Shaping Things

Transposition and Mutation

During the Edinburgh International Festival, August 2013, we ran two interlinked events to stimulate conversation and practice about the use of 3D printers and the role of digital and social systems.

Part 1 consisted of a game of 3D Chinese Whispers that took place over 12 days between students of an Edinburgh School using a 3D printer as the medium of exchange.

Part 2 was a workshop with the members of the public that accelerated the process using plasticine, and across 15 people at simultaneously.

Part 1: Shaping Things: 3D Printing Chinese Whispers

On the 13th of August 2013 a rare plaster maquette from the University of Edinburgh collections, created by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, was scanned in a 3D scanner and printed using a MakerBot 3D printer.

On the 14th of August the printed head was taken to the Forrester High School in Edinburgh just in time for their first break of the day. Two students were given a small amount of white tack (like Blue Tack only white!) and given 10 minutes to add it to the plastic head. Immediately following their delicate additions, Scott Baxter sped back to the College of Art where Diego Zamora placed the model in to the 3d scanner. Two hours later Diego transferred the 3D file and began printing it on the studio MakerBot.

On the 15th of August Scott picked up the newly printed head and drove back to the Forrester High School to continue the process again with new students, and fresh white tack. The process echoed the classic Chinese Whispers game, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the mutated message to the group.

Eleven three dimensional whispers later the original head had mutated significantly through the process. Within five steps the head had already taken on a new look and began to change dramatically.

The Paolozzi plaster maquette from the College collection and students from Forrester High School adapting a 3D print

Following each iteration, the new print was placed on a plinth in the Sculpture Court at the Edinburgh College of Art and became part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The transposition of data and information from human hand, thru scanner, thru printer and back to hand, made explicit the glitches within each discrete process in the chain. For example over the twelve prints we discovered that the heads were shrinking at a fractional rate. For example, despite the scanner set copy at 100% and the printer set to 100%, the data file shrunk. As the nose grew as the students added more white tack, the printer couldn’t resolve how to support such a long, thin protrusion so it eventually fell off. Lines that appeared in the print following the first scan/print, became exaggerated as they were rescanned and printed over and over.

On reflecting on the process the David Clark, Head of Art at Forrester explored the unusual nature of the project, as students found them working on top of each others work, adapting it and transforming it. Caught in a linear path of steps, each of which was held in digital form, the students in many ways part of a process similar to when we work in a graphic package such as Illustrator. Able to reflect upon each move and decide to proceed or undo if we don’t like. Of course we didn’t let them use old data files, but arguably they could have done at any point.


Part 2: Shaping Things: Plasticine Chinese Whispers

On the 30th of August, two 2-hour workshops involved participants in a game of 3D Chinese Whispers using second hand figurines and plasticine.

Each participant was given a porcelain / ceramic figurine and a palette of different coloured plasticine and then asked to following the procedure below:

10 Take Object

20 Exaggerate, deform and/or accessorise object

30 Photograph object

40 Pass on object

50 Go to 10 and Repeat until Object #15

With 15 people working simultaneously the process was more than frantic. 15 people working at different speeds, 15 people all waiting for each step to be photographed, 15 people all waiting to pass-on and receive a model that they hadn’t worked on before.

Participants of the Shaping Things workshop at the Edinburgh International Festival

Nevertheless the results were exciting and very interesting.

The process prompted some interesting questions about the role of the objects and the interventions that people made:

What would a physical thing be like if it changed shape every time it was in the hands of someone new?

The method called in to question what it is means if we assume that in a network context the human relationship with physical objects means that we adapt them when they were in our possession. If an object is part data and part material then it is likely that the data dimensions of the ‘thing’ will transform our perception of the material object. Perhaps in terms of value, perhaps in terms of what we think it’s good for, it’s function. In these circumstances we asked the next question:

Perhaps in the future things won’t stop being made.

We are becoming aware of value chains. And that our relationship with a thing is only one small part of an objects path from cradle to grave. Sometimes secondhand goods make us aware of where they have come from (see Tales of Things), however the linear model of cradle to grave assumes that things increase in value until they reach the ‘plateau of consumption’ when they are sold as the ‘thing’ that they were becoming, and then decrease toward the grave (except for those antique or objects of particular provenance). Our second question presented a condition in which all participants adopted a position before the ‘plateau of consumption’. This position allowed them to know that the ‘thing’ hadn’t finished being made yet and that it would only continue to be being made.

Then maybe things won’t be able to be thrown away.

A condition in which ‘nothing is ever finished being made’ suggests a condition of potential for every object. A condition in which a thing has the potential to go somewhere else in the value-chain based upon it’s what it becomes in the hand of one person, and how the network sees opportunities for it within the network. Networked objects may well know what they can become by knowing what their current owner has done with them, and what someone else in the network needs. Participants drew connections to the way that glass is recycled – one mans bottle of beer, is another womans vase. But unlike the glass recycling process that is hidden from us, the new data-value-networks that replace value-chains will make transparent the opportunities for things to travel up, down and along the networks so that things keep being used, keep transforming.


The workshop went very well and everyone seemed happy with experience. People commented on the largely additive process and wondered what it would have been like to have simply been given a lump of plasticine to shape, rather than adding to the figurines. It transpired that people tended to not want to destroy peoples work and few actually broke pieces off in the act of transformation.

People also worried about the provenance of the figurines, and we told that we had bought them from local charity shops, and how that in a conversation with one of the shop assistants, we were told that figurines often come in to shops in batches. The batches were from peoples mantelpieces as their owners died or moved in to homes and couldn’t afford the space.

The final pieces were funny, disturbing, grotesque but always demonstrated a significant shift away from their original presence.

A Design Informatics Project
Developed and produced by
Chris Speed, Jane Macdonald, Diego Zamora & Scott Baxter

Thanks to:

Staff and students of the Forrester High School, Edinburgh.

All of the EIF Shaping Things Workshop participants.

Chris Barker, Siobhan Davies, Fabrizio Gesuelli, Duncan Shingleton, Fionn Tynan-O’Mahony

Keith Milne, Malcolm Cruickshank & Rob Davies


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