“We Don't Know What We’re Not Supposed to Do”

Posted by: 11. November 2015
NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology exhibit

Installation image of “NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology,” on view October 15, 2015, through January 17, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo by Johnna Arnold.

What can artists teach manufacturers?

Engineering and art have always had a close, if hidden, relationship. The study of art history is largely one of technology. As developments in tools, media and science evolve, so too does the expression of those developments as art.

That’s just the sort of thing the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM; San Francisco) is illuminating with its “NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology” exhibit, which will be on display through mid-January 2016.

The museum says that the exhibit “includes several digital and robotic sculptures as well as works in light, sound, video and more by three generations of practitioners working at the crossroad of contemporary art and tech.”

One particularly interesting work (pictured above) is Paolo Salvagione’s Rope Fountain, which replicates a water fountain with small electric motors, long lengths of rope and 3D-printed components.

Salvagione has an engineering background, and in explaining the work, he says he was trying to “use [the] familiar in an unfamiliar way.”

Another of the artists, Camille Utterback, pivots off that point to sum things up like this: “Because we’re maybe less formally trained, we don’t know what we’re not supposed to do. And the thing that the engineer sees as a problem, we sometimes see as the most interesting part of the system.”

What can working engineers and manufacturers take away from this message? Maybe it’s important to remember where innovation and progress come from: play, experimentation, risk and problem-solving—all inextricably related to the activity of art.

Designer, computer scientist and educator John Maeda has made his career out of this appeal in terms of education. He’s argued that Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects alone will not lead to innovation he sees as necessary in our century.

“Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, who march straight ahead towards their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real,” Maeda said in an article in 2013. Adding “A” for Art turns STEM into STEAM. More information about the “STEM to STEAM” movement can be found at

There are likely opportunities for small (and perhaps even big) innovations that are easy to miss or ignore for the sake of consistency or habit. But creativity isn’t just for art museums. The sort of problem-solving and risk-taking that the NEAT artists are used to can be spotted in job shops just about everywhere. The application and problem-solving stories that Modern Machine Shop, Production Machining and MoldMaking Technology investigate on a regular basis are a testament to that. And Techspex exists because of the creativity of OEMs meeting the evolving needs of those shops.

It’s a fact that growth and improvement take some risk, even if it’s just escaping the comfort zone, unlearning what you’re “not supposed to do.”

Leave a comment—What are some changes you’ve made around the shop that required some risk, experimentation or play? Does it pay to think artistically?

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