Reciprocal influence: How Arts, Manufacturing and Tech Meet in Bennington

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s haunting “Stranger Visions” blends human DNA from discarded objects and 3D manufacturing technology combined with artistic interpretations of genetic probabilities. Photos by Ezra Distler.

By Arlene Distler

Museums, as repositories of the old, often struggle for contemporary relevance, and the Bennington Museum — a fine edifice of gray stone known for its collection of Grandma Moses paintings and early American crafts and art — is no exception.

But the current exhibit, “Digital 3D: Here and Now,” is very much of the moment, with surprises at every turn.

The show celebrates what the museum describes as the “reciprocal influence of artists, designers, and manufacturers” that has made the town a nexus of technology and creativity.

“The phenomenon has been driven by a number of factors: the role of Bennington College in training students and initiating projects through its research and curriculum; the long-standing history of manufacturing in the region and the more recent development of small-scaled shops doing highly specialized work; and the strong art community in the area, anchored by the Bennington Museum,” the museum writes in the description of the show on its website (benningtonmuseum.org).

"Kaman Composites inspector performing quality inspection on composite molding using a portable Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM). "

Kaman Composites inspector performing quality inspection on composite molding using a portable Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM).

Robert Wolterstorff, director, and Jamie Franklin, curator, have partnered with sculptor Jon Isherwood to present an array of objects from airplane parts to sculpture that all have one common quality: a connection to Bennington.

But while the show has a strong local bias, it also has a broad reach. Many of the items manufactured in Bennington are used around the world. The multidisciplinary artists in the show have influence far beyond southern Vermont.

The show “brings to light the role of the makers and the technology they use who are putting Bennington on the map by expanding the possibilities of 3D design technology on a global stage,” explains the museum’s marketing director, Susan Strano.

She notes that the exhibit “includes the uses of tools and techniques like computer-assisted design (CAD) programs, CNC [computer numerical control] milling, laser cutting, 3D printing, and even digital 3D weaving.”

Z Chair, designed and manufactured in 2002. Designed by Giovanni Pagnotta (b. 1964). Manufactured by Vermont Composites, Bennington, Vt. Solid carbon fiber; natural carbon finished.

Z Chair, designed and manufactured in 2002. Designed by Giovanni Pagnotta (b. 1964). Manufactured by Vermont Composites, Bennington, Vt. Solid carbon fiber; natural carbon finished.

These technologies, Strano notes, “give amazing new possibilities for conceiving and making shapes never possible before, for using novel materials, for rapid prototyping, for speed and precision in fabrication, for making relatively small numbers of things without the high cost of creating molds, and for keeping an almost infinite number of designs in a catalog, without having to hold any inventory.”

It all started with a visit to Kaman Composites, a cavernous manufacturing plant near downtown. Isherwood, who teaches sculpture at Bennington College, wanted to expose his students to modern manufacturing processes.

The visit to the plant — a subsidiary of the giant multinational powerhouse Kaman Corporation — “began the realization for me that there were a group of exceptional companies in the local community using advanced 3D technologies,” Isherwood said.

Kaman Composites is an impressive place. It makes parts for the aerospace and imaging industries, primarily: objects like medical imaging scan beds, luggage scanners, and radar domes.

Getting into the facility takes some doing. All visitors must sign in and get a badge, and they’re issued special goggles and shoes to make sure no dirt makes its way into the almost-antiseptic environment. Huge exhaust funnels and tubes are everywhere.

Kaman Composites specializes in products made with materials that are strong yet light and, in some cases, are also flexible. Carbon fabric is the royalty of modern materials, made of carbon fibers woven together and impregnated with resin. Heat is applied, then pressure, to create a laminate.

“About half of our work is ‘build-to-print’ where we are given CAD models, drawings, and specifications that define exactly how the part must be built,” said Director of Sales Bill Berg, a genial and informative guide. “The other half of the work is design-build, where we are allowed more creative flexibility to build the part to meet the customers’ needs.”

As we make our way around the plant, I am shown the many ways digital technology is used in the manufacturing process. CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software is used for designing parts, such as the console that houses the electronics in the cockpit of a Boeing 747; CNC (Computer Numerical Control) adds precision to the manufacturing process, automating procedures like drilling holes for fasteners in the ribs of a jet airplane. And 3D printing is a process that builds products mechanically from digital files with thin layers of material.

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The exhibit juxtaposes industrial objects (like plastic clothes hangers) with fine art (like sculpture by Jon Isherwood).

But for some jobs still requiring handwork, care, and practice are not outmoded. The rough edges need to be sanded from parts cut by CNC machines or 3D printer; a woman carefully peels off and layers a single shape for further processing in an autoclave, a chamber that controls heat and pressure.

The bedrock for much of the precision work is — literally — huge blocks of granite quarried in Vermont. The manufactured parts whose straightness, or flatness, is measured in micrometers are lain on these blocks of gray stone.

Several other Bennington manufacturing plants that use digital technology are represented, including the National Hanger Company (NAHANCO), with a display of ubiquitous digitally designed and -manufactured clothes hangers; defense contractor Plasan; Abacus Automation, Inc., which manufactures custom automated industrial equipment; and K & E Plastics, which custom plastic parts for a wide range of industries.

The multifaceted show goes beyond manufacturing and also spotlights artwork that uses an aspect of digital technology in its creation by artists who are current or recent Bennington residents, including sculptors Isherwood and Willard Boepple, architect Karolina Kawiaka, and multidisciplinary artists Michael Stradley and Heather Dewey-Hagborg.

Some years ago, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, which supports endeavors in arts and culture, funded the addition of 3D digital processes to the Bennington College arts curriculum; Isherwood’s students have worked on such projects, including designing chairs and tables. Some of his students’ work is at the museum.

Isherwood’s contribution to “Digital 3D: Here and Now” is “Before We Knew,” a sensuous and flowing sculpture made from an especially hard limestone quarried at Isle La Motte from what is determined to be the oldest known coral reef.

“Rococo is the look,” he said.

But I’m not surprised to learn the artist has been working with oceanic biologist Betsy Sherman, another Bennington faculty member. The impression of the piece is one of the effect of waves upon the ocean floor, lines of ripples tracing the undulations.

The piece uses bilateral geometry, meaning the design grows out from the center to either side. It was milled on a 5-axis lathe. As the lathe passed over the block of dark marble-like stone, it left white corrugations in its wake. These Isherwood incorporated into the final sculpture, leaving the tracks in some places, polishing them out in others.

While each piece needs hand finishing — much like the industrial parts in the Kaman Composites plant — one of the advantages to using CNC is the ability to duplicate the piece in stone, an option heretofore impossible for stone sculptors.

Being able to create mechanical replicas, scaled to any size, lets an artist sell work more affordably, points out Isherwood.

One of the most startling and spooky pieces in the show is Dewey-Hagborg’s “Stranger Visions.”

For the project, Dewey-Hagborg collected objects (like chewing gum or cigarette butts) found in public places (like the subway) with DNA that can be extracted. Software transforms that DNA data — which contains certain genetic markers that can determine such traits as skin color, spatial relationships of facial features, and other characteristics — into a 3D model of what the person might have looked like. And that digital model is then printed out on a 3D printer to create lifelike masks.

“We can get kind of a family resemblance or a general likeness to a person,” the artist told Reuters in 2013. “So you can generate a model that might look like someone’s cousin or a distant relative but it’s not going to look just like the person and there’s no way you’re going to recognize someone from one of these portraits.”

The work has spawned both awards and controversy about the ethics of using individuals’ genetic material without their consent.

Famed designer Giovanni Pagnotta’s sensational Z chair, made from carbon fiber, made a big splash in the design world at its debut. Slim, flexible, and incredibly strong, it is also beautiful, its silhouette as elegant as it is simple.

At the time of its conception, Pagnotta was living near Rutland. The prototype was made at the Kaman plant (then Vermont Composites). The Z chair is now in production closer to Pagnotta’s current base of operations in New York City.

“Digital 3D” contains the furthest reaches of what technology can achieve. Guvenc Özel, another alumnus of Bennington College, led a small team from UCLA that designed a habitat for astronauts to live on Mars. The design was submitted in 2015 to a NASA competition. It was chosen as one of the top four designs.

According to a UCLA press release, “The competition called for architectural concepts for a four-astronaut dwelling on Mars that could be 3D printed through the use of resources indigenous to the Red Planet.”

Özel calls the design, which earned praise for its architecture and construction plan, as “borderline outrageous.”

“I see this as a highly cultural project,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to push out of your comfort zone — after all, we are sending people to another planet! We want it to represent mankind’s ambitions and iconic institutions.”

Özel’s concept is displayed in the form of an interactive video, with gaming elements that allow the viewer to roam around the outside and inside of the structure.

Those with an ounce of curiosity about what’s happening today in realms of art, technology, design, and manufacturing would do well to make their way to Bennington this spring for this behind-the-curtains look at enormous changes happening right under our noses — yet previously, in this corner of the world at least, below the radar.

“3D Digital Here and Now” is on view at the Bennington Museum (75 Main St., Bennington) through June 15. Information: 802-447-1571; benningtonmuseum.org.

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