognized as an artistic tool as developers, including Pierre Bezier, made aesthetically pleasing sculpted forms with their new machines. Since this time, much “engineer art,” including physical expressions of mathematical formulas, complex polyhedrons, and imagery derived from ultrasound or other technologies, has been created through RP. While these works are sometimes intricate and visually compelling, they are usually trite systemic expressions symptomatic of RP used in engineering or medical imaging laboratories. Artists first started using these technologies in such “scientific” settings, and only recently have universities and colleges incorporated dedicated RP facilities into studio arts and design programs. These institutions include the Sarofim School of Fine Arts at Southwestern University; the Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling (PRISM) Laboratory at Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Art; Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD) at Manchester Metropolitan University; the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris; and the Fine Arts department at NYIT, which boasts more digital sculptors on its faculty than any other school.

The inclusion of RP in established programs indicates institutional recognition of this technology as a robust and expressive medium reflective not only of faculty interests but of student demands to learn and adopt the newest tools. NYIT and ASU among others now incorporate this training in graduate programs. Digital sculpture classes and programs connote a “maturity” for the technologies. Most of today’s digital sculptors were pioneers—first trained to sculpt with physical materials, they discovered virtual modeling, RP, and its freedoms (and limitations) later in their careers. These same sculptors now instruct protégés whose first modeling experiences may be realized through digital media—a primacy that will undoubtedly yield new concepts, attitudes, and forms.

Kimberly Voigt, Double Helix x2—Genesis Enigma, 2003. Laser-sintered rapid prototyped in polycarbonate powder, 8 x 8 x 16 in.

Today, modeling and animation software, including Maya, 3D Studio Max, Cinema 4D, and Rhino, are vast improvements over industrial CAD packages in terms of features, usability, and affordability. Some, such as Wings 3D are even available as shareware. However, in order to facilitate use for digital sculpture, to rescue RP from an engineering-based interface, and to enhance creative potential, artists have been working on new, intuitive interfaces. In conjunction with Chris Burnett and Donald Guarnieri, Michael Rees has developed open-source modeling software. Sculptural User Interface (SUI) is free to download and a simple-to-learn yet endlessly dynamic virtual tool.2 Works developed with such free or inexpensive software may be sent by e-mail or FTP to public service bureaus that will, for a fee, realize those files in RP machines.

While access is constantly improving, ownership of RP machines is presently quite exclusive. Limited to businesses, educational institutions, and a few individuals, even the least expensive RP machines cost approximately $20,000, require constant upkeep, and use proprietary materials. Some project, however, that these technologies will become less expensive and more accessible, perhaps as ubiquitous as the once exclusive color copier—before long, RP at Kinko’s and Sir Speedy may be a reality.

The challenge for digital sculpture artists, however, is to work with this new electronic medium without relying on it for content or presence. The virtual realm translated to the physical world, sculpture files traveling around the world, infinite dissemination and reproducibility, and properties of new materials are all compelling, but they do not automatically add up to quality artistic forms and concepts.

Robert Lazzarini, payphone, 2002. Anodized aluminum, stainless steel, Plexiglas, and silk-screened graphics, 108 x 84 x 56 in. Photo: Jeffrey Chong © Robert Lazzarini 2003.

The forms straight from RP machines may exhibit a Modernist truth to materials, expressions of the artist’s unadulterated concepts, or virtual “hands,” but they are usually rendered in unappealing resins or fibers. The off-white, egg-shell-like finish of the raw material lends itself to forms that evoke bones—for instance, Michael Rees’s “Spine” series (2001) or the subtle abstract reliefs of Michael Somoroff’s Tempus Formare (2003).3 Without suitable subjects, however, these matte white materials read as studies. Limited to sizes smaller than a cubic foot in the most affordable machines, the sizes and plaster textures of the raw works suggest maquettes. Moreover, the term “prototyping” indicates the transient: each RP object seems merely a model for later actualization.

Despite the revolutionary nature of RP, which allows for low cost and infinite reproduction, and dissemination, the most high-profile artists using these technologies have conformed to accepted practices that commodify the multiple—namely, the principle of creating limited editions and objects realized in unique finishes or materials. This limitation seems to be the cost of institutional participation, especially in an art world that forces commodification through scarcity and measures success through fiscal performance.

To date, institutionally successful works have been “transubstantiated,” as many artists have their forms painted or cast in bronze or other metals in order to make works that are “finished” and attractive. RP pieces become more acceptable when, through application of finish and fetish, they offer an alluring materiality. Despite the RP sculptor’s subversion of traditional media, materiality is re-established in singular or rare objects when they are finished in bronze, paint, or other substances or offered in limited editions. For instance, Michael Rees finished his recent Putto8 sculptures (2003) in metallic or automotive paints. The arguably best-known piece created from an RP process is Robert Lazzarini’s payphone (2002), featured at the 2002 Whitney Biennial. While Lazzarini uses RP to model his compound planar or wave distortions, his pieces are finished though painstaking material fabrication processes. He incorporates the same substances as in the original objects: thus, anodized aluminum, stainless steel, Plexiglas, and silk-screen for payphone; gilt porcelain and stainless steel for teacup (2003); and wood, paper, fabric, pigment, and other materials for table, notebook and pencil (2004).

Elona Van Gent, Rover, 2003. Laser-sintered rapid prototyped in polycarbonate powder, 9 x 9 x 4.5 in.

One solution allowing the execution of digital sculpture in traditional media is computer numerical control (CNC) milling. While these machines with the capability to carve wood, stone, glass, and other materials are becoming more common in industry, the Digital Stone Project in central New Jersey offers the world’s only comprehensive facility for digital sculptors. It is a newly formed not-for-profit organization that serves digital sculptors and promotes the development of new technologies. Robert Michael Smith expressed his biomorphic universal forms such as Amaranthe (2003) and Ephesiancybergin (2003) in marble at this facility. Through the CNC process, Smith was able to infuse his digitally generated work with marble’s substance and surface quality, including veins, impurities, and color modulations. Many RP artists experiment with scaling their forms and realizing them in different materials and processes. For instance, in addition to the marble and smaller RP resin versions, Smith brought Amaranthe to fruition through another CNC process, yielding a large form made from polyurethane-coated foam.

CNC milling is often used in conjunction with laser scanning to re-scale works. For instance, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s monumental Inverted Collar and Tie (1994) was realized from a scanned maquette. William Kreysler and Associates, a CNC pioneer, used the process not only to enlarge the form, but also to analyze the work’s structure and realize it with more appropriate and less expensive materials than originally planned.4

As the product of a new technology, RP sculpture today seems parallel to nascent photography in showing an unfolding potential. RP art will likely later seem much as we now perceive Niépce’s heliographs, Talbot’s prints, or Daguerre’s plates. In early examples, we recognize technology’s promise—ghostly images that will yield robust pigmentation; grainy calotypic multiples that anticipate gelatin-silver negatives; even stereoscopic prints that portend extraction of the “real” from the “virtual.”

Artists using digital sculpture technologies point the way to the sculptures’ potential. “Intersculpt” exhibitions show that the infrastructure for increased accessibility is already in place. Like photographers hand-tinting their work in the 19th century, artists who today transform materials in their RP works disclose capabilities they desire. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, these machines will enable incorporation of color, illusionistic material expression, moving parts, and even controlled application of different materials. Combined with nanotechnologies, these machines may be able to express different materials through “printing” molecular changes. RP artist Peter Voci has described today’s machines as primitive versions of Star Trek’s “replicators.” From our position of hindsight, we observe that it took photography nearly 150 years to shed its marginalization as a documentary tool and gain “complete” acceptance as a fine-arts medium. Though technologies have become adopted with ever-increasing expediency, it may be decades before RP sculpture (or whatever we will call it) loses its industrial character and becomes identified with the fine arts.

William V. Ganis is Assistant Professor of Art History at the New York Institute of Technology. His recent book is Andy Warhol’s Serial Photography.

1 Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” in Alan Trachtenberg, ed., Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Lette’s Island Books, 1980), p. 80.
2 SUI is available at <>.
3 Clear, translucent, and colored materials may be used in some machines.
4 A case study of this process is available at <>.