Giving Digital Fab a Hand

“As an artist I strive for the realisation of my idea. Neither through hand-making nor machine-manufacture is this easily achieved.” ~ Melissa Cameron

My recent article, Missing the Point: Handmade vs Digitally Fabricated, stated that the maker movement is all about the rejection of mass-production and not machines. There was quite a bit of discussion among the makers and readers of this blog around terms like ‘handmade’, ‘crafted’, and ‘digitally fabricated’. But one reader doesn’t label herself a maker, a crafter, or a designer. Melissa Cameron calls herself an artist.

It’s my pleasure to present a guest post from jewelry artist
Melissa Cameron on how she embraces digital fabrication tools to turn her ideas into wearable objects of art. Melissa goes in depth about her process of creation and examines the relationship between what she does ‘by hand’ and what she does ‘by machine’. Her insights reveal the reaction of ‘craft purists’ to her methods, the advantages gained by leveraging technology, and how the unique qualities of her own hands together with the capabilities of the machine form a constant feedback loop. ::

As a jewellery artist, my works are the outcome of artistic practice. I make individual works in series that are thematically, as well as materially linked. The works are produced by hand, using many hand crafting techniques that have not changed in centuries. I also use computer aided manufacture (CAM) technologies, most notably by incorporating laser cutting and drafting in AutoCad — which I do for all my pieces, hand cut or otherwise. So, to paraphrase, I’m an artist who uses craft and design to create wearable objects.

This description doesn’t sit well with some, as for them an object is considered ‘crafted’ only if it has been made completely by hand. Belinda Hager, in her recent review of the  Association for Contemporary Jewellery conference in the UK, summed it up neatly: the idea of using computers is a “challenge to some of the more conservative delegates, who can’t let go of the idea that jewelry must be made by hand.”

So if it is just as Hager said, the dislike of CAM technologies by the ‘craft purist’ is based on a single assumption: that the computer (read: laser-cutter, direct metal printer or “insert-your-digital-practice-here”) is replacing the hand in manufacturing craft objects.

On a purely superficial level, sure, that is the case. In my practice, I could sit with a large plate of metal in front of me for hours, slowly slicing it into all the parts that I have drawn in AutoCad — or hand drawn with a compass and set-square, if you really want me to go back to basics. The alternative is that I send the drawing file to the laser cutter and let a machine spend those hours it takes to cut the drawing. It may be faster (To be honest, it may not be. I make very involved drawings.) but it has one great advantage; I don’t have to do it.

In the hours (Yes, literally hours. The little ‘Acanthus Oval’ pendant and brooch at the very top took between 2–3 hours of my time in hand sawing alone.) I have ‘saved’, I can do another drawing, or piece together a work, or file, clean up and heat colour a bunch of titanium parts ready for final assembly.

So what I have done is replaced my hand-cutting for machine-cutting. Therefore, in one part of my process the hand has been completely wiped from the scenario.

Or has it?

My hand has informed the object that is being cut in so many ways that I can hardly say that the laser cutting stage of the process is without the input of my own hand. The parts cut are designed specifically for hand assembly — assembly by my own small yet wiry fingers. (I could teach you how I string my works, but you might find a slight shift in the scale of the parts to be more amenable to the size of your digits.)

And then there’s the weight of the objects. I have hand-sawn and had machine-cut a lot of 1mm steel sheet in my time. I made many prototypes before I was satisfied that the weight was suitable and the connections strong enough. Even when I draw a completely new pattern I have the weight of all the previous patterns I have made as a reference guide for how a new one should feel.

When I change material — lets say, from steel to silver — my hand tells me, through the hardness and thickness of the sheet, what sort of tolerances I can rely on to ensure the stability of my work. I must consider the forces of tension at play in the work as a whole as well as the dynamics of actually wearing the piece.

Then when I have a final design ready to be laser cut, I have to place the tabs that will allow it to be cut as a single sheet. How do I determine how often to put a tab? Well, the machine dictates this to a certain amount, but I also must judge what force will be required to push the cut object out of the sheet that contains it. What force is too much? That which cannot be applied by my own hand.

In short, the feedback loop I rely on to inform my design process necessitates my hands’, in fact my whole body’s, involvement. I outsource the slicing, sure, but to do that I rely on and must make allowance for the continued use of my hand throughout the manufacturing process.  Even the laser cutting part of that process.

So when I’m told that my work is not hand-made, all I can do is muse at the ignorance of the person who made the remark. I just want to ask “If you think it’s not made by hand, then how do you think it was made?”

I have had lifelong professional colleagues comment to the effect that, “Isn’t laser-cutting getting ubiquitous?”, when they were looking at my hand-sawn works in exhibitions — exhibitions at which I had only hand-cut objects on show. So I don’t pursue laser-cutting for superior quality. (Both myself and my laser cutter have made one sawing/slicing error in the last year, but the laser cutter was then allowed to repeat the error two more times.)

I use laser cutting and other digital machinery because it benefits my practice in terms of output. I feel that I have an obligation to refine my process to the point that I can say with confidence that no time spent on a piece is wasted. And it must be remembered that, as a sole trader, my time is my most valuable resource. And as an artist, more time affords me the opportunity of more extensive exploration. I feel that the use of computing technology allows me to make better, more resolved, work.

A craftsperson may strive for evidence of the hand-made (or perfection despite it), but as an artist I strive for the realisation of my idea. Neither through hand-making nor machine-manufacture is this easily achieved. And that’s kinda the point.

Melissa is a creator of research jewellery who lives (and blogs) in Melbourne, Australia.

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