The Artist Work Space: Part Lab, Part Studio

The artist studio is evolving. Artists using code and technology in their practices reflect a shift in the artist work space.

Future Cities Lab, “Murmur Wall.” Photo credit: Peter Prato. Click here to see a video of “Murmur Wall.”

People are fascinated with artist studios. This is one reason why visitors flock to the recreated Ed Paschke Howard Street Studio at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Chicago, Illinois, or Francis Bacon’s original studio, relocated to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. Visitors become voyeurs, obtaining visual clues of techniques, sources of inspiration and modes of production. Increasingly, though, artists, creatives and even those in math and science-based industries are using computer code for creative expression. The uptake in code and the blurring of industry boundaries are influencing the artist studio.

Since it is possible to code from almost anywhere, is there a need for a physical space to create art? Despite the flexibility using code brings, artists are still utilizing physical spaces. In part this is because a designated work space offers an escape from the distractions of everyday life. Nick Briz, a Chicago-based new media artist who uses code, acknowledges the convenience of creating art with his computer, and frequently worked from home. Yet, he realized the importance of the space around him, and currently shares a space with Jon Satrom, also a new media artist. But such a space is also necessary for the physical equipment artists use. “While 80% of the time my hands are on the keyboard, 20% of the time they might be on something else,” Briz states. “I also have a workstation where I might do hardware stuff.”

Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, two artists working together in Tallinn, Estonia, concur. In addition to code, they use equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters in their practice. Future Cities Lab, an “experimental design studio, workshop and architectural think tank” based in San Francisco, California, follows a similar construct. This team-based organization also uses code, alongside a host of electronics and equipment to create projects. Despite the unequivocal need for a physical space to create art, the artist work space is changing with artists using code: from a studio, filled with canvases, paint brushes and books, to a multi-use space to experiment and collaborate.

A studio and a lab

Notwithstanding its practical benefits, it is important to recognize how the artist work space is conceived today. Besides a production space, it is also one to test and experiment, Guljajeva and Canet explain. They see their art-making space as a combination of a studio, a place to make artwork, and a laboratory, to research and experiment. “It is like a petri dish,” describes Jason Kelly Johnson, co-founder of Future Cities Lab, in regards to their space, “experimenting with different things, trying multiple things, putting weird things together, observing over time and seeing what they do.” And this is where creativity can happen: amidst trial and error, building and testing. Given this dual function, “work space” appears to be a more suitable term than “studio.”

The collaborative artist

The conception of the artist work space reflects the organization and interactions within. Guljajeva and Canet occupy a 1,076 square foot space in Estonia. It is filled with 3D printers and electronics, along with space to to work, conceive ideas, shoot photos and ship artwork. In short, it is one space with many purposes. “We try to keep space very flexible,” they say. Or take Future Cities Lab’s 2,200 square foot space, which has three distinct areas: design studio, electronics studio and fabrications studio. “Every single day, almost every single person working with us is jumping back and forth between [these areas],” according to Johnson, who utilizes a team of people for projects.

Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, “Wishing Wall.” Photo credit: Andrew Meredith. Click here for a YouTube video explanation of “Wishing Wall.”

These multifunctional spaces imply a space geared towards interaction. That said, a revelation is the collaboration and sharing of information taking place inside and out of these work spaces. One reason Briz and Satrom share a space is because they work together on projects. “When sharing a studio, there’s a lot of cross-pollination,” Briz states. Guljajeva and Canet can attest to that. The duo develops ideas together, then they divide up tasks individually. Guljajeva tends to work with electronics, 3D modeling and printing; Canet works on software development.

Beyond working with other artists, Guljajeva and Canet also collaborate with people from other fields of knowledge: they have many interests, but only so much time. More still, Johnson reveals that Future Cities Lab builds and digitally fabricates projects for companies in adjacent industries; for example, they collaborate and produce creative and technical prototypes. As a result, an “intellectual transfer,” as Johnson puts it, allows “a level of technical sophistication.”

The artists interviewed for this article openly acknowledge the benefits of collaborating with other artists or professionals in various fields. This marks a stark difference with other artistic movements. Abstract Expressionists, for example, saw themselves as a sole creator or isolated genius. Notably, there have been teams behind individual artistic practices, Johnson acknowledges; the difference is that they never got credit. He has a point.

Take Andy Warhol’s Factory, his studio. Warhol famously said “everybody should be a machine.” But as art historian Caroline Jones observes in her book “Machine in the Studio,” “the suggestion is that others should be the machines doing [Warhol’s] paintings.” As such, Warhol posed as the manager of his Factory, reflecting a hierarchical structure. “Warhol claimed to delegate work on what he termed ‘my objects,’ ” Jones adds, implying that Warhol took credit as the creator of artworks produced — even if did not create the art himself. In contrast, Johnson aims to credit or highlight team members working on a given project. Indeed, today’s collaborative and interconnected world marks a distinction from the past: using others’ contributions and sharing information is easier than ever.

A sharing mentality

The openly collaborative turn in the arts points to converging industry boundaries. People and organizations in the technology industry constantly share information with open source software — meaning the software’s source code is available for the public to use, improve or alter. Critics may think sharing code is a hinderance, giving away important information. Advocates say that is not the case.

“I have benefitted greatly from open source software and people that are sharing code” Johnson maintains. “And so we do the same thing. All our projects and all the software we are developing; we have them as open source.” Briz agrees. Since he, too, has gained from open source projects, he often releases projects as open source. Indeed, the benevolent impulse to “give back” is one reason some people make their work open source. According to Briz, it also “gets your name out there; your reputation in certain communities is bolstered. That is a very real impact.” In other words, making information available can bolster one’s reputation and lead to other opportunities.

Image from Nick Briz’s “Apple Computers.” Photo credit: Daniel Rourke. Click here for a YouTube video on “Apple Computers.”

Teaching is another way to share information. This is a thread that unites the artists interviewed for this article. Guljajeva and Canet recently conducted a 3D printing workshop, open to the public, and plan to do more of these classes in the future. Briz is motivated by a “digital literacy mission.” He makes tutorials that explain “how to engage with the things I am putting out there, technologically and conceptually.” Johnson not only conducts workshops around the globe, but is also a professor at the California College of the Arts. His teaching is sometimes “at the leading edge” of the work he does at Future Cities Lab. He also notes how students help him “think through different ideas.” In short, by sharing, artists are gaining. “The more I expose myself to, the more people I work with, the more interesting my own stuff becomes,” Briz surmises.

It is a suitable conclusion that artists will continue working in a physical space for the foreseeable future. But the configuration of the space, how it is perceived and the interactions inside and out are changing — and they will likely continue to do so as industry boundaries blur. People will still conceivably flock to artists’ work spaces, but perhaps with a different intent: to collaborate, experiment or exchange information.

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Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad