Plastic Surgery

3D printing is now commonplace, and frequently referred to in popular discourse. Controversies arise with the 3D printing of illegal items, such as a working model of a gun, or utopian visions unfold with ideas of 3D printing buildings and aircraft. It is also the case that 3D printing is now increasingly affordable and accessible. However, unless you have had first hand experience of the production of 3D printing there remain many questions and quandaries. The second of the Re: Making seminars, under the title of Plastic Surgery, sought to address this knowledge gap. The two day seminar was primarily led by Ian Dawson (who has many years of experience as a sculptor) and Chris Carter (who regularly teaches many sculptural techniques, including the use of 3D printing). But it was also a collaboration with Sunil Manghani, who introduced the two days and offered a specific ‘prompt’, bringing in plastic toys of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue.

The choice of these two figures was on the one hand simply for their associations as icons of ‘plastic pop’. Manghani began by discussing notions of plasticity as it is used in the arts. The term ‘plastic arts’ is perhaps less used now. It refers of course to 3D art, typically as sculpture or bas-relief, that is characterised by three dimensional modelling. However, as a plural term, it was often used to refer also to visual art (as painting, sculpture, or film), and especially as a means to distinguish from ‘written’ art forms (as poetry or music). However, the relationship of plasticity and writing was asserted in the seminar through reference to Roland Barthes’ classic text Mythologies. Originally published in 1957, the book offers short essays on the newly emerging consumer culture, which, postwar, is beginning to grow rapidly, and not least due to new, modernist technologies and processes including plastic. Indeed, one of the entry by Barthes is prompted by a plastics exhibition fair.

Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic … is in essence the stuff of alchemy. […] more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of movement. […] In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material … it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata. It is a ‘shaped’ substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature. But what best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at one hallow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones. […] Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas. (Roland Barthes, ‘Plastic’ in Mythologies).

It is not just the emergence of plastic as a new material technology that is significant. Mythologies is a key text for the emergence and popularity of Semiology, or the science of the sign. Barthes’ innovation is to lift a concept related to language and linguistic and apply it not only to literature, but also popular culture. Everything is a ‘myth’ and ‘sign’ according to Barthes. As a cultural theory, semiotics, and later the notion of the Text (and intertextuality) thus opens up a whole new ‘plasticity’ of ‘reading’ culture and making meaning within it.

The choice of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue is undoubtedly a playful one, but of course connects immediately with the both the ‘trace of movement’ and the hallow and the flat that Barthes refers to with plastic. Jackson was certainly much discussed for this ‘plastic surgery’ (including of course the controversial debate about his skin tone). However, also, his music offers a means for his body to movement in ways that were not seen before (at least not in popular forms). His mooonwalking is the most obvious example, but more generally, his body is a highly fluid and yet sharp ‘medium’ through which he performed. As part of the seminar the video for his Smooth Criminal was screened, which includes a dramatic sequence in which he appears to lean forward beyond the realms of ordinary physics. The plastic model used for the seminar represents Michael Jackson from this video, and even comes complete with various re-attachable hands and feet and a ‘shadow’ stand that allows the figure to lean impossibly forward. The hard plastic of the figure offers a precision rendering of Jackson from his video, which in turn leant itself well to its reproduction through 3D scanning and clay moulding.

By contrast, a more rubbery doll of Kylie Minogue provided a fairly poor reproduction of her image. Which, in this case, was meant to recall her look c.2001, much associated with her worldwide hit ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head‘. The music critic Paul Morley has written a whole book around this video, Words and Music, which begins by making a bold connection between Minogue and Alvin Lucier’s 1969 work ‘I’m Sitting in a Room‘. Morley fascination with Kylie is of a virtual and near-alien creature. In  ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, she drives effortlessly towards a Ballardian cityscape, the epitome of postmodern pop. During the seminar, a connection was also made to Allen Jones’ pop art, and particularly some of his drawings which develop his play of both bodies and clothes (and genders). Kylie Minogue perhaps represents the other side of digital pop music, with Michael Jackson representing last days of analogue music making. They become intro and outro of form of pop music that is ‘perfected’ by the late 1990s, to the point of sounding hallow and flat.  An additional reason for the reference to Kylie Minogue came through Manghani’s drawing that was originally exhibited at the Practices of Research exhibition, and which was directly related to an entry he contributed to a book reimagining Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (see more). Thus, taken together, the kitsch dolls of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue were adopted as ‘models’ to explore simultaneously both physical 3D rendering processes and conceptual understandings of plasticity as evoked by the fine arts and cultural critique.

As can be seen with the images included in this post, the seminar worked through a series of different techniques. It began with recording the figures through photographic and digital means for processing in 3D printing softwares. This was a lengthy process, but requiring relatively straightforward and even imprecise means to gain ‘data’ for the softwares to crunch. There is certainly an element of ‘blackbox’ as to how the softwares treat the various inputs to render a three-dimensional figure. However, the process of looking carefully at the models, experimenting with the cameras, lighting and angles prompted lots of discussion and speculation. Working with a sculptor, it was also possibly to think way beyond the narratives that can be played with the two iconic figures and rather consider material processes. It was soon agreed that we need not only to experiment with 3D digital technologies, but also more traditional clay and plastic moulding apparatus. Two very prominent ‘outcomes’ of the seminar were as follows:

an ability to ‘think’ through process and material. Ian Dawson’s insights into the various processes and possibilities soon eclipsed the initial theoretical consideration of the figures. While their was certainly a confluence of ideas, the need to keep making – to operate through iteration, as a means of critical consideration – meant that the figures (and the processes we applied to them) became the real force within our collaborative thinking. It became necessary to try out different techniques and to have the opportunity to bring the various result together as quickly as possibly, which in turn prompted further ideas. The speed with which you can mock-up objects through 3D printing is of course a boon to the sculptor’s methodology.

a material consistency of time and space, or even time-space. From an intuitive way of turning the figures around in your hand to wonder about them, it soon becomes apparent how all of the various techniques for re-making and testing these figures operate through the means of rotation. The video at the top of this post shows the Kylie figure held (on the left) in the rotational moulder, which is a metal set of frames to allow rotation on all axis. On the right, she is shown rendered through 3D software, which again immediately provides the means to rotate in all directions. When a scan is first placed in the software there is no reverse to the image. We are familiar with a sheet of paper having both a front and back. In 3D software the image scan begins with no reverse. As you spin the object it simply disappears. In order to prepare for 3D printing it is necessarily build up the reverse. In a similar way when a mould is placed in the rotating metal frames the ‘object’ has no surface, it is merely outlines by the mould. Liquid plastic is poured in and rotated to gain a even coating, which then effectively gives the object its outside and inside. While all very simple to comprehend the two days of the seminar repeatedly foregrounded this principle and its consistency through many different processes.



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Writing as Making

For a final seminar of the autumn semester 2015, Writing as Making, we gathered for two days to work as a community of writers. Picking up from the Practices of Research exhibition that was held in 2014, which presented work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff, the idea for this seminar was again to acknowledge the diversity of research practices but also the fact that a written component must be submitted for all examined research, whether practice-based or not. As the rationale for Practices of Research put it:

Studio-based researchers in art and design work alongside those engaged in humanities and social science research, covering areas of art history, critical theory and curatorial practice, as well as the management and marketing of advertising, design, media, fashion, textiles and luxury branding. All researchers at the School are engaged in the critical making of new knowledge: each moving in and out of complex and disciplined modes of activity. Whether it is reading, writing, looking, making, coding, speaking, recording, and much else besides, each are forms of imaginative and critical engagement, developed and extended within the context of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research community.

As a form of writing retreat, the primary aim of Writing as Making was to provide dedicated time to write, but also to share in the act of writing, and as such to reflect critically on various strategies. There were three main interventions. Firstly, all participants were asked to consider how at sentence level they pursue a form of critical writing. A simple technique used in schools known as PEA or PEE (Point, Evidence, Analysis, or Explanation) was put before everyone, in effect as a provocation, to question how both arguments and analysis are drawn out from the materials we are citing and synthesising. Like the writing through a stick of rock, are the points we wish to make working their way through each and every sentence. Is there an underlying coherence to our work?

A second intervention was a typewriter. This was placed in the room on its own desk, with all participants encourage to take ‘time-out’ from their own work to experiment with this now defunct tool for writing and printing. As Friedrich Kittler suggests, ‘[r]eading functions as hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines’, and as corollary to which the medium through which we write effects how we think (or ‘hallucinate’). According to Kittler, when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche turned to using the typewriter his prose ‘changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style’. Part of the change in style reflects the practicalities of using the device. As Emden suggests, Nietzsche found using the typewriter ‘more difficult than the piano, and long sentences were not much of an option’. With Nietzsche’s eyesight failing, the ability to ‘feel’ his way through writing was appealing, but arguably the technology then has a profound impact on the status and nature of his philosophising. As Kittler writes:

Neitzsche’s reasons for purchasing a typewriter were very different from those of his colleagues who wrote for entertainment purposes, such as Twain, Lindau, Amytor, Hart, Nansen, and so on. They all counted on increased speed and textual mass production; the half-blind, by contrast, turned from philosophy to literature, from rereasing to a pure, blind, and intransitive act of writing.

Quite aside from any romance we might now associate with the typewriter – as a signifier of a golden age of modernist writing and criticism – the clatter of the machine proved too much for some of the seminar participants. While individuals became quite engrossed in typing, the thud thud of the device meant others buried themselves in their headphones to listen privately to music as they worked.

The ambivalence of the typewriter in the room (and the wild sheets of paper that came out of it) relates well to the writer, Walter Benjamin, who became the third intervention for the seminar. In his One Way Street, published in 1928, Benjamin argues, in a section titled ‘Teaching Aid’, that the typewriter ‘will alienate the hand of the man of letters from the pen only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the conception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of the hand with the innervation of commanding fingers.’ However, it is in the section shortly after this, ‘Post No Bills’, that gave impetus for a collaborative outcome of the seminar. In this section, Benjamin offers ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’. All participants were invited to contribute an entry for a new version, or re-making of this text. What emerged was a highly eclectic set of thoughts and missives. Of course, unlike the authoritative (even pompous) voice of single author, as in the case of Benjamin, the new text presents a much more heterogenous and fragmentary set of voices. It is also a much more immediate text, like a diary digest of the two day seminar marked out as concrete poetry, and which in fact we did choose (against Benjamin’s wishes?) to display as a bill poster for the Re: Making exhibition. Click on the image image to download a PDF version of the wall poster. As a document it quickly reveals writing as practice, as a working and re-working of texts in pursuit of new thoughts, images and confluences





Benjamin, W (1997) One-Way Street, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. Verso.

Emden, C. (2005) Nietzsche On Language, Consciousness, And The Body. University of Illinois Press.

Kittler, F. A. (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Standford University Press


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Re: Making

Re: Making
L4 Gallery, Southampton
13 February to 8 March, 2016

‘…what of the artists, the makers, how do they make decisions? …now an artist is as likely to atomise or extrude or draw, print, wear or perform with objects as part of an adaptable practice. And since art has been transformed into aesthetic communication it is no longer traditions but messages that count…’ – Ian Dawson, Making Contemporary Sculpture, 2012, p.9

‘I don’t think it makes sense to untangle the picture (as material) from the image (as immaterial). […] Somehow we get snagged by a desire, an objet petit ‘an’, to theorise the image as a singularity, rather than reimagining and enacting theory around its multiplicity.’ – Sunil Manghani, ‘Images: An Imaginary Problem’, 2011, p.228.

This exhibition documents three PhD seminars that each ran between 2-3 days at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. Underlying Re:Making is a consideration of what it means to make and re-make ideas, objects and processes. Each seminar centred around key prompts or challenges for collaborative engagement, but without necessarily stipulating required outcomes. Instead the sessions were intended as a open spaces to explore and experiment. Working together we can observe and draw upon the range of decisions we each seem to make intuitively as we approach the ‘research’ in hand. In part a response to Ian Dawson’s suggestion from a previous seminar, the aim was to work together, and intensively, to question what it is we do and think when making, writing and researching. Taken as a whole, Re: Making asserts we might need to make before we think as much as we think before we make.

Prompts were provided to explore different modalities of making as follows:

  • Reading Room was the re-creation of an exhibition of artists’ books that had originally shown in India. The artworks were brought into dialogue with the School’s own collection so reframing and re-tracing thoughts, beliefs and emotions within the boundaries of a book and the cultures in which they circulate. In this case a 3-day seminar ran between Wednesday 28 and Friday 30 October 2015, with the Private View of the exhibition held in the evening of the final day. See more…
  • Plastic Surgery (held on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 November 2015) took two icons of ‘plastic pop’, Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue, as ‘models’ to explore simultaneously both physical 3D rendering processes and conceptual understandings of plasticity as evoked by the fine arts and cultural critique. Taken together, Re: Making asserts we might need to make before we think as much as we think before we make. See more…
  • Writing as Making was a study retreat for dedicated time to write, to share in the act of writing, and to reflect critically on various strategies. The seminar was held on Wednesday 9 and Thursday 10 December 2015. One outcome was a re-making of Walter Benajmin’s ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’, which quickly reveals writing as practice, as a working and re-working of texts in pursuit of new thoughts, images and confluences. See more…

Of related interest, see also:

  • Drawing Together  – a participatory outdoor drawing event, co-orangised by Cheng-Chu Weng and Sunil Manghani. The event was held on Saturday 17 October 2015, 11am – 1pm at the Discovery Centre, in Winchester and was part of the wider programming for 10 Days, Winchester’s  biennial, interdisciplinary, arts festival. Through the medium of chalk and shadows Drawing Together sought to bring people together in a shared act of drawing. Visitors to the Discovery Centre were invited to draw together as a means to draw each other together if only fleetingly, just as our shadows are mere fleeting images of ourselves. See More…
  • Practices of Research – as a precursor to the Re: Making seminars, a collaborative exhibition, Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research, was held at the L4 Gallery in early 2014. The exhibition presented the work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff from Winchester School of Art (WSA). Taken together the works offered a series of images, texts and objects, helping to think about different ways of seeing, thinking, writing and making. See More…