Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

Craft in the Digital Age: The Danish Craft Biennial 2023

The timing of my trip to Copenhagen last November allowed me to see the Danish Craft Biennial 2023. A draft of this post has been on my desktop for months. I finally found the time to finish what I started, so here goes…

Copenhagen Contemporary

I was expecting it to be a traditional showcase, not unlike those organized by Northwest Designer Craftartists, but the Danish Craft Biennial 2023 was NOT traditional in any way. The theme for the show was “Metaverse.” All the work presented was formed or informed by digital processes.  I was thrilled to experience an entire exhibit that grappled with the role of new technologies in the making of craft. It wasn’t the most beautiful of exhibitions, but the show did feature many different approaches to making craft using digital means and I found it all quite fascinating.  Months later, I’m still thinking about it. I’d love to start a conversation about this topic with other craft artists. So if you are reading this, please send me a message with your thoughts!

Danish Craft Biennial 2023

The degree of digital intervention spanned from work that was merely inspired by technology to work that was made entirely from code programmed into a machine.  I’ll start with the least techie and move toward the most technologically driven.

The Digital in the Conceptualization of Handmade Objects

In the first category, there were many interesting examples of what would be called by scholars of digital art as “post-digital” craft production. In the post-digital, current technologies are deeply embedded in the conceptualization and design of the work, but the work itself is made by hand using traditional methods.  This is what I do, so I felt validated that others see this as a legit approach to craft. Intention and the hand of the artist is still the foremost component in this work.

For example, the artist Jens Ole Árnason presented an object called Soft Transformation which was made using machine and hand sewing. It was “inspired by augmented reality, which opens up possibilities for the perception of form and space.” Árnason was influenced by computer manipulations that appear to fold and deform flat objects into 3D sculptures.

Ceramic artist Esben Schakenda Kaldahl created a series of artifacts inspired by his passion for video games. The act of collecting magical, digital objects is foundational to many games. Schakenda Kaldahl recreates these fictional but precious digital objects as actual objects made of stoneware, aluminum, bronze, and precious gems.

For me, the most interesting of all such digitally inspired objects was Tvillingstolen (Twin Chair) designed by architect Marie Ramsing. Ramsing incorporated artificial intelligence into her design practice. She gave the AI program MidJourney the prompt “a chair designed to question the future of AI in arts and crafts” and used the generated visuals as the starting point for her chair design.  The result is a chair would not function as a comfortable seat for one person, let alone two. There was a mirror on the floor to allow one to see the bottom of the seat, which was carved with all kinds of weird swirls and dimensional bumps.  What was that all about?! If it was meant as decoration, what was it doing on the bottom, where it can’t be seen? Was that an AI hallucination manifest in wood? Kind of. The prompt specifically asked the computer to question the rules of chair design. The AI solved the prompt by attaching chair backs to a seat that had no relationship to the human body, lacked functionality, and failed to serve any decorative purpose. The AI was doing exactly what it was asked to do, wasn’t it? 

Marie Ramsing, “Tvillingestolen (Twin Chair), 2023, Ash wood.

Conversations Between the Digital and the Physical

A conversation between the digital and the physical was the central concept for several installations.  

Kristine Mandesberg, “Orbs”

Orbs by Kristine Mandsberg featured a screen with a video animation of fuzzy, blobby shapes floating, moving, and transforming (think: lava lamp) in tandem with handmade polystyrene shapes that had been painted and flocked. Here the digital video was the inspiration for the physical objects. In her statement she said “My digital ORBS are perfect! They float weightlessly and transform silently. Form color, and surface are completely flawless, and the sensuality is overwhelming. I can almost touch them…. My ORBS are finished. You can touch them, walk around them, and lift them.  They lie there, completely still. They are not perfect.”  So true! I could not make myself engage with the physical blobs, but the video was mesmerizing.

Pernilee Snedker Hansen in collaboration with Joel Parkes, “Digital Seeds”

Digital Seeds, a collaboration between designer Pernille Snedker Hansen and coder Joel Parkes, takes the opposite point of view. Here the object inspired a virtual interpretation. The “digital seeds” were three painted and marbled wooden sculptures. The seeds were digitally ‘planted’ by uploading 3D scans of the objects into an algorithm that spit out an animated NFT that morphed according to real time weather data. (This same morphing aesthetic inspired Soft Transformations mentioned above.) The idea behind the video was very interesting, but I was only attracted to watch it for a few minutes.  The tactility of the objects was completely missing from the video translation, and the ubiquity of screens in general didn’t serve the novelty of the image for very long. The “seeds” never developed into anything other than a lumpy blob. The object seeds, however, were incredibly beautiful objects made of wood, pewter, fluorite, agate, paint, and lacquer that I could have engaged with for a long time if given the chance. I had a strong urge to pick them up and let my senses explore them. In the end the NFT became a distraction that couldn’t hold up to the real objects, but the overall concept of planting/weather/growth was great. Technology and nature are most often pitted against each other, but here they were uniquely intertwined.

The Digital as a Tool in Both Design and Production

The mechanization of hand processes is a kind of digital collaboration we are all familiar with.  Probably two-thirds of what was shown in the biennial fell under this category.  Here the digital is a tool that is used in both the design and the production of an object.  The digital speeds up the process and enables the efficient production of multiples, addressing the limitations of traditional hand production. Just as printmaking and photography are reproductive tools that became artistic mediums in their own right, computerized looms and 3D prototyping technology enter the scene as new artforms.  The intention of the maker and craft knowledge is still essential, but tech skills are equally important and inseparable from the production of this work. The mark making of the digital production method becomes integral to the aesthetic of the work. 

In this category there was a digital jacquard weaving. The work was presented as four panels with a unique weaving pattern based on ripples in water.  There was also a digitally knit sculpture and several instances of digital printing on cloth.

More interesting to me was an abundance of 3D printed ceramic objects.  One that really stood out to me was Pixelation cmd C / cmd V by ceramic artist Theis Lorentzen. The ceramic dolls were reproduced as multiples using 3D scanning and computer numerical control milling in combination with hand building. The marks left by each process (e.g. exaggerated seams and drips) remain and were given importance.  Reproduction through this process resulted in a loss of detail that contributed to a surreal appearance. Spray glaze and colored slip makes each doll into a unique version of itself.

Ada’s Algorithm I and II by ceramicist Suzanne Hangaard was another example where craft and tech met in a balance.  Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) wrote the first published algorithm.  Hangaard created two busts of Lovelace using digital 3D modeling software. Lovelace’s image was then manipulated into shifting planes and forms by applying Lovelace’s mathematical algorithm to the digital busts. The clay sections were then made with the help of 3D printing, and then the whole was fabricated by the artist into the finished artwork.

The Coder as Craftsman

Last but not least were objects that were the manifestation of computer code alone. You could call it “robot craft” in that a person with no training in craft, just coding skills, machine knowledge, and creativity, could make craft objects to spec. 

There were not very many objects in the show that could be categorized as true robot craft, but the closest and most interesting example was an installation titled Playing Whispers by Troels Flensted and Ragna Mouritzen.  The piece consisted of thirteen identical cylinders made of 3D printed clay. They were physical prints, created without any intervention by the artist - just code. Even though the programming was the same for each piece, the printed clay cylinders were NOT identical.  “In a repeated conversation from immaterial to material we investigate how the shape is transformed solely by digital misunderstandings and the inherent will of the clay.”  

Troels Flensted and Ragna Mouritzen, “Playing Whispers,” 3D-printed clay.

The cylinders were examples of machine failure – basically glitch ceramics.  In thirteen iterations of the program, not one of these cylinders was completed without printing errors. This installation told me that the craftsman may not be entirely replaceable - at least not yet.

What do you think about craft that is made with the help of digital tools and interventions? 

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