Art and the Digital Fabrication Turn

Catalogue essay commissioned by Fab Lab NI as part of the Future Artist-Makers exhibition and residency program.

In 2011, artist collective fffffat released their Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of adapters for interoperability between 10 proprietary construction toys: Lego®, Duplo®, Fischertechnik®, Gears! Gears! Gears!®, K’Nex®, Krinkles®, Bristle Blocks®, Lincoln Logs®, Tinkertoys®, Zome®, ZomeTool® and Zoob®. The adapters were 3D printed and the designs were offered for free under a creative commons license. The project went beyond a critique of closed systems, offering a do-it-yourself alternative: a hack (and a 3D printed hack at that). The timing of this project coincided with the emergence of one of the first consumer level 3D printers — Makerbot’s Thing-O-Matic — so it rode the wave of early accounts of the promises of such technologies. The Free Universal Construction Kit also helped push and publicise the legal boundaries of digital fabrication for personal use; and spoke to the zeitgeist by inviting participation in the project through designing new adapters for the Kit.

Five years later, digital fabrication continues to promise a lot. Viewers of the Grand Designs TV program dream of bespoke houses precision cut on site by a CNC router. Visitors to the Barcelona Fab Lab imagine a world where they place their coffee grounds and orange peels into a 3D printer to create a cup, which they can drink their coffee from. These scenarios work well as imagined futures (of how this technology might change our lives), but what impact will it really have? And, what are its far-reaching implications?

The Future Artist-Makers program and exhibition provides us with a timely investigation of these themes. More specifically, it illustrates how artistic interventions can help expose the social, environmental, technological, economic entanglements of digital fabrication processes. Commissioned artists and participants have pulled at different threads to expose the assemblages of the digital fabrication turn. Their work offers provocations about the processes, materials, and communities forming around these technologies. The program also helps demystify the artistic experience of digital fabrication. The perception of magic transformation — an alacazam process of bits turning into atoms — is debunked through practice. It is like many other stop-start-try-again material processes. Machines break, materials break, processes need to be revised. But as the illusion of ease is eroded, the affordances of additive and subtractive processes may be revealed, and critical insights may be gleaned.

During this moment, it is helpful to view the digitally fabricated work of the exhibiting artists through the lens of maker culture. Maker culture describes the resurgence of a DIY ethics of production and consumption (so common up until a couple of generations ago) within the contemporary context of the networked society. It celebrates the social aspects of making: sharing, adapting, modding, remixing, and collaborating. Artworks emerging from spaces such as Fab Labs, at this time, are marinated in this social context. However, rhetoric espousing the virtues of maker culture often fails to admit the privileging of certain people and practices.

Considering the artists’ work as part of maker culture is not my attempt to conflate artists and makers. These identities are personal and professional and should be left up to the individual. But the digital fabrication turn is creating a new space for cross-disciplinary activity, as technologies once deemed industrial are used for bespoke purposes by anyone with access and agency. Creative works that use this technology are also riding the coat tails of the intriguing ‘new aesthetic’[1] where the visual vernacular of digital technology increasingly appears in the physical world.[2] The term new aesthetic arose from a design context, but “disregards established divides of creative industries, art practice and theory.”[3] The fabbing land grab is also in its early stages; meaning artistic experimentation is relatively unencumbered with the baggage of tradition or corporate enclosure.

Walter Benjamin’s influential piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) described how the technical reproduction of artworks had led to “the most profound change in their impact upon the public.”[4] He also wrote of how the processes themselves had captured a place of their own among the artistic processes. The mainstreaming of digital fabrication has opened the door for small-scale manufacturing, but the impact of this on art practice and theory remains to be seen. But the combination of new machines, new materials, and new networks are sure to make their mark.

Notes

[1] See Bridle 2011, “The New Aesthetic” http://shorttermmemoryloss.com/portfolio/project/the-new-aesthetic/

[2] See Forlano, “Digital Fabrication and Hybrid Materialities” http://culturedigitally.org/2013/12/digital-fabrication-and-hybrid-materialities/

[3] Berry et. Al, “New Aesthetics New Anxieties” http://v2.nl/files/2012/publishing/new-aesthetic-new-anxieties-pdf/view

[4] Cited in Celani 2007, “Digital fabrication in the arts: just another technical reproduction advance leap or a new artistic revolution?”

Makerspaces and urban ideology: the institutional shaping of Fab Labs in China and Northern Ireland | new journal article

Abstract from my new article due to be published in June in the Journal of Peer Production .. co-authored with Xin Gu.

Makerspaces—specifically those with a focus on digital fabrication and physical computing—are emerging as symbols of social and economic change in many cultures. Much of the empirical evidence that provides details of this phenomenon has been gathered in neo-liberal market economies in Europe and North America. Existing findings have helped situate makerspaces as sites that emphasise ‘commons based peer production’ underscored by non-proprietary ‘gift economies’ (see Gershenfeld 2005, Anderson 2012, Troxler 2013, Kostakis et. al 2015). These narratives have been expanded by findings that reveal how participation is shaped—and often impeded—by the communities, platforms, and policies surrounding makerspaces (see Alper 2013, Toupin 2014, Moilanen et al 2015, Shea 2016). This paper contributes to the literature through an analysis of the institutional arrangements of Fab Labs in China and Northern Ireland. It argues that processes of institutionalisation within these makerspaces are shaped by the specific urban ideologies they are bound to. Fab Labs in Belfast and Derry (Northern Ireland) are deployed as facilitators and enablers of unification processes in a post-conflict society, while Fab Labs in Shenzhen (China) have been manipulated for a specific post-industrial agenda. Institutionalised makerspaces, shaped by these different realities, challenge existing narratives of maker cultures in several ways: first, the development of makerspaces cannot be divorced from top down processes of nation building, as a range of strategic public policy agencies are involved despite low public participation rates; second, makerspaces are a reflection of local values rather than of the ‘commons based peer production’ paradigm of open source culture; and third, commercial corporations are investing in makerspaces to align with public policy paradigms despite uncertain economic returns. The accounts detailed in this paper further expand dialogue towards a more critical and nuanced analysis of makerspaces and global open source cultures.

Journal of Peer Production, issue 12 (forthcoming, June 2018)

"Information Geographies" and the Internet for Development

In this excellent presentation, OII research fellow Mark Graham discusses the importance of understanding who produces and reproduces the information that populates digital communications networks. Through an exploration of "information geographies", Graham concludes that "rather than democratising platforms of knowledge sharing, the Internet seems to be enabling a digital division of labour in which the visibility, voice and power of the North is reinforced rather than diminished."