Art and the Digital Fabrication Turn

My 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.


[1] See Bridle 2011, “The New Aesthetic”

[2] See Forlano, “Digital Fabrication and Hybrid Materialities”

[3] Berry et. Al, “New Aesthetics New Anxieties”

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

"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."

CCi 2011 Conference Takeaways

Once again, the biannual conference of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCi) was a winner. The event took place in Sydney and was hosted by the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW. This was my fourth CCi conference and the one I have enjoyed the most. The point at which I am in my candidature, combined with excellent papers, stimulating emerging scholars workshops and enjoyable social activities all contributed to a great experience. My highlights included hearing Deb Verhoeven's 'Digital Production (research) methodologies', where she proposed that data sharing and interoperability become a research default standard and that we need to move to dynamic publishing where our publications respond to shifting data. I also enjoyed Jean Burgess' 'Computational Turn', where she urged us to think about computation as a core cultural dynamic, and echoed Richard Rogers' call to action to use the internet to diagnose social change as opposed to studying how people use the internet. Jason Potts' 'Innovation Commons' was also very interesting, and involved the proposition that there are two commons - the resource and information commons, where the latter involves knowledge about opportunities and market conditions. The session that explored the CCi narrative was also great, where Elspeth Proben and Kim Anderson delivered enlightening responses to questions about the future of the centre.

On a broader note, I feel very privileged to be part of the research culture that has been cultivated by the centre. Having the opportunity to be exposed to the work of media, communications and cultural studies scholars from other Australian universities as well as visiting international scholars is really awesome, and has been a key professional development outcome of my PhD candidature.

Seven Resolutions for 2009 - Geert Lovink

1. Radical makeover of Indymedia into an irresistible network of networks, aimed to link local initiatives, worldwide, that aim to bring down corporate capitalism. In order to do this Indymedia needs to go beyond the (alternative) news paradigm. This is the time to do it. If not now, when? The debate should be about the possible adaptation, or perhaps transcendence (think negative dialectics) of the social networking approach. Is it enough if we all start to twitter? Perhaps not. A lot of the online conversations at the moment circle around these topics. There is a real momentum building up here, and that's exciting. 2. Renaissance of theory, radical texts that appeal to young people and help them to dream again, aimed to develop critical concepts,cool memes and audio-visual whispers that can feed the collective imagination with new, powerful ideas that are capable to move people into action. Theory, in this context, means speculative philosophies, not academic writing or hermetic bible texts, aimed to exclude outsiders and those with the wrong belief system. Overcoming political correctness in the way that beats populism would be the way to go.

3. Dismantling the academic exclusion machine. With this I mean the hilarious peer review dramas that we see around us everywhere, aimed to reproduce the old boys networks, excluding different voices, discourses and networked research practices. We need to have the civil courage to say no to these suppressive and utterly wrong bureaucratic procedures that, in the end, result in the elimination of quality, creativity and criticism (and, ironically, of innovation, too). In the same way we need to unleash a social movement of those who dare to say no to all these silly copyright contracts that we're forced to sign. We should stop signing away our 'intellectual property' and begin to radicalize and help democratize and popularize the creative commons and floss movements.

4. Overcoming media genres and expertise prisons in order to productively connect our knowledge and experience. With this I do not mean diplomatic gestures to open up token channels for interdisciplinary dialogue. Any formal attempt to bring together people from different backgrounds is bound to fail. What might be a solution is to go for hybrid-pervert situations in order to investigate the absurd edges of the knowledge universe. Again, any model that somehow wants to move towards a synthesis (or convergence) is doomed to be irrelevant and will only be instrumentalized in institutional restructurings in which the creative-subversive elements are the ones that will be excluded.

5. Squatting the overlooked ruins of the 2009 crisis. There is an enormous economic infrastructure that is being abandoned at the moment, ripe to be socialized. The problem, however, is that we do not really 'see' it, in the same way as in the 1970s and 80s many did not see the subversive potential of squatting warehouses, factories and old housing stock. Luckily this is merely a matter of start wearing the right pair of glasses. Put them on and you discover an abundance of abandoned resources, ready to be re-used.

6. Global crackdown of the corporate consultancy class. We have to get a better understanding of the dubious role that the Ernst & Young/PricewaterhouseCooper etc. consultants are playing, from downsizing firms, coaching NGOs and global civil society professionals, privatizing public infrastructure, to running entire education sectors. Not only are they experts in cooking the books (see the dotcom crash). Their role as (invisible) advisers, speech writers and PR managers needs some serious investigative journalism a la Naomi Klein.

7. Opening channels for collective imagination. It's not enough to say that another world is possible (we know that). Radical reform plans are available-and are being implemented as we speak-by the bankrupt neo-liberal elites, in a desperate attempt to somehow make it to 2010 or 2011, when the recession will be over and old policies can be continued again. It's not enough to be satisfied with the promise of a green GM car, made in the USA. We can think, and build, so much more. For this to happen, the corporate elites need to be dispossessed of their power. Calling for 'change' comes with consequences: dethronement. Sorry, you fu*ked up badly. It's time to step down and move on. Exit.


Geert Lovink (Netherlands) is a Dutch-Australian media theorist, author of Zero Comments, and director of the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, where he also teaches at the new media masters program of Mediastudies/University of Amsterdam.