Interviewed by JARRETT EARNEST
It all comes down to dpi and polygons:
Alex Chowaniec’s drawings, paintings, and media projects engage intertwined questions of technology and the body; a gendered body as a social technology, and a national body as enviro-political mythology.
A Canadian artist living in New York, she was a producer on Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution (2010) and a collaborator on the new media installation RAW/WAR (2011) (rawwar.org) an interactive community-curated archive of the history of women’s art.
Chowaniec met with Jarrett Earnest in the midst of her epic Gloria Patria project, to discuss her exploration of 3D printing technologies.
Your work has become subtly but increasingly an exploration of cultural identities—you’ve recently gotten attention for your Non-Traditional Matryoshka Dolls (2014). Can we start by talking about those?
That was my most focused political project, quite specifically in response to the Russian anti-gay law. There was a lot of misinformation surrounding it and when I looked at the specifics of the law, which was a ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” I felt that I really needed to raise awareness by opening up the question, “what is traditional?” What does “traditional” mean both in Russia’s own historical context and in the formation of cultural histories?
I started doing research about LGBT Russians throughout history. Obviously, when you go back to Ivan the Terrible people have various views on what LGBT means. But the point was to look at the formation of that history and to speak to the idea that homosexuality is in fact traditional in Russian history. I had in my studio raw, milled Matryoshka dolls that my sister had brought back from Sochi nearly a decade ago when she was traveling in Central Asia. I looked over and thought they were exactly the vehicle I wanted to use to talk about this. When I started researching Matryoshka dolls themselves, I learned that they were inspired by a doll from Honshu, the main island of Japan. A craftsman had exchanged them with two Russians and they were then displayed at a world’s fair in 1900. Matryoshka dolls were an official souvenir of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The implications of that started snowballing.
Could you explain the origins of your current Gloria Patria project, and how it brought you into the world of 3D printing?
The project started the way all my art projects start: by collecting objects (and memories) from my shared landscape, things that are close to me, that I connect with. A couple years ago when I was up at my family’s cottage in the Rideau Lakes in Canada, where I spent summers as a kid, I was collecting fungus and bark from fallen trees. One particular piece struck me and I had it with me for some time until it took on a life of its own. When I finished a recent series of large-scale drawings of fungus called Growth, I returned to this bark—a second skin.
Over the years I’ve spent in the U.S., my identity as a Canadian has come up quite frequently and I started thinking about that in really concrete terms. I think that we, as Canadians, always struggle with what our cultural identity is, but it is almost always understood as intimately connected to our landscape. That often gets misconstrued as being connected to our natural resources and how we manage them. Specifically, at this moment in time, the Tar Sands are a huge issue that a lot of Canadians are struggling with, that is creating massive opportunity and wealth and extremely dangerous environmental and health effects. A generation of people are in dialog, some unconsciously, with these questions and concerns.
I realized that the bark spoke to that physical connection to the landscape and to natural resources. The form it took on was very crest-like, it was a body to me. I approached it as I had the fungus, I physically held the bark, drew it, ripped it open, unpacked it in these large charcoal drawings. There were half a dozen in the end—four are in an exhibition in Ottawa called Inspiring Change. The idea of the crest—my own family lineage, intertwining with a national cultural identity—became a critical form. What would the family crest of this new generation look like, one that must enact a shift from a natural resource based economy to an economy of ideas? At first, I thought of casting the bark pieces in bronze, but then wanted to find a different way of creating these crests that embodies their stakes more clearly. 3D printing had been in my consciousness for a long time and it became clear to me that it was the right step. It speaks to that shift to an economy of ideas (and the implications in manufacturing). That is the value of 3D printing for me. I’m sure in the fine art world it is very easy
to stigmatize 3D printed objects and yet I think in doing so one would miss the opportunity—the enormous potential that this kind of object making has. As artists, we absolutely have to be mindful and engaged with the socio-political, economic, and cultural implications.
So, I started going to 3D print fairs, which were hilarious (I mean that with a simultaneous profound respect)—the first one I went to was at the Metropolitan Pavilion, which is usually where art fairs are (in my world). You walk around and there is 3D printed stuff everywhere, people are touching it and picking it up—I couldn’t believe it because it would be unimaginable to handle things like that in an art context.
Most people think you can just buy a printer and take it home and print something, but the reality is (at this moment in time) you really have to have somebody who knows what they’re doing—they’re still finicky; although there was a whole section of people who had built their own printers out of random mechanical parts. It goes both ways: anyone can do it, and it is absolutely a specialized knowledge. I was initially quite critical, thinking, “why is everyone making either sexy Comic Con-like toys or industrial design coffee mugs? Why isn’t anyone looking at the implications of this and making something that is really able to create meaningful change?”
I’ve talked with Lynn Hershman Leeson about her current (always deeply prescient) project, involving the investigation of 3D printed organs, so I went to the fair thinking I’d see something more engaged. But I suppose maybe the way we get people excited about things is by sharing toys and widgets.
I didn’t see anyone using 3D prints to talk about the kinds of things I had in mind. I had this idea of what I wanted to create and in talking with my amazing 3D print engineer, JF Brandon. He built the largest 3D printed sculpture ever in 2012, and won 50K from NYC in 2013 to use concrete printing to fix their waterfront. He’s currently working on a 3D shape search-engine called 3Di. He immediately said something like, “yeah, no one is making what you want to make. This is very experimental.”
When you started working with engineers and technicians, what did you have in mind for the sculptures, and in the process how did the possibilities and limitations of 3D printing change the project?
When I approached Brandon I knew I wanted to create human-scale printed crests of the original bark. The first step is creating the scan. We went to the lab and a lot of the other things they had printed were inorganic, which is interesting. When we got the scans back I realized that the next phase, the work you do to clean up a scan and make it printable, wouldn’t be the straightforward, mechanical process I’d imagined. It was incredibly creative, it opens up a whole new dimension of sculptural potential.
The talented designer I’m working with is named Ryan Kittleson. He’s used to working with artists, which was awesome because he allowed me to drive him crazy by sitting (actually standing) with him the entire time—asking him questions and being part of that process, using a program called ZBrush. My idea changed. In thinking of creating these thirteen crests, I originally thought they would be identical as an initial surface which I would cover with tar and paint. But I saw the shifting of the support as opposed to just the surface itself, and so in working, I realized that I wanted to manipulate each piece, pull it apart, open each as a file and as a physical object. If they break and I
reassemble them, I also want to accommodate that in the forms. We are not at a point with the technology that we can create a highly detailed replica of a complex, largescale organic form, which is part of the reason why, I imagine, the 3D printed objects that we are seeing are so smooth, streamlined, and sci-fi looking. It all comes down to dpi and polygons. There is only so much we can do right now with certain materials. But things are changing quickly.
What material are you planning on printing these in?
I want to print them in ceramic, it’s extremely experimental to make that happen, especially on this scale. The idea of bringing it back to an organic material is integral to the conversation, it’s just a matter of technical questions, like finding the large-scale printer partner, large-scale kiln close by, etc. The clear next phase of the project has a lot to do with scaleability.
Right now, we’re printing small versions of the bark out of metal (brass) to get it out in the world. I’m also trying to raise the funds to finish fabricating them—I bring the fine art engagement and JF brings the democratized 3D print world. Politically, I love mashing up those two contexts, which is one of the reasons I like working with technology, the possibility of engagement is so much greater. That is what I loved about creating RAW/WAR (Lynn Hershman Leeson in collaboration with Alex Chowaniec, Brian Chirls, Gian Pablo Villamil, and Paradiso Projects), it was about democratization
of access, community-curated art history. It’s the same thing here.
How do you engage “art and technology” as a discourse?
These large-scale drawings that I make, I talk about them as a personal and political act; the idea of creating presentness and consciousness at a moment in time when we are saturated with images from the media and social media. It is very important for me to create the possibility for physical interaction and engagement in them. My relationship with technology is in no way reactionary. I believe that technology is a powerful tool, a way and a means to bring people into specific spaces. We humans, as the designers, developers, creators and users of technology have to be conscious
of that. It’s dangerous to create and disseminate and be a part of our technological universe without being conscious.
In the folding that happens with the “organic” bark, to the computerized processing, back to clay, it seems like you are putting the organic, technological, and bodily forward as a complex nexus of material relationships, but how do you think about them?
Absolutely, I think of them as extensions. One really has to release a form as it moves through these processes because they are not replicas, they are extensions of each other.
What do you see as the most exciting possibilities of 3D printing, and what are the greatest dangers?
The implications in terms of manufacturing are huge, especially in developing countries; people being able to print their own parts. By parts I mean life-sustaining tools, so they don’t have to wait months—it minimizes time and cost. A lot of people think that you can only print with plastics, but you can print in cement, wood particles, metals, ceramic —powder-based printing, etc. Biomedical 3D printed tissue, as we talked about before —the physical extensions of the body. Right now we are basically creating armatures but when you can print the organic material itself, you can use your own genetic material and that is amazing.
What is exciting to me about what you are doing now is that 3D printing feels like the beginning of what will become a completely ubiquitous way of making images.
That’s why I am not really interested in using it from an end-object perspective. I don’t want to make something that is 3D printed just for the hell of experimenting with that new objecthood. I want to make something that is specifically speaking to the implications of 3D printing itself. It is absolutely about the process and meaning of this tool—what does it mean to be able to print your own [fill in the blank]? Technology will always be part of my practice because its power to bring people together and rethink strategies for displaying and distributing art is critical; especially as a person who makes large-scale drawings and paintings that absolutely have to be experienced in person as a visceral, physical experience. I’m finding the 3D print process a rich one for addressing these questions.