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Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital

Museum of Art and Design (MAD)
New York City, 16 October 2013 to 1 June 2014
Exhibit Website:  http://madmuseum.org/exhibition/out-hand.

Hannah Star Rogers
Columbia University


There are, of course, the expected celebrations: digital fabrication is bringing us a revolution marked by the continuation of known aesthetics achieved more easily through computer-assisted production. But among the hopeful utopists are some wonderful subverters who have materialized their concerns through the very technology they are critiquing. Take, for example, Roxy Paine’s serialized polyethylene sculptures (S2-P2-MAR1-2011 through S2-P2-MAR24-2011), made by the Scumak No. 2 machine (2000), which appear to be hardened lumps of red liquid that deliberately subvert our expectations of machine-produced artworks through their indefinite organic forms.

Geoffrey Mann’s silver-plated bronze, Shine from the Natural Occurrence Series (2010), is the result of the direct violation of the limits of a machine. Because of the complications the machine has in separating surfaces and reflections, people are instructed not to use reflective objects in 3D laser scanners. Mann’s work presses against these limits and asks questions about accuracy and the duplications towards which 3D scanners are usually directed. His sculpture renders both the light bouncing back in a 3D scanner from Victorian candelabrum and the object itself. Like the conflated eye of the laser beam unable to distinguish surface from reflection, viewers are confronted with an object that folds together both light and form, making them indistinguishable, thereby embodying Mann’s conception of machine vision.

Daan van den Berg’s MERRICK Lamp (2010) is a design hack based on the premise that companies like IKEA will begin to sell designs for home goods use as 3D printing becomes ubiquitous. The designer subverts the idea of the perfection possible through selecting objects to print at home by suggesting that it will be possible to hack these designs, infecting them with viruses that will cause bumps and deformations in printed objects. Berg literalized the metaphor of computer virus, giving us a lamp with bubbled and protruding plastic. The work is named for Joseph Merrick, the 19th century figure who was known as Elephant Man because of his physical deformities.

While works like MERRICK surely raise questions about the problems produced by utopists’ dreams of the digital manufacturing age, they also may be simultaneously reinforcing the notion that this is the future we will face by bringing up possible problems that cannot yet exist, as the technologies on which they depend are themselves imagined. This futurist-orientation certainly brings up interesting dreams and nightmares for possible technologies, but it also suggests a path-dependency for the technology: that these problems are proposed as layers on top of technologies that may develop in unexpected ways. In this sense, some acts of subversion are themselves implicated in the technological determinism that their interventions are employed to complicate.

Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital is successful in creating the history of computer-aided artistic production across a range of mediums and by a range of users encompassing artists, designers, scientists, and engineers, through works like Johannes Zäuner, Barbara Kotte, and Andreas Schulz’s Rapid Racer (2011). This exhibit lays the groundwork for something that viewers will still be looking for as they leave: a new aesthetics for the materialization of the digital age. Like so many new methods, it appears to be a method in search of a question. Present and already realizable are aesthetic modes from a variety of art periods: from a detailed Gothic cathedral model to Barry X Ball’s extension and augmentation of Envy to futurist-inspired runway fashion. While this surely shows a thoughtful curator (Ron Labaco is giving us an interesting range of works), it must also raise for the hopeful artlooker the possibility that the thing most hoped for in 3D printing may not yet be present: an aesthetic of its own.

Last Updated 6 May 2014

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