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
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.
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.
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
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
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.