Walking into the Chicago Art Department (CAD) in Pilsen last weekend, I was greeted by a thrum of activity in the back room of the gallery. Along with the low buzz of visitors munching on pizza came beeps from a strange, boxy machine that held everyone’s attention. The Saturday workshop focused on 3D printing and its uses for artistic endeavors. CAD had hosted workshops over the course of the week as part of their most recent exhibition, “Technologic,” curated by Chuck Przybyl. The day was filled with new realms to be discovered, realms I had never even thought to be curious about. Tom Burtonwood’s 3D printer workshop was the first stop in an exhibit that featured works by numerous other artists who use technology to create. The workshop offered a casual and curious atmosphere, thanks largely to the presence of a large Doberman, a toddler watching movies in the back of the room, and various arts-minded folk eating and staring intently at the printer, which melded plastic together as Burtonwood explained its functions and their significance. The busy noises of the 3D printer provided the soundtrack to the workshop.
The rest of the room and I were unable to turn away from the machine for too long in case we missed a layer, an addition, a rickety turn of the printed plastic. For a technology so recent and substantial, the printer seemed ancient: 90s-esque in its shape and early 2000s in its bleeps and bops.
Burtonwood talked with us about the fundamentals of printing, from powder formation to placing orders for customized prints, as well as its advantages and limits, and what that meant for the future of 3D printers. As the technology has bloomed in popularity, a culture has sprung up around it. In his time away from his own work, Burtonwood writes reviews of printing products for the general community—the pricing and coding details he discussed sailed over my head.
When technical difficulties ensued, it was more ironic than frustrating: despite his obvious expertise with a technology still at its coming-of-age, Burtonwood was plagued by the mundane difficulties presented by his Mac computer.
During the workshop, I had the opportunity to sneak in a tour of the wider exhibit with the curator, Chuck Przybyl. Stand-out pieces included Harvey Moon’s drawing machine, a contraption that through a combination of calculation and mutation makes its own watercolor works, as well as Nathan Davis’s “Arbor” series, which utilizes mathematical models found within natural phenomena to create neon branches and swirls, similar to tree growth. Burtonwood’s own designs were visible on white and glass shelving. Their plastic shapes looked like crystalline candy floss from far away.
As we walked, Przybyl explained what led him to the idea of “Technologic.” He told me the exhibit seemed as if it was meant to be: he dropped into Burtonwood’s 3D printing workshop during his residency at the Art Institute, met other soon-to-be-exhibited artists through his own artistic endeavors, and worked with youth outreach workshops that showcased new technology. Using all these contacts, Pryzbyl pieced together his show. His goal was to showcase a sampling of numerous current technologies, and how artists utilize them to forward their work.
“Honestly, it came down to what I was most interested in,” he said. “I liked what these guys were doing, and how these devices were benefiting their art.” When asked what technological pieces he ruled out as insignificant or inappropriate for “Technologic,” from computer-engineered artistry to software and machinery, Przybyl thought for a moment.
“With each piece, I considered if it was exhibiting a technology that empowered the artist to do something that they could not do before. That they could not do without this technological tool. The works in this exhibit are appropriate for our time period…they’re very present.”
He tells me that maybe in the next “Technologic” he’ll showcase technology for the future. But for now it’s this precise grounding in the present that is so exciting about “Technologic”; it presents enthusiastic notions about the possibilities that are being created today and the art that is shaping our culture as we speak.
Burtonwood and Przybyl both identify as part of the Maker movement, which celebrates technology-based DIY art and science projects and has been primarily driven by MAKE magazine and Maker Faires, which have been occurring throughout the country since the early 2000s. “What’s inspiring is [Maker culture] empowers people with any type of idea to make it reality,” said Przybyl. “We are already making art that could not have been made before this technology was made available.”
He points out that we’re looking next into the realities, ironically, of virtual installations and realms. He mentions Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset used for gaming. I mention prosthetics, returning mentally to Burtonwood’s presentation on 3D printing. The conversation lulls as we begin to think about the possibilities of what might be coming next, hard for me to grasp because I’m already enthralled by what he’s described to me as already being here, from machine watercolors to tapestries held together by circuitry.
Chicago Art Department, 1932 S. Halsted St., Ste. 100. Through December 5. (312)725-4223. chicagoartdepartment.org