Q&A: Christy Oates on Digital Fabrication

Q&A: Christy Oates on Digital Fabrication

Christy Oates, E-Waste Project

Oates’ E-waste Project (2011) is made of laser-cut wood veneer marquetry from a dozen species of trees. Photo: Christy Oates

Christy Oates began using digital fabrication tools while working on her MFA at San Diego State University. But her immersion with the technology took place in a different venue: a local manufacturing company, where Oates traded labor for access to an industrial laser-cutter and ultimately worked full-time. With her academic credentials and on-the-ground manufacturing experience, Oates has a unique perspective on digital fabrication technology.

How do digital technologies – such as 3D printing or computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) – figure in your work?
I started working with CAD/CAM in school, but during my MFA thesis semester, I became immersed in it. I needed some laser cutting done for my thesis show and we didn’t have access to one in the school shop. I approached a local manufacturing company and asked to trade for work. I worked for them three mornings a week for a semester, then later started working for them full time. Being in that environment, with the tools and especially with the people that knew them intimately, opened my eyes to what these machines can really do, and what they weren’t being pushed to do in a manufacturing environment. 

I am currently exploring the boundaries of digital technology – what the machine and software can and cannot do. I feel there are two categories of digital work in art/craft: work that is made using CAD/CAM as a measuring tool, and work/artists that use it as a design tool. Using it as a measuring tool means making things we’ve seen before, but using the technology to speed up the process. Artists and designers that are using CAD/CAM as a design tool are making work that can also be made by hand, but may not have been realized without the use of CAD/CAM. One great example of this is Jeroen Verhoeven’s Cinderella table.

CAD/CAM is essentially a sophisticated jigging process. All work that has been made using CNC routers and lasers with traditional material thus far can also be made by hand (I am not taking into account 3D printers because they use a non-traditional material); I haven’t seen anything that has pushed past that. That is my goal: to find out if the machines can make something that cannot be made by hand. I believe this can only be achieved by altering the machines and software past its current state. This involves me becoming a computer programmer and a tool-maker in addition to an artist/maker/designer.

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? Why?
I feel that a new art form is developing because of artists using the tools in new ways, but the term “digital fabrication” has many implications for many people. Any good woodworker knows that you have to have the right tool for the job. Any good woodworker also knows the wrong tool for the job is the right tool if the woodworker is more comfortable using it…  the right tool for the job sometimes has a learning curve. I feel digital technologies are just another tool in my toolbox and I’ll use them (and misuse them) any way that suits the application.

What’s the greatest potential of these tools/technologies?
The greatest potential is yet to come. Up until this decade, these tools were only being used in machine shops. Now, as the price point drops, everyone can get access to the tools. There is an intimacy in working with a tool every day – you find out what it can, and most importantly, what it cannot do. As artists become familiar with the tools, we are coming up with new and interesting ways to use them and modify them. The machines and software will do whatever we teach them to do – they just need a creative teacher.

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. Does this matter? Do digital fabrication tools have the potential to change how we think about making?
There is a different mindset to working digitally compared to working manually. However, in both cases, the acquired skill is knowing how the tool works, what its flaws are, and how to fix them. Table saws break down, sanding belts need to be changed. When I use my laser every day, I know its quirks, its settings, how it reads certain files. When working wood manually, I know exactly how much pressure to use when cutting or chiseling certain kinds of wood. When I cut laser marquetry from wood veneer, I know what speed and power settings to use and what kind of offset to use to make each wood fit together based on its density and species. It’s more than knowing how a tool feels in your hand and what it feels like to be in contact with the material; it’s the knowledge behind it that comes from years of experience with the tool. The hard part is adjusting to new software versions or working with other people’s files. As a manual woodworker, I don’t have to learn Chisel-version 2.0 – it will never change.

Digital fabrication (and the promise of effortless small-scale production) is predicted to disrupt the mass-production model. To the world of makers, craftspeople, and artists, who are already outside of that mass-production paradigm, does that make it friend or foe?
The problem I foresee is copyright issues. Mass production items are copied all the time, but the companies are still making money, and they have the resources to take legal action against entities that threaten their business. Artists potentially can be put out of business by someone copying work and undercutting prices. Most artists do not have the legal resources to protect themselves. Even if they did, design patents are so easily bypassed that most artists don’t even bother with them in the first place.

Christy Oates was a featured artist in "Brave New World." We've already posted extended Q&As from Arthur Hash, Chris Bathgate, and curator Anna Walker. Stay tuned for more.