Manchester Science Festival 2014: 3D Printing and The Sounds of Others at MOSI

Polly Checkland Harding

The technology behind MOSI’s two Manchester Science Festival exhibitions is impressive – but we found that there was more to discover behind scenes.

MOSI’s two new exhibitions – 3D: Printing the Future and The Sounds of Others, a Biophonic Line – are both visually gripping. In the first, a translucent synthetic heart, printed in resin to a design taken from the artist’s own MRI scan, glows just inside the entrance. There’s a 3D printer, busily building a new object in layers so sliver-thin that you don’t notice it growing unless you come back ten minutes later. The object behind it include a stainless steel engine, an architect’s model of a school and a miniature Statue of Liberty, all created using the same technique. One floor up, and the names of the animals whose calls play out in artist Marcus Coates’ sound installation pulse red in the deep darkness.

It’s easy to be intrigued by what’s going on – but as for a more detailed picture, a real insight into what you’re seeing? That you have to do a bit of digging for. Take The Sounds of Others as an example. The caption tells you that Coates’ “Biophonic line” shows a “taxonomy of communication” and that “we are invisibly linked to a wider community.” Words and phrases like linked, related to and connection all feature. But what, I ask Coates, does that actually mean?

“There’s a superficial thing – well, it’s not that superficial – that if you speed the call of a gibbon up it sounds like a canary,” he says. Apparently, at higher speeds a whale sounds quite like a bird called a redshank and an emu sounds strangely similar to the squirrelfish. I point out that a whale’s call might be like that of a redshank, at a certain speed, but if you sped it up slightly less, would it actually have sounded like a starfish? There is a pause. Neither of us is entirely sure what a starfish sounds like.

Coates goes on to point out that there are, at times, similarities in the behaviours or the physiognomies of the different animals, but that at other times, there aren’t – as with the emu and the squirrelfish. It’s at about this point that sound recordist Geoff Sample, who worked with Coates on the project, steps in. “This was very much just about following the sound of voice,” he explains. Here, Coates agrees: “In a way, it’s just a celebration of sound making – it’s just a celebration of what sound is. We’re very fixed on creating these patterns of connection; this is sort of throwing it open, and saying ‘How are we related to a fish?’.”

The point of this 3D printing is, apparently, far more niche than some people think

If you don’t put too much store by what, exactly, the connections being suggested here are, the installation itself is far more straightforward – mesmeric, even. The animal calls are mostly played out at their natural speed; you’ll recognise the busy twitterings of what’s identified as an Eurasian curlew on one screen, before it’s slurred and slowed down, only to be echoed by the sounds of a white-handed gibbon coming from the other screen. This tinkering with speeds fuses sounds from totally disparate animals, in combinations that can be odd, comic and often surprising.

3D Printing: The Future is, however, more clear-cut – although here, I ended up wanting more. What’s interesting about 3D printing is that it’s not actually a new technology – but it is finding itself in the news a lot lately. Paul Ryan from Hobs Reprographics told me that this is because the machines are now faster, and can print in a greater range of materials. Scientists are even printing with living cells. Yet Ryan debunked the idea that 3D printers are going to be in every household anytime soon.

The point of 3D printers is not mass production, but something far more niche. Used by architects for the past 15 years or so, they have now been picked up by hobbyists and inventors. They are ideal for prototyping, and, it turns out, stop motion animation; Bear on Stairs is a quirky little film made from fifty 3D printed figures. They are also being used in medicine, to develop tablets tailored to the patient or, as in one case, to grow a skull patch for a head injury.

There’s even a pair of underpants on show that are stretchier than any made using traditional manufacturing techniques. It’s just a little frustrating that, while both exhibitions raise lots of in-depth questions, the answers can be hard to find. It might be worth swotting up before you go – but whatever your level of interest, these exhibitions, both part of the Manchester Science Festival, are definitely worth a visit.

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