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Extrusion Riff

Notes from Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital (Museum of Art and Design)
Inside 3D Printing (New York Javits Center)  —

I can extrude anything.
I can make anything out of anything.
I can make products out of my images.
A duvet out of a photo of my dog.
And why not?

Last year I wandered excitedly through a show at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, Out of Hand:  Materializing the Postdigital  (Oct 16, 2013 to June 1, 2013). From the website: “Out of Hand will be the first major museum exhibition to examine this interdisciplinary trend” {i.e., digital fabrication – JS}  “through the pioneering works of more than 80 international artists, architects, and designers, including Ron Arad, Barry X Ball, Zaha Hadid, Stephen Jones, Anish Kapoor, Allan McCollum, Marc Newson, and Roxy Paine.”

I stood  in front of Jan Halbraken’s “Chairgenics”  imagining what I would say in response to a series of questions the artist asks on his wall label:

Halbraken: “What if we apply the science of genetic engineering to an inanimate object?”

Janet: Fantastic! I start to think about the wavy line between animate and inanimate, especially in cultures radically different from our own where spirits are presences. I’ve never been persuaded that the line is hard and fast. I love the line, “A poet speaks for things that cannot speak” (by Paul Valery, I think). I’m going to turn it around: Things that cannot speak may be using a language we do not yet know.

Halbraken: “By cross breeding individual chairs with desirable traits do we eventually end up with the ultimate chair? Can there even be a perfect chair, given our always-changing demands as users?”

Janet: This artist of new technology is calling up an ancient idea, Plato’s Forms, that universal chair we will never be able to sit on but from which all other chairs take their substance. There’s also a whiff of eugenics: discard the chairs that have taken their lumps.

The artist’s own answer is Chairgenics, made out of polyamide, resin, and polyurethane foam coming together as the catalogue says, via ‘digital modeling, 3D printing, laser sintering, and sterolithograpy.’ Chairgenics is credited  as well to Uformia and Mathieu Sanchez. The artifacts of new technologies are composed from so many elements that their virtually alchemical realizations require collaboration. A room of one’s own may become a thing of the past  (not mine, I add – but then again I’m a product of the twentieth century).



Laura Alvarado and Vivian Meller’s Portrait me is described in the catalogue as using makeup and commonplace objects — such as a bathrobe for a royal garment and paper for hair. After taking photographs of the costumed sitters, they digitally capture their likenesses with a hand-held 3D scanner. This imparts a sketch-like appearance to the 3D-printed relief portraits, which are then mounted, like cameos, on an acrylic backing. The process is complete after the sitters are photographed in everyday dress wearing their cameo portraits.”

Whoa! So many processes to get people to transform “into characters from earlier periods or different subcultures.”  I think of Halloween, of Robert Jay Lifton’s 1995 book,The Protean Self; it isn’t only Cindy Sherman who can dress up successfully and turn herself into a self-directed Other or, as Lifton might say of our ever-mutating modern persona, an Other-directed Self. With this new technology we can dress, undress, take in, take off, wear our selves, never wearing out our possible selves. I don’t believe that this work is an emperor’s new clothes; rather it’s a highly sophisticated form of play. But to what purpose? The obvious answer is art: something to think about.


This piece, Envy, by Barry Ball suggests antique permanence combining with the possibility of melting, like a Dali watch. It’s made of Honeycomb Calcite, Macedonian marble, stainless steel, wood, acrylic lacqueur, steel, nylon and plastic, these materials in dialogue with time past, present, and future. Ball writes:  “There is a long history of artists making works after their forebears. Although I employ an advanced technological armamentarium, I am also working in that ancient tradition, harkening to a time centuries before the Modernist revolution, searching for a way to make something equally revolutionary. New in my art is the utilization of 3D digital scans of specific existing historical sculpture as my point of origin. . . . Therefore, I set myself the task of making new masterpieces . . . that are ‘more perfect.’

A dialogue is going on in this room and in my mind, the genetically coded chairs saying that the erosions of usage make the notion of a perfect chair untenable. Is it only usage that displaces perfection? I think not: these objects, this discourse, are different ways of being in the world. The world of the chairs assumes constant change; Ball’s idea of the ‘more perfect’ work speaks (as much as he may not want it to) to a static past where new things hope to become universal.

This dialogue includes a new idea of perfection made possible by 3D extrusion through which one can render entirely exact replicas of anything. Which brings me to my visit to NYC’s Javits Convention Center some months later, the art show stimulating my interest in a trade show, Inside 3D Printing.

I am no longer in the refined precincts of a museum where the unique is celebrated; instead I am being asked to place an order. The friend with whom I’m seeing the show calls me over to a display table and points to what appears to be art glass, a fluted vase with swirls of translucent green and yellow.

‘Food!’ my friend exclaims. ‘It’s edible.” I look to my side and see what looks like a very large microwave oven, labelled “CHEF.”


Something’s cooking in its pulsing insides. We wait — the salesman opens the door, slides out what look like cookies and passes them around on a tray, all of us gathered around, eager to taste the future. I take a bite — and it’s SUGAR! Molded sugar. That’s all it is.  This isn’t food. This isn’t the future. This is a scam, its connection to nourishment more tenuous than those cunning sushi replicas in the windows of Japanese restaurants.

But then I come across the 3D extruded car. And it is a wonder to behold. One of my first thoughts: “Poor Gaudi – he  could have finished the Sagrada Familia in a matter of weeks.



Sadly, the inside is undone. The metaphor is obvious — unlike Gaudi’s church, it’s the surface that counts.


The vase on the top of this 3D printer is being reproduced in multiples, an action that I was able to catch here in a moment of twinning, extruding itself from the base up toward the perfection of an endlessly doubled and redoubled artifact.


There’s something about this image that fascinates me — the womb, the emergence, the moment of building up, toward if not perfection of the spirit, then perfection of the artifact(s).

I think of an article I read contradicting conventional advice of how to survive in an earthquake. It says not to dive under anything — you’ll get crushed; not to stand in a doorway — it can fall in on you. Instead it advises us ‘to huddle in the void made by objects.” In other words, the in-between spaces will save us.

But what if we are making in-between spaces extinct? What does that void mean in this new world where objects are being replicated at so fast a rate that they soon will threaten to choke us, and then there’ll be no more space left between them and us? Are objects speaking to us in that unknown language: “Stop! We need more time to be ourselves.”

Questions about art hover between these two shows, especially when one is labeled art and the other product. What lies in the void between these shows? Is it narrowing too? No longer “mechanical,” Walter Benjamin’s venerated title might well read, “The Work of Art in the Age of Endless Reproduction”  Listen to the alarm go off, and don’t duck under the table.


All photographs by Janet Sternburg www.janetsternburg.com



  1. Im going to “huddle in the void made by objects” so the “inbetween spaces” can save me.

  2. The issue of the “perfect chair” is one I’ve been confronting in several forms lately. I’ve started working with a yoga teacher who offers some exercises for students sitting in chairs. Unfortunately, all the chairs are standard-issue folding chairs that need to be customized for each sitter: for me, by the addition of two “cushions” to the seat so that my thighs can come straight out from my hips without rising at the knees. Other students, shorter in stature, using the same folding chairs, need foam blocks under their feet. My life partner, Tim, 6″4″, is uncomfortable sitting in every chair in our apartment unless one or two cushions are added to raise the sitting area.
    Just as none of us has a “standard-issue” body, none of us has a standard-issue mind. The customizing of objects (like chairs) and education (to make maximum use of various kinds of intelligence and personality styles) can’t come to our culture soon enough!

  3. I enjoyed this piece, Janet. “the erosions of usage make the notion of a perfect chair untenable.” There are so many variations of usage contemplated or stated in these artifacts of technical wizardry. A basic change is the one our electrons perform–never still, attracted to empty valences, the present as empty as a passing minute.

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