Q&A: Future Retrieval on Digital Fabrication

Q&A: Future Retrieval on Digital Fabrication

Published on Tuesday, February 3, 2015.
Nymphenburg Still Life

The three dog heads in Nymphenburg Still Life (2012) were 3D-scanned from an 1850s figurine and paired with die-cut paper, CNC-milled frames, and hot pink neon. Photo: Red Star Studios

Since 2008, Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis have worked collaboratively as Future Retrieval. Their inventive work is equally a mash-up, combining contemporary technology, such as 3D scanning, with the history of decorative arts and design. They shared their thoughts with us for the story "Brave New World."

How do digital technologies figure in your work? How did you come to them?
We use digital technologies to replicate objects and shift their scale to suit the needs of our studio. We can precisely replicate found objects at a scale that works with the materials of our choosing. Technology wise, 3D scanning and printing does play a large role in our practice – but there are many similarities between digital fabrication and traditional materials and methods. For example, the maximum size of the print bed we are using is around 15 inches, which is also exactly the scale we can get away with casting in porcelain – and still maintain the integrity we are looking for. There is a definitely a back and forth between the hand and the machine, and we don't see much a difference between the two in the end result.

Coming from a ceramics background there is an understanding that it is an industrial and technologically based material. We realize that all materials are fair game, and we should be using the most current and relevant alongside the familiar tools found in the studio.

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?
We agree. It allows for replication, multiplicity, and precision in a way that couldn't be achieved by hand. On the other end, if we need something made by hand, we just make it by hand. 

In our studio, we use digital fabrication to "skip a step" but then go back and painstakingly make molds of that piece by hand. It is a back and forth – it does save time, but by no means are we working at a faster clip. The learning curve with the software is steep, but becoming increasingly more user friendly. Currently we are using digital fabrication as one more tool, rather than the end result. 

Whether it is running the table saw, the potter’s wheel, or a 3D printer, it is about using the tool that gets the job done in the most efficient manner.

What’s the greatest potential of these tools/technologies? What have you seen that most excites you?
The greatest potential of these tools is the file. Having an exacting copy of something to be able to manipulate, change, and reprint in a variety of materials is exciting. The file takes up virtual space, but not studio space like molds and prototypes that weigh a ton and need to moved from place to place. Our molds take up a tremendous amount of space. 

You sometimes hear the statement that technologies are simply new tools – and in many ways, yes, absolutely. But compared to manual tools, there are distinguishing traits. Hands-on feedback may be reduced, for example. A program could prevent a design flaw. Does this matter? Do digital fabrication tools have the potential to change how we think about making?
Absolutely. But there is no substitute for the object, especially when it comes to design. To hold a piece in your hand and know the other side of the process (for us, casting, firing, glazing – and all the pitfalls that come with it), there is no substitution for the tactile result. You can't have one without the other – a computer can't solve all the problems when it comes to making a piece of art or a product, but there is no arguing that technology is making both easier. For us it opens the world of things; we don't need to hunt and find the perfect object in exactly the right size, we now have the ability to model, scan, and sculpt the pieces that we need. 

It is also very nice to be able to email your work to the other side of the world. 

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/or artists, already outside of that mass-production paradigm, does that make it friend or foe?
Even in the world of mass production, we still need physical hands-on objects. And for the small-scale maker, it is still a tremendous amount of work to create a custom product. 

In the grand scheme of things, we may eventually bypass all market. (By market, we mean the idea of printing everything one needs in their own home, on their own time.) If this happens, the role of the designer becomes the most important, when files are up in the air to be shared and tweaked by everyone. We don't think this blocks or stops the artist or craftsperson, but opens the door for a wider audience and potential for styles and ideas to be disseminated.

Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis were featured artists in "Brave New World." We've already published extended conversations with Chris BathgateArthur HashChristy OatesAnna Walker, Bathsheba Grossman, and Stacy Jo Scott. Stay tuned for our final installment from Joshua G. Stein.