Man in the Machines: Matthew Hebert's Craft Technology

Matthew Hebert, aka eleet warez , leads the way to his chaotic little corner inside the furniture department studios at San Diego State University, where he's an assistant professor. The space he's carved out looks like a typical workstation, except alongside wood and metal scraps are circuit boards, miniature wind-turbines made from a 3D printer, action figures and other strange objects that cue visitors in to the fact that Hebert isn't your average craftsman.

"That's kind of my stock and trade I guess," he says, spinning the circuit board around on the table. "I try to bring together contemporary technology and more traditional ideas of craft--sort of making them collide."

Hebert is a thin, bespectacled man whose tendency to answer inquiries in fascinating, explorative elucidations immediately gives away his academic bearings. He'll rarely, if ever, create something without considering its intellectual merits. His interests are mostly focused on a mix of furniture making, conceptual art, geeky robotics, 3D printing and other contemporary technologies. The body of work he's created over the years is a strange mix of cerebral meanderings--a collection of various series he works on simultaneously. He's better at starting new series than finishing them, driven mostly by his own boredom and need to follow any new interest that comes up.

Hebert's creations have caught the eye of curators at plenty of respectable fine-art and craft establishments across the world, including the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, The Berkeley Art Museum, The Milwaukee Art Museum, The Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco and The California Center for the Art, Escondido. He's currently got a few of his interactive furniture pieces showing at an art and technology conference in New Mexico and one of his quirky, animated diorama sculptures is part of the exhibition, in/tangibles, showing now through Nov. 13 at the Southwestern College Art Gallery in Chula Vista.

Lately, the artist has been really into the 3D printer recently purchased by his university. The machine is stationed in his office, and the proximity has allowed him to play and experiment.

"So, this is the least kind of craft of anything I make because it's taking this technology that has no craft credibility," he says, the miniature turbine in hand. "Although, there are a lot of artists working with the printers and putting them into a craft context."

Hebert started his 3D-printer series by scouring Sketchup 3D Warehouse and gathering a collection of free models of energy infrastructures, either real or imagined (such as an impressive 3D mockup of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, the one where Homer Simpson works). He then inputs the data into the printer and creates real-life, miniature plastic models and often makes them light up or move, taking from the power grid instead of giving to the power grid as they do in reality.

"I'm interested in this idea of these unfathomably large things, like a wind turbine or a nuclear power plant, and people making little sketch-up models of them, which makes them very immaterial or abstract," he says. "They are sort of floating around there for free on the internet, but them making them solid again is interesting to me."

He laughs and admits that, aside from exploring the idea of the power grid, he hasn't figured out exactly where he's going with the series quite yet, but it's keeping him entertained for now.

"I'm just thinking about the tension between immaterial and material and how these become real based on very little input on my part," he says.

Another path the 3D printer has led Hebert on is one that involves a happy accident. While playing with the printer one day, he put an object in and it didn't scan the top and the bottom so he put it back in and scanned it on its side, hoping the machine would be smart enough to realize it was the same object and put the two scans together to make one complete copy of the piece. Instead, the machine got creative in a sense, and filled in the blanks by fusing the two images together to the best of its ability.

"It's kind of a glitch-art piece in a way," Hebert says, opening up his MacBook and clicking through photos of the series he and his collaborator, artist Donald Fortescue, call "HYBRID ARTIFACT #1".

"We're trying to exploit an unintended use of the 3D scanning software," he explains.

Fortescue came to San Diego to do an improvisational wood whittling workshop with Hebert. They took the whittled wood sculptures, scanned one and then another and let the printer mutate them into a hybrid of the two. After the first generation, Hebert scanned two of the morphed images, played with the settings a bit and the machine eventually churned out objects that were more and more visually degraded.

"It was a super conceptual craft experiment," he laughs, squinting at his screen and geeking out on the slight variations in textures and gradations from piece to piece.

And yet another art-world use Hebert's found for the 3D printer is scanning objects in the San Diego Museum of Art's collection so kids can hold and touch the art for educational purposes. But because the museum was sensitive about having the more expensive items scanned, he eventually ended up accessing the museum's least valuable objects--the fakes.

All museums, at some point, have purchased items that, upon further research and investigation, are revealed as fakes. Hebert thinks that rather than hide these mistakes, museums should appreciate them for what they are.

"To me, these things, these fakes, have a story and are interesting in and of themselves," he says. "It's still handmade. Somebody made it and they spent a lot of time on it and did a good job on it. I'm trying to rehabilitate them by making even faker fakes. It kind of pulls all the fakeness out of it and leaves the handmadeness behind."

Standing just outside of Hebert's workstation is a tall vitrine, or diorama, depicting Gordon Matta-Clark's famed "Splitting" performance piece in which the artist literally cut a house in half with a power saw. Handmade by Hebert to reflect the same hobbyist aesthetic you might see in doll houses or model trains, when the piece is shown, it's encased in a black box with a peep hole that allows viewers to peer in at a tiny recreation of the epic event.

"This is a project that's more rooted in craft," Hebert explains. "All the artists are these sort of macho men--there are four pieces in the series so far--and they feature work from the late 60s through the 80s.... The idea came from the notion that I could have an emotional attachment to these works of art I've never seen."

Hebert's "Opaque Displays" series recreates famous "macho work" of post-minimalist artists like Robert Smithson's "The Spiral Jetty"; Chris Burden's "The Big Wheel"; and Richard Serra's "Splashing." He's currently working on another piece in the series featuring a performance piece by Australian artist Stelarc. The pieces have been shown in several shows in galleries and museums over the years.

"These were sort of the bad boys getting outside of the institution and now you experience them inside the institution," Hebert says of the series. "There's a lot of tension in that to me."

Hebert says he likes piecing the performances together by looking at photos of the events, watching videos, reading descriptions and even using resources like Google street view to examine the environment where the event took place so he can more closely represent it.

"That's part of the fun for me," he says. "You're kind of making some of it up, but making the most educated guess you can before you do."

Hebert is aware of the inherent insider-art inaccessibility of the pieces, but he hopes even those who know nothing of the artists are able to appreciate either the hobbyist aesthetic of the work, the macho nature of the craft or even just the simple fact that the pieces move.

Even Hebert's functional furniture pieces ask viewers to take a stab at understanding their conceptual leanings. In "Petri Table," he has built a stunning coffee table, but on top of the table are little robotic critters. The solar-powered robots scurry when exposed to sun and stop when they hit shade.

"They collect under things you put on the table--like bugs under a rock--so there's this push and pull between the user and the thing," he says.

People tend to project psychological states onto inanimate objects that move on their own accord. Hebert likes that aspect of his furniture, but he admits that, while people are entertained and intrigued by the pieces, they often say they wouldn't know what, exactly, to do with robotic furniture.

"It is functional as a piece of furniture," he says. "But also simultaneously undermining all of your expectations about what it should do. And it's also offering this other thing-changing your conception of the space around you."

As a member of the respected San Diego Allied Craftsmen, Hebert is currently working on more straight-forwardly craft pieces for an upcoming show next year at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park. They'll likely be intricately carved and fabricated through the use of the CNC Wood router at his school, though, showing off the intricacies only a machine can achieve when guided by someone with a good idea.

Hebert has a collection of quirky one-off pieces, too. Yet even in those works, one can clearly see the single thread that runs through all of the various iterations of Hebert's creativity--his interesting use of technology to further push, bend and blur the boundaries of both art and craft.

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