The world?s first 3D-printed gun known as the Liberator has been treated as a technological marvel and a terrorist threat. Now it?s officially become a work of art.
On Sunday, London?s Victoria & Albert museum of art and design announced that it?s buying two of the original Liberator printed guns from their creator, the libertarian hacker non-profit known as Defense Distributed. The museum is acquiring the guns and a few other printed gun components for an undisclosed price, and will display them during its ongoing Design Festival.
Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed?s founder, tells me that he?s happy to see his 3D-printed gun recognized by the museum as the incendiary political symbol he?s always intended it to be. ?I don?t see it as an art project, but it has an artistic sensibility about it,? he says. ?It?s a kind of demonstration, proof of the direction of of our technical future.?
Treating a 3D-printable object as a rare work of art might seem strange, given that the museum could have simply printed the gun rather than buy it. But Wilson says that the weapons purchased by the V&A were ?authentic? in the sense that they were both fired in Defense Distributed?s early testing. One of the pistols, in fact, had its right side blown off in the group?s?first ill-fated experiment with higher-caliber ammunition.
In its announcement of the acquisition, the V&A didn?t fully explain its interest in the Liberator, but?noted?that it?s ?sparked intense debate and upended discussions about the benefits of new manufacturing technologies and the unregulated sharing of designs online.?
Since the Liberator was?first created and demonstrated in May, a?video of the gun?s first firing by hand?has received more than 3.5 million views.The debate has included public comments from Senator Chuck Schumer arguing that Defense Distributed?s work allows ?a?terrorist, someone who?s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon [to] essentially open a gun factory in their garage.? The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has called Wilson a ?hardcore insurrectionist? encouraging violence against the government.
Wilson denies advocating for violence, but says he sees his 3D-printed weapon as proof of the folly of government regulations like gun control in the age of highly distributed digital technology. ?The Liberator shows how the systems of order, with all their grandiosity, fall on its face,? he argues. ?You just have to find the right pressure point to prove it?s all a farce.?
In a?post on website of the the art magazine Dezeen?earlier this month, V&A curator Kieran Long wrote that ?ugly and sinister objects demand the museum?s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do,? and that ?museums should be topical, responding quickly to world events when they touch our areas of expertise.?
The controversy surrounding 3D-printed guns goes beyond art and politics: In May the State Department?demanded Defense Distributed take down all online copies of the Liberator?s blueprints, citing potential export control violations. Wilson says Defense Distributed has talked to civil liberties groups about mounting a legal challenge to that takedown order. In the mean time, he was happy enough to see the Internet demonstrate the futility of the State Department?s censorship as the gun blueprints were copied to sites like the Pirate Bay and downloaded more than 100,000 times in their first days online.
Wilson describes that censorship controversy as the ?ultimate achievement? of Defense Distributed. But he says that having the 3D-printed gun recognized as art is another victory for his group. ?What happened in May is getting put behind glass,? he says. ?It will now be this curated, permanent cultural provocation.?