N0.1 Hacking the Handmade
In this issue we interview Danica Drago, a student in the Material Art and Design program. She tells us how she question the handmade and why asking for help is more important than you think.
Hey Danica! Since you’re in a program that walks the squiggly line between art and design, what do you call yourself?
That’s a fun a one. In MAAD we’ve talked about this as a group—how to associate ourselves with what we do, because a lot of us work in different materials and different techniques. So you can’t really call yourself a weaver or a metal-smith or a fabricator. Those terms deal directly with how we understand what we do, but don’t necessarily give the public or the outside the world an indication. So, “artist” and “designer” is kind of a common title people use, but I feel pretty comfortable with “maker”.
Do you think what you call yourself affects how you perceive yourself and make, and how others perceive you and your work?
I know the kind of work I make and what I’m trying to do with it, but it doesn’t necessarily come across to people that read artist and designer and try to figure out what I do. I’m more concerned about how it distributes information about me to other people.
When you come to school, process is pushed so hard that the measure of success for a project becomes how exploratory your process was instead of a finessed result. Our investment into a project is given importance over what it contributes. How do you wrestle with that?
That was a big part of what I was trying to communicatewith my thesis, because it stemmed out of this frustration with us concealing all of our practices and not sharing those things transparently or accessibly with the public. We don't really make a priority of educating people with what we make. Most work we make is more about elevating the object or our skills to a level, more about performing or exhibiting this thing instead of how it got there. All of the ideation and failure and risks and those aspects of process are lost. When you let people into the process in terms they can understand, it really helps them feel connected to the project and appreciate it more. It gives them a better understanding of how things are made in general.
So tell us about your favorite thing you’ve ever made.
It would definitely have to be this project I did last year for my thesis. Not because it was the most perfectly finished or exciting or professional thing I’ve ever made, but because I learned the most from it. It also challenged the things that I had grown up with and find a lot of security in, like valuing doing things by hand, or doing things myself instead of outsourcing them, or really trying to get as original and true a process as I can. We live in this really interesting time where those traditional techniques and processes are now being mixed and hybridized with new technologies that are becoming so widely accessible. Knowledge is being shared in a way it never has before.
What was this project?
I was trying to figure out what it means to make something by hand. I was trying to deconstruct the term “hand-made.” In my program a lot of people refer to what they do as making hand-made objects, but there’s no standard of what hand-made is. It’s a fluctuating term that means something different to everybody. There were people laser-cutting and then assembling by hand and calling it hand-made, or they would 3D print it and then do the finishing by hand and call it hand-made. The hand-made is an element of their process, but it’s not the entire process. So what can we call hand-made? That was the frustration that I had. I was like; “hand-made” is a cop-out! You guys are just using it because you think it gives your work value, but it doesn’t educate the consumer anymore when you use the term hand-made rather than 3D printed. We hold on to hand-made because it’s something authentic and ties us to the object itself. I think when we look at tools as an extension of our hands, and that you really need technical proficiency built up over practice and working with those tools to be able to use them well, then they’re not a cop-out. I wanted to make a machine that could make hand-made objects. I wanted to see if I could get people to look critically at the tool and the involvement of the maker, and let them decide what “hand-made” means. Or involve them in the process as well, so they can understand by doing. So I tried to make a 3D printer that could print in clay, instead of hot plastic. Then, I tried to make a 3D motion sensor to go with it, which would allow you to do draw objects with a sensor on your hand that would be read by these two web-cams. A different program uploaded to those web-cams would record your movement and then make it into a 3D file that the printer would print. So you could technically draw objects into existence. That’s how I resolved the machine-making-something-by-hand thing. Because that object wouldn’t exist unless the person informed the object into existence.
So in essence, you hacked handmade. The person is still making by hand, but not in the way we understand.
Exactly, and I wanted to force people to wrestle with that idea. Is that hand-made or is it not? It was frustrating at first to explain that to people, and also not have them say: “That’s kind of a cop-out, you’re just making this thing to make your work for you.” But it was really hard to make this printer! I had never even 3D printed in my life, let alone build my own printer to do that. So I had to learn a lot of this technology on my own. A lot of this stuff isn’t written in books, it exists on forums and open source communities online that are developing it constantly. It’s a fluctuating technology that gets better and better the more people add to it and help each other out. I was really fortunate to be able to access that information and people that are so generous. That’s what I really love about the maker community and the open-source community that do this kind of work. They know that everything will get better the more they share and the more that they invest in collective knowledge, rather than individual knowledge.
Your work, specially your thesis, sits at this really fascinating intersection of electronics and ceramics. You said you learnt how to create ceramics with electronics a year—
—yeah! So: what helped you on the way? How did you get on that path? What resource were there for you to climb this really steep learning curve in a relatively short time?
Because of my background as a craftsperson I’ve worked with clay before. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting in the ceramic studio at my own pace with the material and learning how it can build and support itself. It needs a certain practiced knowledge to work with. It’s having that material knowledge, and also hands-on practice that gave me enough confidence to undertake this project. At first it seemed really daunting, I felt like I wasn’t the person to do this. I didn’t have enough knowledge, I didn’t spend enough time learning programming or coding or how to work with electronics. But it’s about just going and doing things instead of psyching yourself out. I also had to rely on the help of others, a lot. I would call that a main resource, which I didn’t really feel I had access to. I have this big hang-up about asking people for help, and that was the biggest struggle—throughout my whole thesis, through writing this paper, through working with technologies I’ve never worked with before. I just asked questions, I emailed a lot of people, I would go and spend time working with different people. A really cool resource we have at school was called Nerd Night, over in the integrated media department. On Tuesdays, there are a couple professors (Doug Back, Simone Jones and Bethany Jarvis) who would have their open office hours in one of the integrated media studios. People could bring whatever they were working on and use those professors as sources of knowledge and technical expertise. Because a lot of this stuff has a really steep learning curve, it’s really hard to get proficient at something in a short amount of time. You have to keep figuring out what’s working and what’s not working, and from there you have to figure out what you have to search to get to the next step and make that better. I’ve basically just modified existing technology to suit my means. I mean, that’s what crafts-people do.
Now that you’re done school, what are you going to be up to?
I’m really interested in community art organizations. I still want to make art. I still want to make both functional objects and sculptural objects, but I want to make it accessible. There’s so much value to art that’s reserved for people who can understand and appreciate it, people that go to museums and fancy design openings. That’s never really been my interest—to be that kind of maker. I’m really more interested in giving people the knowledge and tools to make themselves, to critically engage themselves in the cultures they’re a part of, but do that through the lens of making. Do you think you’re going to be successful? I don’t know how I would measure success. I definitely don’t care about being famous or well-recognized, but if I can be accessible to people and make them feel like their ideas are valued, I would consider that to be success…If I’m taking the skills that I learnt here and applying them in a way that is doing some kind of greater service, getting people to think about how an object relates to everything else, or getting them to understand processes and materials and things a little bit better. To appreciate the things they have and to see all the wealth they have.