Artist Dave Farnham: 3D printing, medical data and art

Lungs front‘One thing I would like to come out of this show is for someone to contact me and say, “I’ve got a set of dodgy lungs, would you like to 3D print them?!” That would be quite cool.’ Morbid curiosity is too strong an expression to describe Dave Farnham, but there is a subtle humour to this artist.

Previously known for his dazzling photography, where he used pyrotechnic fuse wire and toy soldiers to recreate battle scenes in his series ‘Dulce Decorum Est’, his 2015 work, combining medical data and 3D printing, made it to the finals of the Wellcome Trust Image Awards and brought him to the attention of Space to Breathe producers, Shrinking Space.

Lungs is a series inspired from very personal experience, as Dave explained:

‘A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer and I wanted to make a piece of artwork that represented her journey and she was good enough to allow me access to her medical data. From that I was able to print pretty much any part of her body, but I chose her lungs. Fortunately, she likes the artwork!’

The sculptures will next be shown at Somerset House as part of the weekend festival exploring air pollution in the capital, which over the past week has seen a ‘very high’ warning issued for the first time.

Although other artists who will exhibit at Space to Breathe work more closely on environmental matters, there is a beautiful utopian element about Lungs, ‘I quite like the fact that I put a set of lungs that are healthy into the exhibition.’

For Dave, air pollution is a new but pressing concern: ‘I hadn’t really thought about it much myself until I had kids and then you think, “Actually we live in quite a dirty city, with diesel cars constantly chugging up the road.” His immediate solution? ‘I guess move to the country?!’

If the longer commute does not appeal, the philosophy of beauty in Dave’s work might. When creating Lungs he was adamant that the cancer should not eclipse his friend, Caroline.

lungs side 2

‘I never wanted to print anything related to the cancer; I wanted to move away from it and make it a bit more beautiful for her. But now, since doing the 3D prints and discovering the medical advantages it offers, I would love to start printing things that are about lungs with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) or lung cancer; maybe try and put some of that medical stuff into the art work.’

‘But then you get the risk that it’s either too medical or it’s too arty because there’s a fine line between what is simply medically advanced and what is simply too arty.’ Although pleased to have mastered the use of the medical software to built the prints of body parts, he does not believe he would be ready to operate on people…yet!

With this boundary in mind, what does he think of the marriage between arts and science? ‘I think it’s great, but since doing these 3D prints I’ve realised I am going to have to accept being asked medical questions. I do research but mainly I come from an aesthetic point of view, and it just happens that every time I get new medical data the person I am dealing with is quite ill because you don’t usually get a CT scan of your head or your lungs if you’re healthy!’

Beyond Space to Breathe the view is busy, if not entirely bright: ‘A friend of mine had a brain tumour, so I have been doing some 3D prints of his head with the tumour in it, and I am also going to talk about my practise of using medical data in 3D printing on the weekend that the show opens. At the moment I am not trying to move away from the medical stuff but it is quite hard to get hold of medical data because you can’t get hold of people’s personal records.’

lungs side 1

Keen for more volunteers to provide data, in exchange he hopes people take a simple message about ‘the fragility of life’ from Space to Breathe, ‘Because I suppose I didn’t really question it until my close family and friends start getting affected by these things.’

Space to Breathe is a free-to-visit weekend of installations, talks, workshops and creative action in response to London’s air pollution crisis. Hosted at Somerset House, Space to Breathe is curated by Cape Farewell and Shrinking Space, in partnership with King’s College London’s Environmental Research Group.

Space to Breathe

Dates:  28 -29 January 27
Open: 12.00 – 18.00
Tickets: Free, drop-in
Address:  River Rooms, New Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA

To find out more about Dave Farnham or to volunteer your medical data for use in his work, visit his website here

Supported by: Arts Council England, The Physiological Society, King’s College London’s Environmental Research Group and Somerset House Trust. 

Interview by Ottilie Thornhill, Masters Student, King’s College London.