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By: Nicola Naismith
The digital making blog was started when I became resident artist at Hethel Engineering Centre in April 2010 with almost weekly posts about conversations, explorations and reflections. It also covers some of the exhibitions / events / conversations that followed up to March 2011.
Supported by The National Lottery through Arts Council England, Hethel Engineering Centre, Norfolk County Council, Sir Philip Reckitt Educational Trust and SCAN
# 40 [16 March 2011]
The opening of my exhibition New Industrial Space at Norwich Arts Centre (open until 26th March) allowed me to explore the showing of film as part of an artist talk. I showed Chasing the Blues (1947) from the British Documentary Movement collection (BFI). The film shows an early collaboration between industry and the Saddlers Wells Dance Company exploring the promotion of modernisation to mill owners in the post war era. I have watched this short film several times but when showing at the opening i realised how much we take for granted our current work environments: that our work environment in some way mirrors our home environment where we have kitchen and bathroom facilities, a place to take a rest. When this film was made in 1947 the message was to communicate to factory bosses how investing in canteen and rest areas, washing facilities etc would increase productivity. The effect of the film on factory managers according to the BFI booklet that came with the films was said to be unknown.
The second clip was the opening sequences to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning where we see the lathe shed with Arthur the central character talks about how hard he works and the repetitive nature of his work. Its a great film to watch in its entirety but the short extract for me is in such sharp contrast with the industrial environment at Hethel.
The films were used to demonstrate my interest in historical research which is at the heart of my practice. I use and explore a range of new technologies but the work always references the past. I then went into discussing the residency processes much as i had done at the firstiste event again finished on a drawing of a robot. When i had spoken with the sales engineer at the EAME trade event last September he was talking about the increasing use of robots being used in all types of industrial processes.
I was under the impression that the use of robots was relatively new. I knew about them being used in the car industry - there is a great GIles Cartoon from 1988 showing a female car worker upset at leaving her robot for the holidays - to what extent humans and robots work alongside one another is interesting to consider, i had assumed they replaced human labour but perhaps this is not the case.
Anyway i have developed an interest in robots - where they are made and how they can make each other. Derek who i worked with at Hethel had worked on a project in 1978 - called SCAMP - Six Hundreds group Computer Aided Manufacturing Project. So over thirty years ago the computer and manufacturing was being integrated, specifically exploring the possibilities of flexible manufacturing systems. With the aim of relieving the monotony of the assembly line and replacing it with a more automated process was also to encourage the use of higher grade technology. This reduced the need to employ unskilled or semi skilled labour - changing the attributes of the workforce towards skilled labour/people who have the skills to work with newer technologies. What it allowed manufacturing to do was to avoid the fallibility of human labour - the mistakes. The new system would produce good parts or no parts at all so no reduction in quality. This project came from a feasibility study in 1976, which under a labour government was a leap into the unknown - trying to invest in leading edge technologies to encourage industry in that direction. I image this aim could be seen as a success as many manufacturing processes in the UK are now hands off, with intensive human labour processes being carried out overseas.
I watched a program about The British at Work http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zg047 where they talked about the post war era and how Britain Can Make It' and how the press renamed it Britain cant have it' as much of what we made was specificaly for export. Its on Thursday evenings at 9, BBC2.
This will be the last digital making post as i move onto new ideas and develop new projects. A new blog will follow in due course.
# 39 [23 February 2011]
The blog came to a bit a stand still at the end of October. After a bit of a break I have missed doing the writing and will be writing again about events, research, work and future associated projects.
The exhibition of the residency work at Hethel was on for 3 months and I took the work down just before Christmas. The feedback was good. I’m still in the process of processing all that the residency was and where my practice and research is taking me.
On the 2nd February I went to Tate Archive to look again at the un-catalogued Artist Placement Group documents as preparation for an event with firstiste in Colchester. I looked at the letters between Barbara Steveni (the founder member of APG) and industry bosses, negotiating meetings and placements for a range of artists. I also read a feasibility study where an artist reflection upon what might be possible within a host organisation. I also looked at some of the correspondence between Barbara and Tony Benn who was at the time Minister of Technology.
Beyond the Studio: Context and Commerce was developed with firstiste as part of their artist support programme. For the event (which took place on the 9th February) I proposed an artist talk about the digital making project followed by an in conversation event with Barbara Steveni. I originally suggested to Barbara that she could converse with anyone of her choosing but she suggested that we be in conversation which we did after she gave an overview of APG, O+ I and her current work I am an archive. As part of her presentation she showed a great clip of her in conversation with Tony Benn, one of the most memorable aspects was where Tony Benn talked about how we are all just people, with a range of attributes in different quantities which allows people from seemingly different professions to work alongside one another.
The links between Barbara’s work with APG and my digital making residency were clear. The historical context of what APG was trying to achieve (and did achieve) by negotiating an open brief was inspirational. The audience was made up of mainly artists but I was very pleased to see Derek Hillyard whom I worked with at Hethel there also.
The event went so well it left me on a real high, not quite knowing what to do next apart from getting the work ready for my next exhibition at Norwich Arts Centre. The work was installed yesterday and the opening is on Saturday and includes the screening of a film from the British Documentary Movement
New Industrial Space 26th February 2011 - Film Screenings and Artist talk 2-4pm. Exhibition continues to 26th March.
# 38 [31 October 2010]
Product Death Dates
I have returned to Vance Packard’s book The Waste Makers, written in 1960 it describes in Chapter 7 Planned Obsolescence of Desirability how much style (over function) had a massive influence on our buying habits and of course continues to do so. When this book was written it was groundbreaking, an analysis of how we consume and how manufacturers were making inferior goods which were made to break. Packard mentions a growing awareness of how resources were starting to run out and yet still 50 years later products are still being produced with planned obsolescence in mind either through materials and functions ceasing to work or through styling.
Two pieces of my own technology have finally died, my second hand Sony Ericsson phone which had buttons that needed to be pushed in a certain way with a certain pressure to make them work. But then the phone stopped recognising the sim card, and after getting it to work again by taking the back off and putting it back on again it did finally die. The computer mouse which has been intermittently working and then not for a number of months was often ‘fixed’ by giving it a shake but one shake too many has resulted in its death also.
So now they clutter up my living space or go off for recycling - but where these products end up is sometimes problematic. It was Edward Burtynsky’s photographs and text that led me to consider e-waste (1). He says in the essay that accompanies the photographs that China is the worlds biggest recyclers of e waste and although some is recycled in factories with health and safety measures much is still dismantled by hand with no awareness of the heavy metals contained within these products. How then can we safely dispose of our obsolete technology and why did i not pursue any possibilities of getting these items repaired - i imagine if i walked into a phone shop there would have been no question of suggesting it be sent away for repair, even if this was an option which i doubt it is. Is repair becoming an obsolete concept in the world of mass produced products?
See http://www.edwardburtynsky.com China - Recycling
# 37 [24 October 2010]
Following on from the last post the largest object the machine could make was 35cm long – however at a cost of nearly £300 it was outside of my budget. However reduce by 10cm to a 25cm long part and the price came down to a more reasonable £116, so that was the size I went for. The object has almost comic properties and was well worth the 7 hours it took to make.
The plastics RP machine is from America and as such defaults to working in inches which surprised me greatly, I assumed that America would have gone metric when we did here in the UK, or before perhaps, but no Derek informs me that they are staunch inch users. In this age of global markets, digital standards and so on, I would have thought that metric would be an industry standard - its quite a relief to know that in today’s increasingly homogenised and digitally based world there is variety and difference in such things are measurements.
I had a conversation with Nathanial at Hethel, we hadn't met before but he asked about the work i had on the walls. He is doing some research about clusters - and how the east of England has a cluster of High Tech or perhaps High Performance Engineering i cant quite remember the exact term - although its likely to be important in the kind of work he is doing. I put forward an example based on my own research about how in the 1890’s many places in the UK were specialists (this was also a comment from someone in the audience at the 20 group talk) with Redditch near Birmingham being a centre for needle manufacture. Near to these needle factories where also industries which used needles, gloves were made in Worcester for example. I asked Nathaniel if clusters where about manufacturing or knowledge based and he replied both - a mixture of research, suppliers, manufacturing and distribution. So I had a look on the Internet and found a short paper which references Michael Porters account of localised industrial ‘clusters’, taken from his book ‘The Competitive Advantage of Nations’.(1) The report states "Geographical proximity allows interaction and efficient flows of goods, services, ideas, and skills. This yields high levels of productivity growth and rapid rates of innovation in both processes and products." (2).
It’s interesting to consider these clusters in the current economic climate, in areas of America such as Detroit, the effected has been massive, where workforces, supporting businesses and suppliers have all been hard hit. See www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/dec/03/detroit-motor-city-ford for an interesting portrait from 2008.
1. Local Government Improvement and Development (on-line) Industrial clusters and their implications for local economic policy http://www.idea.gov.uk/idk/core/page.do?pageId=850729625/08/2008 Accessed online 16/08/2010
# 36 [17 October 2010]
Although my residency is officially over I went back last week to test out the capabilities and capacities of the Stratasys Fortus machine. The idea came from a proposal I have written for a conference next year. The question I was left with after writing about my practice based research investigations was why where the outputted objects the size they were? The answer is the sizes come from video stills that I printed and used a ruler to measure the proportions. But it led me to consider what would be the smallest and largest objects I might be able to make.
So to the smallest ones first, they are 0.1mm and under macro photography are very interesting - as the hot ABS plastic can’t seem to keep the shape of the design as it can with the larger models. The 4 Minutes build time was given and the cost of the materials 2p.
Using the flash magnifier that came with the machine, I couldn’t capture what I could see with my eye but an altogether different type of image – unexpected and in some cases organic in its appearance.
# 35 [11 October 2010]
Artist talks and where they take you.
I was invited to give a talk to the Norwich 20 Group (www.norwich20group.co.uk) a week or so back. Its always a good opportunity to get ideas clear and assemble images. Beyond that its the questions that cant be anticipated, the connections one cant foresee that make giving artist talks so interesting and as much part of the work for me at the work i produce.
The questions from the 20 Group were expansive and seemed to focus on the role of women within manufacturing and engineering. There was a comment about some of the images i showed where historical factory images featured female workers - which led me to talk about some of the films in the British Documentary Movement made before, during and after the war. There is a great film about women working the night shift in an armaments factory. Someone wanted to know how many female engineers there were at Hethel, to which i replied - non - this led to a conversation about why this might be - perhaps not encouraged into the discipline at school or studying it but unable to find work or progress in the profession? Its not something i have really looked at much although Derek and i have discussed it on occasion. There is such as thing as Young Women Engineer of the Year - http://conferences.theiet.org/ywe/index.htm
These gender questions were brought to the fore again when at the weekend i went to see Made in Dagenham - (which was at times rather funny as well as telling the events of an important story in the fight for equality and equal pay). The film has some interesting footage of car manufacturing and working conditions - which were less than salubrious. What ever the critics view of the film we can't escape the fact that it represents a seminal moment in women's history and the move towards a fair days pay for a fair days labour no matter your gender. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/made_in_dagenha...
# 34 [25 September 2010]
On Monday i went to Tate Archives to look at some of the many AGP documents they have. It was a good visit and it was fascinating to read not only what was contained within the documents but to see their range in terms of appearance and method of writing (by hand or by typewriter). Artist’s letterheads, many simple in design are interesting social documents, i feel rather sad that with a recent ‘mailbox quote exceeded warning’ i deleted many of my emails to do with the digital making project. Emails are often beautifully perfunctory communications about all manner of subjects giving an insight beyond the press release and official communication surrounding projects in process. We can’t keep all our electronic communications but what will be in the archives of the future?
In the documents i looked at there was repeated mention of APG’s time based theory and the relationship between short and long term interests. As an artist i take a long view, with each project developing into the next, sometimes following some obscure routes but nevertheless being interconnected in someway. How the business world manages short and long term interests is something that i want to look into further, and how the role that privatisation, multinationals and globalised contexts have altered these interests. The Corporation offers interesting and often shocking perspectives on the growth of business and it effects on people and the planet http://www.thecorporation.com . There was also descriptions of the artist as 'incidental person', which initially puzzled me as i was thinking about APG wanting artists to be seen as equals to other professional people. But on clarifying my understanding of the word - ‘accompanying but not a major part of something’ it offers the artists the opportunity to observe without having to consider the interests of the company directly, having the freedom to put forward ambitious or simply unexpected suggestions. I’m still very much considering this research and will re-visit to archive to look at further documents.
In contrast to my Tate visit, on Wednesday i went to the Engineering and Advanced Manufacture Exhibition (EAME) held at Hethel. I do admit to feeling rather out of my comfort zone, with it being an engineering trade fair, however Derek and Ben where on hand as guides and once i got going i felt less self conscious about my naivety about engineering. In fact i had a couple of positive comments about my engineering knowledge! I spoke to number of people in some depth, as far as my knowledge and understanding would take me.
I spoke with the sales rep from +GF+ AgieCharmilles, who was very helpful in explaining the basics of a economic ED wire cutter (see images)! which all felt new to me, but Derek had suggested maybe i had seen a smaller version on a Hethel workshop tour earlier in the residency. It was no coincidence that the sales rep had a tie which matched the orange trim on the machine. He gave me a demo of the machine, i struggled a bit to keep up with the technical information but the aesthetics of the thing were striking.
After a look round and a chat with Ben, i talked with the sales engineer from neuteq. Whilst looking at the robot he had brought along we discussed favorite artists (his was Salvador Dali - i couldn't choose one - never can) and how the robot is changing the shape of manufacturing and production. It’s interesting as these machines can be placed in all manner of contexts, food packaging (including pretzel packaging would you believe), engineering, metalworking industry. It stuck me how each industry might once have had its own machinery to a greater extent and how that diversity is now becoming more homogenised, it could be in time that we see the same machines which are likely to include an increasing number of robots, in all manner of contexts. I couldn't hep feeling slightly uncomfortable at being told that the robots make the new robots, much like Rapid Prototyping machines being used to make parts for new Rapid Prototyping machines, there seems to be something of mechanical evolution in this scenario.
# 33 [8 September 2010]
There is always some loss
I have written about Reverse Engineering before but I’m finding it really interesting. In addition to finishing the installation of the exhibition today I have been doing some more scanning. Derek and Ian (who is on work experience at Hethel) scanned my hand. I wanted to hold the RP object and see how the scan would look. The hand held scanner we used today is expensive £30,000 so pretty inaccessible to artists.
The files that result almost always need additional work to patch up holes and glitches. It is a very interesting area of exploration though especially as I am interested in duplication, copying and the fallible nature of technology (which is so often portrayed as a time saver and reliable – from my experience it’s far from it). So I was asking Derek how widely 3D scanning is used in contemporary engineering and if it can create an exact copy of the object being scanned to which the reply was firstly, it’s not widely used as it is fairly new and expensive and secondly there is always some loss of information. It’s this loss (or rather inability to capture it in the first place) of information that interests me as the scans are patchy and incomplete. It’s not my aim to get a complete object but rather to explore the limitations and creative potential of the technology.
In addition I have a couple of images of the work installed at Hethel. The exhibition is open this weekend:
Saturday 11th & Sunday 12th September between 10 – 1pm
Hethel Engineering Centre, Chapman Way, Hethel, Near Norwich, NR14 8FB
email@example.com Tel: 01953859100
Exhibition continues until 17th December 2010 – by appointment only - please contact Hethel Engineering to arrange your visit.
# 32 [1 September 2010]
I have written before about how I feel my investigations fall between being an original design work/object and reverse engineering (copying something that already exists). Reverse engineering was a new concept to me, but it’s a familiar term and practice within contemporary engineering with many types of 3D scanners on the market. Ben, an engineer who is interested in the cross over between art and engineering kindly offered to bring his scanner into Hethel so I could scan the objects I have made using the RP machines.
It was the process and the unpredictability of the images which was the exciting part, these scans can’t go to manufacture as there are too many holes or incomplete sections or as the yellow triangle warns me This Part contains errors! I have had a multitude of error messages but i am unconcerned as I don’t need these objects to go to manufacture. Rather, like the original video footage I have been working from these scans operate as potential objects.
Lots of preparations for the show, I’m thinking back to something I read on Emily Speed’s blog about how she still sometimes underestimates how long things will take – ditto. Installation starts tomorrow and I’ll post some images as a preview. Exhibition is open on the 11 & 12 September. See post # 29 for details.
# 31 [20 August 2010]
It’s the everyday things that interest me: Replacing an offside brake light on a Punto
I have never been very interested in cars and I've had a few, always second hand and I’ve always done some of the maintenance myself. The H reg Nissan Sunny I had was a great motor which when I got it was 10 years old with 12,000 miles on the clock. It was a great car and because of its age pretty simple, unfortunately it gave up in a major way at a very inconvenient moment and was thus collected by the scrap man who gave me £30 for it. The new (to us) T registration Punto is a different kettle of fish entirely I suddenly feel pretty inept at anything to do with its maintenance and he who deals with the car has now taken over. As it’s a more modern car much more is hidden away in odd and inaccessible places behind plastic panels. To change a rear brake light bulb was more involved than it needed to be (see the images). Is this about styling, about manufacturing processes or about encouraging us to pay for everything to be done?
Car maintenance is becoming less of a DIY activityand more of a service we need to purchase. This puts the emphasis on us to earn the money to pay for someone to carry out the job. Gone are the days of my friend Cath’s dad painting (yes that's painting) their car every year or so with a brush and tin of gloss paint (and I can admit to that myself also – but I used a roller) but things like that bring a smile to your face, the image of someone painting a car with a brush. The alternative can be compared to wondering how much the coloured coded bumper on your new vehicle is going to cost to replace when it gets a knock.
So is the complicated bulb change about encouraging us to pay for services rather than doing it ourselves? It's naïve to think its accidental – I’m thinking back to Derek’s information about design intention. I am sure someone at Fiat had the task of carrying out routine car maintenance jobs and timing them before the car went into mass production. What encourages me is the inclusion of a small kit of tools provided with the car which allow for the panelling to be undone, but who did the manufacturer imagine would be doing the undoing.
Nicola Naismith makes work about tools, manufacturing & production, technology and the hand made using a range of practices including moving image, photography and drawing. Outputs include gallery exhibitions, site specific interventions residencies, artist talks, commissions and self initiated projects.