The Art of Imitation

What should we consider when replicating objects and experiences?

Stratasys, the largest 3D printing company in the world, announced the J750 this week which can print multiple materials in up to 360,000 different color shades—all in the same print job. What this means: designers and engineers no longer have to continually reset their machines, assembling disparate parts printed separately. The ability to print off entire product prototypes could represent a huge shift in the design and ideation process.

There’s been a lot of talk about 3D printing’s potential. Alleviating the constraints of traditional manufacturing methods could lead to a future where goods look much more organic. Eventually we may even be able to print products at home. Think purchasing the design for a pair of new Nikes and watching them take shape right in your living room.

Moving beyond plastics and rubber however, we get into some interesting territory. “One challenge could be programming the 3D printed meat to actually taste like meat.” While the idea of programming meat to do anything might strike you as worrisome, it’s a real thing.

While the idea of programming meat to do anything might strike you as worrisome, it’s a real thing.

Our ability to fabricate objects, recreate existing forms, and project live experiences raises some interesting questions around authenticity and ownership. In a world where data and technology allow us to replicate with amazing accuracy, it’s useful to consider that just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should.

Making It Weird
Everyone felt pretty uncomfortable at Coachella in 2012 when Tupac’s hologram (which was actually a non-hologram) took the stage. Dead comedians Andy Kaufman and Redd Foxx are going on tour this year, with an “original” performance created by rearranging bits from different shows and adding in biography. Creepiness aside, should we really be able to recreate and control a person’s physical likeness? It’s hard not to see the disrespect inherent in the fact that these professional performers, who cared about their craft, have no control over and never approved any of the new shows.

Recently, a team of historians, data scientists, and developers painted a Rembrandt using 3D scans and a deep learning algorithm to capture every detail of his work and recreate his style. The result of an 18-month project, the final 3D printed painting consists of more than 148 million pixels based on 168,263 data points. While the team set out to discover whether they could distill Rembrandt’s artistic DNA to create new art, they made sure to point out that only Rembrandt could have painted a Rembrandt.

When we’re able to replicate an object down to the last atom, what then constitutes the real thing?

Still, the project points to some interesting questions around authenticity. If we can capture every detail specific to an artist and recreate with exact precision, what is it that separates that work from the original? Not to mention, the project was developed by the Amsterdam-based advertising agency J Walter Thompson for their client ING Bank. How should we feel about forging a great artist’s work in the name of advertising? Context seems to matter in this instance.

Positive Alternatives
Some imitations however represent a potential source of positive change. Diamond Foundry creates diamonds in plasma reactors, claiming they are totally identical to natural diamonds. From their website: “The diamond industry has long been linked to human-rights abuses, child labor, ecological destruction, untraceable origin, and cartel pricing. We felt it is time to create a better choice.” It’s hard to argue with the benefits of gems not mined by children, but the foundry raises the same kind of issues concerning authenticity. When we’re able to replicate an object down to the last atom, what then constitutes the real thing?

New tools will only improve technology’s ability to mimic objects and experiences. As designers and technologists it seems we should consider both subject and context, exploring how these tools can be implemented in ways that honor and build on the creative work of those that have come before.


Got you hooked? Here’s more:

Would you propose with a diamond grown in a lab?
Jenni Avins visits the headquarters of Diamond Foundry

3D printing is not the miracle we were promised
The Jetsons-like vision hasn’t come to pass

A Few Words About the Faux Rembrandt
A handy word for the mingled passion and haplessness of the ginned-up painting: fan fiction

icon-instagram icon-twitter icon-linkedin icon-news icon-vimeo icon-realmart