Project: 'l’Artisan Electronique' and 'Ontwerpbox'
Moderator: Liesbeth Huybrechts, Niels Hendriks
Unfold is a spatial design studio situated in Antwerp, Belgium. It was founded in 2002 by Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen - after they graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven - as a platform for everything they did and would do. The Antwerp-based duo developed a strong multidisciplinary background in design, technology and art and often collaborates with a vast network of kindred spirits and specialists. Currently, Unfold focuses on three overlapping domains: Computation and production methods (1), Spatial design and products – furnictecture (2) and Theory and assembling (3). For more information, see: http://www.unfold.be/.
Both Dries Verbruggen and Claire Warnier joined the mapping session. For the first time, the moderators used the ‘renewed mapping system’, existing out of a series of re-positional stickers (instead of icons that should be cut out first). Because l'Artisan Electronique was a recent work, the Ontwerpbox - a work that Unfold produced for Nai (the Netherlands Architecture Institute), Rotterdam – was also discussed. For this project, they were asked to explain the principles of architecture via a playful concept. Unfold designed toys that explained architectural principles in a Lego-like way. They also designed a digital game that enables children to design architectural constructions in 3D. The conversation was not taped, but processed the mapping sessions immediately after it was over.
During the session, the people involved in both the projects were mapped. Participants in l'Artisan Electronique were Erik de Bruyn, Zach Hoeken Smith & Bre Pettis (Makerbot), Ian Adkins (Bits from Bytes), the general RepRap forum, the exhibition Bits and Pieces and Ils Huygens of art centre Z33, organising the exhibition Design By Performance. Interaction designer Tim Knapen got quite intensely engaged in the process working towards the exhibition in Z33. The group of participants was difficult to oversee, because of its viral ways of working. The communication mainly occured online: via email, events, forums, blog and chat. The project Ontwerpbox started by Tim Vermeulen (of NAi) contacting Lucas Maassen, a product designer with (amongst others) a great interest in interactivity via physical constructions. Tim invited Lucas to design elements that could provide children with insight in architecture for the educational department of NAi. Lucas asked Unfold to participate in this assignment, since they are good in materialising ideas and have an insight in digital culture. At the time the Nai educational team members who worked with Unfold and Lucas were Annette ten Haar and Annemiek Snelders, at a certain time replaced by Vera Merx. Unfold also worked with Stefan Vandermeulen for the more technical issues.
Immediately after NAI contacted Unfold, the group knew that they wanted to design something “talkative”. In order to investigate the possibilities of this, the group started experimenting with cardboard prototypes of modular houses that could be built, reconfigured and deconstructed. About ten prototypes were shared with the educational department that reflected on them, from their perspective and experience with children. Their feedback generated new sketches that were again discussed. Four Educational toys were generated that explained various architectural concepts. While these toys were in the museum space, Unfold approached them as high tech prototypes – although they were simple wooden structures – by doing some observations and adaptations.
Inspired by the ‘Educational toys’, they made a digital interactive application that could illustrate physical architectural principles. To explore this, the designers (in collaboration with Stefan) started to sketch possible scenarios. They first made 3D drawings of the concept and a whole scenario of what the digital application would or should do. The ideas that came out of that scenario are very related to the later l'Artisan Electronique; children could make a design at home and – at NAI - fabricate their design in 3D, using the design robot. This idea did not result in a working prototype, because it was too expensive. The group made a new series of low tech Flash prototypes, that simulated possible parts of a more simple idea: an architectural game on the web. They drew scenarios and user interface sketches.
From January 2005 until June 2006, the group started to build a mixed reality installation. They wanted to make the architectural toolbox into something with which people can experiment in a physical and digital way at the same time. Dries and Stefan, programming the online toolbox and the physical installation, were at all times in communication with a larger community of people online, programming similar things They made several low tech prototypes for this installation, like 3D sketches of the installation that had one “sitting bench” (a concept by Lucas) and a 'peppers ghost' (a reflection of a screen on glass, which makes it appear as if the reflected object is located in a 3D environment), which visualised the children's design in 3D.
NAi initiated several contests to “test” the kind of content that would be generated by the community of children. First, they organised a contest for children, challenging them to design a palace for the Dutch Princess Maxima. The children got the time from the 24th of June until the first of October 2006. NAi activated the box a second time when a school contest was organised on the 12th of February 2006. Schools could first do an internal contest in their institutes in making creative designs with the box. Via chat sessions, Unfold and Stefan worked together in making a banner, but - more important – they made the system even more modular (in order to allow schools to make their own personal contest pages with it).
In July 2008, the online game was adapted for a touch-screen application in the museum bar; this enabled the use of the design tool in a tangible way. The last adaptations on this project were made in 2009.
Parallel to that, the designers wanted to introduce an even more modular version of the online and physical toolbox, which they call a version 2.0. Dries wrote a whole design document explaining the proposal, but because of a lack of money NAi did not proceed with that plan. Since Unfold felt the 2.0. project had large potential, Dries did continue with it, outside the context of, but still in dialogue with NAi. Dries taught at a ICT and Media Design programme at Fontys Hogescholen. There he collaborated with Koen Deleij in generating two 2.0 prototypes that were largely based on a Papervision 3D (a 3D design program) workshop Dries did in Amsterdam. Dries and Lucas inspired the design of a 3D LED cube, because they felt this would have been an important asset for children to negotiate with parents and peers, about the design they are making in the space of NAi. Also several other 2.0 variants were generated in Papervision 3D.
The interest in interactions between the digital and the physical and in the principles of modularity and rapid prototyping were translated in another Unfold project: an open source 3D printer, that would later be part of the installation l'Artisan Electronique. Unfold first considered making a RepRap (the self-replicating and open source printer initiated by Adrian Bowyer from the University of Bath). Later they decided to order an open source printer building kit, called the RapMan version 3.0. They bought it from Bits from Bytes in a 1000€ DIY package. This allowed them to concentrate fully on extending and modifying the piece. They made several improvements. First, they had ideas to extend the RepRap with a drawing tool as interface. Later, they felt more for making the interface even more physical, namely via an interface that enables modelling clay. Inspired by a blog post by Zach Smith, they enabled the printer to print clay, instead of plastic. Finally, they also improved the interface of the printer.
The constructions and adaptations took place via a series of negotiations with the online community via email, events, forums, blog and chat. Amongst other things, they had to solve some issues, concerning air pressure and clay pasta. The Bits from Bytes forum became the most an important place in this quest, and even offered to be a sponsor of Unfold's project via providing material. Unfold blogged quite intensively about the process of building the printer into printing clay/ceramics. At the time of the mapping, Dries was one of the three most active contributors on the forum and he even co-founded a very small user group for RepRap in Belgium together with Batist Leman.
On the 21st of December 2009, Ils (Z33) proposed to Unfold to do something with this 3D printer in the exhibition Design By Performance. Via the Belgian RepRap user community, Tim communicated to Unfold that he was interested in doing something with the RepRap technology. Because of his skill in design, Unfold asked him to work with them on the Z33 project. Together they started brainstorming about triggers to engage and tell the story of their design idea to the public. This eventually led to the scripting of the pottery making disk, which was mainly the work of Tim. This disk became again an interesting hybrid object between designers, programming, exhibition makers, exhibition public and other possible types of end-users.
L'Artisan Electronique offered the visitor the possibility, after a period of moulding, to push the save button when she/he is happy with the design, displayed on the screen. Later, she/he can see the pot coming out of the printer, which will eventually also be displayed in a cabinet in the exhibition room. These feedback and closure mechanisms are in general perceived as quite important in work that requires participation.
L’Artisan Electronique was shown at the exhibition "Design by Performance" at Z33 – house for contemporary art from 14th of March until 30th of May 2010.
The resulting map after the workshop:
Text by Liesbeth Huybrechts