“By Manipulating the Data. . . .
I Can Make . . . .” –Grahame Bywater
“The students have a big passion and energy, a genuine interest in the possibilities that digital processes offer them to create captivating work. The combination of material exploration and digital processes in cunning ways explore a wide range of rich, psychological content”
—Damien Gilley responds to reviewing the student work from the Digital Arts program in Portland
Every term, the level of industriousness and creativity in University of OregonSchool of Architecture and Allied Arts in Portland’s Digital Arts program seems to leap with new energetic bounds fueled by the proclivities of emerging artists. Fall 2011 students were guided by Craig Hickman. Students searched, collected, built, drew, cut, photographed, edited, realized, and uncovered ideas that they explored with a sense of their own unique human ability to manipulate. That strength and capability to change the digital world by imposing or allowing in the aspect of human touch and vulnerability emerged as a fundamental theme.
The weeks progressed and I watched them work, their intent and rapture in their process always captivating. We smelled and watched and listened as they poured, sprayed, hung, projected, and felt the work develop. Gradually, the Digital Arts pieces came together, textures emerged, surfaces hardened, light changed and things dripped, dried, and sought out wall space: we looked forward to the final outcome. Sometimes, pieces broke, didn’t dry or cure, or just didn’t seem what was intended, and were redone. Some pieces, once hung on a stark wall, were fiercely alluring evoking cinematic horror, others were dazzling in 1980s day-glo. We saw projections that were mesmerizing with repetition, photographs and phrases swooning with the broken-hearts of social-media rejection, and quizical QR codes that urged one to clamor for the nearest iphone. The range of imagery and connotation was extensive: many works revealed a fascination with the mixology of culture and history; others explored a nod to popular iconography, or examined imagery they could contain in bold woodcut-like large scale pieces to more delicate explorations with print-like fragility. But this array, overall, illustrated the great effort put into creating something with meaningful content and the students fantastic diligence to actualize works exemplifying a sense of exploration and experimentation.
Following the review I asked the reviewers to comment on what they saw. Blake Shell, Archer Gallery Director | Department of Art Instructor at Washington State University said, “I found the work to be varied and strong this term. I was impressed and even inspired for my own work by the conversation….” Craig Hickman further expounded, “The reviews ….are a significant motivator for our students. There is no substitute for real-world knowledge and experience interaction and feedback from professionals who can provide.” He continued adding that the students “in the Digital Arts BFA program [take] the reviews very seriously. They prepared carefully and thoughtfully and remarked on the usefulness of the comments from reviewers. [Their] work was diverse, but I believe the thread tying it all together was a focus on and response to contemporary culture.”
Michael Salter noting that “pretty much the reason [he] decided to teach art” was for the review sessions, emphasized the importance of the review and the development of the student work: “We consider these student reviews vital to the experience of our Digital Art’s BFA’s. We are so grateful for the people who take time from their busy schedules to participate….I expect [the students’ work] will be heavily influenced by the critique.” He said, “the reviews guarantee each student will look closely at their motivations, their ideas and how to best communicate them.” And, indeed, much gratitude is owed to the reviewers for providing their professional expertise and guidance.
The following students exhibited work in the January review; most provided their artistic statements for inclusion in this blog:
Grahame Bywater | Joseph Centanni | Keith Chaloux | Leah Chan | Brett Ciccarello | Michael Cooper | Paul Pederson | Amanda Riebe | McKenzie Sampson | Brian Schmidt | Keith Stedman | Olivia Storm | Trevin Swick | Christine Thomas | Yekaterina Vitkovskaya
In what became a fantastic combination of the relationship between human behavior and product design, the course moved along with each student being required to develop a piece of furniture that might be found in the home environment. Once the design was completed, students worked on creating production documents to be used in communicating design intentions to fabricators. As a final step,students took part of their creation to the White Stag model shop, the Fab Lab, and built | prototyped the piece with the technical expertise of John Leahy and guided by Huston.
Student Ariana Budner commented on her experience in the course:
Although all of our designs were initially based on a lifestyle (ie. spiritual life), what was interesting to me was how each person began to focus on different components of the design — material, process, overarching concept — to dictate their final piece. For example, I wanted to learn how to use the CNC router, therefore, the concept of the turntable, grew out of the tool’s capabilities.
What I liked about the design approach in this class, specifically, was the diversity and breadth of skills I utilized, learned and strengthened within the ten weeks of the class. We were encouraged to work with fabricators, yet build what we could by hand. I learned a great deal in regards to both. And I enjoy the fact that my turntable is a fusion of my hand-crafted woodworking, digital woodworking, a fabricator’s welding, and a mass produced electronic.
The progression from idea to a tangible piece of furniture was revealed at the course’s final review in early December 2011. The process had guided students down a path of understanding history and precedents of domestic furniture culminating in how they could create furniture with more meaning while encouraging them to defy convention. Focus was put on researching a user’s physical and emotional relationship with furniture and how to blend form, function, and design conceptualization.
When the pieces were put on display for review, the assortment was impressive: students showed a knowledge of materials, and finishes, and had crafted by hand or worked alongside manufacturers to help realize their designs. They engaged with reviewers and spoke about their work, explaining connections to the people who would be using the pieces. The exhibited pieces had been made of natural or deadfall wood, and materials that were completely formaldehyde-free or recycled. Concepts of reduce-reuse-and-recycle were plainly evident. Local manufacturing was the preferred option. This was the brave new world of furniture design. And as reviewers such as Reiko Igarashi , Kate MacKinnon, John Paananen, Dave Laubenthal, David Bertman, Leslie Biggs, and Brian Gualtieri joined the dialogue to critique the designs, the students’ creations received both constructive criticism and praise fueling the realization that furniture design for the home can be a highly provocative topic.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Sara Huston about her interdisciplinary product design course. I wanted to discover how she was relating intention, process and her ideals of humanitarian-based design. Huston explained that her Furniture Design course was all about collaborative design, interdisciplinary blending of talents and the understanding that to create something meaningful sometimes you need to “step out of yourself.” This sounded fascinating, so I asked her to continue and to illuminate what it is that compels her visionary approach to furniture design and creative exploration of the form into an object of daily use. The Cranbrook Academy of Art grad (MFA 2007, 3D Design) will quickly assure you that it is her sense of curiosity about “human behavior, human emotion, and how we connect with objects.” She further explains that this element is “something shared with the design profession….To be even more inclusive.” Huston continues, “it is all linked to physiology, sociology, and anthropology.” Talk about interdisciplinary….Huston feels that if one gathers the skills to enable “knowing the right formal expression, proportions, colors and compositions” one can use this melding of experiences to craft a compelling piece. Sometimes the most compelling pieces disrupt expectations and bring attention to passive human behaviors. “Just imagine,” says Huston, “how a table placed between two people affects their conversation, their body language, the way they interact with one another.” Remove that object, and the situation changes or shifts—no longer is there a solid object that projects intention and spatial relationships to a face-to-face encounter.
Huston is fascinated by the intimate, or lasting, relationships people establish with “stuff”—objects that are kept for a lifetime versus objects that are casually disgarded. What decides how objects are treated, what gives meaning to a piece? What makes one piece end up in a landfill and another remain a decades-long fixture in one’s living space? Huston believes that if an object does not hold something personal or evocative to a human’s emotional situation, that piece won’t be kept for long—it becomes meaningless, valueless. Posing these inquiries to her practice and embracing the somewhat controversial philosophy of product design as an art and not just a design, Huston enthusiastically promotes her process as akin to a brush thick with paint stroking a canvas-like sense of “freedom to absorb the world around [her] and reinterpret [her] surroundings.” A painterly metaphor gracefully upholds her firm stance that objects must contain an emotional and empathetic aspect. Thereby, her intention is to make design secondary to art, but to retain both as inextricably interwoven. Every created piece must have a rich story: have meaning, value and intention that moves forward with emotion and purpose. Lofty ideals to accomplish, indeed. But Huston is certainly the artist | designer to do just this. Her educational background (in addition to her MFA from Cranbrook, she holds a BFA in Sculpture from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, 2004) and her penchant to self-teach practical methods of woodworking and the technology of tools, has turned this ‘humanitarian artist of the object’ into a realm that rises with silky smoothness over and above only product design.
These ideals are interpreted to provoke a design discourse discussion. Huston seeks to get her students to feel empathy with the users of their artistic furniture or, conversely, their furnituresque art, to perceive values in objects that can create a more fulfilled or meaningful life. Perhaps this is a new thinking, feeling, almost psycho-analytical development to product design, dare we say, a kinder, gentler way—the desire to encourage students to create objects that make people think and feel and respond to their environment? Huston would, in her charmingly bashful manner, say that her goal is simply to challenge these young people, to show them furniture is “the muse”. It is not new, it is not revolutionary, she says, but it is a way of teaching product design that puts people first, and commercialism and materialistic acquisition firmly in second place. Students are taught that pieces with little intention and devoid of meaning are quickly put aside.
All of this translates to a course where Huston recognized the creative potential of reaching out to architecture and art students who might not yet have been exposed to furniture design, might not have thought about humanitarian furniture objects, might not have considered the emotional power of a simple usable furniture piece but who already are learning to practice the same inquiries in their creative design. Huston saw this as a chance glance through the lens of their architectural or art learning and realized an advantageous opportunity apply it to day-to-day, hands-on, immediately buildable pieces. With furniture design, Huston could enable her students to explore that their ideas as designs that embody design as a tool to positively effect their environment and draw attention to elements of living on a touchable, comfort-providing level. We see the soft stacking layers of Danielle Thireault’s Homasote chair; and the gentle undulating concave a la convex of Seth Dunn’s chaise longue. And something as basic as a dining room table could be transformed to become integrated with digital, motion-sensitive lights and visually display human movement and interaction, or lack thereof, during a sit-down dinner. Student, Adam Wilson’s table was a captivating commentary on the health of the modern family, a solid recognition on the collapse of a strong family unit –if the family sits down together the red lights dance in response to human motion across the surface of thetable. The piece remains dark with no human interaction.
Discovering how furniture can relate to and express the human environment, as ideas from solitary sitting, to interactive motion-sensitive devices to pieces that would efficiently spin vinyl and simultaneously hold records illustrated how these students were critically thinking about the functioning world around them, how people relate to spaces and items in those spaces and everyday objects that might provide some glimpse into how we relate to one another. Not to mention, what objects they felt people held or could develop an emotional attachment to. The empathy is found in designing for others and their specific lifestyle: pieces had to work with a humanistic element and had to have an emotional anchor, they had to challenge expectations and react. Students had to grasp what creates furniture. And what compels someone to like something inanimate: what prompts an emotional response, a table, a chair, an object that can hold something of value.
It had been Huston’s keen interest in discovering and developing the possibility of interdisciplinary creativity that would help students see a breadth to their ideas. This concept ultimately led Huston to propose her furniture course series. Huston remembers herself grappling with design versus art concepts during her undergraduate days: the art aspect flowed easily, the design component seemed to be inherent. Did the two need to be separate or as her practice suggested, her work seemed to embrace the dichotomy. She recalls an immediate connection with reflective artistic practice, it resonated with her from the onset of her creative endeavor, and “just” designing seamlessly gained her artistic flair. Huston comments that now having her own established studio and professional practice,The Last Attempt At Greatness, has allowed her to realize a niche for crafting objects that are woven with aspects of humanitarian thought, sustainable sentiment and a challenging process. These were all aspects that would ask students to think differently about standard, everyday objects of furniture. Blending this into a design ethos and getting her students to visualize making furniture as a lasting and influential process made the interdisciplinary combination essential. Huston blazed ahead, her students expressing gratitude for the progression.
Student Danielle Thireault, commented:
The furniture course was the first chance I had to really integrate my architectural and product design educations. It allowed me to consider the spatial implications of the piece, as well as the user interactions. I really enjoyed the experience and appreciated being able to fabricate a concept and get a better grasp on the breadth of processes included in the production as an individual piece, as well as what considerations to take into account on a mass production scale. The environment of working amongst both architecture and product design students also encouraged avariety of exploration that, for me at least, was key to the development of my chair.
The initiation of the furniture series to inaugurate the interdisciplinary coursework at the UO AAA in Portland reflects a passionate, and increasing interest among students and professionals to participate in projects that extend to a greater community in ways that show positive, meaningful, connected work. Huston’s philosophy that asks students to think critically about and be cognizant of the history and social context fosters a much greater contribution to the product design field than simply approaching furniture design from a commercially viable viewpoint. Huston shepherded her students to experience and to merge with the environment they would be creating a useful object to be placed within. And as Huston likes to point out, this method can produce commercially marketable pieces appropriate for a mass-marketplace. However, she is quick to say that for her frame of reference, making things involves more than producing a sell-able item—and this, perhaps is what results in Huston’s craft intention being art first, design second. Or, maybe, intentionally, art that inspires comfort and connection because it just might be your favorite chair and something you feel an emotional connection to.
Our students, future architects, designers, artists will help fill our world with ideas. If they are offered opportunities to collaborate with those ideas, to work within all creative disciplines and to craft work that truly serves a population the field will blossom. Huston feels that it is with students that we “see the most innovation of all.” They are not afraid of failure, they take risks, they question what exists, they try things. This is why Huston says her best and most interactive audience is her students—“they feel the freedom to think and create what might never have been done before.”
Providing key courses that encourage students understanding about the built environment, from the skyscraper to the stool, continues to develop an understanding of collaboration and bringing together ideas, a confluence of creativity. The intersection of thoughts, as Sara Huston advocates, can make good, very good design, but also it can make designs more thoughtful, more sustainable and more connected to the populations that live and work and play with them. From chairs to record player shelves, from tables to work stations, Huston’s class brought together a myriad of students who with different perspectives who had a vision to build something interesting and really think before, during and after. Design merged with art . . . . and it was stunning.
Photos of the student work from the fall 2011 Conceptual Furniture Design | Private Space (Product Design 410) course and the December 2011 review follows.
From January 21 to April 8th, the UO art faculty members will be showing their work in The Long Now, an exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art from January 20 to April 8 in Eugene. Selected works by six art faculty members will be shown at the White Box in Portland from January 24 to March 24. To highlight the artists behind the art, I’m having conversations with several of the faculty in the show to hear more about their practice.
This conversation is with Carla Bengtson. She is an Associate Professor in Art and an Associate Member of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. Her work will be shown in Eugene, as well as at the White Box in Portland. Previously to coming to the UO, she taught at Yale University, Connecticut College, Wesleyan University, and was Head Curator of the John Slade Ely House, Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven, Connecticut. She holds a BFA from Tyler School of Art, an MFA from Yale School of Art, and was a two-time participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program.
Dave Amos, A&AA writer: Why do you work with insects and ants?
Carla Bengtson: I work with a few different organisms; ants are one of them. Ants were my first experiment in making art with other species. That happened because I was going to the Amazon every year and staying at research stations as part of a larger question about human-environment interactions. Ants kept trying to get into my work as I would go out into the field to draw and write so I decided to welcome that opportunity. I started working with ants in collaboration with a biologist and our first drawings were with arboreal gliding ants. They are ants that live in trees and when they fall from trees they are able to direct their descent like flying squirrels do, so they can find a scent trail and get back to their nest.
I discovered this by accident. We were playing with an ant on a piece of paper and it would always move to the same corner. So I would move the paper to try to understand what this behavior was about. Through a process of interaction I got this beautiful spiral pattern. As it turns out the ant wasn’t just going to a particular corner or a particular compass point, but it was going toward the light, which is how they locate the trees when they fall out of the trees. So the pattern that resulted evidenced something of my curiosity and the ant’s inclinations.
DA: One of your pieces is a result of spreading paper under a tree. Could you tell me more about that?
CB: The following year I went down with some Dutch Boy paint samples, which reminded me of minimalist paintings — little ready made minimalist paintings that Home Depot was selling. I did a series where ants did these gestural abstractions on the paint samples, and then I did several things with them. I based a series of human-scaled paintings on them, which was an attempt to see if I could understand something of the ants’ lifeworld, but through the process of translation I also added something of my own nature and culture. The paintings exist somewhere between my culture and their nature, or between my nature and their culture, depending on how you look at it.
In a following iteration I blew the original up, took it back down to the Amazon, reinstalled it, and had the ants draw on it as a colony. That piece, along with site documents and a video showing the ants beginning to explore the print, are in the JSMA exhibition.
DA: How do they make their drawings?
CB: It’s just ink. It’s non-toxic water-based ink. I just splatter it in their path. They’re busy getting their leaves.
DA: Before you had been to the Amazon had this human-insect interaction always been an interest?
CB: My interest in environmental issues is what took me to the Amazon. When you’re down there, you become very aware that the human perspective is only one among many. So I became more and more curious to see what I might understand of nonhuman culture. I’m also curious to see what other species make of human culture. I did another piece where I cut up and laid out a large print over the leaf cutter nest site. At first the ants rejected the pieces and cleared them from the nest site. Then they started collecting them. I’ve got this video showing that moment of decision. The next year I did it again but I tore the print into pieces that resembled leaves and this time they took them from me right away. And then, not only that, but I had these big chunks left that they started cutting themselves and started collecting. They just collected virtually the whole print. My work in the Portland show is based on that interaction. Both pieces begin with site-responsive actions or interventions and then they take different, but related, forms in the gallery setting.
DA: What insight are you looking for when you make these pieces? What’s fascinating to you about the interactions you’re having with these creatures?
CB: I’m trying to find a place between nature and culture. I’m trying to think them together, rather than in opposition to one another, which is how we’ve been trained. And I’m trying to see what can be seen and what can be said between species. We have completely different physical scales, temporal scales, perceptual apparatus, and cultures. Ants are interesting to me because they have such highly developed, bottom up cultures, while we have highly developed top down cultures. I’m hoping to develop a two-way interaction, not just something I impose on them or something they perform for me, but a two-way dialogue that shifts my perspective.
DA: Is there another species you want to work with?
CB: I am working on a video project with ground squirrels. I’ve done a piece with a studio mouse (below). I’m doing a piece with monkeys and language, called “Starting Over”, in the Amazon.
DA: There seems to be another area of your work that doesn’t directly involve insects. “Lick” (below) is a beautiful piece. How did you make it?
CB: It’s all about this question of human/environment and human/non-human interaction. The question is what falls out when you try to engage other species in the environment. In other words, what can you not access? That’s the falling out. The spilling over is what comes back; the unexpected insights that come back from that attempt.
”Lick” is about the paint performing it’s own materiality. I’ve painted for years and years and these ant projects have spilled over into how I think about paint. I’m interested in embodiments — my body, other species’ bodies, the body of the material of the paint, and the body of the image. In this piece, I really want to extend the gesture of the paint to show what it wants to do, how it flows, how you can move it. To take that gesture and prolong it and move it through a series of panels so it ripples through without being a big, fat heroic abstract expressionist brush gesture. And the stripe, the other spillover that came into this painting from these Dutch Boy paint samples was when I started to paint them I had to find a technique to show this blown up striping effect. I developed a tool that would do that, so that’s how I developed the striping gesture on “Lick.”
DA: Your primary medium is paint, but you expand outward to serve your mission. Is that move recent?
CB: I was a painter for 25 or more years. The thing that moved me from that strict painting practice was my increasing interest in environmental issues and becoming an associate member of environmental studies and co-teaching with people in other disciplines and just having certain experiences that made me want to address these other concerns more explicitly than I could with abstract painting. That’s what led me to into new forms of making.
DA: Why are you in Eugene?
CB: Eugene had the same draw that brought me to this point in my work. I was living on the east coast, and I wanted to understand more about how I was constituted as both a thinker and an embodied perceiver. I was getting a lot of resources in terms of thinking about art, but I needed to directly engage nature more and try to understand that aspect of my experience. That desire is what caused me to apply to UO. It’s also what took me beyond UO to the Amazon and other places.
DA: Who or what are your influences?
CB: Artists that are interesting to me at the moment are Katharina Grosse and Shannon Ebner and her work with language. In terms of thinkers, a German by the name of Jan Verwoert is really interesting to me. He’s a contemporary theorist. There’s also a biologist from the 19th-20th century, Jakob von Uexküll, who developed theories about animals being at the center of their own perceptual bubbles. He has some really intriguing ideas about understanding other animals as sensing subjects and not just objects.
DA: Is that what your art is trying to get at?
CB: Yes, right. The alterity, or otherness, of other species, but also their agency. So the idea around the studio mouse piece is to show both my desire to interact with the mouse, but also its agency in refusing to cooperate.
DA: Tell me more about your circular pieces (like above).
CB: The circle shape originally came from a recognition that when you see in nature, you see in more of a circular or elliptical pattern. You don’t see rectangles, frames around your perception. It was that, but those works were also inspired by an investigation of this encounter with the world. Before you name things, what is that pre-apprehension moment? You’re always inevitably at the center of your own experience. So that’s why both the outer frame is closer to the way you see, and why a lot of them also have oculi. You’re always moving through the world, which is circulating around and opening up before you.
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