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[Longreads] Additivism: 3D Printing's Call to Action

Morehshin Alllahyari and Daniel Rourke discuss 'The 3D Additivist Manifesto' and plans for the Additivist Cookbook.

by Benoit Palop
Mar 22 2015, 5:00pm

Images courtesy the artists

It took over a year of intense reflection and exploration for San Francisco-based new-media artist and art activist Morehshin Allahyariand London-based writer and artist Daniel Rourketo create The 3D Additivist Manifesto, a research project that combines art, engineering, science fiction and digital media aesthetics into a call to arms to soar beyond the current limits of 3D printing. 

Here, the creative, "intelligent," and evolutionary technology—for which the possibilities are still being explored—is probed in a 10-minute video essay that takes viewers deep into an uncanny journey of 3D-rendered landscapes and surreal objects, set to a soundtrack by Andrea Young.

It's a dynamic call to artists, researchers, and other interested parties to reflect on the current state of additive manufacturing. The end goal is the "Additivist Cookbook," a methodological collection that will bring together submitted ideas, thoughts, and designs for the future of 3D printing.

To learn more about "Additivism," The Creators Project spoke with Allahyari and Rourke:

The Creators Project: Can you explain to us what the word ‘Additivist’ means?

Morehshin Allahyari: ​The most literal way to explain the term is through the fabrication process: 3D printers are machines that use 'additive' methods to create objects, versus laser cutters or CNC machines which use 'subtractive' methods. Initially we became interested in the term because of this definition, but as the project moved forward we realized that #Additivism can be a movement in and of itself. A term and concept we coined by extending and understanding the ways 3D print technology and other additive tools shape and influence our lives currently and in the future.

Daniel Rourke: ​So #Additivism is a term in lieu of a movement. An extended metaphor for the contradictions inherent in material thinking. Morehshin and I have talked a great deal about those contradictions, focusing on oil and the part it has to play in additive manufacturing. We ­ humans and machines ­suck that stuff up from deep under the ocean and then we process it into constituent elements, some of which eventually go into the production of 3D plastic filament. So when a 3D printer helps an engineer, a design student or an artist realize their idea, all that deep history is stored in the resulting object. Then we chuck the results into landfill, or let them get washed into the ocean and absorbed by corals. That's the simplest way of thinking through Additivism, the meshing of forms on a computer; the adding of layers over time, in plastic, or the geological record. But, as Morehshin mentioned, that take on Additivism hardly touches on the politics of oil, its human cost, its dark, bloody history, or the tens of millions of years it took to form under the Earth's crust. Additivism is about that chain of processes.

Can you talk to us about the genesis of this project? What was the starting point? Any inspirations?

Allahyari: ​In January 2014, Daniel interviewed me for Rhizome about a project I did called Dark Matter which focused on 3D printing a combination of objects that are forbidden/unwelcome in Iran. In that project I talked about the censored potentials embedded in 3D printers and how, in a poetic way, I thought about them as machines for documenting and archiving the forbidden aspects of my life and a portion of the history of Iran. Daniel’s questions and then the conversations that grew out of that, made me realize that we were both interested in a lot of common concepts including the radical, invisible, and more in-depth notions of digital tools and 3D printers. Then in February 2014 we met in Chicago for The CAA Conference.

At an event at Tritriangle Gallery we briefly talked about William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook (1969) and how the 3D printer could have its own Cookbook. A month after that (in March 2014) we started our research and our text, which we worked on for almost a year (with some small breaks in the middle).

Rourke: ​Morehshin’s Dark Matter series really colored my own thinking about 3D printing and its potential. That, and a project I did with artist Alex Myers that lead us to realize the work as a series of unprintable 3D objects. Another super important 3D-printed project that inspired Morehshin and I was The Free Universal Construction Kit, produced by F.A.T. Lab + Sy­Lab (2012). The project plays with the very idea of proprietary objects, and because it is freely available to anyone who wants to download and print it, it gestures to an openness and mediation between forms that is radical in its implications.

To speak to that ‘radical openness’ we turned to speculative fiction and theory to help us compose The 3D Additivist Manifesto. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961), Philip K. Dick’s concept of ‘kipple’ (1960s), Shinya Tsukamoto’s sci­-horror film Tetsuo: Iron Man (1989), A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway (1985/1991), and Reza Negarestani’s blending of theory and fiction, The Cyclonopedia (2008). They all successfully generate spaces where contradictions can play themselves out. All of them look past the human in some way, or at least generate parallel ‘material’ realities from which the human can be glimpsed obliquely.

We asked ourselves how we could be provocative in a way that remained generative, that produced positive alternatives and revolutionary possibilities. The Anarchist Cookbook is about that openness. The book is most definitely troubling, even 40 odd years after its original publication, because it speaks of an outside to the norm. That outside is far more radical than any particular design for a bomb or a gun inside the book. We thought a 3D Print Anarchist Cookbook was such a great idea that it was a surprise to us when we couldn’t find one already out there in the wild. So of course it was up to us to gather the ideas and the talent together and make the cookbook happen.

What's the goal of this manifesto and what are your expectations?

Allahyari: ​Our Manifesto takes the form of a text and a 10-minute video. The video brings together a surreal series of landscapes and objects; an imagined context for the future of a speculative movement we are calling #Additivism, focusing on digital, plastic, metal, and oil aesthetics. We hope that it creates a utopian/dystopian backdrop against which our Manifesto sits. It calls for the creative community to submit ideas to a larger project; to begin a long, playful but critical debate with us. The text is strange, hopefully humorous, and speaks to a long history of iconoclastic manifesto texts.

So much of our Manifesto comes from both criticizing and admiring previous manifestos. The language and tone of our text is bold, ironic, ridiculous, and completely serious all at once. For example, one topic that we greatly discussed is the masculine history of previous manifestos in general and the lack of female voices both in the manifesto’s language as well as the history of technology. Our cyborg therefore is posthuman and postgender. Our Manifesto suggests an unmanned future or perhaps a gender-neutral future where other kinds of bodies can exist beyond our imagination or definitions of gender.

Rourke: ​One of the terms that is echoing around academia and the arts at the moment is the Anthropocene, popularized by chemist Paul Crutzen. The term was intended to focus the world’s attention on the impact our civilization is having on Earth, and try to illustrate that influence on vast, deep timescales. But there’s a problem in that intense self­-reflection. Yes, the Anthropocene makes us feel small and insignificant, and reminds us that our extinction is inevitable. But it also raises us to the height of a force of nature. All time and space made to center on the here and now in a kind of perverse amplification of humanism. Claire Colebrook in her recent book Death of The Posthuman says that the Anthropocene is a nostalgia for a future that we will never see. We have already started trying to look back at ourselves and figure what our legacy will be. That’s a disturbing idea.

What will remain of us a million years from now? Probably nothing as profound and incomprehensible as crude oil. Our Manifesto tries to channel that weird outsideness. Or at least, to open a crack in reality long enough for us to get a glimpse of possibilities that might exist there. The 3D Additivist Manifesto is about that pretense, and The 3D Additivist Cookbook will be a list of ingredients for fabricating new possibilities.

In a recent lecture Donna Haraway coined the "Cthtulucene"­ from the mythical creatures imagined by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Creatures so impossible for us to comprehend that our nightmares barely suffice to illustrate them. Additivism is about embracing the Cthtulucene. It’s already here, hiding in between things, watching as we adapt towards our inevitable extinction.

Why did you choose to focus your research project on the 3D printer?

Allahyari: I remember how amazed I was two years ago when I first read about 3D printers. There was this video, I think actually at The Creators Project, showing an object being printed. I was so fascinated by that, just the gesture, the very fact that I could own a machine in my studio that could bring a digital life to physical form. When I first started to work on a project that used 3D printers, I really loved that I could think about these machines as tools for documentation and archiving. But to look at the larger picture, especially in the art world, I don’t think that 3D printers have been pushed to certain limits yet.

We wanted to take this opportunity to both criticize the fetishization of 3D printers and this urge to 3D print stuff (crap, junk) just because we can, while also suggesting that there is a big potential locked inside these technologies. For me, this is an ongoing interest since I am also currently doing a residency at Autodesk Pier 9 program and so many new and radical ideas about 3D printing, materials, and Additivist methods comes directly from our space right here in San Francisco.

Rourke: ​If you tune into the conversation around 3D printing, you’ll hear about everything from 3D printing an exact copy of a baby’s skull to help save its life, all the way through to 3D printing a tiny clip that allows you to bypass the DRM on your coffee machine. From the sublime to the ridiculous. And that really resonates with a contemporary condition that comes out of globalization, and feeds into concepts like the Cthtulucene. We live in an age where our contradictions are writ large in every tiny thing we do.

A lot of my own research tries to address the space between the material and the digital; the human and the nonhuman. Morehshin’s Dark Matter series was one of the first ‘uses’ of 3D print technologies that really spoke to that. The blended objects in Dark Matter slip beneath cultural, political, and material categories. Similarly, the most radical thing about the 3D-printed gun is not that it can pass unnoticed through x­ray scanners, or that it might be used to inflict damage on people, but that it can be zipped into an encrypted file and emailed around the world.

Like the first line of our Manifesto says, “The plastic used in 3D Additive manufacturing is a metaphor before it has even been layered into shape.” We really hope the submissions we receive to The 3D Additivist Cookbook push that metaphor to breaking point and beyond.

How did you divide the tasks on this project? Who made what?

Allahyari: ​In developing the concepts, gathering resources, and ideas, we worked closely and side by side (virtually) in deciding what topics, theories, and items we wanted to include in our Manifesto. We spent months writing, editing, and adding to our text in a series of Google Drive documents. I would say that Daniel played an important role in the style and language/tone of our Manifesto. It was a complex and challenging process for me as an artist for whom English is her second language.  

In the animation/video production of our project Daniel played the role I did in the writing. Giving ideas, finding 3D models, suggesting edits or changes in the aesthetic or the camera movements while I was creating the scenes and rendering. So somehow everything found its balance so that we could both equally be involved in writing the text and making the video.

Rourke: Morehshin is playing down her input on the text, but it really was a joint effort. It has been a really organic working process. A lot of the time it has felt like the project carried us with it and told us how to do things. For instance, we decided pretty late on that we needed to work with someone on the sound for the Manifesto. We came upon Andrea Young, and her work was so rich and seemed to perfectly fit our vision for the project. It therefore felt natural ­and exciting when she agreed to collaborate with us. All these little stages have been a pleasure to work on, and especially so with Andrea who equaled our enthusiasm and took our visuals and text to another place.

What was your creative process? How did you work and which tools did you use?

Morehshin: I don’t think I’ve ever been though a more complex creative process in terms of time and space. I think our biggest challenge, but also a super interesting aspect of our process, was working virtually for a year without meeting in person in timezones that are nine hours apart. We lost a lot of time sleeping or waiting on the other person to wake up!

It’s also crazy to realize how much I’ve learned through this process. Daniel has been an amazing inspiration in my entrance to the limitless world of writing, science fiction, and theory in a way I had not discovered previous to this collaboration. So for me, I would say that beyond a collaborative project, this has shaped a lot of my own research and thinking as an artist and activist.

In terms of technologies, we used Google Documents, Dropbox (to share video files, audio, images, text), Skype, Google Hangout, A LOT OF FACEBOOK, Evernote (to share readings and ideas), an @additivism Twitter account, a 3D Additivist Tumblr, as well as Maya, Adobe Premiere, audio editing software.

Rourke: I do play around with digital tools, but my skill set is infinitesimally small. Being party to Morehshin and Andrea’s thinking and working processes has taught me a lot. It’s been amazing.

Our Manifesto has compressed within it countless forms of deliberation and creative practice. We sourced a lot of pre­existing 3D objects from friends and online, and then Morehshin curated them into place in Maya. Then every frame had to be rendered on a bunch of silicon chips, and the results have been uploaded to servers, downloaded, re­compressed, streamed, edited, and re­edited more times than I can remember. It is great to know that the Manifesto video is out there now, traveling the internets, flickering screens and driving subwoofers. As if all the compressed energy has been unleashed in one huge explosion. I won’t stretch that metaphor any further. Needless to say, I see all these working processes as a further expression of Additivism. It’s not only about oil and plastic, but time, meaning, fidelity, and distributed creative labour.

Which submission would be perfect / what kind of projects would you really love to receive?

Allahyari + Rourke: Those that push the boundaries of both 3D printers and the material used in additive manufacturing. Texts, essays and blueprints that help us envision more radical aspects to Additivism. Concepts that are printable, and speculations that expose the limits of these technologies, or break them for meaningful ends. The real, the surreal, the serious, the ironic, and the Other. A kind of otherness worthy of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Mckenzie Wark, taking influence from Donna Haraway, recently called for the Anthropocene to be considered as an opportunity: “It’s a task not just of naming, but of doing, of making new kinds of labor for a new kind of nature.”

That’s what we want our project to speak to. The time to generate alternate realities is now. The more speculative the better. What we really want to see is stuff so bizarre and outrageous that it would be impossible for us to imagine it on our own. We hope people submit to the Cookbook and join us for the ride!

Once the cookbook is launched, what's next for your collaboration and for the manifesto?

Allahyari + Rourke: ​We intend to publish The 3D Additivist Cookbook alongside an exhibition of some of the objects, tools, and weird machines it contains. There are heaps of ideas we never managed to compress into this project, or at least, we could only gesture to in the text, or the objects we placed in the video. All that compressed ancient life sucked out from beneath the ocean has been using humans for a century or more, attempting to colonize the planet as plastic, Additivist objects. So The 3D Additivist Cookbook might just be the end of a beginning for them, or the start of an end for us.

But hopefully, whatever the future holds, it’s really really weird.

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