We’ve already seen a bit of ceramics and I have to confess that is also my background - I am a potter by trade. But a few years ago I got interested in the digital tools that were becoming available for us to create. These present such fantastic possibilities and offer an array of different ways of creating and give such creative opportunities that certainly as a potter I find incredibly exciting. However, there are also things about the practice of working with material and form directly, intuitively and physically which is still valuable. My research is about how to use some of these fantastic, new digital possibilities but combine them with using them in a much more intuitive and physical way - combining the two methods.
The research started a few years ago with this piece of equipment which is a MicroScribe® – a basic tool for taking data from physical objects and feeding it into the CAD programme. It is a fairly basic tool and it does it very well. But what we got excited by is not only can you record physical shapes but you can also create shapes, use it as a drawing tool to record the motion I do with my hand directly into the computer programme. That to me was far more exciting than using it just to record physical shapes into the computer programme. That movement I’ve just done with my hand is then recorded like this as a 3D line. Initially, this obviously has not got any solidity it is just a spline, a path you can add solidity through the modelling programme by sweeping shapes through the drawing. These are solid shapes in the computer’s mind – you can RP (rapid prototype) them, you can create a physical representation of the drawing through the RP machine. That is what we did with these pieces.
This first stage of the research ended up as awards for the UK Science Park Association (UKSPA) an annual award for the best scientists and these first pieces were used for that set in clear acrylic so they – just like in the drawing package – kind of hover in zero gravity, just like in the computer programme. You can obviously also take that RP shape further into other materials and I’ve worked a little bit with that. I’ve worked with a small foundry firm where we took the drawings done with the MicroScribe® then rapid prototyped them into plaster and they burned out the plaster and cast bronze directly into the void and you get a bronze shape from a drawing.
This initial research led on to another project I started with the University College Falmouth part of a competition where instead of just doing the splines and drawings you would use the splines and drawings for actual physical pieces. Again, going back to the potter in me I was thinking of vessels and using the splines to create the vessels with. We got hold of another piece of equipment. This is called a ShapeHand™ - a motion capture piece of equipment that is mainly used in the animation industry for recording the movements of an actor and then you would use that for special effects in a film.
It works on the basis of fibre optics and records the curvature of how the fibre optics bend and translates that into the movement on the screen so you can really record the dynamic movement of your hand. You can really use this to describe shapes by your hand in space and record that data as linear paths just like the MicroScribe®. You can have much more dynamic paths using all the digits. Whenever we discuss shape nearly all designers and makers always use our hands to gesture and explain things by our hands. So this research is an attempt to create using our hands and using that tool.
The splines are recorded and from the splines again you can create surfaces between the splines. Once you have surfaces you can process it again – you can RP or in this case we used milling. We milled out the representation of the movement of the hand. Initially, we used ceramics as pots – the interesting part is that you are going from digital into physical objects. The digital part is really quite easy. Once you get to the physical part it gets difficult. Creating moulds for such complicated, random shapes is very difficult. I did a few pieces that weren’t very successful. They were very difficult to produce. At the moment I’m trying to find different applications for using the glove and the hand to produce shapes. What you will see in the exhibition is some stools that I think are much more successful in the way it has been used. The surfaces have been milled from the forms created and there is no subsequent mould making. It is also quite interesting to experience something not always through your hand but through other parts of your body. They are still flat enough to sit on and be comfortable but it is interesting to find a place to sit. The movement of the hand is a long movement across the three chairs.
There are issues about creating surfaces between the splines and in some ways these surfaces are artificial. You are just saying ok I want surfaces between the lines but what you really are recording is just the splines. So the next part of the research is to work with the genuine data, the genuine intention or recording from the hand. But it is quite difficult with five digits – for some objects it is too much. So I have gone back to the MicroScribe® to use that to scribe a rim of a vessel or a loop. To draw a loop in air - in many ways - is all you need to describe a vessel, just the rim. How to process that was another issue. Milling is great but it is quite cumbersome and you have to remove an awful lot of material. You can use rapid prototyping but it is quite expensive and it can be quite slow. So finding a way of representing these lines, of the rims of vessels possibly was another issue. This method came about where you draw the line in space and you can extrude it down so it becomes a surface. You can then unfold the surface and all of a sudden you have a very simple representation of this 3D line from the 2D representation of the line from the top and the 2D representation of the line unfolded from the side. By putting those two together you get the 3D information of the line. To do that physically, to create physical form you would use laser cutting – now very accessible and relatively cheap and you cut out the shape of the line.
This is done in very thin stainless steel and you force the line – the collar or the unfolded line into the top section and all of a sudden you’ve got the physical representation of the 3D line. You set it in plaster and you can place a disk of glass onto it. As you heat the disk of glass up it will go soft and gravity will mean it will gently flow down and sit exactly on the rim of the collar. You have created a piece that both represents the digital recording of your intention but it also uses the physical nature of the glass. i.e. it gets soft and is formed from its own heaviness by gravity in the kiln. You have a piece that looks like this – the dome created by the soft glass bending in the kiln. This is unexpected where the glass kinks over the edge it creates a dark edge that is very clear to see that 3D line and also as you photograph these pieces the dome of the piece in the middle almost becomes invisible so you can almost just see the line there. The rest of the glass just sort of flops over and it is quite nice just to have an element of the material doing what it does. You can’t control it – or there is not much control there. But you can also trim it back so you have the bowl exactly to that line and you can see these pieces in the exhibition as well. Again, the bowls become almost invisible as you photograph them as the light goes straight through them - so you only really see that line from the drawing in the pieces.
Another step further to finding genuine intention or the genuine data of when you are recording is using the point data. The lines in some way are a little bit of a fraud. The lines are calculated by the computer - it kind of helps by doing a line between the points that are recorded. So really all you are recording are coordinates in the space. Instead of using the linear data you can also use just the point data and that is very accurate in terms of what is really recorded of the movement of the hand. Again you can use that – instead of using sheet metal you can use rods set in a laser cut, cardboard section with holes pierced by the laser. And then to the line of the template again place a disk of glass and heat it up and you end up with a piece like this so that you get that dot data. Again, the material does whatever it does during the heating. It really is a combination of the digital recording of the motion and a material doing things in the physical world.
A slightly different approach that was also part of this project was to also record everyday motions with your hands – so I recorded the motion of drying up. Taking a mug from the draining board, and a tea towel and you wipe it. So that is a recording of me doing that and then taking the mug and putting it on the side. Then taking this information of the recording of the motion, the action recording it as lines then digitally printing out tea towels with the motion of using the tea towel transposed as a decoration. That is essentially what my research is about.