Haystack Embraces High-Tech

Haystack Embraces High-Tech

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This module is an example of small-scale manufacturing made with a CNC router. Photo: Dan Bouthot

What role does digital production play in craft, a field that reveres skilled handwork? It's a question that Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, celebrating the campus' 50th anniversary this year, has been discussing for the past decade, starting with 2002's symposium "Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand," a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Now Haystack has taken that dialogue to the next level. Thanks to an anonymous $145,000 grant, the campus now has a brand-new digital "fab lab" - short for fabrication laboratory - with a laser cutter, CNC (computer numerical controlled) router, and precision milling machine, set to open for its summer 2011 sessions. The lab features tools that were inconceivable 50 years ago, yet are likely to play a role in craft's future.

The fab lab concept originated several years ago at MIT in a class called "How to Make (Almost) Anything." On paper it's nothing more than a collection of digitally controlled and connected tools, but the idea is to enable invention: In a fab lab, any idea can quickly become a physical reality. MIT has since spawned labs around the world. Haystack joins an existing network of more than 50 fab labs on five continents, all with the same tools. Haystack is the first craft-specific organization to have one.

The idea for a permanent fab lab at the school grew out of a two-week visit during a 2010 summer session from Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and founder of the fab lab program. Stuart Kestenbaum, Haystack's director (and a new ACC trustee), had invited him to the school as a visiting scientist. With a portable fab lab in tow, Gershenfeld and three MIT doctoral students set up shop on the picturesque Maine campus.

"As [students and faculty] got over initial worries - you do have to use a computer, you do stand back and watch the machine do its thing - they started to think a bit like I do," says Nadya Peek, one of the doctoral students who helped with the demonstrations and training. "[The machines] are just tools, and the people who use them determine what they are making."

In the new permanent lab, artists will augment their studio practice, using digital tools to cut out patterns, mill parts and pieces, and experiment with different materials or shapes. Everyone learns by doing - a natural extension of craft practice. There's a steep learning curve, but that's a good thing, according to Kestenbaum. It fosters a community where artists collaborate and rely on each other, trading ideas, even pulling non-artists into the mix. And even if artists aren't using the machines, they can watch new processes and ideas take shape. Often, just being in the lab is enough to inspire people and prompt them to think about the way art is made.

While Haystack faculty members get up to speed in the fab lab, grad students from MIT will be on hand to help when things (inevitably) go wrong. And, as it turns out, these MIT students are just as crafty as the students and instructors at Haystack.

"Seeing the fab lab crew work with the equipment showed me what it means to have a real grasp of the digital world," says Tom Spleth, a North Carolina-based ceramist who taught at Haystack during the summer session when Gershenfeld visited. "If some detail of the procedures failed to meet expectations, they would write new code. They were as familiar and casual with their medium as I am with clay and glaze."

"It's not the tool that makes the craftsman," Peek points out. "There's nothing that any of the digital fabrication tools can do that cannot already be done by hand - it may just take much, much longer."

That realization is important. The fab lab machines may be digital, but there's a very human element in their operation - and humans aren't going to be replaced by computers anytime soon, at least not at Haystack."We have a legacy to maintain," Kestenbaum says, "but we're looking into the future while we're centered in who we are."

Andrew Zoellner is American Craft's assistant editor.