The other weekend I visited Pittsburgh to see an old friend of mine, Hironori Yoshida, or just ‘Yoshi’.’ Yoshi is a guest researcher at Carnegie Mellon, working on digital fabrication. For those unfamiliar with the term (ie me, before Yoshi explained slowly using small words), digital fabrication is the construction of materials using computer controlled machines. That weekend Yoshi was showing an exhibit of his material designs at a gallery there downtown, and I went to help him throw the show.
Putting together this exhibit was not easy, and you might ask, why would I travel so far just to construct tables, lift concrete slabs, and cover myself in corn starch? Your answer would be: This man and I go way, way back. We met in Japan in 2003 while we were both studying at Waseda University in Tokyo. We were both young bboys, and we immediately connected and began a collaboration that would last years, with more years to come. As he was introducing me to his friends there, they kept remarking “Oh you’re Charlie, I’ve heard about you, you’re his ‘brother from another mother’ he talks about.” This man is my family, and helping to make his exhibit happen was a family affair.
When it came time to plan the trip, it was decided the Volvo wasn’t reliable enough for a long road trip, so I had to leave her behind. Now I love my baby girl, but she has seen better days, and her usefulness is now mostly limited to carrying linoleum, dj equipment, and the odd trip to H Mart to stock up on supplies (TEA!). So looking at my options, I actually decided flying made the most sense, as it was similar in price to renting a car, and had the bonus of not having to be alert on some highway for several hours. I transferred in Boston, fueled myself with caffeine at every opportunity, and showed up in Pittsburgh ready to rock (and pee).
Although it would seem obvious this is my personal shuttle to the gallery, apparently common sense is not a value respected by Pittsburghians. I had to take the bus without my name instead, and they even had the audacity to charge me $3.25! Those filthy shuttle pirates.
The street directly outside the gallery. The exhibit was part of an event called the Gallery Crawl, held by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. There seems to be a vibrant art community in the city, and everyone was very positive and supportive of all the events going on that night, a very cool vibe.
I showed up and immediately got to work (after securing us more coffee, and a biscotti… it was almond anise flavored, pretty bomb). We entered a frenzy of saudering, drilling, taping, and repeatedly discovering crucial machine parts were missing. Not to worry however! We scrambled to freestlye solutions and got the show working pretty reasonably considering the resources available. And plus, all of your problems disappear after your fifth caffeine injection.
The show was called Unexpected Materiality, the concept was to assmeble tables using easily obtainable (cheap) materials in novel ways to create unexpected material experiences. The turnout was really impressive, and even more so was the reaction Yoshi got from the visitors. It might be that digital fabrication and design is something unfamiliar to most of them, as it also is to me, but people were consistently stumped as to how Yoshi had put together his pieces. I was so happy and proud to see such a positive response to his work. He had constructed 5 tables for the exhibit, 3 of which were also interactive. With no written explanation for any of the pieces, what at first seemed like an obstacle quickly turned into a conversation point for both Yoshi and amongst the visitors themselves about how they were constructed. He was busy introducing himself, talking about his work, explaining the processes involved, and handing me odd jobs like catching dripping corn starch solution with buckets and taking pictures of him with his adoring fans.
This is one of the interactive tables, a sheet of latex covered in corn starch solution, with holes cut in the supporting wood table to allow motors underneath to beat the latex (upon sensing your hand when placed above it using a motion sensor) to create shapes and ripples upon the surface. In the test run, they were able to create cascading waves of semi-solid shapes across the table, but unfortunately between motor malfunction and holes in the latex torn by excessive touching from visitors, the table wasn’t able to reach its full glory. So use your imagination people.
This table however was fully operational (it also happens to be the table that I was in charge of. coincidence???). This one was made of plywood, with patterns cut using the digital fabrication machine and filled with a mostly transparent resin. Wireless LEDs were placed underneath the resin patterns, that were activated by a sensor in a ‘lens’ made of wood, so that visitors could trace the patterns with the lens and see the lights activate through it. Pretty awesome, I know.
This was by far the most popular piece, a table made of 2 pieces of plywood, surrounding a section of bent plywood pieces filled with resin in between. The resin was again filled with a small amount of dye to create a blue-ish hue, accentuated by the spotlight below. Yoshi had several offers to buy this piece, which could help him with material costs for throwing the show but more importantly served as inspiration to keep producing more of his ideas, all originally done for research purposes.
You can see here the system of motors that would create the shapes in the corn starch solution. We tried to repair it several times to no avail.
If I had a nickel for every time my linear actuators failed to respond to my motion sensors hijacked from an Xbox…
Despite the setbacks, the show was an incredible success. Yoshi made several good contacts, was invited to show his work again at other galleries, and was inspired to continue expressing his ideas on democratizing fabrication.
Our after the show victory picture. We posed in front of one of his tables, while placing the camera on top of another! This picture has more dimensions to it than meets the eye.
After the show, we left all the pieces at the gallery for us to take down the next day, as Yoshi had been up for over 48 hours straight and needed to, in his words, sleep like a baby. So we stopped at a Chinese place on the way home for some fried rice and dumplings (huge, and fried. they tasted like a job well done), then crashed into bed.
We started the next morning with a bowl of pho, perfect on a cold winter Pittsburgh day. It tasted better than the faces were making.
On the way to the gallery to take down the pieces. Pittsburgh has a lot of old churches that have been re-appropriated for secular purposes, like this one which is now a music venue. ‘The Altar.’ Nice. We also heard about one being turned into a restaurant/brewery, whose altar had been replaced with a beer vat, and also another music venue conversion called Mr. Smalls Funhouse which I heard this awesome band Exit Clov played at. Wooord.
After eating we went back to the gallery to take all the pieces down and bring them back to the lab at Carnegie Mellon for storage. You can see the tables on the bottom left of the picture have the wireless LEDs attached underneath. Yoshi decided the easiest way to fit them all in the pick-up truck would be to saw off all the legs and stack them. It’s also way more fun to hacksaw things than to not hacksaw things.
More views of the LEDs.
Work and Rest. Did you notice his sneakers?
Aaand we’re done. Taking these tables down to the truck was precarious, but we got it all loaded up thankfully without damaging any of the pieces.
I like this shot a lot. This is one of the alleys in between the gallery and where we had the truck parked. Pittsburgh has so many old empty industrial spaces. My imagination was running wild just being in that alley. So much history, a past era of prosperity, changes, tradition and heritage being respected, honored, and adapted to meet the needs of the present. Plus warehouses are awesome.
Once arriving at the lab to store the pieces, a moment of brilliance struck. We could use the crane… to lift the pieces down the 50 ft staircase! The stairwell is to the left in this shot, and we parked right next to it. The plan we concocted involved loading the crane with the pieces, rotating it over the stairwell, and lowering it right onto a cart placed by the door to the lab waiting for us to push the pieces to their home. Ingenius, no?
Setting up that bad boy.
Halfway loaded. Check the footage below. So tight…
All loaded up and ready to lower, gingerly, with help from Michael and Jordan, Yoshi’s friends from the lab who served logistics duty along with myself. Thanks for that fellas!
Lowering down to the bottom of the staircase. After this, the pictures stop because I was too busy freaking out with the rest of them trying to maneuver a treacherously unstable cart loaded with huge pieces of plywood through laboratory hallways. The mission was successful, and at that moment Yoshi’s months of preparation and labor had come to a gratifying end. We could then breathe in a long draw of air, fused with the essence of victory. (It smells like sawdust).
That night, without a car our options were limited for a place to celebrate, but fortunately nearby there was a dinner party being held for ex-JET (English teachers in Japan), and other people with some sort of Japan connection (I guess me?). It was fun, some good food, and I confirmed that this crazy latent accent that I only recently have been made aware that I have is in fact a rural Pennsylvanian/Pittsburgh accent, derived from Irish and English immigrants. Oh. Since then, I’ve been noticing myself inadvertently speaking that way, and I seriously can’t not do it. Sigh… sorry, you all will just have to deal with it.
We met up with some of Yoshi’s friends for lunch that day before my flight home. I took this picture from the bus we took to get downtown. The whole weekend it was snowing and overcast. I love that kind of weather. The whole world was white, it made for an excellent arctic theme for our adventure. This is a cemetery that we passed, and upon the hill I saw two obelisks (hard to see, but they’re in the middle of the picture). Very cool.
We had crepes (and coffee). They were both really good actually, I was impressed at the consistent good quality food available around town. This was at a French place Yoshi’s friend (also French) recommended.
All his friends were very helpful in getting us to the bus stop on time, and Yoshi rode with me to the airport while we had great conversations about his event, art, philosophy, and peace. Did you notice the runner’s number is also 574? I just did while typing this!
I learned a great phrase from Yoshi, ‘sessatakuma.’ It means a friendly rivalry, where we grow from trying to out-do each other in all things. I’m very lucky to be constantly inspired by him, and appreciate all the things he’s shown me about art, Japan, himself, and myself.
Hironori Yoshida – H.Y. – Hybrid Materiality