by ANNE CARLISLE
lan Kay—winner of the Charles Stark Draper Prize, the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, and the Turing Award—has defined technology simply as “anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” So what does a quote from an ancient Sanskrit text have to do with technology? A few things, as it turns out. First, it happens to describe well the action of a lathe—the primary tool behind The Center for Art in Wood since its original inception as the Wood Turning Center in 1986. The passage also describes the self-referential quality of technology, which is something made in order to create something else. Technology allows for further creation, and it can double back upon itself. We might describe this repeated process as exponential, in the sense of infinitely expansive. When something is exponential, it can become overwhelming.
Due to technology’s increased affordability over the last twenty years, artists have had to contend with just this sort of expansion. There has been an exponential growth and availability of potential tools, that inevitably provokes questions: How have artists adopted and adapted these techniques? What reasons might there be for working in more “traditional” ways? What kind of meanings do we ascribe to a given method? And what are the emotional responses to the idea of technology today? At a moment when design students are expected to learn how to draw with both graphite and software, finding a satisfying answer to the question of whether technology determines art or art demands technology remains elusive. Technology shows no sign of slowing its incursions into everyday life, and it is difficult if not impossible for artist, designer, and engineer to remain technologically neutral. As Kevin Kelly, a mathematician and engineer, puts it: “That’s what technology is bringing us: choices, possibilities, freedoms.”
Wood, Revisited, conceived by Glenn Adamson and Albert LeCoff, is partly inspired by an earlier exhibition, Wood Turning in North America Since 1930. That project, a comprehensive survey of the evolution of wood turning over a period of seventy years, demonstrated the variation of forms artists had achieved working with a singular technology. Wood, Revisited inverts that model, presenting a concise contemporary view across a broadly defined territory of processes and concepts. There are far more techniques, means, and methods that might fall under the umbrella of “new technology” than are included in the exhibition, which speaks to both the unruliness and the inherent interest of the subject. It is an exhibition that raises more questions than it answers. Through an examination of the role technology has played in the work of wood artists over the past twenty years, Wood, Revisited moves through junctures where design, mass production, and fine art meet, highlighting the evolving nature of a medium by investigating the shifting boundaries of technique and the play between designer, engineer, and artist.
The primal qualities of wood, a material essential to human building for millennia, make it an ideal complementary pairing with technology. Consider the diverging associations of the words tech and woodworker, of which the latter has the quaint, cozy romanticism of the “old fashioned.” Consequently, words like contemporary or modern are often used to inform us of the woodworker’s current relevance. In an effort to avoid this euphemistic dilemma, we tend to speak about the artist or designer who is “working in wood.” In any case, from Wendell Castle to Hunt Clark to Ontwerpduo, Wood, Revisited makes no attempt to distinguish between such categories, give a statement on “art furniture” as a whole, or contrast fine art with design/build. The focus instead is on aesthetic relationships and common ground. What tendencies and patterns can we identify? What is lost or gained in the process of exploring new technology? If a process is fast and cheap, does it necessarily follow that it will get out of control?
The explosive increase in personal computing has proved a boon for DIY culture. Formerly costly technology, practical only for large manufacturers with ample means, has now found its way into artists’ studios, and even into our pockets. Ever expanding numbers of smartphone owners engage in some sort of creative process. Today, one can easily edit photos on Instagram in ways that once required the equipment and knowledge of a professional. Relatively “professional-sounding” recorded music can be made on a free app as opposed to purchasing costly studio time and equipment. Tech companies encourage us to consider ourselves artists, designers, and curators, and consequently lines demarcating types of authorship continue to blur.
As tools develop, so do the verbal and visual languages that we use to describe them. These languages are born from our shared experience of a technology, a combination of fact, common misconception, and science fiction. Having a set language helps us agree that an object bears the look of technology, or what can be described as a tech aesthetic, regardless of the means of making. Several pieces in Wood, Revisited fall into this category. Work by Bud Latven, Yuri Kobayashi, and Jongrye Cha, for example, make visual reference to information or data. Latven is the only artist to appear in both Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 and Wood, Revisited. Since his first involvement with the concept around 2001, he has been prescient in his interest in pixel-like patterns as a contemporary aesthetic. In Spiral Impact 3, the pixelated positive and negative space twists like a synthesized strand of partially mapped DNA (fig. 1). Similarly, Kobayashi’s gridded tower, similarly, is sporadically stacked with small containers like pockets of information. In her Expose/Exposed series, Jongrye Cha constructs large grids out of smaller units of laminated plywood, akin to units of data (fig. 2 and fig. 3). She then dimensionally breaks that grid, modifying and and sculpting each individual unit to form unique extruded points that, when connected, form a larger organic pattern. Cha’s work stems from her relationship to wood; for her, the material is the message.
Compared to some other materials, most casual observers have a familiarity with and understanding of wood as a raw material, understanding its properties and behavior more than something like porcelain, for example. Mike Rea’s use of wood in Super Porn calls out our complacency toward technology by remystifying one of the information age’s signature pieces of tech, the high-definition digital camera (fig. 4). He points to a striking characteristic of contemporary technology—our ability to use it without necessarily fully comprehending it. We depend on our ability to use devices quickly and easily without having to explain precisely how and why they work. This makes them valuable, but also taps into anxieties about that which we don’t understand. The juxtaposition of the image—an object made from aluminum, plastic, and steel—in the age-old medium of hand-carved wood remind us of the technical mystery of the original. Given our lack of understanding, a camera’s innards might as well be full of solid, impenetrable wood.
Numerical Control (NC) cutting has been in use for over half a century—the first commercial NC machines were produced in the 1950s, running on patterns on punched tape. Although this was far more efficient than routers, manufacturers were put off by NC’s marked difference from their traditional methods. Only after the US military bought more than one hundred machines and lent them to various manufacturers did they begin to gain a foothold. By the sixties, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) had a standardized code, and the bulk of industrial design drafting in the United States was made utilizing Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM). In the early eighties, however, Germany and Japan developed less expensive CNC machines and took over the market. More recently, the price drop in microprocessors has led to increased availability of CNC for the hobbyist and small business market (fig. 5).
Similarly, the last century brought a power tool revolution, significantly reducing the amount of time and physical stamina needed to produce necessary cuts and other procedures. The arrival of multiaxis CNC and laser cutting further reduces work time, but significantly, it also reduces the manual dexterity needed to complete various complex, intricate, and outsize cuts. These new tools not only make project execution more efficient, but where applicable, render unnecessary the hours and years needed to master the skills of manually manipulating wood. Rather than deciding whether the new technology is superior to the old, the new tools might be better considered as additions to existing skill sets. After the next big thing arrives, what will remain is an expanded index of possibilities and capabilities. However, as many have noted, change, especially rapid change, is often scary. Mathematician, engineer, and author Daniel Hillis offers another compelling definition, writing that “Technology is something that doesn’t quite
work yet.” This suggests that we only become comfortable with a technology at the moment its potential for radical change has begun to wane—when we can identify what will eventually replace it, and its obsolescence is safely visible on the horizon.
Elisa Strozyk, Gabriel Schama, and Christopher Kurtz temper the threat of technology with function, process, and form. Strozyk’s incredible wooden textiles are made from small triangles that have been laser cut from sheets of various wood veneer. The triangles are then attached to an underlay of fabric. Through the application of technology, Strozyk transforms wood into a supple, malleable form that might be considered cozy or comfortable, but hardly old-fashioned (fig. 6). Perhaps the prowess of laser cutting is most apparent in the work of Schama, whose intricate relief patterns are almost inconceivable in wood without the aid of a laser cutter and CAD. His works recall everything from mandalas and bar tracery to Egyptian-inspired art deco and kaleidoscopic psychedelia (fig. 7). Schama’s work suggests the era of “artists struggling with the morphology and tempo of digitalization” has passed. Kurtz worked previously under Martin Puryear as a studio assistant, absorbing Puryear’s dedication to hand tools and the craft of woodworking. His sculpture Singularity was painstakingly created over a period of years using hand tools and traditional techniques (fig. 8). In form, however, it embodies the exponential nature of technological evolution. Unnatural yet anthropomorphic shapes attempt to overtake each other, their long, slender spines lifting off the ground toward a central crush, out of which some of the spines reach skyward. A spider web found by Kurtz in his shop inspired Singularity’s form; for him the title also speaks to a spider web’s unique, non-repeatable qualities. The sculpture also serves as a reminder that often our technology looks to the natural world for solutions, closing the gap between machine and nature. Singularity was created in a “low-tech” process, but at the time of this writing, high-fidelity scans have been made in order to complete a version of the sculpture in bronze.
Profound anxieties accompany any seismic technological shift. What if technology wants to evolve beyond its maker? How and when will our subservient tools, like Frankenstein’s monster, eventually, inevitably turn on us? In 1958, atomic era mathematician Stanislaw Ulam described an “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” This was an ominous but understandable sentiment, coming from a designer of thermonuclear weapons and a central figure of the Manhattan Project.15 Pushing back against atomic age doomsday fears, Adrien Segal’s sculpture Molalla Meander makes use of fourteen years (1995 to 2009) of scientifically collected data documenting the alluvial flows of a section of the Molalla River, in the Cascade Range of Clackamas County in northwest Oregon (fig. 9). Echoing the river’s layers of sediment that are cut and carved by currents of water, Molalla Meander was fabricated by cutting layers of plywood with a CNC router then laminating the pieces together (fig. 5). According to Segal, her sculpture is “the means by which I reconcile conventions of reason and fact with an intuitive and emotive experience.”16 In making Molalla Meander, Segal has harnessed robotics to demonstrate the persistence of nature. The clear shifts in Molalla Meander’s path over a span of only fourteen years reminds us that although a river may appear timeless and permanent on the surface, in reality it is a rapidly shifting, living thing.
In futurist and robotic theory, singularity is a particularly important term. “The Singularity” is the evolutionary moment when the robots finally overtake us.17 Years after Ulam, the concept of the Singularity was revived by mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge. In his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” Vinge stated unequivocally, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”18 Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns elaborates upon Vinge’s AI end-times theory; he believes that the rate at which we adapt to new ideas and technology doubles every decade, resulting in an exponential as opposed to a linear pattern of growth.19 Kurzweil’s theory is given shape in David Nosanchuk’s Butterfly Asteroid (fig.10). Dozens of identical, delicately formed butterflies gather in an overwhelming yet beautiful cloud, suspended at the moment before the acceleration of gravity pulls them into the earth. According to Kurzweil, the singularity will occur sometime around 2045, just shy of Wood Turning in North America Since 1930’s forty-fifth anniversary.20 Whether or not Kurzweil’s prediction will come to pass remains to be seen. Until then, in the words of R. Buckminster Fuller, referring to evolution, “We are accelerating together at a tremendous pace.”
1 Greelish, David. “An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay.” Time magazine, April 2, 2013, accessed October 02, 2016. http://techland.time.com/2013/04/02/an-interview-with-computing-pioneer-alan-kay/.
2 Anderson, Monica. “Technology Device Ownership: 2015.” Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. October 29, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2016. www.pewinternet.org.
3 Wood Turning Center and Yale University Art Gallery. Wood Turning in North America Since 1930. Philadelphia, PA: Wood Turning Center, 2001.
4 The lathe is a fitting parent technology for this exhibit, as it is considered by some to be the only universal tool capable of creating all the parts necessary to reproduce itself. Similar claims have been made recently about 3-D printing.
5 Lutkehaus, Nancy. “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Errol Morris (and Others) at Sundance 1997” Visual Anthropology Review 13, no. 1 (March 1997): 77–86. doi:10.1525/var.19126.96.36.199.
6 Anderson, “Technology Device Ownership: 2015.”
7 Pollack, Barbara. “Did Instagram Kill Photography’s Stars?: ICP Confronts Today’s Image Revolution.” ARTnews. October 15, 2015, accessed October 07, 2016. http://www.artnews.com/2015/10/15/did-instagram-kill-photographys-stars-icp-confronts-todays-image-revolution/.
8 Thomas, Richard A. History of Numerical Control: A History of the Role the General Electric Company Played in the Development of Numerical Control for Machine Tools, 1943–1988. Charlottesville, VA?: R. A. Thomas, 2007.
12 Challies, Tim. The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
13 Taylor, Grant D. “The Machine That Made Science Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art 1963–1989.” PhD diss., University of Western Australia, 2005.
14 Ulam, S. M. Adventures of a Mathematician. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.
16 Segal, Adrien. “Artist Statement.” For Wood, Revisited exhibition, October 2016, The Center for Art in Wood, Philadelphia, PA.
17 For more on this see Vernor Ving, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” in Whole Earth Review, January 1993. Accessed October 7, 2016. www.wholeearth.com.
19 Kurzweil, Ray. “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence. March 7, 2001, accessed October 07, 2016. www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns.