The Work of Ceramic Art in the Age of its Digital Fabrication

A review of the "Data Clay" conference, held in San Francisco, February 2015

Janet Abrams, March 2015

 

The morning after the “Data Clay” conference at California College of the Arts, I went to the San Francisco Apple store to substitute my moribund iPhone 4S with its latest iteration, the iPhone 6, renowned from all those billboard ads featuring a free-floating slab of silicon-enabled prowess.  Entering the uniformly bright sanctum, its lumen quality familiar from every other Apple store, I determined not to be seduced by the performative ritual of purchase, and parried in as-best-I-could-manage unflustered tone with a young woman in blue t-shirt whose steely quizzing and swift tapping on her bulky POS device had all the charm of a border control officer.

 

After a scripted series of questions (GB, carrier, color — the Silver and Gold options being, metaphorically, slivers of bullion), another free-floating ‘genius’ placed a small white box in front of me, and stepped back. He gestured me to rip open its clear plastic shroud, a threshold marking the indelible moment of passage from ‘want’ to ‘own’ — albeit of an anonymous product, an empty vessel so to speak, yet to be differentiated by person-specific content.  More scripted actions followed, to welcome this object into the land of the living, by sucking in my data — mysteriously, magically — from ‘The Cloud

But then there was a stage in the ritual that ruffled me.

I was asked for my right index finger, and shown how to place it on a patch of the screen, where, over the course of a few seconds, an impression of my fingerprint emerged in red contour lines, filling in slowly as if with my own circulating blood. And again, another pressing of flesh to screen, so that the outer contours could also be captured…seconds in which I meditated on the technological advances that were mere predictions, science fictions, maybe 10 to 15 years ago, and have now become built-in aspects of everyday personal communications technologies. I thought about airport INSPASS identity-recognition systems, and retinal scan verification at cash machines, and the gamut of ways in which our most intimate and individual ‘selves’ are tracked, monitored, recorded and stored, digitally.

But most of all, I thought about the meaning of the fingerprint in this age of “Data Clay.”

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When ceramist Del Harrow first expressed interest in putting clay and computers together, when he was based at Penn State, his erstwhile Department Head retorted: “Well, that would be a mess!” 

But when he and architect Joshua Stein subsequently met, as fellow resident artists at the European Ceramic Work Centre in the Netherlands, they discovered a shared interest in how digital fabrication technologies might enable new or augmented practices in both ceramics and architecture, and a shared determination to “push against the assumption that clay is always about working with your hands.”

“Data Clay,” the conference co-organized by Harrow and Stein, held at California College of the Arts in February, was one outcome of their ongoing research collaboration. (Their concurrent exhibit, Data Clay: Digital Strategies for Parsing the Earth, continues at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design through April 19.) Refreshingly, this event was decidedly not a gathering of the ‘Usual Suspects’ at a ceramics conference, it being the first formal public dialogue between two domains that are currently enjoying fruitful new intersections. 

Ceramics and computation are complementary but also very different structures, both involving complex techniques, Harrow pointed out. But, as he also acknowledged, the relative newness of digital fabrication means there’s a tendency to “get lost” in the technical questions — a syndrome “Data Clay” was designed to avoid by sandwiching a keynote by ceramics 3D-printing pioneer Dries Verbruggen, of Antwerp-based Unfold Studio, between morning talks by practitioners (suitably replete with technical detail) and afternoon presentations by theorists/curators that placed the practitioners’ enthusiasms in a longer historical perspective.

 “The speed and ease of digital fabrication is not so interesting any more,” argued Stein, in his introductory remarks, but “clay provides a certain resistance that makes for a more robust practice, even if you’re interested in a digital practice.”

This theme — the speed, seamlessness and swift adaptability of code versus slow, tactile but finicky clay — permeated the entire day. Designed to approach“digital ceramics” from diverse angles, the talks touched on a remarkable array of topics: the history of mud buildings (architect Ron Rael, partner in the Oakland, CA, based practice Emerging Objects); architectural components modeled on cellular structures and biological systems (Jenny Sabin, also an architect, currently teaching at Cornell); the physical objects — notably the “Utah Teapot” and the “Stanford Bunny” — that have become “rock stars” in the digital world, as tests of the capacities of 3D modeling software (Verbruggen); George Kubler’s notion of the Prime Object, presented in his influential 1962 book The Shape of Time, and its relevance to today’s emerging realm of digital ceramics, so new as to lack a methodology (art historian Jenni Sorkin); and the provocative (but, I would submit, questionable) likenesses between Peter Voulkos’s hand-built 1950s sculptures and the shard-infested virtual forms — impossible to output either by either hand or machine — that result from hybridizing ceramic vessels of different cultural provenance using Rhino 3D modeling software (sculptor Stephanie Syjuco, currently running UC Berkeley’s Ceramics department, thus an academic successor to Voulkos).

In launching the morning session, focused on technique and notions of scale, Harrow posed several key questions: whether “robust production systems” are the primary goal of applying digital technologies to clay; what the relationship is between the developer and the end-user of the artifacts thus produced; and — most critically — to what extent technology dictates form. (For those in the audience with limited technical knowledge, it would have helped to have a handout with a glossary/summary of the software referenced throughout the day — a veritable menagerie including Grasshopper, Firefly and Rhino, with the odd Spider-bot, and the non-beastly GCode and RepRap.)

First up was Jason Kelly Johnson, who runs CCA’s Digital Craft Lab    (http:www.digitalcraft.cca.edu), which aims to operate at the intersections of software, matter and hardware; his students are busy mixing robotics and materials science, and attempting 3D printing in clay at hitherto unprecedented scale. They recently accomplished a quarter-mile long 3D clay print in the CCA foyer, and are aiming to use the old industrial gantry system in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco to 3D-print full size buildings.

Johnson’s talk was dense with images of busy youngsters working in the bluish glow of laptop screens, surrounded by complex improvised apparatuses squirting out threads of clay (or other substances) into 3D objects. The resulting forms are in a constant process of refinement via the computer, in a “control/pause/tweak sequence” that is “very much like a ceramist might have done in the past but doing it with code.”  

Searching for materials beside plastic that are suitable for 3D printing, the CCA students have explored not only clay but also salt deposition, printing in sawdust, and underwater printing in wax. The latter produced “rogue, unexpected forms” whose ghostly, amorphous weirdness offered a refreshing contrast to the by-now-familiar rhythmic layering of additively-printed clay. The students’ 3D ceramic prints had survived their firings with more or less grace: little mounds of thin coils, with the occasional “stutter” — in the form of protruding turrets — resulting either from errors in the output device, or inadvertent “atmospheric effects” such as a breeze from a window left open overnight in the studio, causing a “drift” in the clay printout. Some of them looked like experimental muffins that had sagged and sprawled in the oven, missing an ingredient or two. But whereas a ceramist might find the ‘failures’ among these test-pieces more appealing than the ‘successes’, Johnson talked purposefully of “finding the geometries that are inherent in the 3D printing process.”

“I’m very optimistic about what will happen when the worlds of computation and clay building are one,” Ron Rael declared, after a fascinating visual survey of the history of building in mud (the subject of his 2010 book, Earth Architecture). His talk spanned from the architecture of the Taos Pueblo to the use of clay as a “tangible interface” (in Tom Gerhardt’s 2009 project “The Mud Tub” in which hand movements, squishing around in a literal bucket of clay, control a digital interface). “I’m interested in all the things you can do with mud, literally, physically and conceptually,” said Rael. “It’s about taking an antique discipline and infusing it with relevance. This is a moment when a craft is conflating with something entirely new: computation.”

The idea of modularity as a means of achieving large-scale objects and climate control was exemplified by Cool Bricks, a new product developed by Rael’s firm — 3D-printed lattice-like ceramic bricks that convert warm dry air to cool moist air. Rael explained how the first prototypes had emerged from the kiln warped and deformed, and how this had led to the epiphany of “locking them together in 3D like Lego.” Several other examples of 3D printed bricks also showed up in the concurrent exhibit at the Museum of Crafts and Design: Jenny Sabin’s PolyBrick uses dovetail joints to obviate the use of mortar; while Dave Celento’s Digital Islam project explores 3D printing of the polygonal geometries characteristic of Islamic architecture.

Like Johnson’s CCA classes, Sabin’s “digital ceramics” courses at Cornell attract students from disparate disciplines — architecture, biology, and biomedicine — to jointly explore how generative fabrication can give agency to materials, and how buildings might behave more like organisms. Working together in a shared space that “leads to new ideas and questions,” Sabin’s students deploy 3D printers as “sketch devices” to look at part/whole and macro/micro relationships, maximizing the size of the “build-bed” through connected components. They’ve so far tested various powdered materials including high-fired stoneware, and dry clay mixed with organic matter (with glaze added for stability), for direct printing of parts or slip-casting molds.

An erstwhile ceramist, Sabin found herself “longing for more parameters, and for collaboration,” and quit clay to go into architecture. In a previous stint at U Penn, she began a long-term collaboration with scientist Peter Lloyd-Jones, looking at the networking behavior of cells and how they aggregate into complex structures — sheets, then tubes, then bodily organs. Her most impressive project to date similarly explores this notion of parts making up a greater whole: PolyMorph (also presented in the MCD exhibit) is a vast hanging structure composed of hundreds of slip cast ceramic modules strung together with stainless steel cable. One version is permanently installed in FRAC, near Orléans, in France; a small sample is also on show at SFO’s new Exploratorium. The project explores “how to spatialize a node into a network, and how to maximize the complexity of connections through simple rules” — in this case, the interactions of (two surfaces of) an isosceles and equilateral triangle.

The code may have been elegant, and the digital visualization of the triangles’ layout, in all their permutations and combinations, equally swift and impressive. But when it came to fabricating the triangular parts in clay, the whole project became altogether slower and altogether more precarious. Having CNC-milled 20 two-part molds of each triangular unit, Sabin hired two ceramicists to slip cast them — in a veritable production line, they churned out 90 parts a day — and a team of architecture students to thread them together. “What is fast on the computer becomes very slow and analog, and very much about the hand.” Weighing around 2000 pounds, the piece was nerve-wracking to produce, with no “Plan B” if anything broke.

“I’ll never do a project like this again,” Sabin pledged, confessing “a love-hate relationship with clay” but also “a body-knowledge in the material that I’ve come back to and relied upon in the last six years, working with its inherent properties of plasticity as a guide for transforming the behaviors we’re looking at.” One of her Digital Ceramics students was overheard describing the course as “terrifying,” because of the productive failures they go through, and the “unforgiving nature of clay as a design material.”

Andy Brayman, bearded and looking like a modern-day Messiah, introduced himself as “a studio potter, the only person on this panel not affiliated with an academic institution.” Having developed a (now-shuttered) business producing 2D ceramic decals, using water slide printing in conjunction with Photoshop and Illustrator software, he’s lately moved into using 3D digital tools, albeit “with some trepidation, because it’s perverse in a way: removing a part of the work that is so interesting: removing the hand. I enjoy the geekiness of it all and the process, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to good work.”

Rather than regarding 3D printing technology as a threat to the studio potter ethos, Brayman sees it as a means of “amplifying the hand,” with creative potential analogous to the effects of amplification and electrification on music. He’s experimented with direct CNC milling of plaster (the customary process — prototype, then mold, then cast — is “a feedback loop so long and painful it’s ridiculous”) and developed a CNC glaze-mixing machine capable of mixing 1000 glaze tests a day. He also deploys the “medium of data” in his form-making strategy: sensors outside his Kansas City studio gather weather data from a purpose-built station, and track the ebb and flow of the adjacent river to stretch or squash a vase, according to its water level. “Nature as Muse: I’m very aware of that being an old tactic of potters,” he noted, of this computer-enabled update on formal inspiration.

While digital tool-paths create marks that are “almost form-making,” Brayman admitted some frustrations using code. “Even with a visually-based programming language, like Grasshopper, the learning curve is still hard and steep, if you have a certain kind of personality. When it comes down to it, the physical thing is really the most important thing I contribute, and the physical output is the real bottleneck: it slows everything down. There’s a desire to mirror the speed and flexibility of the software.”

In her talk, Laura Devendorf cheerfully debunked the mythology of technology as a means towards some ideal outcome; indeed, her research (as a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information) aims directly at revealing the gap between our cultural expectations of technology, as a means to precision and efficiency, and what it actually delivers. With tongue-firmly-in-cheek, she’d attempted to make a ‘3D print’ at a larger scale than the build-beds of commercially-available 3D printers allow, using balloons for pixels, in a public (and windy) place on the Berkeley campus. Devendorf wittily recounted the folly of this endeavor, whose utter failure demonstrates the ‘lead balloon’ that technology often turns out to be. “I love meshing algorithms, but I also love drawing and working with my hands,” she said, explaining the apparatus she’s devised, for less than $50, to turn herself into a “3D printer” (as paradoxical as that sounds) with often hilarious results. Her work reverses the customary focus on digital “tools” as prostheses of the human body: in her version, the body — specifically one’s hands — becomes an output device that follows instructions meant for a machine.

Syjuco, like Devendorf, embraces ‘failure’ rather than attempting to brush it under the proverbial carpet. Indeed, she has found riches within the web archive of hypothetical 3D objects designed by people using Google SketchUp. In a herculean effort that took 14 hours a day for two months, she translated the computer files for these “handmade 3D modeling projects” into physical artifacts, presented in her installation Particulate Matter: Things, Thingy, Thingies.

Likewise, in RAIDERS, 2011, she purloined the collection of vases acquired by an unspecified (but likely San Francisco) Asian Art Museum. She printed out photographs of the vases to the actual sizes specified on the museum’s online archive, placed each image on a wooden backing, and lined them up on plinths so they look — from at least one viewing angle — like the real things. Knowingly traversing boundaries of copyright, Syjuco merrily claimed that “I stole the collection back, at least temporarily” — in a quid pro quo for the conditions under which this ceramic trove may have been assembled.

Syjuco, a sculptor now running a ceramics department, described herself as “unqualified but highly observant,” a relative outsider to the ceramics field whose approach is to “do something instinctively, then think about what you did, do the research, afterwards.” Nonetheless, her artwork addresses an impressive range of issues, from the politics and inequities of consumption, to the relationship between networked electronic devices and global flows of capital, to ceramics as a metaphor of colonialism. Her diverse approaches to “data” in relation to “clay” were among the most intellectually, and aesthetically, stimulating projects we saw all day.

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Certain key questions emerged from this conference that will continue to reverberate as the arena of “digital ceramics” evolves.

ACCESS TO TOOLS

There is the question of who has access to the means of digital fabrication — where the tools are available, who can afford them, and who has the technical prowess to ‘hack’ them — to build their own 3D printers or controllers, rather than purchasing ‘high end’ equipment from the major manufacturers.

There is the question of how academia will cope with the threats posed to its disciplinary structure, and accommodate, or stifle, the kinds of interdisciplinary collaborations this technology elicits and maybe compels — the “new spaces, new questions” to which both Johnson and Sabin alluded. In his opening slides, Johnson traced the evolution of learning spaces within architectural education over the past century, implying that their strict interior arrangements must give way to spaces more congenial to cross-disciplinary teams and on-the-fly assemblies of digital input and output devices — in proximity to kilns and glaze labs, if the output medium is clay. As Jenni Sorkin observed, during the morning discussion session, “There’s this real fear of the hand disappearing in academic arts programs. How do we develop a hybrid interdisciplinary practice — not quite art, and not quite science — within the silo'd academic world?”

 

FUNDING MODELS

Then there is the question of economics: who can afford to undertake these explorations, and how do funding models affect the character of that research?  How does the individual ‘studio potter’ integrate these 3D tools into his or her current practice, and how can they afford to do so — versus the professor within a major academic research institution, capable of pulling down multi-million dollar National Science Foundation grants to support their inquiries? The terminology and discourse of the NSF and other federal funding bodies are not exactly congruent with the discourse within the ceramics world as-is.

“My research is driven primarily by my curiosity, which is great,” said Brayman, “but I’d love to have more money to explore more areas. There’s a great trend in academia to publish and open-source information online, so I get some of those drippings.” 

Unfold Studio has gained an international reputation for its experimental projects — often very small objects made in short production runs (such as the products of Unfold’s Stratigraphic Manufactury [sic]) — which attract modest sales but massive publicity, thus serving as loss leaders for corporate commissions that actually keep the studio afloat. “There’s a massive gap between mass industrial manufacturing, and small scale craft manufacturing,” said Verbruggen.

Sabin described her efforts to maintain a clear boundary between the work she undertakes in her Cornell university “lab,” supported by government research grants versus the corporate commissions that she funnels through her independent enterprise, Jenny Sabin Studio: “It’s an intense learning curve, especially learning how to do this in an architecture department context.”

 

LOCALITY (CLAY) VS UBIQUITY (CODE)

“Dig a hole here, and dig a hole over there, and the clay will be completely different,” Ron Rael pointed out, of digging for adobe construction. An ‘intervention’ devised for the conference by artist John Roloff illustrated this important aspect: at intervals throughout the day, the characteristic odors of clay, gathered and bottled from different parts of the US, were wafted into the auditorium by means of electric fans.

The place-specificity of clay stands in stark contrast to the planet-wide accessibility and malleability of software, as a global community of coders uses off-the-shelf software programs, develops their own, and shares their creations through open-source protocols. “It’s really difficult to claim we’re producing a “local” artifact,” conceded Johnson. “Processing [a programming language developed by Ben Fry and Casey Reas] knits things together across the globe. It’s not regional; it’s highly interconnected — a meshwork of techniques — which should be celebrated.”  He and Brayman both tipped their hats to Verbruggen, whose generosity in open-sourcing his code has enabled them, and their students, to build significantly on his work.

 

THE DISAPPEARING HAND

The notion of the “hand of the maker” is fundamentally shifting: from the hand that touches and manipulates clay in a particular way, to the “hand” that conceives and develops the software that controls the output of clay (and other materials) by digital devices — a ‘signature’ more akin to that of a musical composer than a craftsman working directly in physical materials.

Sabin talked about the “specificity of the hand in tooling,” and how people are now “moving away from stock software, and marrying that with the work of the [physical] material itself.”  Johnson says he’s often asked, “Where’s the thumb? Why can’t I see your impression, your physical sweat and effort?” He parried that “I really don’t see that as the necessary defining feature of hand-crafted, or human-crafted objects. Through coding and machine building, we’re building a ‘thumbprint’ that’s highly unique.”

The flip side of this issue is that much of the work that’s been produced thus far has a dispiriting sameness to it; there’s a kind of sterility to its ‘complexity’, a quality of machine-regulated ‘precision’ that can quickly become tiresome on an aesthetic level. This was my gripe with the Data Clay exhibition: moving around from project to project, one sees different scales of ‘problem’ being ‘solved’ in apparently similar formal ways; the underlying algorithms produce flourishes of ‘difference’ that are somehow less alluring than those that result from ‘errors of the hand’ — the kind that draws one’s eyes to a hand-made vessel, and picks a particular one from a batch thrown by the same potter. The question duly arose, during the conference, of how to “code imprecision to produce richness.

The idea of the “agency” of materials — or as Devendorf put it (citing post-human theorist Jane Bennett) “material recalcitrance” — percolated throughout the day’s discussions. Sabin asserted that “software is a kind of material; it’s not just about pushing a button. There’s inherent authorship: you see that in the work of Casey Reas.”

But earlier in the day, Brayman had already put the whiz-bang of digital fabrication in perspective, emphasizing clay’s multi-millennial legacy. “It’s massive: its connection to its past is powerful in a way that styrene’s is not.” 

 

LUXURY, CLASS, AND THE POLITICS OF MAKING

The politics of digital fabrication finally erupted in the closing discussion, escalating in a spat between Sorkin and Johnson, over the issue of child labor in the manufacture of consumer electronics:

Sorkin: Your image of 500 girls in a tent brings up that there are places in the world where there are such girls, making smart phones for us to have our leisure.

Johnson: That’s just a pessimistic viewpoint.

Sorkin: Or is that your white male viewpoint? We have to start by acknowledging privilege.

Ron Rael diplomatically stepped into the fray, arguing that Johnson’s teaching “empowers his students to think about making, so they understand what making is.” He recalled one of his own students naively proclaiming: “We’re at this point in history where we can make anything!” — a typical mantra of “Digifab” enthusiasts. As Rael observed, “Most of the planet is making stuff all the time, and it’s taken for granted. The ‘Maker Movement’ is a celebration of the affluent, finally taking time to make things because they can.”

 

DISRUPTIVE OF WHAT?

In the end, the conference raised, but inevitably couldn’t fully answer, such fertile questions as where the boundary lies between material and technology, and how to bring the digital medium to a tactile material. Noting that digital technology is often considered “disruptive,” Brayman asked: "What does it not disrupt?" Sorkin responded: “It’s disruptive to people’s attention span. It takes a certain amount of boredom to make things. There’s something very pampered about a generation that doesn’t tolerate boredom.” 

Hardly boring, Data Clay was a harbinger of many conversations to come, as digital technologies continue to disrupt and reconfigure hitherto stable categories of professional identity and activity — for architects and product designers, as much as for artists, teachers, and potters. A first positive step, Devendorf proposed, would be “to come up with a term that doesn’t divide thinkers from makers.” As Stein put it, in his closing comments, “There’s something beautiful about the fact that nobody knows what it is: a ‘Digital Ceramist’.”

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A few days after the Data Clay conference, having resumed work in my studio, the effects of clay on my hands are such as to create cracked sandpaper where smooth skin once was. I place my finger on the screen, and nothing happens.

“Try again” my iPhone coaxes, the text wobbling from side to side like a shaken finger. “Touch ID does not recognize your fingerprint” comes the reprimand. I am refused admission, except by pincode, to my own data.

In this digital age, a physical fingerprint — even of one’s own digit — is no longer enough.