Matthew Gardiner is an Australian artist and researcher now living and working in Linz (Austria). Since 2011 he has been Senior Research Lead at Ars Electronica Futurelab (http://www.aec.at/futurelab/en/). Gardiner holds a Bachelor of Fine Art Photography at the Victorian College of the Arts, mentored by artists Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey at Drome (http://www.drome.com.au/) in Melbourne. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
Matthew’s works have been shown worldwide, with premieres at Next Wave Festival, Asialink Center, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Künstlerdorf Schöppingen, Arena Theatre Company, Ars Electronica Festival and Tokyo Design Touch. Some of his works include Origami House (2003): one square kilometre of paper folded into a full size house with the Melbourne Origami Group; 1001 Cranes: 7000 paper cranes installed in the shape of a three story high Gingko bonsai, and Radiobots a radio based percussive instrument for performance on architecture. Matthew has also been selected for a number of artistic residencies – Ars Electronica FutureLab (Linz AT, 2010), Künstlerdorf Schöppingen, (Germany, 2008), PICA Inter-arts Residency (Perth AU, 2008), Australia Council for the Arts Studio (Tokyo JP, 2005), Origami House (Tokyo JP, 2004, http://www.origamihouse.jp), and Digital Artist at Latrobe Regional Gallery (Victoria AU, 2003).
Matthew Gardiner (http://www.matthewgardiner.net/) is the creator and developer of a whole new research field known as Oribotics, which combines origami and robotics. Oribotics is a field of research that emerges from the blending of aesthetic, biomechanic, and morphological elements with nature. Gardiner began folding paper at the age of eight and since then has never stopped, becoming more and more sophisticated in terms of techniques, scientific approaches and visual attractiveness. Matthew has undertaken a distinctive path, taking the Japanese origami tradition as a starting point and transforming the ancient folding tradition into a hyper-contemporary art practice.
The following interview is intended to provide an insight view on Matthew’s vision and endeavours, on his continuous research, challenges and future plans.
Donata Marletta: I personally find very fascinating the way you work across disciplines. Could you tell us something about your educational and artistic background?
Matthew Gardiner: The disciplines that have attracted me over the years are those that can be distilled through precision and then extended through experimentation. For example a primary school teacher introduced origami to me, but it was the self-directed learning from origami books that extended my knowledge, experimentation was in each crumpled attempt at higher complexity that led to dexterity in paper folding. My high school photography teacher specialised in developing an experimental state of mind in students, his initial assignments asked questions designed to teach fundamental concepts like the effect of aperture on depth of field, lenses and exposure.
In later years my own experiments were interested in questions with the exposure process, Hockney-styled multiple exposures, slow film and torchlight, camera modifying slit-exposures, solarisation and other process experiments. My photography degree and beyond were increasingly concerned with how digital culture had the power to change the way we work: Photoshop 2.0 changed the way I made images in the 90s, interactive multimedia changed the way I made programmatic animations, just like 3D printing and physical computing changed the way I thought about my robotic experiments with LEGO.
In many ways the technical aspects and latent potential in practice inspire my aesthetic and questioning, such that I was primed for the advent of the Fablab, and maker revolution as Neil Gershenfeld (Director at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms) and others coined it, like many in my generation. I could design, write code, craft, and my specialisation in unique processes led my ideas down a natural path: I became an oriboticist, someone whose discipline is Oribotics, and all that pertains to robotic origami.
Donata Marletta: Design, robotics, organic forms, and Japanese tradition seem to merge together into your artistic production. What are your key references?
Matthew Gardiner: Like most artists it’s something that becomes refined over years. In my current research, I look to scientific fields like Soft Matter as they share similar material and design/engineering concerns, even paying attention to the function of folded surfaces. My origami design is informed from my peers and others at the avant-garde of scientific and applied origami, for example the pattern that I use in my 2007 and 2010 works was inspired after learning about a pattern used in a medical application for a heart stent at the 4th Origami Science Mathematics and Education conference in Pasadena California.
Today’s complex idea of origami, the idea that contains DNA Origami, Scientific Origami, and Oribotics, has shifted beyond the Japanese tradition you refer to, it’s really an acknowledgement of complexity. No doubt each new border condition contains a kernel of tradition, but todays origami, and broader usage of term makes it very much a 21st century reference.
Things that inspire me are technical drawings and illustrations, especially ones that reveal function. I often flip through my favourite books absorbing all the visual ideas before diving into the conceptual aspects of the text. A favourite of mine, Biruta Kresling could be considered something of an oriboticist herself, she’s been concerned with the mechanical and biological function of folding in nature for many years. Her technical illustrations are the result of studies of folds in natural systems, and her illustrations usually appear in academic papers.
These two papers were key in their influence on my work: Kobayashi, H., Kresling, B., & Vincent, J. F. V. (1998). The geometry of unfolding tree leaves. Proceedings of the Royal Society, (265), 147–154. Kresling, B. (1997). Folded and Unfolded Nature. In Origami Science and Art: Proceedings of the Second International Meeting of Origami Science and Scientific Origami (pp. 93–106). Seian University, Otsu, Shiga, Japan: Seian University of Art and Design.
I love Issey Mikaye’s Bao Bao line. Material-wise, it has a seamlessness and the simple repeated folding pattern affords a bag that adjusts its form, and focuses the play of light and shadow in a way that is simultaneously organic and ordered. I also follow the studies of the Japanese professor of architecture and computation Tomohiro Tachi. His work weaves his expertise in origami mathematics to write software like Rigid Origami Simulator, and Freeform Origami. He has some beautiful material applications that perfectly balance a complexity of folding.
An all time hero of mine is finally Theo Jansen. I met him at Ars Electronica in 2005. In that occasion, he had his Strandbeest transported and a fake sandy beach set up in the main square of Linz: he kept all the week his creatures walking and collecting energy, every day for the whole festival. For me his work offers a set of juxtapositional qualities, scale, mechanisms, the wire-like frames, and the simplicity of his material choice. Another fact I adore is that Jansen used a computer model to “evolve” the Strandbeest mechanism, the outcome of his program was eleven holy numbers that recur in the functional legs his mechanical beasts. Eleven perfect numbers, and they formed the basis of all his subsequent works; I find that incredible to think that all his creatures derive from this initial calculation.
Donata Marletta: How did you come up with a whole new research field such as the one you named Oribotics?
Matthew Gardiner: The simple answer is that it just happened, it flowed naturally out my passion for folding paper and programmatic animation. In the early 2000s I worked with the Melbourne Origami Group (http://melbourne.origami.org.au/), we specialised in giant origami, folding a large dinosaur skeleton and a full scale Origami House that you could walk inside, we even made origami furniture and origami light switches! Around the same time I was obsessed with making animations of origami, experimenting with visual programming, the type of work that Jon Maeda was doing at the MIT Media Lab (http://media.mit.edu/). I was coding this folded robot-like thing, making it walk with folds around the screen, and then I was offered my first artistic residency, they gave me $500 for materials so I bought the LEGO Mindstorms kit and set to making a folding robot from LEGO. There I was, sitting a table in an art gallery, resident artist, with a table full of LEGO, and people thought I was this big kid, playing with LEGO, but it was so serious to me.
During the one month period I made my first prototype, coined the term Oribotics, and exhibited some months later. The Mechaniflorum quinqueplicaticum (as they are known in botanical Latin) were super fragile, and had images of real flowers projected over their surfaces, as if they were dreaming of being real flowers. Their fragility meant they self-destructed over the one-week show, a fact that many found endearing, as they watched these once pristine, in a state of decay.
From there, it was about learning how to make Oribots live longer than one week, and perfecting that took me another 6 years of grant writing, residencies, and projects that evolved Oribotics with each step. The current generation Oribots are the most robust ever and have executed over 1.7 million folds, and the pleated polyester is in perfect condition, same as the day they were made.
Donata Marletta: Oribotics are complex structures that interact with each other and with the external environment. Could you tell us about the main stages involved in the production process? Do you work by yourself or within a collaborative team of experts?
Matthew Gardiner: The stages of the process are quite obvious, but the path through them is never so. In generic terms, I see the main stages as inspiration, research, resources and execution, and not necessarily in that order. Inspiration: for me is the collaborative assault on the synapses by a set of ideas and concepts that feel like as they self organise they release positive brain chemistry (a good idea always feels good!). Research: the on-going process of finding out if someone can help you do what you want to do, or if you have to find a way do it yourself. Resources: finding people, funding (waiting for funding decisions mostly), materials, tools, and access to expensive tools that the research and inspiration requires. Execution: the systematic, patient and determined will to follow the inspiration. Currently, I’m working in a more open ended research phase, I’m looking for new directions in my work, and examining theory as a basis for refining further work.
I’ve worked with different team compositions over the years. From works involving composers, percussionists, miniature instrument makers, industrial designers, and polymer scientists. Oribotics has been an on-going series of funded experiments in which the core team has been consistent, my family are always involved. Ray Gardiner, my father, is my primary collaborator, he has designed the industrial grade electronics and software for each generation of Oribots. We work from prototypes that I’ve made with Arduino, and breadboard type solutions, and Ray designs circuits specific to the final design.
As the inspiration for each Oribotic work became more ambitious and complex the expertise from others became more important. I tend to think I can do anything, and that’s fine for prototyping, but for production you need real expertise. For example, an influential point was meeting a pleater who worked with folding silk and polyester fabrics, and he showed me how pleating worked, two sheets of paper, fabric and a special steam oven. I later reproduced the process in my studio with a domestic oven, and this enabled a reliable production process that suited my studio practice. Experts are great, they have these gems of implicit knowledge, and watching an expert work with their medium is so engaging and inspiring.
Donata Marletta: The outcome of your residency at the Ars Electronica Futurelab was a stunning and multi-layered installation. How did this collaboration start? Did the Ars Electronica Futurelab support your project in terms of finding new partnerships and on a more practical level?
Matthew Gardiner: Very much so, on all levels. Ars Electronica’s Residency Network opened doors to a plethora of opportunity, especially by introduction to the intelligence and expertise in the Futurelab, where every member is considered a researcher, as artists, programmers, designers, architects, curators, psychologists, tech gurus, each with their own expanding are of focus and interest. I arrived on the doorstep of Ars Electronica with a resolved prototype, and they opened their Fablab doors, and let me roam free with their laser cutter and 3D printer.
Within two weeks my prototype was remade, refined and ready for a production run, which the Futurelab supported technically, and conceptually. The fifty Oribots took three months to print, some 1800 hours of printer time, and then Ray, my brother Joshua, and I began to assemble, test, install and create the installation in a old Bauhaus period factory. The most powerful moment, was when after a week of installing and testing, the code to control what we called the ripple effect worked for the first time, and this field of Oribotic blooms opened each Oribot in sequence around the room. We were high-fiving, and cheering, as that moment represented the last 6 months of work, we finally saw what we were working to achieve.
Oribotics has since shown all around the world in Ars Electronica curated exhibitions. Ars Electronica’s network is phenomenal, our worldwide research partners know this too. The network puts me in contact with so many researchers in so many institutions, across many disciplines and contexts.
Donata Marletta: Are you interested in the field of Industrial Design and mass-production? Wouldn’t be challenging for you designing products of such a kind?
Matthew Gardiner: Artistically, I’ve been interested in repetition with my work, as repetition of autonomous elements makes for a complex system, early examples of cellular automata are a great example of this. I’d love to transform the design ideas in my work into a mass-producible object. My five-year plan is to shift my practice towards a sustainable model whereby product derivations support the development of new areas of my practice, rather than surviving purely on funding, exhibition fees and work sales. Most of my ideas are machine reproducible except for the complex folding of materials, and hand assembly.
I have some very interesting ideas that I can’t share just yet, the research phases of my work are devoted to developing new production methods, that are always about accuracy and reproduction. I’ve often considered the meaning of the copy in my artworks, and wondered which element is the original, and it seems to me that the virtual object, the 3D files, the circuit designs, plans etc, are the original objects that define all copies. I’m open to working in the arena of repetition, and am looking forward to launching my first objects for the public.
Donata Marletta: Any forthcoming plans? Are you currently working (or would like to work) on new research areas?
Matthew Gardiner: I’m currently working on developing new geometries, materials for developing foldable surfaces for Oribotics. It’s a more fundamental approach to my work and theory. In the process, I look at how to define foldable surfaces using 3D geometry in Grasshopper in Rhino, combined with my studies and abstractions of folded surfaces. To suppert this work I’m doing a range of material experiments that are proving very successful, though not yet perfected. Essentially, I’m aiming to have a documentable, provable and teachable method for designing Oribotic surfaces, and a few material and production options for various scales.
Some of this work will be published over the coming years under the umbrella of an Austrian funding program called PEEK based at Ars Electronica Futurelab as my collaborative institution. As part of this research grant, I use the generic terms “learning by making” and “learning by teaching” as part of my methodology. “Learning by making” is basically research focussed trial and error with a set of functional and aesthetic criteria, it’s a proof of concept for an artist, and it is the act of material thinking. “Learning by teaching” is how to prove that process to a wider audience, the distillation of an idea into a concrete communicable form that another individual can apply and extend the theory to their own practice. I contend that this is a resilient method to establish if a new idea has concurrence within a culture. I know this intuitively through my own practice; I often draw the analogy for myself with the design process of an origami model.
If we can remember and document the folding steps for a new design, we can also teach them, but in the process of teaching we often realise the subtle steps that are difficult to document or easy to overlook because they are learnt skills. Some complex origami moves are easy to show on paper, but incredibly hard to execute in paper. Developing a process and then teaching it, is a way to learn what those overlooked or subtle process are, and oftentimes they are the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
Finally, I’m also painting what I call ORI-IRO (Colour-folding/farbenfalten) as this allows me to explore aspects of my aesthetic practice intuitively, without a focus on technology. Each painting always echoes folding principles and patterns…