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Art and Design in the Postdigital World: A Conversation with Ron Labaco

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The integration of digital technologies in the creative process has generated great excitement among the art and design world, technology circles, and everyday conversations alike. In this conversation, Ron Labaco, The Marcia Docter Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), talks to us about Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital an exhibition currently on view at MAD. Ron also shares his perspective and insights on emerging technologies, their role in the creative process, and their impact on the Arts and Design.

Lilia: Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital currently on view at MAD explores the impact of digital fabrication -- i.e., computer-assisted methods of production -- on contemporary art, architecture, and design. Where did the idea for the exhibition come about?

Ron: The idea for an exhibition on digital fabrication began to gestate in 2010 when I first started at MAD. I had been asked to help organize a show on the work of the French designer Patrick Jouin, and part of that installation included 3D printed furniture, his Solid collection created for Materialise in 2004. Jouin's Solid Chair is widely acknowledged as the first full-scale piece of furniture entirely created through 3D printing as a final product. This was very important, as it marked a concerted shift in thinking from 'rapid prototyping' to '3D printing'. Over the course of that show I came to realize that most of our visitors found the concept and process of 3D printing very intimidating and difficult to understand. If you think back to four years ago the term '3D printing' was not a part of the public's consciousness as it is today. As a museum professional I felt that there needed to be a way to present this and other exciting technological advancements in art and design to an uninitiated public in a more intelligible manner. A year later Out of Hand was conceived to examine the larger trend of computer-assisted fabrication in art, architecture, and design practice. In addition to 3D printing, the show examines computer-controlled milling in which machines precisely remove material from a solid block to reveal a form much like the traditional carving of marble or wood sculpture, and digital weaving and knitting which afforded the opportunity to include fashion.

Lilia: As the curator of this exhibition, what are your goals? What would you like visitors to experience and/or learn when visiting this exhibition?

Ron: I want to show that fine craftsmanship and digital fabrication are not mutually exclusive. The extremely talented practitioners represented in this show utilize these tools of the 21st-century to achieve amazing and unexpected results. Many of the objects would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to create even a decade ago. Yet our visitors don't necessarily need to be familiar with the specific technologies that are used in order to appreciate the work for their artistic merit, for their formal and conceptual qualities. Although the machines offer a certain economy in terms of production time, in most cases that is not an important factor in the final piece, which may take months or even years to complete. I also wanted to illustrate that in this short period of time certain aesthetic and conceptual trends have emerged that go beyond the novelty of the technology in and of itself. Just as the machine heralded Machine Art and Streamline Moderne in the 1930s, certain tendencies may be identified in digitally fabricated art, architecture, and design today. For example, in the section titled 'Modeling Nature' organic works by inspired by the growth of bone range from shoes and a chair to a vehicle and a model for a split-level house.

Lilia: In the curator-led tour of the exhibition, you mentioned that the use of digital technologies is only one step in a larger creative process. What other elements of the creative process are important to you as a curator, but also to the audience in order to understand and appreciate the artwork?

Ron: It is important to understand that we are at a point in digital fabrication in which practitioners are combining the different technologies together for greater creative expression, in many cases with more traditional methods of making. For example, Frank Stella began to experiment with 3D printing in the early 2000s in association with his architectural projects. Since 2006 he has used 3D printing to realize dimensional baroque forms that serve as a canvas for hand-painted color. Geoffrey Mann's Shine involves the use of a 3D scanner to capture the reflection of light off of a 19th-century candelabrum. The digital model is then 3D printed in wax, cast in bronze using the lost wax method, and plated in silver to create a ghost-like sculpture of the original. These days the technologies serve the means of the artist, and not the other way around.

Lilia: The exhibition reveals how 3D Printing, CNC machining, and Digital Knitting and Weaving have been integrated into studio practice in different capacities. What other digital technologies are we likely to see integrated into studio practice in the near future?

Ron: Advancements in robotics, as they become more sophisticated, and in the farther future microrobots and nanotechnologies with seamlessly integrated computers. Joris Laarman's Digital Matter project involved a multi-axial robot precisely creating Rococo-style console tables using metal cubes called voxels, or volumetric pixels. The smaller the voxel, the higher-resolution the table. This foreshadows a future in which a set of voxels can be programmed to transform into whatever object you desire, from a car to get you to your destination to a bed at the end of the day, all in harmony with your aesthetic predisposition. Also biotechnology, such as Neri Oxman's Silk Pavilion which combines digital fabrication with nature to direct 6500 silkworms into weaving a monumental silk canopy.

Lilia: "Art" vs. "Design": What are the differences / similarities? Do these differences / similarities apply to Art and Design that involve digital technologies as well?

Ron: Wow, what a question. How much time do you have? In a general sense one can say that the difference between art and design is that art is generated for the personal expression of the artist, and that design is meant to fulfill a functional purpose for a client. What all the works in the exhibition have in common is that the makers maintain the independent vision of the artist, regardless of whether the object has an ultimate practical function. The fact that Out of Hand features sculpture by a photographer, tapestry by a painter, furniture by an architect, and a host of other permutations demonstrates the transdisciplinary artistic culture of today.