Q&A: Anna Walker on Digital Technology

Q&A: Anna Walker on Digital Technology

Published on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.
Ctrl P at HCCC 1

"Digital technologies open up a whole new way of collaborating across vast geographies," says Anna Walker. In "Ctrl + P," she featured ceramics by cross-country collaborators Shawn Spangler and Bryan Czibez, whose work explores issues of authorship.

Eric Hester

Anna Walker is a savvy observer of digital technology. Currently a Windgate curatorial fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Walker is also a former curator at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, where she curated the exhibition “Ctrl+P.” The group show investigated the implications of increasingly available, affordable technologies – such as CAD programs and 3D printing – on the making of sculptural and functional objects. Walker (who arguably has the best Twitter handle ever) spoke to us for “Brave New World.”

How would you describe the relationship of digital technologies (3D printing, CAD/CAM, CNC machining, etc.) to the world of craft – the world of making?
Craft and digital tools are a good fit. There’s a history of material investigation, design solution, and a focus on skill in craft that puts these artists in an ideal position to harness the potential of using digital technologies.

An emerging maxim associated with digital fabrication is that it is best applied in cases where the hand alone could not have achieved the result. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
To my way of thinking, digital fabrication is best applied when an artist approaches these tools – 3D printers, CNC machines, Rhino and AutoCAD, etc. – as an integral part of the design and making processes for their works.

The digital tool should be a starting place for making, not an end point; digital fabrication involves more than just pressing “print.” Whether the hand is primary or not is of less importance than the conceptual and tangible execution of the object.

What’s the greatest potential of these tools/technologies? What have you seen that most excites you?
I’m most excited by works where the artist engages with the wider implications of what digital technologies mean for making, such as investigating ideas of authorship, replication, or personalization. I think of the work of ceramic artists Shawn Spangler and Bryan Czibez, who work collaboratively across the country on projects that explore issues of authorship and map the digital and physical interpretations of vessels. Or the former jewelry collaborative, The Opulent Project, comprised of artists Meg Drinkwater and Erin Gardner, who sourced their jewelry designs for Digital Ring from online, shared, public domains such as Google 3D Warehouse. And as part of her microRevolt project, Cat Mazza developed knitPro – a free web application for ease of translating digital images into knit patterns.

Do digital fabrication tools have the potential to change how we think about making?
Even though digital tools alleviate some issues presented by traditional tools – like some design flaws – they present a range of problems of their own. Ultimately, an object made using a digital tool will still be held to the same conceptual and aesthetic standards as those objects made in more traditional settings. But I think it’s likely that digital technologies will change the way artists approach problem solving and provide alternative solutions to those from the past. Digital technologies open up a whole new way of collaborating across vast geographies. Designing something in a virtual world and the ability to send, share, and manipulate with many different artists offers exciting possibilities for the field.

Digital fabrication (and the promise of localized, custom, small-scale production) is predicted to disrupt the mass-production model. To the world of makers, craftspeople, and artists, who are already outside of that mass-production paradigm, does that make it friend or foe?
This is a good question. After talking to those involved with 3D printers and other digital technologies, I’m skeptical how much these tools will truly disrupt the mass-produced marketplace in the near future. At the moment this technology is in its infancy. The machines are fussy and slow; for instance, it can take eight hours to print a cup. Is the cost in time and material economically viable for an individual to make this cup at home versus purchasing it from a store?

The real possibility comes with customization and sharing of designs through the internet and open source design platforms. Craft has historically been about customization, and because of that, craft artists are poised to harness these digital technologies and their maker culture as a friend of the field.