Neri Oxman’s keynote presentation at the 2016 AIA Convention, in Philadelphia, piqued the interest of many in the design community on the ability of architecture to transverse many disciplines, scales, and objectives while spurring technological advances. “Vespers,” the latest work by the MIT Media Lab associate professor and director of the Mediated Matter research group, is no exception to the fantastical, morphological work that a trained architect can dive into and upend.
Now on display as part of the “Fear and Love” exhibition at the Design Museum, in London, Vespers is collection of 3D-printed, multi-material, and multi-functional death masks. The collection comprises three series—the Past, Present, and Future—each of which subsequently has five masks of “imaginary martyrs,” according to Mediated Matter’s project statement. The masks are actually not intended to “memorialize the dead,” but rather to “reveal cultural heritage and speculate about the perpetuation of life, both culturally and biologically.”
The current series on exhibit, Present, represents the transition between death and life. It serves as the middle ground between the notion of a death mask as a symbolic cultural relic—as depicted in the first series, Past—and as a functional biological interface, which Future will demonstrate. The Mediated Matter group has not yet publicly debuted the Past and Future series.
While the Mediated Matter group has previewed the Past series as harking to the origin of mankind, incorporating natural minerals associated with traditional death masks, such as bismuth, silver, and gold, the Present series explores the digital world with digital materials, tackling the question of “What are we?” Finally, the Future series of masks, which the group says embeds biological materials, asks the question of “Where are we going?”
With the help of spatial mapping algorithms, the “culturally coded surface colorations and truncated geometries” in the Past masks series become colorful strands within the Present series’ transparent and curved volumes, and ultimately “complex internal geometries” that will “support the re-engineered life” in the Future series. For example, viewers will be able to see a distribution of colors across the intriguingly named “crown of thorns” mask in the Past series become internal nerve axons in the same martyr’s mask in the Present series.
Vespers also serves as a time capsule of sorts, embodying the state of the art in digital design, additive manufacturing, and synthetic biology. The masks were printed using a multi-material voxel printing method that deposits layers of droplets sequentially in an “inkjet-printer-like process” onto a build platform. This allowed the team to specify the print medium’s physical properties—including stiffness, color, transparency, conductivity, smell, and taste—at a per-pixel resolution, comparable in size to a single cell. The Mediated Matter group developed the software to control the deposition of droplets.
The ability to fine-tune these properties could lead to the design and manufacture of advanced biomedical devices, self-healing materials, and highly customized building skins. “Imagine the possibility of 3D printing semipermeable walls [that] allow certain molecules or ions to pass through them,” the researchers write. As a result, they consider Vespers less a work of art and more as “speculative design objects demonstrating the use of novel, and very real, technologies. … Our projects require us to invent computational design tools and technologies to create them.”
Vespers continues the Mediated Matter group’s past research in projects such as “Lazarus,” a mask designed to contain a wearer’s last breath (and also on display at the Design Museum); “Imaginary Beings,” a collection of futuristic inventions that includes a breathable lung corset by Oxman; and “Wanderers,” a wearable that also functions as a microbial factory.
Oxman and her team were commissioned to create Vespers as part of 3D-printing company Stratasys’ The New Ancient Collection, curated by Naomi Kaempfer, Stratasys’ creative director of art, fashion, and design. Oxman's team includes Mediated Matter group members Christoph Bader, Dominik Kolb, Rachel Smith, Sunanda Sharma, and James Weaver.
Vespers is on display at the Design Museum, in London, through April 23, 2017.