Transcript for Crafting Technology

Jim Fleming: On the rocky coast of Maine, small wooden buildings tumble through the trees to the water. Inside the small studios, world-class artisans gather to blow glass, wheel clay, or pound metal. Welcome to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where people have been learning, sharing, and honing their skills for more than 50 years. In one studio, the pound of hammers and the hum of the potter's wheel give way to the zap of laser cutters and the whir of microprocessors. For the past few years, Haystack's been home to a high-tech digital fabrication lab. It's part of a network of labs that MIT has set up around the globe, from Afghanistan to Chile to Kenya. Steve Paulson asked Haystack director, Stuart Kestenbaum, and MIT's Neil Gershenfeld to talk about the lab as a space for art. Here's Gershenfeld.

 

Neil Gershenfeld: I direct the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. It's a program that works at the boundary of physical science and computer science. So, one of our fundamental projects is how to make a Star Trek replicator.

 

Steve Paulson: Wait, how to make a Star Trek replicator?

 

Gershenfeld: Right, in Star Trek there was this wonderful box where you could come up to it and ask for anything, and it would assemble from the atoms on up and out would come the thing you want. And so, in turn, to do the research we have a suite of tools, and that led to an outreach project to let ordinary people get access to the tools. That led to a global network of community labs which, in turn, led to the wonderful collaboration with Haystack on how well this technology meets art and craft.

 

Paulson: Okay. Stuart, what do you do?

 

Stuart Kestenbaum: I'm director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and it's an intensive, studio-based program, and we work with people from all around the country and abroad, working in craft media, from glassblowing, blacksmithing, jewelry, paper-making. And the school is 62 years old this year, but increasingly over the last 10 or so years, we began to look at craft and making and creativity, kind of in a broader perspective, and that's where our involvement with MIT began, and led to our having a fab lab.

 

Paulson: Well, it would seem like you two do very different things. I mean, Neil, you are in the high-tech game. And, Stuart, you are working with old-time craftspeople, traditional kinds of things. How did the two of you come together?

 

Gershenfeld: First, I'd say that understates it at the origins. When we first set up these tools at Haystack, which is one of my favorite places on Earth, it was analogous to when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.

 

Paulson: That extreme?

 

Gershenfeld: There was a riot.

 

Paulson: I think, actually, we need to step back for a moment, then. So, Stuart, tell me about what was happening in your studios at Haystack before you ever started working with MIT, and what kinds of projects were your craftspeople doing?

 

Kestenbaum: Well, I think, you know, over time how people work with materials is always evolving. Haystack was part of a, started as part of an interest in using the hand in the kind of post-World War II environment. So, we have a whole range of ways that craft materials are used, but it's not traditional hand crafts where it's passed down from generation to generation. And Neil, I think, opened up a way that we could look at how we were looking at making things.

 

Paulson: So, Neil, why did you want to go to Haystack? Why did you want to work with this, in some ways, this very traditional setup?

 

Gershenfeld: Sure, so to answer that I think we have to go back in two historical steps. The first historical step is to understand the word, digital. If you look at manufacturing, in 1952 MIT made the first computer-controlled milling machine. The computer's digital, but the manufacturing's not. You just mush material around, and that's still the case today. Advance 3D printing or integrated circuits, the materials don't contain information. So, the research to the Star Trek replicator is how to put codes and programs into materials to code their construction. That's where the research is going.

 

Paulson: Okay.

 

Gershenfeld: The equivalent to the PC for digital fabrication doesn't exist yet. That's the replicator, that doesn't just make a piece of plastic, it makes a complete, functional thing. That's still many years of research away. Then there's fab labs. Today, for about, oh, maybe 50,000 dollars in equipment, you can buy a suite of tools that let you do what the replicator will be able to do. This is far beyond just a 3D printer you may have heard a lot about.

 

Paulson: Okay. Well, Stuart, let me turn to you. So, why did you want to have access to all of this high-tech stuff?

 

Kestenbaum: Well, in 2002 we had a conference with MIT, with the media lab, and we had one project where we had Tom Joyce, who's a MacArthur-award-winning blacksmith, was working with Justine Cassell who was then at MIT. Their project was to make a vessel that would tell the story of its own making. So, they had sensors in it that would show where a rivet had been done, or a forge weld. And that would display itself alongside the vessel. And they were working late at night, and blacksmithing, it seems like an archetype of the oldest technology you can have, with a very primitive fire. And then right next to the, you know, art people who were doing that were doctoral students from MIT working on their laptops, and there was the red glow from the fire and the blue light from the computers. And I thought, "Well, they're both fires. They deserve to be together."

 

Paulson: This is so fascinating because, I mean, there's this old traditional belief, I think, that those old handmade crafts, you know, metalworking, glassblowing, are the antidote to our overly mechanized culture. That, I mean, a lot of people sort of gravitate to those because they don't want to have anything to do with what seems to be the industrial manufacturing that's taken over our society.

 

Kestenbaum: Great.

 

Paulson: Are you saying that attitude's a mistake?

 

Kestenbaum: I think that it's more about time and place and materials. It's a tool among all of the tools we have. And I think what it always reminds us is that you want to use the appropriate tool for the job. If a pair of scissors is the right answer, then you use the pair of scissors and not the laser cutter. You can't do what a glass master like Lino Tagliapietra can do with his hands in the fab lab, but you can find things that, when it's appropriate, can complement it. And there's no fear that we're gonna not have the acoustic guitar and the electric guitar. We'll have everything and just know when you need to play what.

 

Paulson: So, I can see how the makers at Haystack would be learning all kinds of new things. Does it work the other way, too? I mean, do the MIT computer people learn something from the artisans at Haystack?

 

Gershenfeld: We really do. The way it played out was, if you go into the lab, there's many ways you can produce input. You can draw on a computer screen, you could take a photograph, you can 3D scan, and then there are all of these machines. And the problem we had when we got set up there was each person who came in the door broke something in our workflows. They might want to take ink on paper and sandblast glass with it, or take topography and turn that into leather. Each person had a different combination of inputs and outputs that they wanted to transform, and so, out of desperation, we started a project there. The artists are so demanding, but articulate, that they push us to refine the tools. Initially, we had been buying commercial software for engineering, design, and manufacturing. We began to write our own to keep up with this demand, and then the surprising thing is the software we were developing because of the challenges as Haystack is now largely what we're using on campus. And so, this morning I was working with the team, doing laser micro-machining for microfluidics for genome transfer in cells using modules from the software we wrote for Haystack.

 

Paulson: Stuart, what have been some of the most exciting objects that have come out of your fab lab at Haystack?

 

Kestenbaum: Well, I think this idea of being able to transfer image and change scale has been an important one. We had a sculptor, Richard Notkin, who was teaching for us. He lives in Montana, does beautiful, very small press-molded sculptures. And we were able to scan that and make his work ten times the size that it was. And I think, just for him, to be able to see that change in process and the change in scale was amazing. And there are lots of smaller applications that people see when they come in. If each fab lab has its own kind of identity, Haystack brings a particular sensuous relationship to materials. And a thing that's important about it, too, is that it's done in a community, so there's a lot of dialogue. That, to me, is very exciting to see every time it happens.

 

Gershenfeld: So, that's a big part of what I value. It may sound funny, but I don't like do-it-yourself 'cause doing it by yourself makes it hard to mentor and progress from easy to hard. And so Haystack is a wonderful place of mentoring, to master and progress. I view this is correcting a very old mistake. The liberal arts emerged in the Renaissance, and at that moment the illiberal arts, making stuff, separated. That's when art and artisans separated, and we've been living with that split for a few centuries. What this is doing is sort of bringing the means of production back to the individual, so you don't have to distinguish between art and artisans, and you can see 3D machining or micro-controller programming as every bit as expressive as traditional means. So, there's a new style of a person emerging who's a designer, that they design 2D, 3D, hardware, software. They just design stuff, and you can't neatly separate it. Are they an artist? Are they an artisan? Are they an engineer? The answer is yes.

 

Fleming: That's Steve talking with Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. And Stuart Kestenbaum, director of Haystack Mountain's School of Crafts. If you want to see some of the work that's come out of Haystack's fab lab, stop by our website, ttbook.org. I'm Jim Fleming. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International.

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