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“Techno-Vernacular Creativity" - Q&A with Fab Foundation’s Nettrice Gaskins

In recent months, Nettrice Gaskins has been practicing her brilliant artistic techniques at Fab@CIC. We’ve enjoyed watching her convert her algorithmic photography into laser-etched block prints, and even model 3D molds from the same designs. In addition to her career as an artist, she’s also the Program Manager for the Fab Foundation’s SCOPES-DF program! Nettrice has filled our fab lab with creative inspiration, and we wanted to pick her brain about her many STEAM projects.


FIRST THINGS FIRST... CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR MODEL OF "TECHNO-VERNACULAR CREATIVITY?"

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My model of ‘techno-vernacular creativity’ is an area of practice that investigates the characteristics of production and application in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics).

For example, culture generates vast amounts of data that represent complex intersections of art, language, narrative, economics, storytelling and politics. Computers can be taught to simulate cultural art forms and generate results on their own if given simple instructions or algorithms.

Using cultural art with AI enhances my capacity to engage emerging science and technology concepts.

HOW DOES THIS PRACTICE APPLY TO YOUR WORK WITH FAB FOUNDATION'S SCOPES-DF PROGRAM?
 

At the Fab Foundation, the SCOPES-DF program develops effective pathways and resources for using digital fabrication in STEM education. We work with educators to create new models and methods for teaching, and the program offers students relevant, engaging, applied learning opportunities. For example, educators are encouraged to remix existing lessons on the SCOPES-DF website. Remixing, broadly defined, means to fiddle, tinker and by extension make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand, building by trial and error. Fab Foundation staff meet up once per week to explore and work on digital fabrication projects such as milling machinable wax and using CAD software to create open-ended STEM projects for the laser cutter, and at SCOPES-DF, we work with teachers in a similar way.

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WE LOVE SEEING PROJECTS FROM FAB FOUNDATION STAFF - AND YOUR LASER-ETCHED BLOCK PRINTS ARE VERY UNIQUE. WHAT INSPIRED THESE PROJECTS AND WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS?
 

I attended a magnet high school in Louisville, KY and majored in visual arts, so printmaking was a course we had to take. I also took a computer graphics class and it was my major at Pratt Institute. I recall being taught how to do intaglio and relief printmaking using hand tools. The tooling portion of the process was time consuming and only produced one block to print from. Although much softer than wood, cold linoleum is hard to cut into, so we often heated the blocks to make cutting easier. One day I accidentally overheated a linoleum block and blisters appeared on the surface. Fortunately, I was able to save the project. Today, raster engraving using a laser cutter is a much more efficient option. You can make test prints from one block, make changes in the source image and, if necessary, engrave the revised image in a new block.

At Fab@CIC, I configured a laser cutter to raster engrave the materials at depths I needed using a specific power and speed. There are so many variations -- all materials react a bit differently, so the process may require iteration. In addition to linoleum, I use wood to raster engrave and print with. There is a slight difference between the materials. I can engrave small intricate details, or large surface areas at varying depths, or just gently mark the surface.

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The traditional method of printmaking usually requires drawing directly on the surface of the material. Today, I laser engrave images that have been transformed through my collaboration with artificial intelligence, or AI. I use a tool called Deep Dream that was initially created by Google engineer Alexander Mordvintsev, which uses a convolutional neural network.

I start with a digital photo and by going through a process I get unintended effects such as textures that I can seldom predict in the beginning. The effects come out of the making process. You have to make several images at different times in the process to get a range of images. Then, you can go back and look at them and pick the ones you want to use. This system makes it possible to transfer artistic styles from one image to another. Once I have an image I like, I convert it into a black and white halftone and prepare it for raster engraving.


CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU CONVERTED THESE DESIGNS TO MAKE 3D MOLDS?
 

In computer graphics, a heightmap is a raster image used to store values, such as surface elevation data. Heightmaps are often used to give extra definition to surfaces such as rendering bumps and protrusions. I discovered height mapping in a Deep Dream image that I imported using CNC milling software. Milling is a cutting process that uses a milling cutter (drill bit) to remove material from the surface of a block such as machinable wax. Milling is different from raster (laser) engraving because it uses a drill bit to remove material and makes deeper pockets. It is a much slower process than with laser cutting.

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The CNC milling software allows me to make wax cuts: first making a rough pass with a drill bit in the hard wax, and then the machine does a second finishing pass with a smaller bit. The hollow cavity that remains becomes a mold that enables liquid material to be poured into it, and then it is allowed to solidify. This is known as a casting, and is then removed from the mold to complete the process. The result is a heightmap of the algorithmically-generated image.

To create a mold from the wax casting, I construct a watertight box around the wax block. Then, I use “Smooth-On” material, which needs to be mixed in a 50-50 ratio by volume. To achieve the 50-50 mix, I use two identical plastic cups and mark off a mark at the same height. I fill these two cups with the Part-A and Part-B of the “Smooth-On.” Then, once I pour one cup into the other and stir the contents, I have 7 minutes to pour the liquid into the mold before it sets and starts to cure.


About Nettrice Gaskins

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Nettrice Gaskins attended Georgia Tech where she received a PhD in Digital Media in 2014. She blogs for Art21, the producer of the Peabody award-winning PBS series, Art in the Twenty-First Century, and published in several journals and books including Deep Sea Dwellers: Drexciya and the Sonic Third Space (Shima), African Cosmogram Matrix in Contemporary Art and Culture (Black Theology), Meet Me at the Fair: A World's Fair Reader (ETC Press), Future Texts: Subversive Performance and Feminist Bodies (Parlor Press) and Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lexington Books). She was the director of the STEAM Lab at Boston Arts Academy and is currently the SCOPES-DF program manager at the Fab Foundation.