Art, Printed: Computers are redefining fine art. But is that a good thing?

A 3D printer at MCAD creating an artist's design // Photo by Harrison Barden

A 3D printer at MCAD creating an artist’s design // Photo by Harrison Barden

Watching a lumbering 3D printer slowly churn back and forth, painstakingly adding minute layer to minute layer of material to an ambiguous shape is far from exciting. It can take hours—sometimes days—until a final product reveals itself. But for as cumbersome as 3D printing can be, the technology has had a profound impact on the art world in recent years, affecting everything from how art is created to how it’s shared and consumed.

If the idea of using computer software and a printer seems antithetical to fine art, it’s worth talking to third-year Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) student Zachery North. He’s an advocate for using 3D printing to make art and sees many reasons to embrace the technology. “I can much more easily correct or change things that don’t work. My work is very iterative and 3D helps me keep building on what I’ve done,” he says. “A lot of my work is experiential. I want people to be able to experience it and touch it. It’s not the traditional fine art gallery where people aren’t allowed to touch the art.”

Some artists, fine art enthusiasts, and curators might be concerned that developing art via coding and pre-written algorithms is a poor substitute for more traditional artistic craftsmanship. But as more artists (and art school programs) work with 3D technology, concerns are lessening. “The art world in general is accepting of change, even if there is some grumbling,” says Brad Jirka, professor of fine arts at MCAD. “Some people worry that you lose the artist’s ‘hand’ in the artwork. But then they see exhibits where the 3D printing is used as a tool—an invisible component, often with analog tools—and the artist’s hand is there.” 

Brad Jirka explaining the process of 3D printing // Photo by Harrison Barden

Christopher Atkins, the curator of exhibitions and public programs at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, feels the art potential with 3D printing goes beyond just technology. “Think of 3D printers the same way you think of charcoal or clay,” he says. “It’s elemental. It’s a tool for artists to use, just as people use clay to form ceramics.”

3D printing only dates back to the 1980s and has strong roots in Minnesota thanks to Eden Prairie–based Stratasys. The printers have greatly improved in quality and precision over time, which has expanded the types of products they’re used to produce. At first the devices were considered industrial in nature and were developed with an aim to create less-expensive manufacturing processes and parts. Eventually a wide variety of industries took to using the technology, from medical device companies to gun enthusiasts developing online designs for guns to be printed at home to NASA installing a 3D printer on the International Space Station for the printing of tools. 

As technicians and scientists were looking into the mechanical possibilities of 3D printing, artists were taking note of the technology’s artistic potential. At MCAD, students began exploring the tool decades before they could execute the actual printing. “The digital part of 3D came to MCAD in the late 1980s; we had an Intro to Digital Imaging class and slipped 3D modeling into that class,” Jirka says. “The first actual 3D printer arrived in 2000.” 

The process of 3D printing art varies depending on the artist but usually includes web-based modeling tools and/or scanning equipment to capture designs. Once captured, the designs are programmed into 3D-printing software to create a printing template. From there, the artist selects the desired materials for and scale of the piece, and ushers it into the final stages of actually printing. 

Related: See the 3D printed art featured on the cover of The Growler’s January issue

Unlike the ease of using a conventional printer, there’s a somewhat steep learning curve to using 3D printers—especially to create. “Even handing off the 3D models to printing machines requires some technical understanding,” says Duluth artist Jonathan Thunder. “You can expect to learn along [with] the process.” 

Challenges aside, 3D printing and modeling has enabled artists to pursue ventures previously unattainable. David Bowen used a drone above Lake Superior to photograph the lake, capture undulations of waves, and carve them into acrylic columns using a CNC router, which is similar to a 3D printer but uses a wood carver. Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s exhibit “Stranger Visions” featured 3D renderings of individuals’ faces developed from DNA she’d extracted from things like hair, chewed gum, and cigarette butts collected on the street and in public spaces. 

Duluth artist Jonathan Thunder with a rough cut of one of his pieces for the “Manifest’o” exhibit // Photo courtesy Jonathan Thunder

Beyond pushing artistic boundaries, 3D printing can also be used to overcome more basic limitations. Files of 3D sculptures can be sent to exhibit locations and printed on-site. After the show, the piece can be destroyed or donated. For the visually impaired, copies of famous sculptures provide an opportunity to engage with a piece that would otherwise be off limits. 

There’s also an archival application to the technology. MCAD’s 3D shop director Don Myhre creates models of buildings scheduled for demolition so they can be kept for posterity. Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari used 3D printing to create scale models of historical art and monuments destroyed by ISIS. Even the Smithsonian is using the medium: the organization is scanning their entire collection to use for research, education, and, for select items, to allow the public to 3D print and study them at home.

At the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), curator and head of contemporary art Gabriel Ritter sees a world of possibility in 3D printing, and believes acceptance of the technology in art has largely arrived. “It’s an art form already accepted by collectors, especially those who like to have one foot in the future,” he says. “Museums are along for the ride, collectors are on board. It’s the embodiment of the future.”

Not every museum is embracing 3D art with as much aplomb as Mia or The M. Both the Walker Art Center and Weisman Art Museum declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a lack of experience with the medium.

As more artists experiment with 3D printing, more museums are paying attention to the medium // Photo by Harrison Barden

As more artists experiment with 3D printing, more museums are paying attention to the medium // Photo by Harrison Barden

More likely than not, though, the art form will eventually be accepted at museums as nothing out of the ordinary. According to Ritter, the art world is infinitely large enough to embrace tools traditional and new. “Artists will always use the tools available to them, and 3D printing is a tool,” he says. “It’s like when
synthetic paints became available. People didn’t stop using oil. It’s like digital music, or digital books. There will be people who prefer the older techniques. It’s important to understand that 3D printing will not make other things extinct.”

Ritter does have one concern about the new tool, though: the materials being used—namely, plastic. “What is the longevity of the materials used to print? The raw material varies from one printer to another. For a curator, that’s not the concern, as the curator focuses on form and ideas. But anyone involved in conservation sees it as a bigger issue. Will the sculptures brown, fade, melt?”

It’s a fair question, and one that will eventually have to be addressed, but right now artists are still in the
exploration phase of the technology. In Duluth, Thunder was commissioned by the Tweed Museum of Art for a multi-media installation featuring his animation work—as well as his first attempt at 3D printing. “They wanted to bring it a step forward and have me create sculptures from the animation, so we printed out the models used in the animation,” Thunder says. “To have something I’ve created on the computer become a thing I can hold in my hand is almost unbelievable. I’ll look for more opportunities to work with it in 2019.” 

The experience of putting together the exhibit, called “Manifest’o” and running through July 2019, left Thunder in awe. “My own experience in the process is that I was able to bring something from the digital to our world, the real world, something born into the world out of creation. 3D—any single thing you can think of, just hit a button and it comes to life. It blows my mind. And that we can take a technical thing for devices and turn it into fine art—it’s a beautiful thing.”