ArtResearch & Education

MIT Media Lab and artist Thom Kubli explore floating 3D printed sculptures

The "Orbiting" project seeks to evoke wonder with floating sculptures

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Artist Thom Kubli has partnered with MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group to create a 3D printer that defies gravity by producing ultra-lightweight floating sculptures. The innovative project is inspired by Kubli’s personal fascination with speculative machines, which are devices whose function has a metaphysical value rather than a utilitarian one. Kubli is working with MIT as a visiting artist in its Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST).

A few years ago, Kubli created an artwork called “Black Hole Horizon,” in which three black horns emitted a stream of bubbles. As the horns turned liquid soap into bubbles, their vibrations were translated momentarily into 3D bubble shapes. Hiroshi Ishii, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, saw this unique piece in 2016 at Ars Electronica. Captivated by Kubli’s work, Ishii invited the artist to join his research group, Tangible Media Group.

Now the collaborative team is working on the development of a unique 3D printer that makes lightweight sculptures that float once printed. Kubli’s vision is to create a “floating choreography,” by catching the floating sculptures in a thermal stream causing them to circulate in “dreamlike kinesis” before landing on the ground.

“It was really just a simple question,” explained research associate Josh Van Zak MAS ’19. “Can you make stuff float that takes on new geometries and has new properties? And what is the fabrication technology you need to do that?”

The Tangible Media Group and Kubli have prototyped various fabrication techniques, trying out an array of materials, including sugar, glass and aerogels, to find the best solution. The ideal material will be thin and light enough to hold helium but rigid enough to create relatively complex 3D structures. According to the team, they hope the project will function as a sort of aerial archive of cultural and technological achievements by creating shapes inspired by spaceships, satellites, smartphones, modernist architecture and contemporary sculpture, among other things.

“We at MIT do very scientific, analytical, pragmatic work,” Ishii said of the project, called “Orbiting”, “But also I strongly believe the artistic, also poetic, aspect is very critical to inspire people.” MIT Thom Kubli Orbiting

At its core, the Orbiting project seeks to evoke a feeling of wonder, raising questions about the representational figure while also making one contemplate weightlessness and flight. The collaborative team says: “Our intent is to research a new class of floating objects, so-called Floatables. In comparison to balloons, Floatables are designed to have sharp edges, flat sections, and intricate details. This is made possible due to their ultra-light building material, a resonating construction principle, and a specialized 3D printing process.”

The project is just in its beginning now, so we expect to learn more about the 3D printed floating objects more in the coming years

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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