3D printing has somewhat gathered revolutionary status in recent times – from being used in China to build cheap urban houses, to applications in medicine for surgery and cosmetics; even to create mechanical parts for jets – the possibilities seem to be endless. However, beyond it’s use by large corporations and governments, the advance of 3D printing as a viable and versatile apparatus has given artists much scope for independence.

As 3D printers have become more capable and able to work with a broader range of materials, the machines offer individuals tremendous flexibility in terms of its creative use. On the other hand, the concerns faced by contemporary artists are that the automated process may limit freedom for error and mistake. For example, Susan Shantz, an artist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada says, “the 3D process is very precise and may take away from the handmade process”. This insight addresses the impact of 3D printing on artists, with particular reference to Daniel Keller’s and Josh Kline’s work for Open Source, and in doing so points to some of the wider implications of 3D printing for contemporary art.

Engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for more than a decade, but mostly to make quick and cheap prototypes before products reach factory production. The use of 3D printers as a production tool has become known in the industry as “additive” manufacturing, as opposed to the old, “subtractive” method of cutting, drilling and mending metal. The additive process requires fewer raw materials and, because software drives 3D printers, each item can be made differently without costly retooling.

3D Printer

Before the object is made, the 3D printing process starts with manual computer modelling using computer aided design (CAD) software. Technicians, and now artists, first design the object with great precision and a file is saved on a computer. The printers can also imitate ready-made objects via a 3D scanner that scans true forms; this requires less assembly, and is something that traditional printing methods would struggle with. Until recently, the high cost and closed nature of the 3D printing industry limited the accessibility of the technology to the masses. The process was limited to knowledge intensive industries and a great deal of technical skill would be required to produce a design of choice. 

3D printers are shifting from being inaccessible gadgets of the future towards affordable tools with which every household will soon be equipped. The cost of hardware been has reduced, and the means of accessing software and pre-made designs has been streamlined. Since 2005, open-source DIY initiatives such as the RepRap project and [email protected]  have created versatile, low-cost, open printers to accelerate technology innovation and its migration to the consumer. For example, [email protected]’s community includes hundreds of engineers, inventors, artists, students, and hobbyists who share and upload designs. Both initiatives have been driven by universities: RepRap was founded in 2005 by Dr Adrian Bowyer, a Senior Lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in the UK; and [email protected] was led by Hod Lipson and Evan Malone of the Cornell University Computational Synthesis Laboratory, Ithaca, New York.

What does the democratisation of 3D printing mean for artists? Can open-source software aid the creative process? Which types of artists are using 3D printers as part of their practice? 3D printing is already prevalent in artists’ lives, but how does it hold the potential to radically change their world – what are the real benefits and possible threats?

In terms of artistic merit, 3D printing as a medium has mainly been associated with design and craft. Neri Oxman, from the MIT Media Lab approaches the medium from an architectural and design point of view by gathering inspiration from nature. Visual artists are now also applying 3D printing techniques to their practice. Sculptor Barry X Ball, for example, used 3D scanning and printing to replicate Umberto Boccioni seminal work Unique Forms of Continuity, which was made in plaster back in 1913 and then bronze 36 years later, after his death in 1916. Barry X Ball used 24-karat gold, bronze, nickel, copper and resin to produce his rendition, Perfect Forms. The Futurist movement was, above all, homage to the speed and technological power of the rapidly modernizing world surrounding Boccioni at the time, and his Unique Forms of Continuity in Space was a representation of the dynamic forces at work in that era.

In general, however, the realm of contemporary art has somewhat lagged in its acceptance of the 3D printing. Nonetheless, Daniel Keller and Josh Kline have grappled with the use of the medium with their works in Open Source, but more as a critique to technological advancement. Works by Daniel Keller play with the role of the “prosumer” by negotiating between the local and global dimensions of ecology and economies, a term coined by Alvin Toffler in the early 1970s, in which the progression of new technologies predicted an increasing crossover between the roles of the producer and the consumer. With the advent of 3D printing, consumers can now produce their very own unique objects instead of them being mass manufactured in a factory. The boundaries between producer and consumer will soon be dwindled away.

Keller generates a dialogue between issues that surround technology and ecology by using 3D printing techniques to shape natural materials such as Maplewood and sandstone, as well as more industrial materials such as polymers and aluminium. In Stack 1 (2014) for example, Keller speaks to the tensions that exist between the ecological and technological in our world as Polly Brock describes, “the balance of the tower is precarious, as the elements do not naturally fit together: the flat smooth surfaces of the manufactured objects contrasting with the irregular, uneven forms of the organic objects”. 3D printing has allowed Keller to accurately produce objects that ultimately strengthens his underlying argument.


Josh Kline’s work aligns with the philosophy of posthumanism, in an interview with Frieze magazine in 2013, Kline comments, “For me, it’s about technology changing what it means to be human”. He has a particular focus upon incorporating technologic innovation in an attempt to escape from the past. “As an artist who’s thinking about the consequences of technological innovation, I think there’s an obligation to raise questions about who benefits”. In Nine to Five the artist uses 3D printing to generate severed body parts, which are in plaster, offering a disquieting commentary on capitalism and class in contemporary America. He critiques the medical industry’s not-so-secret long-term goal of repressing mortality altogether.

Josh Kline, Nine to Five, 2015 – A Detail shot of 3D Printed Material

The impacts of 3D printing are clear; it is allowing artists to use a technologically innovative medium to hybridize traditional craft with creative curiosity. Concerns still remain with trying to adapt to software programming, which might be alien to a lot of individuals, not only artists. But, instead of using the medium just as a function of product design, both Keller and Kline incorporate the technology to tell a story about a much larger concern regarding capitalism. For 3D printing to be considered a serious medium within contemporary art, artists’ need to see past its role as an apparatus and begin to consider it more as a means for dialogue and commentary. The way in which Keller and Kline use 3D printing to contextualise their rationale makes them stand as influencers within their field.