Digital Matter (2011)

In the fall of 2010, Joris Laarman Lab was commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to develop a kinetic installation that would illustrate a direction of future design based on upcoming technology.

Over the past several decades, the transition from analog to digital has revolutionized many fields, most notably computing and social media. But digital technology is also starting to define an evolution in the way we manufacture, distribute and recycle products. Inspired by emerging industrial manufacturing methods in the early twentieth century, modernist pioneers valued and changed the aesthetics of design. Now the new realm of digital fabrication is shifting our current notion of design and pushing artists to explore the endless new possibilities of digital manufacturing. With the use of robots and other digital fabrication tools, many materials can be used to create a form of ‘digital matter,’ a term used here to describe the three-dimensional realization of digital images through the use of voxels, or volumetric pixels. Recent developments in the field of nanotechnology show a future in which materials are no longer static, but can be remodeled over and over again.

For several years we have been following the fascinating developments in nanotechnology in general, and digital materials in particular, that is being pursued at Cornell, Carnegie Mellon University, and MIT. Digital materials are basically physical molecular building blocks similar to, for instance, Lego. But in increasingly smaller dimensions they promise to have stunning, science fiction-like qualities. They can be combined like cells into living tissue, forming materials with customizable properties. Material will no longer be static. It is only a matter of time until we can upload a design to an amount of material, after which it would be assembled, or even better assemble itself into that design. An object made of digital material could be reassembled over and over again. One of the advantages of digital material and digital fabrication is that they are not restricted to simple geometric forms dictated by industrial machinery. We created a robotic assembly installation that builds a rather ornamented table based on a digital blueprint, starting with an eight-bit Rococo form language. Like the evolution of computer game heroes such as Super Mario, the two complimenting tables on display become more realistic as the resolution of the material increases. For the tables we used very high-tolerance, self-aligning voxels. Assembled with a high-performance soluble adhesive, they can be composed and decomposed over and over again. The tables were built using molecular building blocks in such a resolution that they start to blur the boundaries between the digital and the physical world, as well as those between geometric abstraction and organic form, almost becoming a new sort of material.

We don’t consider the resulting objects to be the end goal, but see them as frozen moments in an ongoing development. Projects like this teach us a lot about what robots can and cannot do. In a way this installation contributes to our aspiration to develop a very practical, multipurpose, low cost, robotic manufacturing unit that can operate anywhere in the world. We believe a hybrid form of digital fabrication and local crafts is the future of a more democratic design world, and with the help of new technologies we hope that in a few years everyone will be able to afford good design that is locally fabricated.

The Digitals Matter tables are part of the permanent collection of the Groninger Museum, NL.

(photocredits: JL, Thijs Wolzak, Clemens Boon)