I get to teach and work with elementary school students on a range of projects based around software and programming. A recent project got us modeling characters with 3DTin, so that once the 3D digital models were completed, they could be 3D printed on our MakerBot Replicator and theirs to keep.
As I walked through the aisles, I gazed in amazement over the attention some children would pay to their projects and the abandon with which others would compose. Students seemed to press any command and be entirely content with the unexpectedness of the result.
There was one student, I remember, who had asked me for help. He needed only to attach the nose to his character, but was unable to align it closely enough with its head. I asked if I could change the perspective on screen, and when I did so, his entire character was spread across the z-axis, fragmented and littered. The student, incredibly upset, exclaimed that I had broken it. Of course that was hardly the case. I took the opportunity to talk to him about perspective. I explained that while his figure looked nearly complete from the single angle in which he was working, he needed to orbit the object to see it cohesively.
He didn’t buy this, and shooed me away. When I returned to see his progress he told me he had fixed it. I was entirely amused – there was a lot to fix. What he had actually done was return to the perspective in which his figure was intact and whole.
I keep thinking about that predicament. About the student’s obstinacy, sure, but mostly about how things will sometimes only appear to coalesce, particularly from a rigid perspective. I wondered how many times I had committed this error myself and imposed a view that wasn’t “real”, or perhaps was real, but not in all the senses I was imagining, or in a total sense.
This brings me to a video I watched recently. It is a walk-thru of a 3D printed building based off M.C. Escher’s famous lithograph, Belvedere. Viewers are shown moving around the printed sculpture until the oblong and noodley pillars align as straight bars. When looked at from a particular position, the building will match the paradoxical construction in Escher’s drawing. 3DPI has covered it!
Escher’s lithograph, in essence, is a projection of one dimension from the vantage point of another. This mode of tricking the eye, or, of unhinging the mind, is one of the more remarkable ways I can think to use 3D printing. Or, at least, it has taught me that conceptualizing space through a limited perspective discourages the tendency to judge something as right or wrong. The student’s model did in fact have it’s own point of assemblage, a distinctly tuned position from which his character could always be seen. The significance in finding that one spot where everything lines up, even if it’s a complete mess any other way, demonstrates the precision involved in illusion. That kid was thinking like Escher.
This mode of envisioning a higher dimensional plane from a lower one strikes me as a sort of speculative rendering that is no different than the incredible images of fourth dimensional shapes mathematicians have postulated. A tesseract, also known as a cubic prism, can exist in theory – and even as a GIF! – but it is not otherwise physically accessible. Even so, what’s exciting about these impossible to perceive geometries is that they are becoming possible to create, even if only in an illusory sense.
Undoubtedly 3D printing can expand the ways we conceive of perspective, space, and challenge the notion of impossibility. I would like to think it might alter the ways that senses may perceive cohesion, too – that with some perspective all seemingly incongruous things may be held together to at least some mind’s eye.