Clay, Computation, and Culture: Jonathan Keep & Tom Lauerman

Over the past couple of years i have been fortunate to get to know UK-based artist Jonathan Keep. In March of 2018 I was able to invite Jonathan to Pennsylvania to present at two conferences. We presented together at the 2018 National Council on Education on the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) which took place in Pittsburgh, with a presentation titled “Clay Computation, & Culture” which can be viewed here:

Jonathan also presented at the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing here at Penn State’s Stuckeman School of Architecture as part of their 2018 Flash Symposium. His artist lecture covers much of his career with an emphasis on recent developments in his studio practice. *the audio is poor for the first 20 seconds, and excellent thereafter.

Jonathan Keep interviewed by Tom Lauerman (excerpted)

*This text accompanied the presentation “Clay, Computation, and Culture” which was co-presented by Tom Lauerman (USA) and Jonathan Keep (UK) at the 2018 NCECA conference. A video of that presentation can be seen here.

TL:  I read a text on your website about the "Language of Pots" project, and the author describes you at that time as "a complete novice at computer technology". Fast forward a few years and you are doing pioneering things with 3D Printing. What was the spark that caused you to look anew at digital technology?

JK:

Around the year 2000 I was introduced to computer 3D modelling and being more interested in form rather than surface I became fascinated by just how powerful the technology was for manipulating form. Cloning, copying, mirroring and distortion through numerical values was giving me forms I would not normally have arrived at using conventional ceramic techniques. Slabbing offering a form of a certain quality, throwing being a centred symmetrical shape, coil building offering more flexible. At the turn of the century computer modelling (or CAD) had transformed how architects were visualising form so I was thinking why would potters not do the same.

Around 2007 I was invited to a symposium in Denmark around the use of computers in ceramics. By now I was getting more and more stuff in my computer and wanted to get it out as physical forms and 3D printing was obviously the way. At this symposium there were designers with stuff printed in plastic and plaster and the suggested convention was to do the same and take mould and then slip cast if you wanted forms in ceramic. This just did not make sense to me. I wanted to go just straight from digital information to ceramic form. Also I wanted the printer in my studio. I did not want to have to send work off to a bureau. I wanted a tool that could sit next to the pottery wheel in the studio and do the job. I wanted to creatively understand the tool and to be able to work with it. I believe in the process and the material to be incorporated into the contentment of the work.

So I began researching the possibilities of 3D printing in ceramic. At this time I was in contact with Prof Adrian Bower (originator of the pioneering RepRap open source 3d printer project)  and he said he was sure clay would be possible as an extrusion but a knowledge of computer engineering and computer code would be useful. Obviously I had neither but I did know clay so could begin experimenting with the extrusion using a hand-held syringe (analogue) that resulted in the ‘Syringe Form’ series.

I was rising 50 and on the assumption it is never too late to learn I thought I must teach myself computer coding at least. This was not so much to deal with the computer engineering  but more as a way of working creatively. I had found (the open source software package) Processing and really wanted to get to the point where I could grow pots in code.  I could see the possibility of virtually growing forms of much more complexity and interest with computational aid. Above all I believe an artwork should reflect the age in which it is made so considering we live in a digital age it is absurd not to be making pots using digital technology.

So although around the end of the 2000’s I was trying to get some kind of ceramic 3D printing going it was the Belgium, Antwerp based design couple UNFOLD who cracked it. In the Autumn of 2010 checking 3D ceramic printing on the internet Dries and Clair’s early experiments popped up. They had got an Adrian Bower machine that was by then being sold as a kit by a start up company here in the UK (Bits for Bytes) and replaced the plastic print head with a pressurised clay filled syringe. I contacted them showing what I had been doing with hand held syringes and we have been working together since.

TL:

Many universities are building out very comprehensive 3d printing facilities - however, the tendency is for these facilities to be almost completely hands-off. It's understandable, given the cost of equipment, the fragility of the process, and the carelessness of some students - but I'm always asking "what art movement can you think of in which the artist has almost no access to, or close oversight over, the means of production?"

JK:  

My observations are that because the hardware is what people tend to see they are of a mindset that that is what it is all about while I always place the emphasis on the generation of the digital content, not the output. On my visits (to schools) I always place stress on ‘new ways of working’ -  that it is not the printer that leads to new forms of expression but the whole tool set and first you must generate the work. The printer is just the output tool. I make the claim that however hard all the techie stuff is (keeping the printers running etc) it is even more difficult to come up with something worth printing.

TL:

I think it is fascinating and exciting that Processing is the tool you prefer for generating the forms in your 3d printed work. There are alternatively many more specific design software packages (both open and closed source) which provide a very visual representation of the object being designed.

Some design software even include "sculpting" tools, which resemble very closely in shape and intent, clay modeling tools such as a trimming tool, a needle tool, or a smoothing or shaping rib. Authors of those software packages seem to want to provide artists and designers with digital tools that resemble tools which are familiar. This is taken even further via input devices such as a pressure sensitive stylus, or at a more elaborate level, haptic feedback devices, as well as augmented reality and virtual reality systems.

So, in this vast software/hardware/accessory landscape, where great effort and resources are put into "blending" digital processes with real world sculpting methods, you have chosen, despite decades of experience with hand tools, to develop your forms in a far more abstract way, via coding in Processing. How does this layer of abstraction and/or translation inform your work?

JK:

It was that ‘blind forming’ in code that interests me. As you are aware ‘form’ is my driving fascination. So the question for me is then, assuming we and our psychological make up has evolved out of the same natural system out there in the wilderness what is the relationship between natural form and artistic form. I was seeing how scientist were gaining a better understanding of us and our world through computational modelling and thought why can’t artists be doing the same.

For me code becomes a material. When working on computer the code, the binary system and process of computation becomes the material with which I am working. As with working in any other material you want to learn it properties, its strengths, the processes that are required to transform or manipulate it. A commentator pointed out that this is the craftsperson in me and possibly it is but it’s the way I work. Now with the experience I have of clay as a material when I am working in the computer material I need to bare in mind the transformation that is going to take place between the digital form and the clay form and make allowances knowing that I am working in different materials.

TL:

When I teach proprietary and potentially expensive software I worry that I am setting students up for disappointment when they graduate and look into purchasing these software tools. You seem to use an entirely open source tool chain, which you may have gravitated toward for any number of reasons ranging from economics to politics. Your printer design is an excellent example of open source hardware. Is your use of Open source hardware, firmware, & software of tremendous personal importance?

JK:  

Thinking it through I have decided for me it is about self empowerment. I have asked myself why I am drawn to it, can I call it an ethos – the ethos of openness and sharing. I’m into it for economic (or anti-economic) reasons, political reasons, social reasons but ultimately it’s because I do not like being beholden to others. I like my independence and feeling wherever possible to be in control, be self empowered and that now rather broad swath of activities that has been clustered under Open Source offers that. I gather Open Source was first known as Free Software – free as in freedom. I like that.

In its very narrowest terminology I have not contributed to the Open Source community but only made use of it. Its origins referring to software code and I have not put any original code out there.  However in the broader use of the term, the ethos, yes it is where I am. But then even before getting involved in computers it was a mindset I followed happily offering my glaze recipes to be published

The first real experience was with the RapMan printer UNFOLD converted and I copied back in 2010. This was a flat pack kit offered by a UK company Bits for Bytes that had developed out of Adrian Bowers work at Bath University. 3D Systems bought out Bits for Bytes and stopped the production of the RapMan.  So all of a sudden access was denied to the kit I was using – a loss of empowerment I guess. It really brought home to me the importance of ‘openness’ not only for myself but the community of like minded folk.

While I had fallen into this way of working using open source software purely because it was freely available (Blender, Processing, Skeinforge) it was when I began doing workshops that its importance was assured.  Being self employed I did not have access to institutional licenses to proprietary software so the choice had been economic and pragmatic rather than I was steered away from other softwares. When I began workshopping it was so easy everybody would have access to the same software – there was no ducking and diving using illegal software or people barred from use because of price. From then it has become a point of issue. I do not buy software and it is with pride that I am empowered by the generosity of others to be able to do what I do.

So I guess in answer to your question as to whether Open Source hardware, firmware, & software is of tremendous personal importance the answer is in its broadest terms it is ‘me’. Thinking about it, it is not a point of importance but more of ‘identity’. I want to lead a good life that leaves as small a footprint as possible and that is free and open, as in freedom.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jonathan Keep Bio:

Jonathan Keep is a leading exponent of studio based ceramic 3D printing. His work is recognisable for an emphasis on form that he generates using computer code. Born in South Africa he lives in the UK and gained a MA from the Royal College of Art. Exhibits and lectures internationally.

Tom Lauerman Bio:

Tom Lauerman works within the overlap of sculpture, craft, and design. His work explores emotional capacities of constructed spaces. Tom received an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and BFA from SMU Meadows School. Tom exhibits nationally and internationally and is presently an Assistant Professor at Penn State University.

Thoughts on Teaching

My career as an educator began as a part-time teacher of 2nd grade art. A few years later I found myself teaching at Lillstreet Art Center, Gallery 37 ,and After School Matters, all of which are community-oriented programs addressing diverse populations within the city of Chicago. Higher education experience came a bit later as I briefly served as a part-time instructor at the College of DuPage, in Chicago’s western suburbs. Teaching at that time was one of a number of activities I cobbled together to create something like a basic income that allowed me to make and exhibit artwork.

A year or two later my wife, Shannon Goff, and I were very fortunate to have both been hired as adjunct instructors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over three years we learned innumerable things working at SIAC. Among the many perks of the place were the ability to pass in and out of the attached museum freely and an opportunity to work closely with colleagues including Matthew Groves, Helen Maria Nugent, Delores Fortuna, Xavier Toubes, and Katherine Ross.

We loved SAIC, but grew uncomfortable with the precariousness of our adjunct appointments. We made a clean break from the city of Chicago, gaining experience at a range of institutions including the Meadows School of the Arts and the Rhode Island School of Design. Over the years the two of us have taught at 9 different programs of higher education ranging from public to private, large to small, overlooked to overrated.

Our lives and our careers changed more abruptly in 2011 with the birth of our first child and our acceptance of two positions at Penn State University’s School of Visual Arts in 2011. While Shannon’s position was a tenure-track appointment from the start while mine was not. Encouraged by then Director Graeme Sullivan, I was able to propose and develop a number of new courses in the school’s curriculum, primarily around the area digital fabrication. Developing these courses was, and continues to be, a great thrill. I was able to work with students from a very wide rage of study and was able to pursue my own intense interests in finding connections between craft, art, design, and technology.

From 2011 to 2018 I was able to teach 13 different courses, 6 of which were courses I originated, having not previously existed in SoVA’s curriculum. Many were one-off special topics courses, but others have become fixed in the department’s curriculum. Over time, it became increasingly clear that the Digital Fabrication and 3D Printing courses were consistently well received and increasingly exciting to teach:

One thing that became apparent over the past several years was that a substantial number of students enrolled in the Digital Fabrication and 3D Printing courses come from areas outside of the School of Visual Arts. The 3D Printing class in particular has attracted a considerable following from students in Engineering and Material Science areas:

These students have added a lot to the course and to my understanding of Art/Science collaborative possibilities. Most of them have not enrolled in an art course previously and may have minimal awareness of contemporary art. However, they often bring a problem solving mentality and a technical savvy that allows for more nuanced conversations and interactions around technology.

In a perfect situation, I’d like to teach courses that were roughly 1/3rd art students, 1/3rd Design students, and 1/3 Engineering students. This would facilitate compelling cross-pollination and would enable students from all three disciplines to engage with collaborative work that can blur disciplinary constraints. The experience using our courses as a bridge between these disciplines has also caused me to reconsider my own education and influences. In particular, I find myself reflecting more on my mother’s work at Bell Laboratories and in the nascent computer industry in the 1960’s.

At the same time that we saw this interest in Digital Fabrication courses developing from students of Engineering and Material Science my own research was well received by faculty colleagues in those disciplines. This was particularly true in the process of developing the custom D.I.Y. clay printer I have used to create much of the recent work featured on this site. I was fortunate to be a part of a few grant initiatives around 3D printing, in particular a grant around the idea of mobile makerspaces, funded by the National Science Foundation. The influx of material and technical support from STEM disciplines has pushed our development of our own approach to clay printing forward tremendously and allowed us to make significant progress rapidly.


In the process of this exploration and experimentation in curriculum and collaboration I would occasionally feel overwhelmed by how fragmented my work at the University could seem at a given moment. I worried that I had been taking on far too broad a range of activities. As is often the case, small collaborations became the impetus for potentially larger collaborations and some potential projects emerged that were quite surprising and in some cases very far afield from my home base of studio art. Some difficult choices were made in recognition of the fact that not all paths can be followed simultaneously.

So, after a period of taking on new things, making new connections, developing new tools and new processes, I found myself contracting a bit in the last year or so. Giving thought to what the priorities should be from the perspective of making art, conducting research, and teaching in a classroom. This is ongoing work.

I can suddenly take a more aerial view of the situation, and move forward with more confidence. A colleague recently retired, making possible a tenure-track position focused on the work, research, and teaching areas I have pursued. After seven years of full time teaching at Penn State I am excited and humbled to have been appointed Associate Professor of Studio Art/Ceramics/Digital Design.

It is surprising to realize it has been 12 years since Shannon and I were first hired as adjuncts at the Art Institute of Chicago. I always feel as if I am just getting started, but the circumstances of a new position underscore this feeling. I’m hopeful that I can pursue a long career of teaching in which my work and research maintain relevance. I’m hopeful that where we are now is something like the End of the Beginning.



Materialize: words about the exhibition.

I was recently asked to be the juror of and featured artist in an exhibition titled Materialize, currently on view at the Robert & Elaine Stein Galleries on the campus of Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. The exhibition presents objects and installations utilizing a spectrum of digital fabrication tools in their making. The jury process has not only introduced me to the work of a number of compelling artists but also (thankfully) provided a moment of reflection from which this brief text emerged. It is intended as a snapshot of an emerging field, quickly coming into focus. I hope to soon post Images of the exhibition and highlight a few of the individuals participating in it.

Click on the image below to open the text as a PDF. 

Materialize runs through December 7th.  The exhibition will also be traveling to Purdue University Galleries (Fountain Gallery, Lafayette) from January 13 through February 21, 2015.


Media-n: 3D Printing Panel and Roundtable Discussion

Back in March of 2014 I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in a 3D Printing Panel organized by Tom Burtonwood and Rachel Clarke. The event was part of the College Art Association's New Media Caucus and took place during the 2014 CAA Conference in Chicago. 

An article detailing the event has just published in the journal Media-N. It is a good primer on the technology of 3D printing, some of it's current and future challenges, and a bit of insight into how artists will engage this technology.

Check out the article here, or the pdf version here

It was a great pleasure to meet all the other panelists, whose talks are summarized here:

Morehshin Allahyari

Jason J. Ferguson

Taylor Hokanson

Sophie Kahn

Tom Lauerman

Luis Navarro

Jamie Obermeier

Barbara Rauch

Kristin Stransky

David Van Ness

 

Open Source Shout Out (& my first D.I.Y. 3D printer)

From May until August, 2014, I made, unmade, and remade my first home-built 3D printer. It's based on the open-source RepRap project, derived specifically from the popular "Prusa i3" plan. Ultimately though, I redesigned nearly all the parts, even if much of my redesigning was subtle (rounding a blocky shape for example). The whole experience has been tremendously rewarding, despite the almost absurd amount of time committed. 

I suspect I'll build more. And I will post my design files someplace for others to re-use them or iterate them further if they choose. I had hoped one printer would be enough to satisfy my curiosity, but the project mostly ignited a desire to build many variations: a printer for clay objects, a printer for large objects, a printer for detailed objects, and on and on. 

Maybe more exciting than building the thing though, was becoming more familiar with the wonderfully deep resources and enthusiasm to be found within the expanding constellation which is the Open Source Hardware community. There is much more I could write on that subject, but maybe I'll just mention that I thoroughly enjoyed trying to comprehend the remarkable work of open source pioneers like Adrian Bowyer, Massimo Banzi, Casey Reas & Ben Fry, Limor Fried, Marcin Jakubowski, and many more. Within the specific context of 3D printers I've been fascinated by the huge range of designs proposed, built, iterated, and shared by people like Richard Horne, Nicholas SewardJonathan KeepJoseph Prusa, and Alessandro Ranellucci. I know none of these people personally, but I am inspired by the remarkable things they have created. I'm even more affected by their commitment to Open Source as an ethos, exemplified by this excerpt from the Open Source Hardware Manifesto:

Open source is like playing with cards on the table. The game is clear, transparent.
The open source key benefit is not that the project is free.
The key advantage of open source is you can see the design, the process, the code and probably you (or someone for you) can modify it:
You can see how it works. You can take it apart. You can fix it. You can improve it.
Most people do none of these things, but all benefit from this transparency.

Similarly, I enjoyed reading about the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of the RepRap project as outlined by Adrian Bowyer's essay "Wealth Without Money", as it is loaded with insights along these lines:

The self-copying rapid-prototyping machine will allow people to manufacture for themselves many of the things they want, including the machine that does the manufacturing. It is the first technology that we can have that will simultaneously make people more wealthy whilst reducing the need for industrial production.

Closer to home, many many thanks to Sidney Church and David St. John of Penn State School of Visual Arts and Engineering respectively. Both Sidney and David helped me feel capable of building a complicated machine despite a deep lack of experience with electronics, micro-controllers, etc. 

At present, I'm attempting to apply all of these ideas to a new course I'm teaching titled: "D.I.Y. Digital Fabrication". The goal of the course is to empower artists, designers, and craftspeople to construct custom, low-cost, open-source Digital Fabrication tools which can perform at a very high level despite being home-made and composed of generic bits and pieces. At the same time, it is my hope that our group will consider all the moral, economic, and cultural implications of these technologies while considering how a D.I.Y. approach fits within the larger picture. Oh, and likely we'll make some Art too, because it is an Art class of course.

It is a fascinating time to be getting involved in this technology as it shifts from institutions and corporations to individuals. Is this the 3rd Industrial Revolution? Maybe so. A lot of hype? Perhaps. At any rate, it all reminds me of the feeling of turning on a personal computer in the 1980's. Confronting a pretty basic and awkward technology with astonishing, revolutionary potential.

Thank You Note to Anonymous Bloggers

For the last five or six years I've been collaborating with Fabio J. Fernández on a series of of objects titled Sculptures in Love with Architecture. Our project began as a simple work exchange. I think I made an object based on one of Fabio's drawings to trade with him, or vice-versa. Somehow that project has grown in to a body of work that includes more than two hundred objects and as many drawings. 

The objects in the series are very small in size but I'd argue they are large in scale. Their proportions relate to the architectural sources that have inspired them. They are model-like even if they aren't models. Models are plans for larger structures. Despite being able to fit in the palm of your hand, these objects are unabashedly full size.

As an artist you get used to trying to compete for attention, make a splash, stake a claim to a space. So when you scale your work way, way down you also prepare yourself to have that work ignored. To my surprise this body of work has not been ignored. 

Perhaps as a function of their size, or their simple and specific geometry, they have become internet-friendly. As a result of the images of these small objects pinging around in the ether, Fabio and I have been introduced to a number of interesting art & design enthusiasts and collectors from really far flung places. It means a lot to us, and has helped motivate us to keep this project moving forward during times when its hard to carve out the time and space required to communicate and collaborate. 

So, in no particular order, thank you to Sight UnseenbooooooomArthound, of paper and things, unruly, and various other tumblrs assembled by people I've never met. In many cases these mentions are simply an image or a sentence. Regardless, it is much appreciated. 

Review: "Under The Table" @ Fort Worth Contemporary Arts

Many Thanks to Colette Copeland and Ceramics Art & Perception magazine for this intelligent review of "Under the Table". Thanks again to Margaret Meehan, who curated the exhibition. It was a pleasure to be included with many artists I admire including Kristen Morgin, Kate Gilmore, Tom Müller, Akio Takamori, Matthew McConnell, Jeffry Mitchell, and my longtime collaborator Fabio Fernández. 

Exhibition: "Urban Environments" @ Grizzly Grizzly, Philadelphia

Urban Environments: Colin Keefe, Fabio Fernández, Tom Lauerman
Curated by Jacque Liu
Exhibition Dates: September 6–28, 2013
Opening Reception: First Friday, September 6th, 6–10PM
Grizzly Grizzly, 319 North 11th Street, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia, PA
Hours: Saturday and Sundays, 2-6PM
www.grizzlygrizzly.com

gemini.jpg
This September, Grizzly Grizzly is pleased to present ‘Urban Environments’, featuring the work of Philadelphia based artist Colin Keefe and the collaborative work of Fabio Fernández and Tom Lauerman.  The exhibition, consisting of drawings and sculpture, explores systems of architecture, the built environment, and abstraction. 
Colin Keefe will exhibit meticulously crafted drawings of fictitious environments that examine urban terrain through organic models.  Using ink on paper, Keefe begins with design principles gathered from diverse sources such as the reproductive processes of plants, the propulsion methods of microorganisms and architectural theory. Keefe states “the resulting images depict cities grown organically, without an “urban planner” as protagonist, based on environmental conditions.” 
Fabio J. Fernández and Tom Lauerman will present a collaborative body of work, Sculptures in Love with Architecture (SiLwA).  The works in this exhibition explore architecture from the perspective of two artists interested in “the reductive forms of early modernist constructions.”  They employ an array of techniques ranging from inked lines drawn on a moving train to laser cut wooden parts assembled atop folded paper geometry.  The artists state that “the works illustrate the development of ideas through conversation, repetition, experimentation and practice.” 
jacquejliu@yahoo.com.