MIT’s visiting artist envisions floating, 3D-printed sculptures lighter than air

Floating An Idea

MIT’s visiting artist envisions floating, 3D-printed sculptures lighter than air

A view of the Orbiting prototype on display. (Courtesy MIT Media Lab)

Thom Kubli, the current Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST) visiting artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), came to the institution with an interest in seemingly magical devices with functions less practical than metaphysical. In collaboration with members of the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, the artist and composer has been developing a machine that can 3D print objects light enough to float upwards once assembled.

Kubli first tinkered with the concept in 2016 with Black Hole Horizon, an installation at the electronic arts festival Ars Electronica that comprised three horns that generated large soap bubbles in relation to the noise produced. Kubli’s installation statement read that “visitors could walk through the room witnessing the transformation of sound into ephemeral sculptures, which last only for seconds before their material remains were deposited on the walls and floor.” Hiroshi Ishii, director of the Tangible Media Group, was in attendance during that year’s exhibition and later invited the artist to produce a more rigorous version of Black Hole Horizon using the Media Lab’s resources and knowledge base. “We at MIT do very scientific, analytical, pragmatic work,” Ishii said in a statement, “But also I strongly believe the artistic, also poetic, aspect is very critical to inspire people.”

If all goes well, the final product, Orbiting, will be an “aerial archive” of helium-filled, 3D-printed objects that symbolize modern cultural and technological achievements. They will be printed from a small machine set in the center of a room, then float upwards and get caught in a thermal stream installed on the ceiling to produce a mobile-like installation that will last for a few minutes at a time before its elements gently fall back to the ground. For Kubli, the execution of the project neatly combines the dual interests in art and science that have made the Media Lab what it is today. The concept of weightlessness is one that has challenged engineers and artists alike.

The dilema currently facing the design team is developing fabrication technology that can produce sophisticated geometry using a process similar to that of a bubble-blowing machine. “No one has ever made a machine that produces a floating object,” said Kyung Yun Choi, lead researcher for the project. “So from the scientific or engineering point of view, it’s really interesting and very challenging,”

Previous CAST visiting artists have similarly walked the tightrope between science and design, including Tomás Saraceno, Trevor Paglen, and Diemut Strebe.