The Joy of 3D Digital Technology for Artists

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Abstract circular sculptures with colored safety pins in the background

Photo Credit: Terran Melconian

Bathsheba Grossman, Designer and Sculptor

My feelings about being here are complex: my career lies entirely outside the intensely thoughtful, well-funded art world that is represented so clearly and powerfully at this Conference. I'm an object maker and small business person: I sell metal and glass, basically by weight. I can't say I understand this idea of residencies – I run a business, and if I take time off from that, when I come home there will be no food. As I say, this whole environment gives me some feelings.

I was involved as a designer in the early days of 3D printing. This is largely historical now, starting in the mid-1990s when concept models were just being invented. In 2003, when steel printing launched, I was among the first to do art with it and the first to go direct-to-consumer with those parts; they did not become widely available until Shapeways shops launched in 2009. What I can say about that experience is that, first, “joy” is rather an exaggeration – it was a bitter struggle. I was learning about 3D printing at my own expense – and if you think it's expensive now, you have no idea – while simultaneously convincing manufacturers that there was an opportunity in working with me, which they did not want to do (they saw their market purely as engineering). At the same time, I was educating art buyers about what 3D prints were and convincing them that they wanted to buy them. But then, I found the market a lot friendlier when it consisted of just me – now that everyone has access, I feel like the field is full, and one has to market intensively and work hard to distinguish oneself in a really large crowd, which is exactly the kind of typical art market condition that I went into 3D printing to avoid.

I would say that at this time 3D printing is a great opportunity for individual expression; a marvelous new art medium if your work is of a type to take advantage of it. Of course, it can also be a gigantic sink if you're better served by mature traditional media, which most artists are. But the industry is now in a state of consolidation; the bubbly innovation phase is over and there are not masses of new unexplored design spaces. From my own viewpoint, I feel that the low-hanging fruit is gone and it's time to move on. The problem is, there's nowhere to move on to – if you're a sculptor who this technology works for, this is it: 3D printing is the best thing since lost-wax casting, and that was 6000 years ago, and this works better. There's nothing better to jump to. I went back to my day job several years ago, and I don't see myself returning to design for 3D printing as a business. Selling bare 3D prints is no longer a strong or inviting opportunity. I'm now experimenting with adding traditional crafting – in my case, glasswork – back into 3D prints. I don't feel that this is highly innovative, and it's certainly not technologically exciting; it is simply something that I'm doing personally now that my pioneering days are over.