Why Not Hand Over a Shelter To A Hermit Crab – MEDA301

MEDA301 – Materialising the Digital – Sam Cavanagh

Why Not Hand Over a Shelter to Hermit Crabs by Aki Inomata explores the concept of geopolitics and the construction of land as human property (Inomata, A. 2010-16). Through the application of Computed Tomography (CT) scans, Inomata utilises 3DCG data to design 3D printed plastic shells. Hermit Crabs behaviour of shell acquisition allows for Inomata to express the social context humans and crabs have relating to ‘property.’


CT Scanning is the process in which geometry processing produces imagery ‘slices,’ allowing for an understanding of the composition of the object without physically manipulating the material (NIH, 2017).  While often associated with medical imaging, the process of CT Scanning and its consequence is increasingly being understood as an art, with Dr. Kai-hung Fei adding colours to indicate further patient information rather than standard grayscale (Herman, J. 2017).

(4th Ventricle of the Brain + Roof of Mouth, Source)

This is the reflection of process art, the movement in which the end-product isn’t the artistic value, but rather the activity of gathering, disseminating and construction of materials and ideas develops as the creative product (Tate, 2017). This is explored by Inomata through the capacity to understand what information the geometry processing represents. According to Botsch et al. (2010) geometry processing (or polygon mesh) is the study that concerns mathematics and computer science to produce algorithms that manipulate geometric data. Without exploring the mathematics heavily, for the process to occur Inomata had to understand the properties of a shape, and the stages associated with shapes to ensure those properties correlate to the natural geometry and topology of hermit shells.

The stages of a shape is represented through

  • The birth; represented through models, mathematical representation or a scan.
  • Subsequently the shape can be edited and manipulated.
  • Life; the shape is produced and consumed.

Once achieved the process of slicing occurs, in which the model is converted into a series of thin layers, producing code allowing for 3D printing software to understand the model. Through additive methods, the printer builds upon the substance through layering and achieves the noted product.  

Why not hand over a shelter to Hermit Crabs not only explores the mathematical and technological artistic process, but questions the understanding of material and what information the substance represents as a consequence of a digital platform; is Inomata’s product a true shell, or is it a representation. This is studied by that of substance theory in that the objecthood of the shell is distinct from its properties (Langton, R. 2004). With material only experienced through its properties, it becomes difficult to determine the true aspect of the object. This is explored by Kosuth, J. (1965) in One and Three Chairs, in which a chair, a photograph of that chair and the dictionary definition of a chair are presented, framing the question as to which is the real chair. Zelinskie, A (2014) One and One Chair further explored this relationship through digital technology 3D printing a chair.

Source 1, 2

Digital art has often been defined as immaterial, with the representations occurring in digital spheres. However as conceptual and practical art increasingly derives from digital forms, and manifests into the physical Paul illustrates this as neomateriality. Paul, C. (2015) suggest that “neomateriality captures an objecthood that incorporates networked digital technologies and embeds, processes, and reflects back the data of humans and the environment, or reveals its own coded materiality and the way in which digital processes perceive and shape our world.” Thus the code exhibited by Inomata’s process engages with the neomateriality as the result of CT and 3D printing data and its indendepanancy to the material framework of the shell (Paul, C. 2015).

We can identify the link between crab property and human property through the incorporation of well known buildings, the vatican and New York highrises, as reference to the shell as human architecture on a separate scale (Singhh, S. 2014). This begins to build upon the aesthetic structure of not only buildings, but the organism’s relationship to the infastructure. Dewey, J. (1934) states that art does not exist physically, but in Dewey’s perspective the art is represented by what the physical work does within the experience. Dewey uses the example of the Pantheon, in that for an individual to understand its impressive context one must study the cultural framework that Athen’s society and the ‘civic religion its citizens expressed.’ We can apply Dewey’s Aesthetic Theory to the physical representation of Inomata’s work, as one must first understand the context of Inomata’s belief of peaceful acquisition. Moreover that the idea of a hermit crab’s natural shell is art. Through the concept of aesthetic in the raw, in that the aesthetic develops through the positive immersion in the activity (Dewey’s example of poking fire and the reaction that occurs). Thus if an individual gains enjoyment from natural occurrences then the shell acquisition, in itself, is aesthetic.

Thus as we consume Inomata’s work we develop an experience. According to Dewey, J. (1934) an experience only occurs once the material is satisfied. As the individual attempts an idea or challenge, that framework determines the structure of the process, and will continue to do until “the self and the object are mutually adapted.” This is a reflection of concept of process art discussed earlier, with the value and meaning Inomata’s experience with the exhibition that was the inspiration, to the study of Hermit Crabs through to the final design and display.

While the material and process is fundamental to Inomata’s work Why Not Hand Over a Shelter to Hermit Crabs, beyond the subject properties, explores the conceptual notion of acquisition and property. Illustrating (Inomata, A. 2010-16) that the peaceful exchange of land between countries, the definition of the land and how it represents a similar exchange in hermit crabs. We can associate the human-crab relationship to that of vacancy chain theory (VCT). VCT demonstrates the process in which limited resources, such as land, disseminates through human population (Rotjan et al. 2010). In human conditions when the resource is introduced to the social structure is consumed by first applicable individual, that individual’s previous resource is then left available to subsequent consumers.

According to Rothan et al. (2010) in crab model systems one vacant shell produces a new system of switching shells. Rotjan et al. (2010) states that shell (and human) acquisition is often violent, with synchronous acquisition leading to crabs in shared environments competing for the greatest benefit. 



Thus Inomata explores the conceptual idea of human asynchronous exchange (her noting the France-Japanese Embassy Exchange as the core inspiration). This is demonstrated in her live instalment through only having one crab within the environment to prevent risk and aggregations.

The underlying concept emphasised is human history of violence towards territory and structures (Jerusalem during the Holy Wars and The Great Wall). According to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) (2017) art stimulates definitive conditions within the ‘aesthetic infrastructure with these experiences interact with the human frame of the world, and produced through engagement with the environment and product. The USIP illustrates that the arts community, particularly Inomata’s work, produces the capacity of connectivity, exchange and inspiration.   

Why Not Hand Over a Shelter to Hermit Crabs primarily explores the human-crab vacancy theory and the consequence of non-violent exchange, expressing an underlying political concept and challenging what is often a conflicting environment. This is achieved through utilising geometry processing to 3D print plastic shells applicable for Hermit Crabs. Applying neomateriality Inomata’s work explores the relationship between digital and physical material with the artistic process occurring via CT scanning and 3D printing technology. This challenges the idea of objecthood, and whether the 3D printed object is a true construct or a representation. Dewey’s theory of aesthetics builds upon the idea of process art, and attempt to understand the experience created by Inomata. Consequently we have a multi-layer product full of interpretations beyond Inomata’s description.



Botsch, M. Kobbelt, L. Pauly, M. Allienz, P. Levy, B. (2010) Polygon Mesh Processing, A K Peters, LTD. Natick, Massachusetts, viewed 25.04.17 <ftp://nozdr.ru/biblio/kolxo3/Cs/CsCg/Botsch%20M.,%20et%20al.%20Polygon%20mesh%20processing%20(AK%20Peters,%202010)(ISBN%201568814267)(C)(O)(243s)_CsCg_.pdf>  

Dewey, J. (1934) Dewey Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, viewed 28.04.17 <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-aesthetics/#LivCre>

Herman, J. (2017) Psychedelic images from inside your body, SLATE, viewed 28.04.17 <http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/05/09/dr_kai_hung_fung_using_ct_scans_of_the_human_body_to_create_fine_art_photos.html>  

Inomata, A. (2010 – 16) Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs? Aki Inomata, Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital, Powerhouse Museum, viewed 22.04.17 

Langton, R. (2004) Elusive Knowledge of Things Themselves, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol 82, No. 1, viewed 22.04.17 <http://web.mit.edu/langton/www/pubs/ElusiveKnowledge.pdf>

National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (2017) Computed Tomography (CT), Science Education, viewed 26.04.17 <https://www.nibib.nih.gov/science-education/science-topics/computed-tomography-ct>  

Paul, C. (2015) From Immateriality to Neomateriality: Art and the Conditions of Digital Materiality, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, viewed 26.04.17 <http://isea2015.org/proceeding/submissions/ISEA2015_submission_154.pdf>  

Rotjan, R. D. Chabot, J. R. Lewis, S. M. (2010) Social context of shell acquisition in coenobita clypeatus Hermit Crabs, Behavioural Ecology Vol. 21 Issue 3. Oxford Academic, viewed 27.04.17 <https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/21/3/639/220022/Social-context-of-shell-acquisition-in-Coenobita>

Singhh, S. (2014) Aki Inomata’s – Why not hand over a Shelter to Hermit Crabs, ArchiSearch, viewed 29.04.17 <https://www.archisearch.gr/design/aki-inomata-s-why-not-hand-over-a-shelter-to-hermit-crabs-c/>

Tate (2017) Process art, viewed 28.04.17 <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/process-art>

United States Institute of Peace (2017) Arts and Building Peace: Affirming the Basics and Envisioning the Future, viewed 28.04.17 <https://www.usip.org/insights-newsletter/arts-and-building-peace-affirming-the-basics-and-envisioning-the-future>



One thought on “Why Not Hand Over a Shelter To A Hermit Crab – MEDA301

  1. Wow, some great research beginnings here Sam. The only thing I’d suggest is that for a piece of this length you are better to really focus on one theoretical avenue rather than several – it will provide the writing with greater focus, depth and coherence. There are so many complex ideas here I wanted to explore in greater detail and although I doubt it is actually the case it felt you were glancing off the surfaces of these concepts a little. Perhaps also its about being clear about why you are bringing these ideas to bear on this piece of work… how are they (work and theories) being used to support your own argument… (and what is that argument?)


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