Interviews

“Your Shiny Plastic Future Is a Load of Crap”: Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s #Additivism

Image by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke for their project '#Additivism' (all images courtesy the artists)
Image by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke for their project ‘#Additivism’ (all images courtesy the artists)

Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s expansive project #Additivism is a call for the radical rethinking of new technologies like 3D printing, the plastification of the world, and the position of humans within it. The artists posit plastic as the most significant material of our age — both metaphorically and physically, in that the substance and its remains will define the current geological age for millions of years to come. From this critical foundation they expand on a theory of weirdness, disruption, and subversion of technological techniques and “innovation,” all aimed at finding a mode of understanding that’s appropriate for the Athropocene and beyond. An electric mix of art project, online community, activism, ironic commentary, and revolutionary potential, #Additivism — a portmanteau of “additive” and “activism” — was recently awarded the prestigious Vilém Flusser Residency for Artistic Research in Berlin, an annual award through the transmediale festival for art and digital culture in the German capital. During the residency, the artists hope to finish The 3D Additivist Cookbook, a publication unifying many of the strands of the project thus far, including essays, texts, artworks, and, of course, many 3D-printable files. I spoke to both Allahyari and Rourke after his talk at transmediale last week to find out more about the publication and their mission.

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Daniel Rourke and Morehshin Allahyari presenting their lecture "What is #Additivism?" at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, September 2015 (click to enlarge)
Daniel Rourke and Morehshin Allahyari presenting their lecture “What is #Additivism?” at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, September 2015 (click to enlarge)

Gretta Louw: #Additivism as a project is intentionally amorphous, but one thing that runs throughout is a paradoxical irony and authenticity. Morehshin, you have said that the “3D printer is a technology filled with hope and promise”; how much of your work with #Additivism is critique and subversion, and how much is genuine hope that this technology will produce solutions to the problems we face?

Morehshin Allahyari: It’s both. Additivist technologies allow anything that can be stored as a digital template to be realized with the necessary materials. So the descendants of these technologies may interface with countless aspects of material reality, from nanoparticles to proprietary components, all the way through to DNA, bespoke drugs, and forms of life that sit between the biological and the synthetic. What gets forgotten in that utopian vision is how the materials that make 3D printing possible are currently dependant on the same infrastructures we have had since the industrial revolution. In thinking about this relationship, I am often disappointed with us humans, which is why I am interested in imagining a world that is more than human, or other than human.

GL: Daniel, in your presentation at transmediale you addressed technological themes much broader than just 3D printing. To what extent is The Additivist Cookbook specifically about 3D printing, and do people need a 3D printer to get something out of the book?

Daniel Rourke: The language of the 3D printer is very significant for us in its metaphoric potential. As Morehshin suggests, 3D printing promises to become a common language of materialities and ways of making/doing/acting. #Additivism is an attempt to play out that promise and see what new possibilities and contradictions are produced across social, material, political, and infrastructural spectrums. A hundred years from now, how will contemporary technologies become metaphors in patterns of thought and language? #Additivism, as a conceit, buys into that question. Based on what a 3D printer does — taking something small and building it up layer by layer — countless forms of practice can be in the Cookbook: bio-hacking, robotics, writing, geology, crochet … #Additivism is about scaling up small gestures to their planetary consequences.

My own interest in 3D printing came from engaging with Morehshin’s Dark Matter project, where she blended objects considered taboo in Iran. Those hybrid objects supersede their original forms; they become something other than the things that are taboo, but the ideas persist — are perhaps even heightened — in that transformation. Not only that, the digital file can travel across borders and boundaries in a way that a physical object can’t. You can seize Barbie dolls or dildos at the border, but the 3D.OBJ file will slip through and emerge out of a 3D printer. The need is perhaps stronger than ever for creators, thinkers, makers, and activists who can themselves become that elusive. Fluid ideas and amorphous actions for a plastic world. Poets and artists have always responded most inventively to the machines of their time.

Image from Moreshin Allahyari's 'Dark Matter' process (click to enlarge)
Image from Moreshin Allahyari’s process of making ‘Dark Matter’ (click to enlarge)

MA: For the digital version of The Cookbook, we will use a file format called 3D PDF, which allows 3D-printable files to be embedded into the actual page of the PDF. Once it’s launched and in the world, The Cookbook PDF will travel beyond our capacity; it will be attached to emails and sent across firewalls; people will edit it, add to, and subvert it (we hope). The Cookbook will function as a DIY reference document and teaching resource, as malleable and infinitely applicable as the transcoded files it houses. This is very much in the tradition of early photocopied punk zines and political pamphlets. When we posit The Cookbook as a model, we’re thinking about William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook, not just in its capacity to provoke radical forms of action, but also in the way that the book moved and propagated. It became one of the first books that was heavily photocopied, travelling hand to hand.

We also plan to have The Cookbook physically published, and we believe that a printed version has a very different capacity to form critical inquiry as it meets with communities interested in design, science, and the technical arts. We intend to push and play with the boundaries of the print format, gesturing to the future of the verb “to print” as it becomes parasitised by #Additivist technologies.

Image by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke for their project '#Additivism'
Image by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke for their project ‘#Additivism’

GL: In terms of the conceptual framework, your approach is very influenced by feminist theory. We’re reaching a stage of late capitalism where men are beginning to feel the effects of this obsession with infinite growth, the optimization craze — but women have always been subject to that, whether in relation to standards of physical beauty or childbirth and the evolution of trends and medical technologies around that. It makes sense to me that feminist scholars are so central in this field, because women have been dealing with the impacts of “innovation” and “progress” — in, arguably, a much more personal, embodied way than men — for centuries.

DR: Feminist writers like Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti were very influential when Morehshin and I produced the manifesto. A related field, critical posthumanism (a term coined by Jill Didur), also underpinned our thinking. The problem with human-centered ethics is all around us: the planet now groans under the weight of 7 billion people, whilst those human and non-human beings who have no voice have continued to suffer. Those with the power “other” those without it, subjugating their bodies and labor to disguise the lie that there is a single humanity. As you say, feminist discourse has attempted to be more “situated,” to be aware of the embodied positions from which it is delivered. The cis-male position (admittedly, my position) that stands in most often for the figure of the human has shown itself to be less critically capable because of its dominance. Intersectional feminism and critical posthumanism are empowering because they attempt to recognize different kinds of differences both across and outside the zoo of posthumanity.

So, to hugely simplify these discourses, critical posthumanism asks if it’s possible to come up with an ethics that is not human-centric, that has a posthuman capacity. Of course the answer is no, it’s not possible; we’ll always reinscribe ourselves into any system. But that contradiction becomes a productive one. As Kevin A. Carson points out, after Matthew Arnold, in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: as a civilization we are currently wandering “in between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” The 3D Additivist Manifesto was our attempt to map that “in between” space. The Cookbook will speculate and celebrate different kinds of differences. #Additivism gestures towards the mutations that are necessary for any real change to take hold.

Image by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke for their project '#Additivism' (click to enlarge)
Image by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke for their project ‘#Additivism’

MA: It was hugely important to us that the manifesto undermine the position from which it is situated. We tried to show the limits and contradictions in our own thinking. The manifesto performs a critique of itself through irony, contradiction, and self-ridicule. The language of the manifesto breaks down and degrades, just like any system accelerated to its limits. Andrea Young’s amazing sound design for the video was also paramount in performing that quality.

But I’m going to try to answer your question from more of a perspective of personal experience. One of the things that I have thought about the most in the last couple of years is the new potentials of species-being that new technologies facilitate. As a woman from the Middle East, I interact with a heteropatriarchy, capitalist, colonialist world, and so much of that experience creates a certain kind of alienation that is unique to my very personal/political experience. I deeply connect with a sentence in the Xenofeminism Manifesto — “If nature is unjust; change nature” — and Donna Haraway’s command to “Make Kin Not Babies!” For me, these two are about many things from the past that I want to resist and rebuild. With #Additivism, we want to explore ways of turning alienation into expressions of power.

#Additivism will be featured at the Sonic Acts Festival (Amsterdam) on February 29–March 1, before traveling to a residency at the Colab at the Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand). The 3D Additivist Manifesto also features in Allahyari’s exhibition Material Speculation at Trinity Square Video (401 Richmond Street W, Suite 376, Toronto), on view through March 19.

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