At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia: Part 2

LifeTrac Prototype II by Open Source Ecology (2009)

LifeTrac Prototype II by Open Source Ecology (2009)

In assuming that at-home 3D printing will upset and revolutionize the currently unsustainable corporate-driven marketplace, we are also assuming that those who use this technology will act counter to such forces. This is a big assumption. As we saw in Part 1, even well-known idealists like William Morris suffered from the dichotomy of market complicity.

An uncritical acceptance of capitalist models wrapped in revolutionary language is perhaps most pronounced in Chris Anderson’s “Atoms are the New Bits”. In it he describes his vision of an “age of democratized industry, (where) every garage is a potential micro-factory, every citizen a micro-entrepreneur.” Anderson is surprisingly transparent about the routes he suggests such citizen industrialists should take: outsourcing. As he says, “Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop” (Anderson 11). In outsourcing to China the actual implementation of this revolution falls prey to the same complicity to dubious labor and ecologic standards that centralized industry is responsible for. Individual manufacturing capacity thus necessitates individual responsibility for ethical action. Asking individual makers to take into account the ethical impact of their goods production may seem in some ways as difficult as it is to make multi-national corporations budge. The drive toward economic growth at any cost seems insatiable. But there are other more intractable limits to adopting an Industrial model. As Adrian Bowyer alludes to in his description of RepRap’s large-scale adoption: “Of course, any exponential growth must run up against resource limits….” (Bowyer 8).

Parametrized Lego Bricks on thingiverse.com by Wizard23 (2009)

Parametrized Lego Bricks on thingiverse.com by Wizard23 (2009)

In his shattering 2010 book Eaarth, Bill McKibben makes plain that we have thoroughly exhausted the limits of the systems that support our civilization and we must change. Not that we should change, but that we don’t have a choice anymore. As this next industrial revolution is in its infancy it must take this reality into account if it will be at all successful. According to McKibben this is no longer about utopian idealism or consumer revolutionaries, this is the sober reality. Interestingly, in McKibben’s view of our possible futures, the decentralization of services, such that Bowyer and Pettis predict, will be key. E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful shares a similar prognosis to Eaarth, seeming to anticipate decentralized manufacture when he says “the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production of the masses” (Schumacher 163). Schumacher ties decentralized production to both sustainability and Morrisian attitudes on machinery, saying: “The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience is conducive to decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines” (Schumacher 163). Even Morris, in Factory Work, As It Is and Might Be shared this focus on adopting ecological standards as integral to a re-imagined industry: “…our factory must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke” (Morris 16), even going so far as to cite “Earth, the Common Mother” (Morris 13) as a material source. The proliferation of plastic parts that one now sees on 3D print file sharing sites like thingiverse.com exemplifies an unfortunate reliance on un-sustainable petrol-based materials. This 2nd industrial revolution will only be revolutionary if it deals head-on with our ecologic crisis and makes the development of ecologically sustainable materials-use a reality. If anything can do this perhaps the evolution of technologies via open source models on the Internet has a chance.

While the ideal results of an open innovation of ethical and ecological 3D printing models are still speculative, the decentralization of manufacture and skill-sharing precedes it. In some ways the decentralized industrial revolution that Bowyer and Pettis link to 3D printing prefaced that single innovation. The evidence can be found at instructables.com and makezine.com but also sites like Open Source Ecology’s openfarmtech.org as well as localharvest.org. One especially interesting example is found at afrigadget.com which is dedicated to “solving everyday problems with african ingenuity.” The site showcases such things as a plastic recycling press that transforms plastic waste into useful sheeting, lamps made from repurposed scrap and anaerobic digesters to produce methane gas.

Decentralized forms of manufacture offer the possibility of a globally-connected, locally-minded and cooperative skill-sharing that can move the innovation of micro-manufacturing from entrepreneurial enterprise to a progressive re-imagination of what may still be possible in the material world. This 2nd industrial revolution may succeed where others have failed simply because it may be the most viable option in the failure of outmoded models of centralized industry. Paradoxically, it is industry that brought itself down by its abuse of power, resources, and labor; rather than by the emergence of a collective utopia. Perhaps the collective and pragmatic idealism that is exhibited by latter-day William Morrises who continue to strive for alternatives to centralized industry offers a way to a more hopeful future. The use of decentralized industry to model avenues through the detritus of the 1st industrial revolution may be its most progressive possibility. It now falls to the 3D modelers of thingiverse.com and other object file innovators to link their creations to this broader movement. If not they risk becoming a revolution cut short: just another source of plastic trinkets with an insular gee-whiz focus on what is effectively child’s play, in contrast to the magician’s toolbox they may now have their hands on.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth. New York: Henry Holt & Company. 2010

Morris, William. Factory Work As It Is and Might Be. New York: New York Labor News Co., 1922

Schumacher, E.F.. Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond & Briggs Ltd., 1973

An invented nostalgia

Stating in his preface to The Art of the Novel that the world of theories is not his world, Kundera approaches the polyphonous nature of fiction as a practitioner.[1] He explains that ‘in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza is staring at herself in the mirror. She wonders what would happen if her nose were to grow a millimetre longer each day. How much time would it take for her face to become unrecognisable? And if her face no longer looked like Tereza, would Tereza still be Tereza? Where does the self begin and end: You see: Not wonder at the immeasurable infinity of the soul; rather, wonder at the uncertain nature of the self and its identity.’[2] Not using words as material, but stuff, David Clarke allows salt to grow on silver vessels, to change the silver and to ultimately transform the vessel’s identity. The object, while embodying a change of identity towards the unrecognisable, can be seen simultaneously as past, present and future.

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

He says ‘The conservativeness of the discipline really pushes me to become more creative, challenging and playful. It is essential to keep this discipline alive and forward thinking. Combining other materials such as salt and lead has been important to really attack the silver physically.’[3]

Rather than relating to abstract thought both the writer and the maker express their interest in the action, in the situation itself. They assert that in creative engagement reflection changes essence, it becomes part of the realm of play and of hypothesis.

Artistic works, informed by abstract ideas, are not in themselves the illustrations of those ideas. ‘Imagination’ Kundera says, ‘which, freed from the control of reason and from concern for verisimilitude, ventures into landscapes inaccessible to rational thought. The dream is only the model for the sort of imagination that I consider the greatest discovery of modern art’.[4] Rather than creating a fusion of dream and reality, Kundera uses what he calls ‘polyphonetic confrontation’, novelistic counterpoint to unite philosophy, narrative and dream within the ordered unity of his stories.

A perfect example to illustrate this is Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia.

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The image[5] I use here is the last screen-shot from the film, an exquisitely crafted scene that re-values utopian dreams and their failure, melancholically examining the decay, detritus and diffident survivals of historical modernity – a metaphor of loss and an attempt to visualise utopian nostalgia.

Palimpsest of creation, form, narrative, disintegration and re-integration stand in stark contrast to Modernism’s ideal of the purified form and autonomous object. They allow forms of the past to emerge and to coexist, sometimes as fragments or ruins, alongside a riot of other references (including those of modernism), while searching for a new sense of identity and meaning – like I saw emerging from the layered cosmos of ornamentation in this stunningly impressive graffiti from Metelkova in Ljubljana, Slovenia by an unknown artist.[6]

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[1] Kundera, M. (1986) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[2] Kundera, M. (1986: 28) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[3] http://www.caa.org.uk/exhibitions/coming-soon/david-clarke.html

[4] Kundera, M. (1986: 83) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[5] The strange line in the middle of the image is because I had to scan the image from a book – so much for the usefulness of the web…

[6] Metelkova is an internationally renowned alternative culture community in the centre of Slovenia’s capital. A self-declared ‘Autonomous Culture Zone,’ Metelkova Mesto occupies the former ‘Fourth of July’ military barracks originally commissioned by the Austro-Hungarian army back in 1882 and completed in 1911. The space consists of seven buildings and 12,500m2 – making it a sort of city within a city – comprising a former prison, several clubs, live music spaces, art galleries and artist studios.

http://www.ljubljana-life.com/ljubljana/metelkova

Meandering with intent

Reading through The Journal of Modern Craft, 2.1, I was struck by the re-appearing emphasis on polyphonetic thinking, ambivalence and dialogical dynamics in many of the essays. Tom Crook’s essay employed Bakhtin’s idea of the dialogical as a methodology for historical material. Within studio practice itself, Alison Britton says in response to Hans Coper that as students in the 70s they were most attracted to his offer of a space which allowed for “the focus on ambiguity, the intrigue of the phantom pitch, which proposed that ideas could be pursued with uncertainty, within craft”. Ideas like this make me much more relaxed to add my own voice to the mix. I plan to approach the theme of my blog ‘Traditional craft: manufactured nostalgia or grass-roots resistance?’ by meandering with intent and will chaff with enthusiasm against the troubling notion of modernity in contemporary studio crafts practice.

In our contemporary culture we might regard any attempt to re-connect with a personal or cultural point of origin as nostalgic; we find ourselves much more in a world of shifting, flexible frameworks in which our origins, bonds, traditions, our sentiments and dreams, exist alongside other stories, other fragments of memory and traces of time. In such a world a creative practitioner, providing he or she is curious and sufficiently interested, might become a voyager, a person on a journey wandering or more likely meandering through the world of appearances, ideas, theories and histories. The abandonment of a carefully constructed cultural identity might become identity itself as much as making might become heterogeneous, counter-historical and hybrid.

On the other side of the spectrum we find utopian ideals, the hope for a ‘better’ world, and the passionate investment in the idea that objects have invested meaning. We find crafts objects of indefinable origin on sale everywhere, permeating crafts markets, mail order catalogues, department stores, fashion and gifts shops. Even in the face of the pressure to desire only what others possess and thus to succumb to what Jean Baudrillard has termed a culture of profound monotony[1],we want to distinguish ourselves as individuals. One way to attempt this is through the acquisition of objects, which via their symbolic assimilation mark us as individuals. Consumption is in this respect not only understood as acquisition, but as expression as well.

Anonymous handmade brass sink from Marrakech Medina

Anonymous handmade brass sink from Marrakech Medina

Anonymous handmade brass sink from Marrakech Medina

While seeming individualistic, consumption responds to the aspirations of the group and can be recognised as such. Baudrillard suggests that in an idealist-consumerist society, the lived and conflictual human relations are substituted with personalised relations to objects. The criticism of psychological regression implied in this suggestion does not make Baudrillard very popular with people who invest objects with deep affection and devotion, like most crafts people inevitably do.

He does, however, seem to neglect that there exists an interesting dichotomy between crafts commodity on the one hand and conceptually focused one-off crafts work generated by self-motivated studio practice on the other. Most crafts practitioners, whose studio practice I am familiar with, engage with the tension between the functionality of the object, its status as a consumer good, and a more ideas-based artistic agenda at the same time. This is never a simplistic equation, and it gets even more complicated, and indeed interesting, when makers start to simulate the visual appearance of banal crafts kitsch, sometimes using advanced technology together with the hand-made, and in an artistic somersault re-create the tired and clichéd object as an object filled with fresh meaning.

Ugglamedtapet by Frida Fjellman

Ugglamedtapet by Frida Fjellman

Ugglamedtapet by Frida Fjellman

[1] Baudrillard, Jean “The System of Objects” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Poster, Mark (ed.), Oxford: Polity Press, 1988