Timea Tihanyi: I grew up in a working-class family in what was communist Hungary. I did not have an opportunity to do much art in school, but ever since I was little, I have always made stuff. I made all kinds of things, but they weren’t considered art. Choosing art as a profession or going to art school wasn’t an option.
For high school, I went to a nursing school and then on to medical school. I was specializing in neuropsychology—which is part clinical work in rehabilitation medicine and part research work directed at complex cognitive functions, such as speech, reading, and face recognition. It’s not all that surprising that knowledge systems and the body are at the core of my work now.
When I moved to the U.S. in 1993, I intended to get a PhD in neuropsychology. While I was starting my new life here with limited English skills and just struggling to make it, I dropped in on an evening ceramics class at a local arts center, and I really fell in love with clay. Ceramics was the one thing I did not do as a kid or as a young adult. I had tried every kind of craft and every kind of making process that was out there but not ceramics. I took the ceramics class because I had never done it and it was available. Soon, I became very serious about it. I was in a new country, where I couldn’t speak the language well and couldn’t quite connect to the culture. Clay, at that time, seemed to be a great way to express myself.
A year later, I decided to focus on ceramics professionally and enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. My very first academic ceramics class was with Judy Moonelis, a widely-recognized figurative clay artist. I was super-lucky to have been influenced by her—both her teaching and making processes.
As an undergraduate, I met Akio Takamori and Doug Jeck, two leading innovators in the field of figurative ceramics sculpture. I was doing figurative work at that time, so I came to grad school at the University of Washington, Seattle, to study with both of them. During grad school, my work changed from large figurative sculptures to room-scale installations of delicate slip-cast porcelain
My first residency at The European Ceramic Work Centre (now called Sundaymorning@ekwc) was my most pivotal experience. I went the year they piloted their digital makerspace.
Several years later, when I returned for another residency, there was a vigorous FabLab with world-class equipment. At Sundaymorning@ekwc, all types of processes are fluidly integrated. The institution, as well as its excellent technical staff, are a repository and treasure trove of technical ingenuity and know-how. Working at Sundaymorning@ekwc, I also learned that one does not have to be the kind of ceramic artist who exclusively uses digital technology. If technology is available, it can be used to laser-cut a simple template that becomes a jig for throwing, to carve via CNC a multipart mold or a simple texturized paddle, or to prototype components that require a high degree of accuracy through powder-printing. In each scenario, technology is a small but crucial part of the process, seamlessly integrated with the rest of the ceramic workflow. These tools are used as a guarantee of efficiency and precision where those qualities are needed. Using them can often lead to great innovations in form, process, and methodology, which complement and enhance those wonderful human marks made by hand in traditional craftsmanship. I would really like to see digital technology used in this more complementary and dialogic fashion in studio art practices in the U.S., and in teaching the plastic arts.
BC: It still seems that the use of digital tools really marks a divide, right? Artists are labeled as either ones who use digital fabrication technologies or ones who do not. And it seems that for many of the ones who do, the work still shows a conspicuous use of the tool.
TT: I think, by now, the use of technology is widespread enough that it’s acceptable to the making community, but access to digital tools, software, and to the know-how still creates a divide, especially in smaller communities. With ceramic 3-D printing, there is diversity already, but I think there could be a lot more by having traditional clay artists, as well as various other practitioners, get involved in greater numbers. One person cannot really have all the knowledge to expand on what these tools are capable of, so it takes a team. It takes practitioners from various disciplines to come in and tackle, maybe, the machine/engineering end of things, the modeling/computing end of things or the physical/clay end of things, and so on. Collaboration and open-source technology are the very history of rapid prototyping (RepRap), and many in ceramic 3-D printing have followed this path.
BC: You certainly have an interest in code, and data, and math, and systems that build with complexity. Where does that come from, and how does bridging them—not necessarily just bridging disciplines, but also bringing other skills and other types of knowledge—play out in your work?
TT: I’m the kind of person who is never settled. I’m naturally very curious. The math part of my work deals with systems that are based on very simple rules and repeated indefinitely. The patterns achieved by playing games with these rules are surprisingly complex and often very unpredictable. Some examples of these mathematical games, like elementary cellular automata and Conway’s Game of Life may be familiar to people; others, like “sand pile groups,” are cutting-edge research territory in contemporary math. These games are used for modeling and predicting complex behaviors of living systems such as population growth and effectivity of drugs, and charting the course of environmental changes.
I think my interest in these systems comes from my interest in how the brain works. Working with these logical and dynamically changing abstract systems also allows me to think about how knowledge and meaning are created by individuals and communities. Making small components that I bring together to form a larger coherent whole has been part of my artwork for a long time. Mathematical work has led me to explore the “ghost in the machine,” biases inherent in systems created by rule-based algorithmic processes. My Burst and Follow and Code Slip series are expressions of this exploration.
I’ve been married to a mathematician for twenty-five years, so I’m somewhat familiar with the abstract logical thinking process of theory, proofs, and algorithms. I find math fascinating because there is a lulling idealism about it—that the world can be ultimately understood and modeled. (Math people would never claim that they are describing the world, though.) Should we ever assume that if we understood the parts, and the rules that connected the parts, well enough, could we iterate them and grow a neat, logical, and predictable system through this process? Experience shows otherwise, and that’s where 3-D printing with clay comes into my work.
I could make a small mistake or change a setting in the design file, in the code, or on the machine, or maybe there was an air pocket in the extrusion, or perhaps the clay is more wet than usual causing the form to be just a bit more unstable—there is an endless combination of minor things that make the end result different from what was expected. I’m really interested in the role of chance and error in the context of logical systems. I’m trying to figure out ways in which I can expose this even more. My most recent work, the Pathfinder series, is driven by sound that affects a mathematical algorithm, which in turn changes the path of the printer through altering the g-code (machine code that communicates the form to the printer).
BC: So, in some cases, you make adjustments to the system once you do the visualization, and in other cases, it’s the materiality that shows variation, or adjustments, maybe?
TT: Definitely. And I think that’s why it has to be clay, because the materiality gives it even more variation and even more of the unforeseen and uncontrollable elements. The way I think about it is that it’s fundamentally about control and letting things go.
BC: Coding really has, for many people, a steep learning curve, because it requires an understanding of data, and how data can be applied to make meaning. Coding is grounded in binaries and in many ways dualities, which shows up in your work. Can you talk about that?
TT: I grew up in a social system where everything was binary: this side of the wall and that side of the wall; there were people who were like us and people who were not us. Even in medical school, there was a dichotomy between the body and mind. So, for a long time, I took binary thinking for granted. This may be a bit of a tongue-in-cheek thing to say, but as fraught as its use is, binary thinking sure simplifies things and makes them manageable.
Math would be probably the only discipline where you can know, with 100 percent certainty, whether something is true or not true. While I enjoy the clarity of this, I also find the binary overly reductive and narrow. We so easily think in binaries, but I don’t think anything is ever truly binary, so I try to work in the in-between area.
I’m doing some collaborative research with a math team that is working on an open question—cutting-edge research. I don’t follow their mathematical arguments and proofs specifically, but we have regular conferences, during which everyone asks each other questions. It’s pretty evident to me that we can work together on the same idea, but each of us will take away whatever we need from the discussion. It’s like interacting in a border-zone where multiple languages are spoken and really interesting things can happen.
BC: But of course, many people are uncomfortable in that place…
BC: Your studio, Slip Rabbit, is a place that’s like a makerspace, but it’s also a research studio. Can you talk about how you envision it and what’s happening at Slip Rabbit right now?
TT: When I created Slip Rabbit three years ago, I was pretty sure that I did not want it to be a design studio or a production studio. The model of Sundaymorning@ekwc was really inspirational, as was my realization that there were not enough access points to using technology in the plastic arts, especially in ceramics.
Because I’m an educator, I wanted a place where you could learn, practice, and further develop these tools and skill sets in a dialogue with others or by building on conversations that happened previously. So, I set up the studio to be a semipublic research place. There are internships, research collaborations, and artist’s residencies. Starting this year, we have been offering (due to popular request) ceramic 3-D printing workshops, too.
The studio is the repository of information. It is both a platform and an access point. Interns come from art, design, engineering, math, computer science, psychology, HCE&D (Human-Centered Engineering and Design), business, and many other majors. Everybody learns at least the basics of each step in the process and the students get an enormous amount of mentorship. Each person brings a different skills and ambitions for creating something together. Some interns might work on code, some on design, others may like painting the finished pieces or are interested in learning about how to run a similar organization. What they bring to the studio usually influences what we end up doing in the studio overall in that quarter.
I was lucky enough the receive a prestigious monetary art award last year that allowed me to buy a new ceramic 3-D printer for the studio—the first of its kind in the U.S. In the future, I’d like to accommodate more people and be more of a public makerspace where people can come to hang out and learn skills and the use of tools, then use these for their own projects.
BC: Makerspaces have really served a need that we’re just beginning to understand; people from different disciplines can use them as a locus to develop new ideas and collaborate with others. I feel that they are suited to somebody like you, who is able to engage a range of ideas, then foster their development and realize them as output. Slip Rabbit seems like a similarly profound and fluid space.
TT: I hope so. Seattle is a great location from that perspective, not only because of its flourishing tech industry, but also because the university already has several well-equipped makerspaces, some of which are also open to the public. But there are lots of ways Slip Rabbit is different from any other makerspace. Slip Rabbit will always have its focus in ceramics, because that is my main medium and clay has a rich history that I’d like to address and honor. It is both a material history and a cultural history, which are very interesting in the context of new technologies. In my own work, I use digital tools to address both bodily and cognitive aspects of being human.
BC: These research fields, math, coding, 3-D printing, have had a bit of a diversity problem—they’ve been largely cis-gendered white male, up to this point. Do you see this as a challenge?
TT: I don’t think I realized until I was in it, deep in it, that I was one of few women working this way. On Instagram, I started seeing a few women designers—maybe about two years ago, here and there. I see a lot more diversity now, mostly coming out of design, clay, and architecture graduate programs at leading universities. A young, international organization called Women in 3-D Printing recently reached out to me, and I have become involved with the local chapter here.
Slip Rabbit has a great record of recruiting and welcoming underrepresented individuals. Two-thirds of our interns are women. We have a large percentage of first-generation students, people of color, and people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I’m really proud of that. I don’t dwell on the representation issue too much, though. I think even computer science departments are starting to experience a gender revolution. Having women role models is very important. In Seattle, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by strong women leaders in art, science, and tech, who have paved a path or are fellow travelers on it.
As for digital ceramics, it will be interesting to see if more women enter the field, and what kind of work will they make as a result. At this moment, sometimes it feels like everybody is chasing the same ball. That’s kind of natural: everything is still new, every innovation echoes through the community. You see something that somebody else does and want to figure out how to do the same thing. Digital ceramics still also tends to have a design vibe, overly clean and technical, that, I think, sometimes I’m also guilty of. Adhering to the same few tools can also limit what we all end up producing. That’s the biggest issue for me. If there were more people coming into the field—more diversity, more women, more people who are not technologically skilled already—more innovation could happen, not only with the products, but also in processes and tools. What would that fresh new work be like?
I would like to return to the idea of tactility, here, because it is so integral to the history of making and using clay objects. In an age of AI (Artificial Intellegence) and all the visual simulation through not only our screens but also through AR/VR (augmented reality/visual reality), I am rethinking what space, material, and touch mean from a neurological perspective. Don some VR goggles, and you notice how much our brain is already reliant on the visual sense and how much our senses are interconnected. Haptic simulation and manipulating sensory feedback are already a reality. So, can we still talk about tactility the same way we talked about it when we did not have the technology?
In ceramics, I don’t think that 3-D printing is a culprit that is changing the future of clay or our tactile relationship to it. As our lives have changed, our haptic experience has also changed, and those things, in turn, are also changing the wiring patterns in our brain. We don’t know if and how objects will matter in the distant technological future. This poses an interesting dilemma for ceramics, too. How do we hold on and innovate at the same time? How do we imagine a new future of tactility with clay?
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