As a brief introduction to my research topic: I am investigating how artistic structures can help rehabilitate coral reefs. Until now, the pieces from Beneath the Sea were manufactured clay sculptures. They are adopting an organic language inspired by underwater ecosystems. When installed underwater, their properties consist of preserving, protecting and restoring corals and marine organisms.
Over the last four years, I have been developing this project by collaborating with scientists from international universities and marine biology labs (e.g. KAUST, Stanford University, MaRHE Center), producing and testing prototypes in the field, and creating awareness with my sculptural work. All the data that I gathered over the years ultimately culminated in materials for storytelling, exhibitions, and workshops (e.g. fellowship at swissnex San Francisco).
Shifting to Sustainable Technologies
Passing my learning curve, I decided to consider novel ways to push further the concept of structure production by incorporating technological aspects. For this reason, I wanted to delve into additive manufacturing methods, such as sustainable 3D printing. In fact, I am convinced that the advancement of new materials and production processes acts for the future of innovation and for real ecological change. It also presents very convenient optimisation aspects, like the reduced weight of 3D printed sculptures compared to hand-molded ones, and allows an investigation of new production strategies that are highly localised: in theory, these sculptures could be downloaded and printed anywhere in the world with the right material resources. After encountering biologists and designers in California, working together with cutting-edge printers for bio-ecological purposes (see SECORE and Emerging Object), I knew I had to move my practice into this direction.
Knowing that these fabrication techniques involve more than my handcraft skills, I started looking for firms or institutions in Switzerland that use such processes. And I luckily found out that the ceramic workshop of the ZHdK (Art University of Zurich) acquired comparable machines. Moreover, the Institute of Technology in Architecture (ITA) at the ETHZ has a department dedicated to digital fabrication where they build their own robots and printers. Thanks to the ETH Library Lab fellowship program, I was finally introduced to the Research Group of Gramazio & Kohler, a pioneer in digital fabrication in architecture. After discussing how my work could be integrated into their research, they accepted me as an artist in residence to familiarise myself with their techniques. Along with this incredible framework, I was also authorised to use the 3D clay printers of ZHdK. Knowing the ceramic workshop team well, since I had completed my Master’s degree there, they supported my research project during the time of my fellowship.
Exploring Digital Information Environments
Why is there an artist working with science communication in a Library Hub?, you may ask. First, libraries continue being a primary provider of validated knowledge. Plus, they give a temporal and spatial dimension to the learning process. But in a world constantly changing with technologies, programming and digital output, a physical library becomes sometimes too restrictive, when one wants to obtain such data. This challenge was in fact aligned with the ETH Library Lab’s mission, which is to override these restrictions and explore novel ways of knowledge transfer.
Working in an environment dedicated to the advancement of information infrastructure sets the notion of sharing and openness at a different level than working alone in a studio, as I had done it as an artist before. This new environment drove me to work and produce with a different mindset. I actually realised that my approach to prototyping could be beneficial for others. What if I could create an accessible collection of 3D printed clay models? One suitable design would be printed under different parameters, demonstrating the diverse printing resolutions, and the limits of this process. Potential users who aspire to employ the same technique could use it to reference digital, material and physical outputs.
This idea of sharing the insights from my learning process led to another collaboration. Material-Archiv is an interdisciplinary network which offers access to material knowledge and their online database is linked to the biggest libraries catalogue in Switzerland, NEBIS. Fortunately, they accepted to host the series of 3D printed clay studies in one of their locations at ZHdK – the same place where some of the 3D clay printers can be found in Zurich, as I mentioned before. The ETH Materials Hub (MATHUB) is another member of the Material-Archiv network that supported my work. As a collaborative project between the Department of Architecture and ETH Library, MATHUB focuses on information and materials samples from the field of the built environment. Collaborations like this provide a unique opportunity for ETH to promote its resources and the efforts the lab is taking to push the boundaries of environmental technologies and digital knowledge. Before I will expand on the materialisation of such archive data, I would like to first introduce the research context I was brought in during my fellowship and the first steps as a complete newbie to digital fabrication.
Delving into Knowledge
Of course, starting from zero I first had to acquaint myself with the jargon of this field and its operating tools to apply it to my own practice. From this point, I began to dive into the realm of non-traditional educational approaches. Indeed, books, documents, CDs or courses, which are well established in a library ecosystem, were not available or didn’t exist at all. As it was in my own interest to accelerate my individual learning journey, I applied a rather organic training mode by retrieving information from open-source platforms, web-based courses and forums. In order to assure that my growing knowledge and practitioner skills were properly relating to existing scientific frameworks and methodologies, I received frequent mentoring from the Gramazio & Kohler Research Group.
Because I had to tackle different aspects in my work – primarily going from computational drawing to materials properties, mechanical functions and fabrication processes – I learned to cross-reference the various sources of know-how and applied my favourite strategy: trial and error. It took me almost four months of diving into this large spectrum to finally overcome the lack of ability concerning digital data, material recipe and computational logic. The beauty of working with the machine came later, and thanks to the ITA ETHZ, I learned a lot by observing their approach on different operating systems.
In this first article, I described how I started my journey and first explored the world of 3D printing technologies with sustainable materials. In the following articles, I will develop the questions of building knowledge transfer via an archive setting and present a use case from my work at ETH Zurich. The next part of my journey involved learning about 3D modeling, data output and format, the relation of the G-code with the machine and, last but not least, the importance of the material component.