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Attending Code & Digital Fabrication at Anderson Ranch with Casey Reas

The first week of August I am having very special week long course at Anderson Ranch in Aspen Colorado, a sequel to last year’s course with another amazing digital artist, Golan Levin.

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Courtesy of Sponsorship by Green energy datacenter Hydro66 and Cybersalon I am attending a class by one of my digital art heroes, Casey Reas. Casey has been teaching artists how to code for a very long time and next to being an artist has also co-created expressive and empowering artist programming language Processing with Ben Fry. Processing offered me some of my first coding experiences and its excellent plug and play way of working, examples and documentation offered me a chance to engage with the fun artistic stuff of programming as an artist before having to delve deeply into the more formal underpinnings.

Casey’s digital work is well thought out and adds some much needed variety and incredible artistic sensibility to the arts where digital work is still a rarity.

I return to the wonderful free spirited Anderson Ranch a great place where artists teach, make and learn. Everyone is extremely friendly staff and participants alike and every detail is well considered, and then there is the food, the amazing food, I will not forget the coconut carrot cake anytime soon.

Our course is on using Processing to create physical art pieces, using the versatile capabilities of programming to make patterns and visualizations and making output using modern fabrication techniques. The equipment of choice is a cnc machine, a plotter / vinyl cutter and a laser cutter.

Before all of this starts off I have the pleasure of my luggage being misplaced by the airline and receiving this hilarious overnight bag as compensation.

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I always wanted United branded deodorant wipes! I got my bag safely delivered the next day so all is well. I explore Aspen and remember that the museum I visited last year had a new location.

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It is pretty neat exhibition with interesting mixed media work.

I head down the ranch and get settled in. The ranch mostly does traditional art such as photography, sculpture, wood work, painting. Here is an example of a Maloof chair made by Maloof’s long time assistant Larry White, I am no furniture connoisseur but I was bowled over by the craftsmanship on display here and in other disciplines across the ranch.

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We start off the week by going over the basics of programming, our groups skill level has a wide range both on the programming and fabrication side. For me as a beginner on the fabrication side but with programming skills this first part is not aimed at me. Casey structures the lessons in such a way that whenever there is coding instruction, he introduces the exercise that comes after beforehand so I was rarely not engaged.

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When it comes to the machinery I am a novice, so the introduction to the plotter / vinyl cutter, a vector drawing tool that uses a pen or a blade to make patterns on huge size paper, the laser cutter, a device that uses a laser to make engravings and cut material like wood and acrylic and the cnc machine, a milling machine with three axis control tracing a 3d model you provide to make complex objects, the slow pace is welcome.

We start working with the plotter a vector drawing device that was previously used to draw things like large architectural drawings with the advent of cheap printing it is now mostly used as a vinyl cutter to make custom large form sticker designs. That being said there is nothing stopping us from drawing some cool vector drawing as one of my fellow students, Ben Moren, is doing here.

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I am amazed at the amount of texture and variation in output which such a seemingly simple device everybody creates.

Next up is the laser cutter. I have a small bit of experience working with laser cutters and I am super excited to work with it, it’s fast and super versatile, not quite as splashy but way more useful for a hobbyist than a 3d printer in my opinion. Again my class mates surprise me with their ingenuity here a fellow student, Donna Sweigart, is cutting a soft collar necklace based on a reactive sound blobs in felt, it smells terrible, think burned hair, but looks stunning!

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Finally we arrive at the cnc router a computer controller 3 axis mill that allows to make complex 3d objects out of materials like wood. The machine is difficult to setup but I had some fun with designing a heightmap to be milled. Our new media lab start filling up with work from our various experiments.

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After all of that it is time to develop our final ideas and I choose to further an idea I had earlier that week. I want to make a program that generates a solvable square maze and then have an the program try to solve it. It is an interesting technical challenge and after a few hitches I manage it eventually. After creating the program I have to think about my final output, as with a lot of my work it is fundamentally about interaction over time, how do you capture this in a fabricated, static object? I choose to work with my favourite machine the laser cutter to engrave a series of nine stages of the program trying to solve the maze on a wood panel.

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After everybody creates their final output it is time for review. Casey gives some really good feedback but all off our group is remarkably talented with many artists and university professors amongst our ranks so the discussion of work by everyone is at a very high level, I feel very privileged to be a witness to this process and I feel invigorated and inspired.

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After all of that it’s wrap up time, and after final goodbye drinks, I leave Anderson Ranch. It’s been a great ride with so many amazing inspired people, see you next year?

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About Simon Sarginson