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.

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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.