hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2016


In Vermont, art from high-tech tools

Museum show explores how digital advances are reshaping design


Stranger Visions series, artist Heather Dewey-HagborgBy KATE ABBOTT
Contributing writer


A sink carved from Vermont maple ripples in the exact topography of a valley in the Green Mountains.

Karolina Kawiaka, the artist and architect who designed it, relies on new technologies that have led to advances in cancer treatment, jet engines and the prospect of housing on Mars.
Digital design and fabrication has advanced rapidly in the early years of the 21st century with the arrival of 3-D printing, computer-assisted design software and computer-controlled machines to cut, drill, turn, weave and assemble those designs.
And Bennington has become a hub for digital design without anyone realizing it -- until Bennington Museum and Bennington College decided to take a closer look. This spring, they will highlight the region’s growing role in “3-D Digital: Here and Now,” a newly opened show that runs through June 15 at the museum.

The show had its origins in a tour Bennington Museum’s executive director, Robert Wolterstorff, took of Kaman Composites, a local company that designs and fabricates medical and aerospace equipment. Not long after this trip, Wolterstorff said, he came across a Bennington College journal listing new courses in 3-D digital design taught by sculptor Jon Isherwood.
Isherwood is a leader in the field. He is also founder and president of the Digital Stone Project, an international nonprofit giving artists access to new stone-carving technology.
A milling machine can rough out a sculpture, Wolterstorff explained, cutting to within one-quarter to one-eighth of an inch of the design the artist has envisioned, and the artist can polish from there by hand.

In the last few years, Bennington College has expanded its digital arts program, he said. With the technology now available locally, students can design furniture to be laser-cut out of plywood.
“There has been a profound change in how objects are made in the last 15 years,” Wolterstorff said, “and it’s often invisible to the public.”

Bennington now has significant 3-D digital community, between faculty at the college and local designers and manufacturers. But few of them have been aware of others working in similar fields nearby.

In preparing the new show at the museum, curator Jamie Franklin has worked with Isherwood to assemble objects that reveal the role of 3-D technologies across many fields of industry and in art and design. These works, he said, have direct connections to Bennington and the surrounding region.


Crossroads of art, industry
Wolterstorff said architects have used computer-assisted design for 15 or 20 years, and now these tools are moving into manufacturing and art. They are allowing artists, scientists and manufacturers to design in ways they have never done before and to work with materials they have never used -- even with materials that never existed before.

Franklin explained that computer-assisted designs are not simply blueprints. They can direct computer-controlled machinery -- routers, lathes, looms and milling machines that can cut with lasers.

These precise machines can drill into hard materials or form soft ones like carbon composites, woven carbon fiber embedded in a resin. These composite shapes are cut and woven in three dimensions, Wolterstorff said, though they look flat until they are inflated and the resin hardens.
With computer-assisted design tools, a manufacturer can control the exact path of each carbon fiber, track thousands of fibers finer than human hair and design complex patterns. This kind of composite can make jet engine fan blades that are stronger and safer than steel.

Some Bennington-connected 3-D designers are taking their work beyond the planet. Guvenc Ozel, a Bennington College alum who is now an architect in Los Angeles, placed fourth in a NASA competition to design housing for Mars. The Bennington Museum exhibit offers a digital walk-through of one of his structures -- a colorful organic shape, about 1,000 feet square, that resembles the spread fingers of a hand.

Franklin said Ozel answered an international call for proposals, imagining a way to make housing that could protect people from the harsh climate on a planet that has an atmosphere less than 1 percent of thickness of the earth’s. For the museum show, Ozel chose a digital display rather than a model to give a clearer sense of scale.

“He wants people to feel what it would be like to experience it,” Franklin said.
Wolterstorff said that in the future, an architect might be able to send designs to Mars in minutes and use the materials in Martian rocks and soil to build them.

In beaming Ozel’s plans across distance to build them in a desert, another kind of technology comes into play. While a milling machine will cut away rock or plastic like a super-fine chisel, another form of digital technology – the 3-D printer -- will build an item from scratch.

As this new type of “printing” has emerged, Wolterstorff said, people have imagined bringing it home — inviting guests for dinner and printing out the cutlery while they are drinking cocktails. That technology is rapidly coming closer.

High-tech tools for art
Wolterstorff said he knows of a company in Brooklyn that will print small batches of items for artists and entrepreneurs. And local innovators have used 3-D printing for everything from jewelry to dolls to satellites.

A 3-D printer heats material to melting point and creates shapes that dry quickly as they appear, Franklin said. The machine can “print” in metal, in plastic, in almost any kind of material. He has seen a film of one printing with chocolate.

R. John Wright, a Bennington doll-maker with an international following, has used a 3-D printer to re-invent an early 20th-century German technique for his craft. He creates figures like the actors in “The Wizard of Oz,” Wolterstorff said. Wright can take a computer-assisted design from a film and print out a 3-D model of Ray Bolger, the actor playing the Scarecrow. He uses that model to make a wax sculpture, altering it by hand as he chooses, and from that he makes a mold for a doll’s body made in pressed felt.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a Bennington College alum and artist, also incorporates the technology into her work. She began collecting stray hairs, gum, detritus that could give her a DNA sample of the person who left it, and in an open-source lab in Brooklyn -- and now at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- she has coded a program to envision a face to go with each sample. She prints 3-D portraits, masks in full color.

Taking a more somber look at surveillance, Franklin also has included a 3-D printed satellite communications antenna and a military drone in the exhibition. He said the sheer range of work in the show awes him.

“It’s inspiring pride,” Wolterstorff said. “I’m blown away by what’s going on here.”
He imagines a local high school student thinking, “I don’t need to go to Palo Alto or New York City.” Instead, they can work at the leading edge of technology and design in Vermont.
People think of high-tech in terms of apps and programming, but this is a different realm, Wolterstorff said. It has grown here through the college and alumni community, the local arts community, of which the museum is an anchor, and the town’s long history of manufacturing.
“Companies using these technologies are here because Bennington was a manufacturing center for more than 150 years,” Franklin said.

Today, with 3-D technologies, artists and designers can make shapes they could never have made by hand, in metal, wood, plastic, glass, fiber and stone.

And a firm like Abacus in Albany, N.Y., can make a few or a few hundred objects easily. Working from a traditional mold is very expensive, Wolterstorff said, and a mold is hard to change. A designer can re-shape a digital 3-D design with a touch of the mouse.

Burton Snowboards of Burlington, for example, can now print out a new model for a snowboard binding and test it on the slopes the next day, before the snow melts.