Nose to Tail
For this regular series, artist Yngve Holen explains the processes behind his experiments with 3D scanning and printing
For several of my recent projects, I’ve experimented with 3D scanning and printing – general terms which actually encompass several discrete technologies offered by specialized companies. I first scanned pieces of raw chicken to incorporate in sculptures for an exhibition at Autocenter in Berlin in 2011. In my work, I am interested in transport and logistics – planes, trains etc. – and the contrast between the machinery doing the transporting and passengers, who – seen rather cynically – are in effect pieces of meat. These processes are often invisible to us and the representation of these interests me.
3D scanning is a clean way of making a cast of something while maintaining a certain distance. There’s no touching involved – no bacteria, no infection. Still, there’s something comical to the operation. When buying 50 chickens at Metro to scan: do you choose ‘Bio’ or ‘Non-Bio’? As well as the marketplace transaction, I’m interested in food distribution too: there’s something slapstick about the idea of 200 dead chickens arriving at a cafeteria for consumption by people with no idea where they came from. Anyway, I went ahead and scanned the chickens, experimenting also with artichokes, salad, and a shrimp-topped frozen pizza.
Then, in my hometown of Stavanger, Norway, I saw some large animal carcasses displayed in a restaurant window. Hung facing outward, they looked like a nightmare – really disgusting. Around that time I had come across a catalogue for the National Archeological Museum in Naples. In it were images of intricate sculptures where different types of marble were used to distinguish the eyes from the head, for example. From this I got the idea to make scans of meat and reproduce them in red marble, with white veins (along with the bad jokes, of course – the ‘marbling’ of meat; is it a good ‘marbled’ steak? etc.). The results were on show recently in Kassel for the show_Speculations on Anonymous Materials_ (2013–14).
I’ve sourced meat from several places. This time, back in Berlin, where I live, I went to a butcher and ordered a cut of a cow’s ribcage. The butcher happened to be located across the street from the 3D scanning company I used. I told him what I was going to do with it, and he showed me a large piece of five cow ribs. ‘It looks beautiful, right?’ he said, ‘see, I’m a sculptor, too.’ I scanned the piece, then the butcher cut it into smaller pieces, which I eventually gave away to, among others, Die Tafel, an organization that gives out food that’s just past its expiration date to those in need. I sent the data to a milling company in Verona, who fabricated my meat scans out of red marble using a process called CNC milling. CNC stands for ‘computer numeric control’. Whereas 3D printing is additive – building material, layer by layer – this procedure is subtractive. The mill reads coordinates on a digital file and drills out the marble from an existing piece.
Despite the precision involved in making scans, you never completely know how the results will turn out. Scans of 3D objects suffer from the same kind of errors and noise we know from other kinds of digital data, although this corruption finds material form and can sometimes be printed. Finding a way to do this interests me.
The scanning company I had used, which could do the kind of advanced scanning techniques needed to render details like meat and poultry texture, shut down its operation in Berlin. So, for a more recent project last year, I found a company in Magdeburg who offered the same process. I called them, and they said they could come and do the scanning on-site in Berlin. I wasn’t expecting this. ‘Easy,’ I thought, ‘like takeaway pizza.’
They drove with their equipment, worth tens of thousands of Euros, from Magdeburg to my home studio at Kottbusser Tor in Berlin. They were very professional, but were surprised when they walked into the rather gritty social housing complex in the middle of Kreuzberg. My low ceiling was only 5 centimeters higher than the equipment, which barely fit through the door; they looked around and saw things like pieces of meat and run-over pizzas I hoped to scan: they felt punked. One of the employees doing the scanning was only 19 – the son of the company owner. He had just finished school, and didn’t know what to do next.He was excited to be in Berlin and asked me about the famous kebab stand, Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab. The employees ate kebab on my sofa while the chickens were being scanned. It was a weird situation. In the end, it all worked – although I had to swallow when I got the bill.
My most recent project deals with planes, an ongoing interest of mine, both from the technological and engineering aspects, and on the level of representation: how do you represent the terrifying prospect of air travel to the millions of passengers that fly today? I became interested in the noses of state-of-the-art planes such as the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A380. There’s a kind of anthropomorphism with these planes – the windows as eyes, for example – which I find interesting when contrasted with the fact that they’re the most highly engineered of objects. They also look kind of like death masks. I was hoping to print, or rather mill, life-size scans of plane noses out of foam. The idea being you have this perfect geometry which becomes a face, and foam being a material that expands and takes up space but otherwise has no intrinsic characteristics.
I thought it might be easiest to ask the companies directly for 3D data of their plane’s noses. But no one would send that to me. Boeing gave me weird section drawings of a plane that I could ostensibly piece together myself. They told me I should just research on the Internet and ‘maybe’ I would find what I was looking for. (Boeing, an American company, was not lax on this matter – they are, after all, heavily involved in the arms industry.) Airbus said they had nothing. I got in contact with someone who worked at Airbus who told me I wouldn’t be allowed to go in person to see the planes. I then spoke to some companies who manufacture plane models – they have direct access to the plane’s specification data – but they wouldn’t give me anything either, since such data is in effect a trade secret. They wouldn’t build me a life-size model, either.
I finally found someone at Lufthansa working with the A380 fleet based in Frankfurt, where they have a hangar which can house three planes. I told him I wanted to scan one and he agreed to let me come over.
I built a home-made scanner using the Xbox 360’s Kinect motion sensing input device. I found a programme online that turned the Kinect’s built-in motion sensing hardware into a scanner. I connected it to a laptop and a battery pack and we went to the hangar to scan the nose of this huge plane. We were standing at ground level looking up at this massive nose. It was kind of funny.
The paint on the airplane is white and reflective, so the programme told us there was ‘not enough geometry’ to make a good scan. The nose was round, and the scanning device couldn’t detect it properly. We got five scans which were very noisy. I’m not sure that I’m allowed to try again. It was a test. I was hoping would work, but maybe it was bound to fail anyway. It would be much easier if Airbus just gave me the data.
As told to Pablo Larios
Yngve Holen is an artist who lives in Berlin. He had a recent solo show at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, and has upcoming exhibitions at the High Line, New York, and Johan Berggren, Malmö.
First published in Issue 14