Birth of a Cyborg: How 3D printing and virtual reality are bringing the “hyper-real” to life

An artist stands before a blank canvas, brush in hand, poised to create something new. He takes his first stroke, making a small shape in the centre before reaching out, far across the plain where you start to get a sense of something strangely human forming in the glowing continuous lines.

But this isn’t your traditional stretched canvas and acrylic. The brush is a HTV Vive wand and the “canvas” is invisible. It is virtual reality (VR) and mesmerising to watch as a figure grows right before your eyes, the artist’s movement a piece of performance art in itself.

“Drawing is such an organic process. When I take this into VR it becomes even more of a visceral act,” explains Hallidonto, the artist. “For me the ability to use my whole body becomes cyborgian itself using this equipment. I’m the creator, I’m creating a life form. I think the ability for me to actually bring a tangibility to these drawings, it’s not losing the essence of Hallidonto the artist, it’s actually, by virtue, bringing my whole essence into that piece.”

Hallidonto is a Scottish visual artist whose work, primarily drawings, paintings and sculptures, centres on the “Cyborg Manifesto”, a concept which explores the contemporary (in)human condition and dystopian imagery of the cyborg. “The children of the eighties are the prototypes of upgraded humanity” the manifesto begins, commenting on how humanity is being transformed by computers, television, cartoons, even alluding to Hallidonto’s own childhood which was filled with representations of the “hyper-real” such as superheroes and cyborgs.

“I grew up in the 80s so everything I remembered from the films, the toys that I had, were always about machines,” Hallidonto tells TCT. “When you think of sci-fi, it’s all about the future but sci-fi isn’t, sci-fi is actually articulating to you what’s happening now. It was always about that. The cyborg for me is more symbolic of the period where I grew up, my present, and the future. I think it’s very much the zeitgeist of this generation.”

Based in London, Hallidonto has been collaborating with the UK’s largest 3D printing bureau, Hobs Studio, for the last two years as its VR artist in residence, building on his cyborgian work and engaging the wider community around the studio with emerging technologies like VR and 3D printing. I speak with Hallidonto as he is in the final stages of new piece titled, “Birth of a Cyborg”, which brings this imagery into a different dimension using Tilt Brush, Google’s virtual reality app which allows users to draw in 3D in a virtual environment, and is set to go into physical production with 3D printing and casting later this year.

It’s the perfect example of blending the traditional and the contemporary. Far from replacing the act of drawing, digital technologies offer a new avenue and with it, new challenges, to create pieces that Hallidonto says would be impossible to make with traditional sculpting processes. Virtual images can be moulded in 3D, translated into 3D printable files and, using Hobs’ large-format 3D printing capabilities, brought to life with stereolithography (SLA).

“There’s always this uniqueness to the piece because I know I’m going to draw a figure but I don’t know how it’s going to come out,” Hallidonto explains. “It’s real-time and making decisions in real-time so that’s kind of a unique thing for me because it’s always a challenge. Then, how it is going to stand? How is it going to exist as an object within reality? Which is always a fascinating time.”

Hallidonto first started experimenting with VR when a friend, Luke Robert Mason, Director at Virtual Futures, brought him to Convergence, a music, art and technology festival in London, where onlookers were equally captivated by how naturally these dystopian human-like figures could be translated from a series of “funny lines”, as Hallidonto explains, to something real and tangible. 

“I don’t have any models or anything in my head, so this translation is amazing. I’m obsessed with the physically of these drawings, they’re actually tangible,” Hallidonto adds.

In the same way that 3D printing and other advanced technologies have been adopted by traditional industries such as jewellery-making or construction, for artists, these methods are not about to supersede pencil and paper. Though new to VR, Hallidonto had already worked with 3D printing back in 2008 during his degree show, long before the 3D printing hype reached its peak and is keen to emphasise that this project is not simply a case of using technology just because it’s the new kid on the block. Instead, the tool is incredibly complimentary to the subject and Hallidonto’s organic style of drawing.

“To make a sculpture bang on from one go is very unique and it’s never been done before until this technology came around so that kind of opened up a pathway for my work and it’s very fitting considering my subject matter,” Hallidonto continues. “Like anything else, it’s another tool for me to use but I’m always going to draw and paint as well in relation to it.”

The plan is to take the final 3D printed piece to a foundry where it will be cast in bronze and then brought back and exhibited in the heart of where it was “born” on site at Here East in Hackney Wick. The synergy between the organic and digital realms found in the cyborg feeds back into the material choice of the resulting sculpture, moving from the synthetic print to natural bronze. 

Hallidonto’s work is a commentary on how the concept of humanity is evolving. But the artist is also interested in not only the changing state of mankind but a new era of art itself. While the convergence of mankind and technology feels almost inevitable, could the same idea, the merging of the old and the new, be true of the sustainability of creative industries too?

“I think, possibility, now it’s the artists’ time to have their renaissance,” Hallidonto concludes. “The creators now actually have a chance to thrive so I think there has got to be bigger conversations about how artists are going to survive and I think having digital and analogue technology involved is just the start of it – not substituting one for the other, there’s got to be a dialogue between the two.”

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