Tom Burtonwood, "Rmutt 2.0," ABS Plastic and pigmented wax inlay (2013)

Tom Burtonwood, “Rmutt 2.0” (2013), ABS Plastic and pigmented wax inlay (all images courtesy the artist)

CHICAGO — For artist Tom Burtonwood, the transition into 3D scanning and printing was as natural as popping food into a microwave rather than settling for cold leftovers. It happened in the heat of a New York City summer in 2012, when Burtonwood participated in the Makerbot Hackathon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s when he realized there was a larger conversation to be had about 3D-printing technology, open source, hacking, conceptual art’s propensity for appropriation, and art history.

At the end of January, Burtonwood begins an artist residency at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he will focus on 3D printing. (He also teaches at the AIC’s school.) The city got a taste of his experiments at last September’s Expo Chicago fair, where — under the header of Improbable Objects, a project he cofounded — he set up a nostalgia-inducing photo booth, except rather than simple photos of you and your bestie, it printed three-dimensional scans. Coming up, Burtonwood and Holly Holmes will exhibit a series of desktop 3D-printed works in the exhibition Dialogues on the New Plastic at Chicago’s Firecat Projects (opens January 24), and Burtonwood’s 3D-printed accordion book Orihon will be on view at the LA Art Book Fair. I caught up with the artist on the phone to learn more about his 3D-printing projects and what makes this type of production process interesting right now.

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Tom Burtonwood, “Construction #6″ (2011), painted wood, 13 x 16 x 8 in

Tom Burtonwood, “Construction #6″ (2011), painted wood, 13 x 16 x 8 in

Alicia Eler: How did you become interested in 3D printing in relation to art making? 

Tom Burtonwood: I was making these Tetris, geometric kind of things. I got around to making reliefs from flat boards using laser cutters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Advanced Output Center. At the AOC, in addition to the laser cutters, they had a couple of 3D printers, and seeing them printing stuff out was magical. While I liked the modular working process, I started to become interested in achieving a more machined finish to the works, and so the plastic material of 3D printing was quite appealing.

I saw these machines at the output center and wondered about them. I could be printing these pieces rather than cutting them up; that’s when the lightbulb went on. I have always had this interest in science-fiction — you get a lot of references to machines that make themselves and can make anything, and also to biological systems of self-replication, which have a machine-like way of doing things. All of those things were circulating in my head. I’m often making systems to make paintings, enforcing rules and algorithms, maybe somewhat removing the idea of the author. I don’t know if that’s crucial to what I am doing, but it’s interesting — the 3D printer is very much that thing, a tool for making objects derived from a series of machine code instructions.

The Improbable Objects display at Expo Chicago 2013 featured Tom Burtonwood and Mike Moceri’s 3D-printing photo booth

The Improbable Objects display at Expo Chicago 2013 featured Tom Burtonwood and Mike Moceri’s 3D-printing photo booth

AE: Tell me about the 3D-printing tool that you had at Expo Chicago this past September.

TB: We were using ReconstructMe, produced by Profactor, an Austrian company, that uses the Microsoft Kinect game controller as a 3D depth sensor. When the Kinect was released by Microsoft back in 2010, the company, which was founded by MIT engineer Limor Fried, put a bounty on it and challenged the hacker community to liberate the Kinect drivers for everyone to use and create their own applications. With ReconstructMe you can create a very lifelike scan of somebody in a short amount of time. At Expo we were able to do the equivalent of a 3D-photo-printing booth, creating 3D portraits essentially on the same day. They could come to the booth the following day and pick them up. We printed them in a range of sizes, with the smallest taking about thirty minutes and the largest taking about four hours. When the prints emerge from the machine, they are solid and ready to display. Like most art objects, it’s a good idea to keep them out of direct sunlight.

AE: What have you made thus far, art wise, with the 3D printer? 

TB: The biggest or most significant project has been the 3D-printed book, Orihon (Accordion Book), which I “published” in July 2013. It all started when I participated in a hackathon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June 2012. That was a turning point for me. MakerBot, a company that builds 3D printers, organized this event in conjunction with the Met, and they invited 35–40 artists from all over the country to attend. We 3D scanned from the Met’s collection, and then produced mashups, digital collages, and reinterpretations of the collection and 3D printed them. MakerBot brought in the machines, and then we used Autodesk 123D Catch to do the scanning. So we had groups of artists, designers, and hackers running around the museum scanning, photographing, and hacking. Curators from the Met explained the relevance and cultural significance of the pieces. It was a lot of fun, and I made some great connections and learned some really awesome skills.

Orihon (3D Printed Accordion Book) by Tom Burtonwood

Tom Burtonwood’s 3D-printed accordion book “Orihon”

From there I started doing my own scans here in Chicago, working from source material at the Art Institute and the Field Museum. I had been thinking about how it would be fun to make a 3D-printed art history book. So, when I saw a a call for works for DIY Chicagoan exhibition of print-on-demand photobooks at the Center for Book and Paper, I jumped at the chance. The title, Orihon (Accordion Book), refers to the concertina-like organization of the pages. Orihon features 3D scans and designed parts by five other artists and designers: Kacie Hultgren, AMinimal Studio, Jason Bakutis, Erol Gunduz, and Tony Buser.  All the “images” in the book are produced using photogrammetry, and it is available “on demand,” as it were, from Thingiverse. People can download it and make their own copy of the book, or remix it and add their own pages.

Tom Burtonwood, Rmutt Candy Dispenser, 3D printed in PLA Plastic (click to enlarge)

Tom Burtonwood, Rmutt Candy Dispenser, 3D printed in PLA Plastic (click to enlarge)

AE: I love the RMutt 3D-printed readymade multiples! Can you tell me about them and the Rmutt Candy Dispenser?

TB: A key theme for me when it comes to 3D printing is access and community. There are hundreds of thousands of creative-commons licensed works on Thingiverse and similar online file repositories. The Rmutt Candy Dispenser uses the connector file created by artist Miles Lightwood (TeamTeamUSA) and a digital model of a urinal by Eagleplex. Together they are the ultimate readymade. I printed an edition of 50 and sold most of them in Miami at Aqua last year; the remaining pieces are available from Fuseworks. “Rmutt 2.0” is the same urinal file scaled up and printed in an edition of 10. For this piece I added Duchamp’s iconic Rmutt signature to the object, with a pigmented wax inlay, to brand it as an “authentic” Duchamp.

AE: The open sourcing of production reminds me of Cory Arcangel’s “Super Mario Clouds” (2002). Between his work and your referencing of Duchamp, I’m thinking about your practice as one of conceptual-artist-as-hacker-as-maker, which feels very 21st-century appropriation artist, plus internet artist, plus sci-fi overload! Thoughts on this? 

TB: Yes, very much so. As the sampler was to hip-hop, so the 3D printer is to sculpture and designed objects. Open-source 3D printing has paved the way for a revolution in making things. Desktop digital fabrication is bringing the cost of failure down by speeding up the prototyping process and collapsing the distance between idea and product, problem and solution, designer and end user. The outcome of this revolution is a sea change in the relationship between the engineer and their audience. 3D printing and scanning combined are time machines. They reach back into the past and teleport objects of antiquity around the globe, reproducing and sharing them for everyone to touch and hold in their hands. Just as blogs disrupted publishing and smart phones changed communications, so 3D printing, scanning, and modeling will transform the world of objects and the services that surround them.

AE: I’ve come across quite a few articles lately about 3D printing food, and even one about 3D printing characters from children’s books. Do you think 3D printing is hitting a “tipping point” right now? Why?

TB: I think people like making actual stuff. That’s one of the big drivers, for sure, and the promise of 3D printing — the rhetoric we’re hearing in the media and from the 3D printing companies is that “you can make anything.” The reality right now is that you can make a lot of cool things, but like printing photographs or lithographs, skill and patience are required, and stuff fails every now and again. But, unlike the early pioneers of photography in the 1850s, it’s not going to take 150 years for 3D printing to reach its true potential. What that killer app or groundbreaking product is — that’s the $64 million dollar question. Right now a lot of very smart people are trying to realize the dream of a machine that can make anything, in any material, at the touch of a button. That’s scary stuff, but also very exciting.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

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