The invention and development of technologies and methods throughout the development of human civilization have always impacted the ways in which humans have chosen to express themselves through art. In the modern age, this self-expression has probably never been easier to attain by the average person on the street.
Whether we are talking about purely virtual/digital art or how new technologies are being used to plan, prototype and improve already existing methods, it is interesting to look at how artists have been using and implementing these new modern technologies in their processes.
What is the impact of contemporary computer/digital technology on how is art being done in the 21st century, in regards to how the 3D-printed death masks – by Neri Oxman and team were made?
I will look for the answer by analyzing how these new technologies and methods fit in with Latour and Mumford’s views on the interaction of humans and technology and how this influences human creativity and expression through art.
Both Bruno Latour and Lewis Mumford discuss the relationship between technology and human.
In Latour’s (1994) very detailed and rather complex view of things, the traditional relationship between human and non-human agents, is redefined as a blend of the two that is more than the sum of its parts. “You are different with a gun in hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.” (p.33)
He calls this new entity, an actant. “Since the word agent in the case of nonhumans is uncommon, a better term is actant, a borrowing from semiotics that describes any entity that acts in a plot until the attribution of a figurative or nonfigurative role (“citizen,” “weapon”),” (Latour, 1994, p. 33)
Thus he lays the groundwork for the conclusion that appears towards the end of that same chapter, where he says:
“Humans are no longer by themselves. Our delegation of action to other actants that now share our human existence is so far progressed that a program of antifetishism could only lead us to a nonhuman world, a world before mediation of artifacts, a world of baboons.”(Latour, 1994, p. 41)
I can only conclude that Latour sees the relationship between humans and technology as something that is mutually modifying. While nobody would really want to return to the world of primates before the mediation of artifacts he is also careful to point to the fact that what humans lose as part of their amalgamation with technology is their actual humanity: “[…] he added the peril of ignoring how much humanity is swapped through the mediation role of techniques” (Latour, 1994, p. 42)
Lewis Mumford has a very different take on the same relationship that Latour felt he needed to recalibrate. This might be due to the wildly different eras in which the two wrote their thoughts down. In the case of Latour, it was the beginning of the ‘90s a period when technology was starting to advance at a much faster rate than previously even thought possible. While Mumford is speaking to us from the beginning of the ‘50s, a mere six years after the ending of the Second World War.
Mumford (1952) is a proponent of the traditional relationship between humans and technology, that of subject – humans – and object – technology – but even then, he starts to see the human tendency to overly rely, and overly-invest itself in technology: “[…]we find ourselves more absorbed than ever in the process of mechanization.” (p. 6)
He notices the thing that Latour would later theorize upon, namely the over-mechanization of the human: “We had created a topsyturvy world in which machines had become autonomous and men had become servile and mechanical[…]” (Mumford, 1952, p. 8)
In his view, the modern world, the increasingly mechanized-human world is one filled with contrasts and paradoxes: “[…] the highest degree of scientific and technical refinement, as in the atomic bomb; on the other side, moral depravity, as in the use of that bomb not to conquer armies, but to exterminate defenseless people at random” (Mumford, 1952, p. 10)
Twice, I would tack on to the end of that quote if it were mine.
Mumford (1952) proposes however, to look at how “[…]the relations between art and technics give us a significant clue to every other type of activity, and may even provide the understanding of the way to integration.” (p. 11)
And he goes on to describe the three stages of art maturation and associates them with the process of human growth and development. From a baby capable only of screaming and babbling to an adult capable of listening and expressing themselves through symbols. (Mumford, 1952, p. 25-33)
Both of their views are extremely relevant to the question at hand, since I am interested in looking at the relationship between modern technology and those who use it in a contemporary situation. Analyzing the artwork that I have chosen through the prisms of Latour, Mumford will offer solid context for my conclusion and will also allow me to better formulate my own views on the subject.
The artwork – introduction, motivation
The Neri Oxman and team-designed Vespers, 3D-printed death masks entitled Vespers, are data-driven creations, modeled using specially-created software and using likewise non-standard 3D-printing techniques. (Morris, 2018)
Their biological, organic look, makes them look, to me, at the same time natural as well as alien. Depending on how you look at them, the type of perspective lens that you use, they can look either as fractals or as microscopic organisms, much like the multitude of dust mites that live on our skin. Peering into the microscopic world, we see a world as alien to us as any envisioned by science fiction writers. Bringing in these connotations of science fiction with the actual technology used to create them, the death masks are very interesting and attractive creations, for me.
Death masks have played a rather interesting and diverse role in various traditions throughout the span of human civilization. Depending on which time and place we look at in history, one or other form of death mask has existed.
Quite possibly the most world-renown death mask is that of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun. For the ancient Egyptians, death masks were funeral masks, meant to be placed on the face of the deceased before burial and then be buried with them. This was a requirement stemming from their belief in the afterlife in which the body had to be preserved and recognizable by the soul of the recently departed, in order for the soul to successfully finish its trip through the underworld. ("Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt | Museum of Art and Archaeology", 2018)
In the Middle Ages in Europe, death masks weren’t buried with the deceased, instead they were kept and displayed. The process of making death masks wasn’t limited just to royalty, death masks of other illustrious personalities having been made. (“Death mask”, 2018)
Death masks have lost their widespread use in modern and contemporary times and if I were to speculate as to why, I would say that it is mainly due to the invention and subsequent development and evolution of photography. We don’t need death mask anymore, because we have any number of images, some of them moving, of our loved ones, from various period in their lives.
But Neri Oxman and her team propose a different sort of interpretation of the death mask, as well as a wildly different method of creating it. The 3D-printed death mask that she and her team designed are meant to represent the transition between “life to death, or death to life” (Morby, 2016)
Neri Oxman, in her own words during a TED talk, works at the intersection of several technological fields. (TED2015, 2015)
"[…]giving designers access to tools we’ve never had access to before. These fields are computational design, […]; additive manufacturing,[…]; materials engineering, […]; and synthetic biology, […]. And at the intersection of these four fields, my team and I create." (00:02:41-00:03:39)
These are tools and methods the likes of which neither Mumford nor Latour could have envisioned in their respective times. However, they fall under the theoretical propositions of both.
Description, analysis of the artwork
Before I begin looking into the actual technical aspect of how these death masks were created, I feel the need to point to the importance of their name – Vespers – mainly because I haven’t found anything mentioned about it in any of the articles on the subject.
Vespers are a type of evening prayers, which can be found throughout the liturgies of various Christian denominations (“Vespers”, 2018) These are prayers said around the time the sun sets and candles are lit.
This creates a more subtle symbolic link between the theme of death masks and the idea of death and potential rebirth.
Despite the initial impression one might get from seeing the Vespers, virtually nothing relating to what they look like was left to chance or random happenstance, even though it might look as such.
The smoke-like effects we see all throughout the masks was actually modelled using eddies of exhaled air, and then 3D-printed in that shape, to be later populated by bio-engineered microorganisms. (Stinson, 2016)
The total of fifteen masks is divided into three series entitled: Past, The Natural World, Present, The Digital World and Future, The Biological World. Each of the series featuring five masks.
The first series comprises of the death masks of five imaginary martyrs – yet another Christian type of religious connotation – with each of theirs final breaths being modelled and used to print the interior layer of the custom-fitting masks. Besides these the masks also feature purposefully printed interior structures similar to what can be found in nature.
None of this research and design process could have been done without technology developed in the past decade or so. And certainly the finished project wouldn’t have been possible even a short five years ago, without the advanced 3D-printing capabilities of the Stratasys Objet500 Connex3 3D printer which uses several types of materials and actually builds the object by depositing polymer droplets in layers. Special software also had to be developed in order for the printer to work with the high-resolution and data-generated shapes of the eddies. (Morby, 2016)
The approach to making them seems to both confirm Latour’s (1994) suggestion that humans and technology create a new sort of entity. Because on the one hand, these designers would have never been able to bring this sort of vision to fruition, without some very particular technologies at their service. However, interestingly enough this actant (p. 33) – made up of Neri Oxman, her team and all of these modern technologies – has created what can only be described as being art, not a black box. More-so than this, it created art that makes us think about our own mortality in a very visually striking way, and there are very few things more human than pondering one’s mortality.
Jumping off of that last thought, Mumford (1952) feared that our over-reliance on technology is making us more machine-like – and he was rather right in some aspects of modern life which aren’t the subject of this paper – but he also correctly points out that analyzing and better understanding how art and technology work together, we can better understand ourselves. Whether you are attracted by the sheer wow-factor of how these artifacts look – first stage of art maturation (p. 25) – or you’re interested by how they were made – second stage of art maturation (p. 26) or indeed you get introspective about what they symbolize and discuss – third stage of art maturation (p. 29) they were possible only because humans used the same technology that we overly-rely on in our daily lives.
Seeing the death masks – only as images on the Internet – is a mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, experience. Due to the very smooth, fluid nature of them, it is hard to think they are actual real physical objects or that they are indeed made by human hands. They look so clear and otherworldly that they might as well be computer renders, or indeed alien.
It has become clear, following the research into both the creator and the artworks that these stunning artifacts could not have been created, maybe not even designed or envisioned a mere ten, or even five years ago.
As such, one can only conclude that modern technology does not only make it easier for the average person on the street to express themselves, but in the upper echelons of design, technology and let us be honest, financial capabilities, the possibilities of expressing one’s artistic vision are if not endless, then considerably more wide than they were for past generations of artists. References
TED2015 (2015). Design at the intersection of technology and biology. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/neri_oxman_design_at_the_intersection_of_technology_and_biology/transcript?rss#t-1028591 [Accessed 1 Nov. 2018].
Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt | Museum of Art and Archaeology. (2018). University of Missouri. Retrieved from https://maa.missouri.edu/gallery/death-and-afterlife-ancient-egypt
Death mask. (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/death-mask
Morby, A. (2016, November). Neri Oxman creates 3D-printed versions of ancient death masks. Dezeen. Retrieved from https://www.dezeen.com/2016/11/29/neri-oxman-design-3d-printed-ancient-death-masks-vespers-collection-stratasys/
Morris, A. (2018, April). Neri Oxman’s new death masks contain pigment-producing microorganisms. Dezeen. Retrieved from: https://www.dezeen.com/2018/04/26/neri-oxman-vespers-death-masks-pigment-producing-microorganisms/
Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation – philosophy, sociology, genealogy. Common Knowledge, 3(2), 33.
Mumford, L. (1952). Art and the symbol. New York. Columbia University Press
Vespers. (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/vespers
Stinson, E. (2016, January) The next generation of death masks is freakishly beautiful. WIRED. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2016/12/next-generation-death-mask-freakishly-beautiful/