By Joe Ferguson
The tradition of working with clay is thousands of years old, but recently a group of artists, architects, and designers have begun to explore the fabrication possibilities of coupling the medium with digital technologies. Unlike engineered materials--like concrete, composite wood, or steel--clay has its own inherent qualities that make virtual predictions difficult. This unpredictability results in a practice that requires technical savvy, imagination, patience, and a craft sensibility.
Data Clay: Digital Strategies For Parsing The Earth is a new exhibit at The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco, California, that showcases the work of pioneers who combine digital fabrication techniques and ceramic materials. Below is an interview with one of the curators, Joshua G. Stein, who is head of Radical Craft, a Los Angeles-based studio that investigates the intersection of traditional craft and contemporary technology.
JF: Tell us a bit about the title of the exhibition. What is Data Clay?
JS: Data Clay comes from a larger initiative that I’m involved in organizing called the Data Clay Network. It’s a group of artists, designers, architects, people trained in ceramics, and people from outside of ceramics, who are all interested in trying to figure out what new fabrication technology means for ceramic production. There’s an idea out there that with 3D printing you have something on your computer screen and you simply click print and it magically appears. I want to make a statement with Data Clay that the materiality, the matter in and of itself, has information to feed into this relationship--clay has some data embedded in it. There’s information there prior to any of our ideas, and when we decide to work with it, it’s not a matter of simply imposing the logic of digital modeling and fabrication technology like an a priori design forced onto the world.
JF: What do you mean by “Digital Strategies For Parsing The Earth?”
JS: We wanted the title to contain some sort of paradox--the earth is not something that we typically parse out. The idea was a way of trying to stage a negotiation between something earthen--which in many ways we tend to think of as unknowable or dangerous, like mudslides, for instance--and something that we can manipulate with precision, something like steel, which can be assembled as discreet elements.
JF: What exactly do you mean that clay has data?
JS: In a way, all material does, it’s just that we use certain materials, or listen to certain materials, to varying degrees. If you aren’t listening to clay and put it into the kiln, it comes out on the other side and it's simply cracked. You have to anticipate how it will move, which may be different from the geometry that you're interested in imposing. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) doesn’t have grain, it’s inert, it has no voice, so it’s pretty workable. That workability is seen as a plus if you're just trying to get some kind of form you already have designed out into the world. Clay, however, requires more negotiation.
JF: How have digital technologies been received by those involved in traditional ceramic production?
JS: At the beginning there is always hesitation. There’s a concern that this will take the craft out of the process, and it absolutely could. People need to be in it for the right reasons— a love of the materials, a willingness to listen to the materials, an interest in solving problems, and a desire to work with it to create something you couldn’t have expected before the process started. I don’t think it removes the act of making or craftsmanship, but it does change it.
JF: Is there some commonality in the pieces in this exhibit?
JS: Most of the projects in this exhibit started in the digital realm. They start as a geometry that doesn’t have materiality, and then there’s this kind of challenge of getting that thing out into material that can be very frustrating in that it doesn’t always want to respond to gravity, heat, or moisture in a way that makes it easy to manifest that form. There are a couple of projects that started as physical artifacts that were scanned and then reproduced using digital fabrication, but those are the exceptions.
JF: Where do you see digital technology and ceramic production going?
JS: This is definitely part of a larger ethos of trying to understand the material world and the ecologies around us, and then trying to figure out how we can manipulate them in a non-domineering way. I don’t think that manipulation is one that’s about charging into the natural environment and having your will over it, but really trying to listen to the logics that are existing there and then trying to figure out how we can tap into those. We need to ask ourselves if digital technologies are allowing us to hear and perceive what’s going on in the material world around us in better ways, and then we need to figure out how to include our own desires as part of a collaborative event.
Data Clay: Digital Strategies For Parsing The Earth is co-curated by Joshua G. Stein and Del Harrow and is on display through April 19th. It will be accompanied by an all-day symposium on February 7th at the California College of the Arts that will discuss the future of ceramic production and digital technology.
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