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Inside the 'New White Cube'
A Journey into the World of Virtual Ceramics

Over the past two thousand years the fundamentals of craft have not changed. We basically form craft objects and craft products with our hands. This century has seen the rise of electricity aid us in the making of craft, but still its broader practice has changed little. Now at the close of the 2nd millennium craft is being revolutionized by bytes and bits - the art of computing. From the first self-conscious steps with Photoshop to the higher sophistication of 3D imaging, VRML, animation and multi-media, craft is breaking its age-old shackles of materiality and entering a new dimension - the dimension of virtual craft. Craft is beginning to inhabit information space. It is merging with computer technologies to create a new hybrid art or craft form, informed by equal parts of the old and the new.

This transformation of craft will be unexpected and rejected and attacked by many. The proclamation of a new computer craft will be seen as a sacrilege by many. But we are not inventing something that does not already exist, but acknowledging tendencies already well under way, giving them a name, making them easier to recognize. Those who are attentive to, and do not close their eyes to the 'new technologies' will see its influences already manifesting in craft: laser cutting techniques, stereo lithography, mathematically influenced CAD, 3D rendering, VRML craft worlds et cetera.

Ceramics have played a significant role for mankind and have literally been around for millennia. We may look towards the ancient Egyptians, the Phoenicians, Assyrians or even the native peoples of the ancient Americas. From the first clumps of earth accidentally fired in a camp-fire to the first functional pit fired vessels. Little has really changed since that time. We still use fire to create our pottery - in wood kilns or gas kilns. The ancient techniques of raku and pit-firings are still very popular. We form works by using our hands to deform, mould and assemble the clay and throw pots on wheels. In some quarters – I am told - the kick-wheel is still alive and kicking. We may now have electric wheels and kilns and other gadgets, but these items don't really constitute a fundamental change in, or addition to our tools and materials.

However, I would say that things are looking a bit different now as we rapidly approach the third millennium. Technology is advancing at an ever-increasing speed. Today anyone can buy a computer with more processing power than a 1960's mainframe computer which took up a whole office block, for around $1000. In western societies at least, the computer is becoming a ubiquitous tool, with a strong presence in universities, schools, libraries and of course business and the workplace. Even primary school kids are going to school with their own laptops. They may spend most of their time playing games on them, but that will be the fertile ground on which their other digital capabilities will grow.

The possibility of purchasing great processing power at low prices has had a tangible effect on the arts and crafts with more and more artists working in the digital area, not to mention other applications like desktop publishing, word processing, spreadsheeting etc. The computer screen lends itself to the production of 2D images, which are not that far removed from traditional paintings, prints or watercolours, so a fairly strong arena of digital art has established itself. But Digital Craft? Virtual Ceramics? Can there really be such a thing? Well, yes, some ceramic artists and other craftspeople are incorporating the computer and its multitude of possibilities into their work. The notion of digital craft is being talked about and written about – here in Australia by such people as Kevin Murray, or in the United states by Malcolm McCullough or Stanley Lechtzin.

Ceramic artists are not just by creating web sites for themselves, or storing their images digitally, but also manipulating their images, and creating work, which at least initially exists in the virtual space of the computer monitor, by using 2D software programs like Photoshop or 3D modeling programs like Lightwave.

The way we view these types of works is usually on a screen. Actually we may not be so aware of it but we are surrounded by screens: the computer screen, the TV screen, the slide projection screen, the cinema screen, even the advertising billboard… The computer screen itself appears to contain the images or data we are looking at within its physical dimensions, although it actually only displays the data which is stored somewhere else, the hard drive. This virtual space of the computer monitor can be viewed as an exhibition space of sorts. Of course you do get 'virtual galleries' on the Net, and the data stored on computers around the world is often referred to as 'information space' - an alternative type of space or reality. But the computer monitor also physically extends itself into space with its external dimensions and the possibility of creating 3D worlds on the screen creates an internal visual space. This alternative exhibition space could be called the 'New White Cube'. That other ‘white cube’ being of course the traditional gallery space with its four neutral white walls.

These are works, like all others, which are initially conceived in the mind – a type of virtual space in itself - and then realised using computer software. They are made of the stuff of the digital realm, namely bytes and bits, which are basically combinations of the digits zero and one.

Ceramics that exist in cyberspace may be called 'Virtual Ceramics'. Cyberspace is not something that can be measured in centimetres or inches. In a way, it can be understood as a virtual reality, a type of alternative digital world, made by real people, that we experience through manifestations on our computer screen. It has become a very real element in our lives and is no more or less real than other spaces.

While some people have trouble accepting virtual ceramics as objects or even object to calling them ceramics, these things do exist. They just exist in another realm than we are used to. The computer file is a bit like a plaster mould. Once you have made the mould, you can cast as many objects from it as you like. Similarly, with a computer file you can print as many prints of an image as you like, or go even further and produce as many objects on a milling machine as you like. Where does the justification for the term ‘ceramic’ come in? This can come from many sources – it may be a chosen ceramic surface that we apply to the virtual object, it may come from historical references we assign to the virtual object or it may just be a traditional ceramic form, like a teapot – easily recognisable by anyone.

Virtual Ceramics are not just designs made for industrial production, i.e. CAD/CAM, but a hybrid form of ceramics combined with elements of computer art and design, which constitute something altogether new and different. Of course the rise of a new ‘virtual ceramic’ aesthetic also poses many new questions such as When is a piece virtual and when is it not? Where are the boundries? Clearly the definitions have to be refined. One could ask "Is there an original?" The computer file can be copied ad infinitum without any loss in quality, so can it be the original? Or is the print of a model the original or the first solid output, made on a milling machine or lathe? If the notion of the original or one-off is negated by the digital medium, what does this mean for the craftsperson or collector? Another question which arises from these issues is that of copyright. Because the digital medium can be copied so easily, is there a danger there? When someone buys a digital art work or virtual ceramic, who retains copyright of that work? One big problem we have when dealing with this relatively new area is that of terminology. We haven’t yet developed a proper language to deal with virtual craft. Antagonisms between different camps in this matter sometimes arise purely from differences in interpretations of definitions. When you say ‘a mug’ you mean a ceramic mug. If I say ‘virtual mug’, you might see a contradiction in terms. Yet if I show you a photo of a mug, you will say ‘that is a mug’ – the signifier becoming the signified - but why is no longer a mug when it is created digitally? The digital mug is actually much more multi-dimensional and than the photo, as it can be viewed and manipulated 3-dimensionally.

One fear of some ceramists and potters with their feet firmly rooted in the various age-old ceramics traditions have, is that computers and other new technologies are taking over and replacing those old traditions. Will we all end up just sitting at computer terminals, hacking away at keyboards, modelling in bytes and bits and leaving the actual act of production up to machines? Will we all be turned into designers?

The computer offers us some avenues of exploration that were previously not possible. While it may be a steep learning curve to master some of the necessary software, even simple programs can offer a high level of design flexibility. Simple functions like lathing or extruding forms, which relate to actions we are used to from handling clay, can be replicated on the computer and put to good effect. Freed from the constraints of the material world, potters and ceramists are free to let their imaginations run wild and create imaginary works with a high level of realism. This can go as far as creating not only quasi-ceramic objects, but whole scenes or worlds. In cyberspace there is no gravity, so tea can flow upwards from a teapot, virtual clay can be made to do things which would be impossible in the physical realm. You might ask "why". I ask "why not"? And if you wanted to make an actual work in clay, a model could be worked on in 3D before actually rendering it in a ceramic medium.

The possibility of disregarding the law of gravity, importing surfaces from any source, deforming and manipulating and combining different elements, gives the ceramist a new set of tools which can help to visualise ideas, view ceramics from a different perspective and even to create alternate ceramic realities. But Virtual Craft need not be restricted to the virtual walls of the 'New White Cube'. Virtual Craft may also be translated into actual works in clay or other materials. These may be a straight translation of 3D modelled objects into clay. Resourceful potters may also source alternative technologies to materialise their work, such as Judith Cook's use of a new decal manufacturing and firing process, or Les Lawrence's use of inkjet printers with fireable inks. Possibly the most advanced technique of creating work at the moment is the use of the industrial techniques of Rapid Prototyping, Stereolithography and Selective Laser Sintering. These techniques are used in industry to create models for industrial testing and manufacture and are still quite expensive. A 20cm bowl could cost thousands to make, but this technology will eventually come down in price.

Rapid Protoyping uses a computer file of a 3D model to cut slices of paper, which are bonded together layer by layer, building up an object. Stereolithography uses computer controlled lasers to harden a resin bath in increments of one tenth of a millimeter. As you can imagine, incredible detail becomes possible. Selective Laser sintering is a similar technique that uses a mixture of nylon and glass powder, which is then also hardened by lasers.

In fact, I would not be surprised if one day, we will have kilns that 'fire' clay by sintering a clay powder with computer guided lasers. Technology may even go further and at some time in the not-too-distant future, we may be able to rearrange the molecules of the air to produce any desired material. Experiments in this direction are already happening. The result would be a 'ceramics replicator' - a machine which might look similar to a microwave and would create an object chosen from a 'menu' - maybe an Alessi or Walter Gropius teapot, a Leach Bottle or an Anagama water jar, or maybe even a 2nd century BC Greek Vase.

I realise that many of you will scoff at such ideas, but with rapid prototyping, nano-technology and self-replicating machines, we are already moving in this direction. Less than a decade ago, we wouldn’t have thought it possible to manipulate genes so well that we could clone other beings. Yet not long ago a sheep named ‘Dolly’was cloned. And a doctor in the USA is openly working towards cloning the first human being. It's certainly not going to hurt to be aware of current developments and future possibilities. And let's not forget that it's not always easy to foresee the future correctly. In 1949, the magazine Popular Mechanics, forecasting the development of computer technology, suggested that "Computers in the future may weigh only 1.5 tons" (!).

Of course much of Virtual Ceramics is based on imagery and to a degree illusion. In a majority of cases, our visual knowledge of the world, it’s art and ceramics, is based on what we know from books, magazines and other media. Knowledge is brought into our living room via television. Ceramic objects we have never seen in the flesh are brought to our attention via magazines and catalogues. As we may never have seen the actual ceramic objects, this is also a form of virtuality. In contrast to previous ages, today the dominance of the image is complete, with mass media, photography, video, television, and now affordable digital photography, scanners, high quality inkjet printing and ever cheaper, more powerful computers. In fact the material value of a computer is less than $100, and in the US, some companies are starting to give them away, paid for by advertising that flashes up on the side of the screen.

Art is a type of illusionism, exemplified in the works of MC Escher, 17th century Delftware or 18th century German Renaissance ceramics, or on a more contemporary note, the work of Elisabeth Fritsch or Wayne Higby. With Virtual Ceramics, this is even more so the case, although trompe l'oeill isn’t necessarily the intention. But the possibilities of today’s software go far beyond what we might be able to recognise. Today we can create realistic images, which are difficult, if not nearly impossible to distinguish from the ‘real thing’. Of course this raises the question of what sort of world we are living in. Is it a world of visual lies? Are we already in ‘The Matrix’? When shown an image of a manipulated pot at College in Melbourne, one lecturer's response was 'oh, when did you make that?' My reply was 'I didn't'. Since then the realism of the imagery of Virtual Ceramics in my own work and that of others has increased considerably.

The stereographic image of the Virtual Ceramic lends even more credibility to the illusion, the eyes perceiving a 3D virtual scene that is deceptively real. The next step from here will be to create a fully immersible 3D Virtual Reality environment, perhaps a ceramics gallery, where, with the help of a Head Mounted Display (HMD) and data gloves, you would actually be able to move around in the environment and pick up and touch things. I suspect that you may be able to experience this type of technology in a few years time.

The philosophy behind these explorations is not mere CAD/CAM, not the use of the computer as another design or production aid, but rather the use of the technology to broaden the horizon of traditional crafts practice, to create new unforeseen methods and new unforeseen real and virtual craft objects. The intent of these explorations is not to jettison traditional crafts practices and replace them with industrial techniques, after all, this is a phase we already went through in the 19th C, but it is the intent of these explorations to add new elements, techniques and results to what we already know and have.

No, craft will not die. As long as we have material and aesthetic needs, craft will fulfil many of them. But as our intellects evolve, so too will our needs concerning craft - and crafts practice will evolve or perhaps revolutionise itself. To stop now and say "you can't drink from a virtual cup" would be stepping backwards. Virtual cups were never made to drink from in the first place. Rather, armed with a new set of tools, we will create virtual objects for virtual purposes, with the very real possibility of artful and craftful manifestations.

Today the craftsperson can become a programmer, and the programmer can become a craftsperson; what is of interest, and what will reinvigorate the crafts in the 3rd millennium, is where the two areas intersect. No, craft is not dead, but it will never be the same again.


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