Jonathan Odom​

Jonathan Odom is from Louisiana but live and works in the Bay Area with his artist- wife Clare Szydlowski. (Who we interviewed in Spring 2015) Jonathan attended Venison Camp, our adult camp for art professionals. It was during his Labs session (like Critiques) that we got to talking about world building, the sci-fi, and what his many futuristic inventions have in common.

I discovered your work through interviewing your wife Clare Szydlowski, who was our cover artist back in Spring 2015. How has your relationship with Clare fueled or altered your art making?

Our relationship has fueled both of our art practices a great deal since we first met. Clare had been making these 3D packages by hand, and I introduced her to Adobe Illustrator and laser cutting. I had just spent more than a year designing the Memorette, but hadn’t gotten around to actually fabricating the thing yet- her first birthday present to me was a Techshop membership, which was just the motivation I needed to make it happen.

Since we’ve been together, we’re constantly discussing each other’s work. She’s got the MFA, and I’d be lost when it comes to the discourse if it wasn’t for her. I’ve got the maker chops and software skills, so I’m always there to help her bring her ideas to fruition in ways that probably wouldn’t have occurred to her. I think it’s safe to say we help each other develop a great deal.

More recently, Clare has been schooling me on bringing some femininity into my work. With her help, I’m slowly letting go of my chromophobia.

The first thing Clare told me about you was about your unique childhood. Can you share with us, a bit about your upbringing?

I was homeschooled in rural Louisiana, along with my brother and two sisters, about 20 miles from Baton Rouge. My parents were very hands-off with me especially, so I had a lot of time to do whatever I wanted. Even when it came to school work, things were much more project-based than textbook-based.

I remember once when I was around 12, my mom and my best friend’s mom gave us a month-long break from all our other subjects to make a sci-fi movie. We made costumes and props, figured out camera tricks and special effects, and edited the footage by painstakingly hitting STOP and RECORD on a VCR.

My social life centered exclusively around a large, fairly radical evangelical church. We firmly believed that the world was going to end in our lifetime, and everything that happened in the world had a spiritual cause and / or consequence. People prayed in tongues and went into fits of hysteria every sunday morning. It’s hard for every kid to tell the difference between real life and make-believe, and it should go without saying that this is infinitely harder when the grownups in your life can’t tell the difference either.

I was sure that the Rapture would come at any moment and I’d be left behind, so I got used to the idea that I’d be on my own and would have to figure out how to get by. I think this attitude persists in my adult life- It’s been easier for me to take unusual career paths and make risky decisions without second-guessing myself too much.

Yes, you’ve had a good amount of unique and creative jobs you had throughout the years. How did you find yourself working at Instructables?One of the advantages of being home-schooled was that I was able to work part-time at my cousin’s audio electronics hardware startup when I was 13. I learned a lot about electronics, manufacturing, and making in general from that. That job started a chain reaction of switching majors, dropping out of school, doing animatronics in the film industry, going back to school for architecture, doing media art in a band, etc.

I hated working in the architecture field, so I kept doing my own projects on the side. The Memorette was one of a dozen or so digital fabrication projects that helped convince the AIR program at Autodesk to give me a residency in 2014. About 3 weeks into my residency there was an opening in the Design Studio at Instructables (basically a permanent salaried residency) and I jumped on it. They hired me and I never looked back.

How do you think the environment at Instructables has influenced your projects?

The Pier 9 Workshop is a crazy, magical place. It’s full of intimidatingly smart people who also happen to be generally very kind and humble- a rare combination as we all know.

​On a daily basis I get to see the most creative uses of cutting-edge technology from a wide variety of disciplines. There are fashion designers, architects, sculptors, painters, and a variety of other creators who are hard to categorize. Everyone there brings their own point of view and skill set into the space and works with software and machines that have either just been invented or have been exclusively used by NASA until now. It’s hard not to get inspired and borrow good ideas in an environment like that.

The other thing I’ve picked up at Pier 9 is a sense of playfulness. There’s a lot of whimsey there. There are always very serious artists and designers coming through the AIR program, but the Instructables community creates a culture of mischief that’s really refreshing. For every high-brow study of digitally fabricated tectonics in furniture, there’s a Teddy Bear Lamp.

It’s hard to take yourself too seriously at Instructables. Charles and Ray Eames famously took play very seriously, and I think being at Instructables is helping me to see my work that way too.

Let’s talk about Open Source! I think this is such a beautiful aspect of your work. It remind me of Sol LeWitt with his instructions for paintings. Your Ratchet Strap Chairs were just made and exhibited at Socrates Sculpture Park in NYC. What excites you about open source sculptures?

Sol LeWitt’s instruction projects are a good comparison in that they result in variation within certain parameters. At Instructables, I make what is essentially a prototype for a product and rarely go into a second or third iteration to work out the details. I document these prototypes, providing instructions, 3D files, and templates so that people can make them exactly as I did.

Everyone tweaks the project to fit their tools, their skills, their materials, and their taste, and the result is always something unique. It’s incredibly satisfying to see someone take the time to make one of your projects, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which people make their projects their own.

​The Ratchet Strap Chairs at the Socrates Sculpture Park are a great example of this. When I designed the chair, I made the seat about an inch too long, so it wasn’t very comfortable for anyone shorter than about 6’-1”. The people at Socrates worked with a local fabricator to make the seat a bit shorter. They also tweaked the shape of the chair a bit to make it (in my opinion) more graceful. The best tweak of all was painting the chairs- they came up with an awesome complementary color scheme that highlighted the different parts of the chair.I think the most interesting thing about open-source work is that it gives the work a kind of autonomy. It downplays authorship because, as we can see, anyone can make it. In a way, I think it makes work more self-evident. The idea behind the work becomes more clear when you see it manifest in different ways through different makers.

In design, you’re always asking what can be added or taken away without it being a different project. Open source lets you truly explore that, and other people do the work for you!

In your opinion, is there any difference between art and design when it’s taken into the open source context? Where does “ownership” lie? 

I think when it comes to the established art world, ownership (maybe authorship is a better word) belongs to the person who had the idea. This is why we attribute Jeff Koons’ and Anish Kapoor’s large-scale sculptures to the artists and don’t even know the names of the people that built them. I would assume that the technical skills of both of these artists is limited to a vague idea of the feasibility of their vision with the available materials– and why would they have any more knowledge than that? When you’re at that level, you pay consultants to do the dirty work.

The same can be said about the professional design world. We attribute the iPhone to Jonny Ive and the Braun Transistor Radio to Dieter Rams. Industrial designers and architects make drawings, models, and instructions, but someone else makes the objects and buildings.

The new paradigm of open source / DIY has a different set of parameters. I can’t afford to pay consultants to do my work for me, so I use 3D modeling software, 3D printers, and CNC machines to lighten the load and lessen the time. This means I’m making the finished product in its entirety by myself (albeit with a little help from a few robots).

As a result, sharing the work (especially using the Instructables format) means sharing everything someone with the requisite skills would need to make the piece. People have taken my projects, tweaked them a little bit, and put them up for sale on the web more than once, which is obviously frustrating.

This is a hit you have to take if you’re going to share your work. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that people are using their time and money to make projects that I designed. This gets back to Charles and Ray Eames again– another part of their ethos was a belief that everyone is a design and an artist, and they made an effort to design products that would bring this out in people, such as their House of Cards set.

I would much rather someone try to make their own version of my project than to look at it in its pristine form and give me all the credit. This is a radical cultural change as far as I can tell. When I was a kid, my dad was always trying to get me to patent everything I came up with– nowadays, hardly anybody thinks like that.

This makes me very curious about the future of intellectual property. It makes me wonder if the future of art and design will look a bit more like the 1960’s folk music scene, where everyone sang the same songs and no one really knew who wrote them.

Can you speak to us about your piece, Bay [Area] Windows?

I’ve been obsessed with dystopian future scenarios since I was a kid. In architecture school I was delighted to learn that lots of architects are. The work of Lebbeus Woods is a great example of the power of speculative architecture to make a statement about the current sociopolitical climate.

Being detail-oriented, I’ve tended to focus on small spaces, and being a child of the 80’s / 90’s I tend to think in terms of consumerism and commodification. This project explores living in small spaces, architecture as consumer product, dystopian futurism, and cultural critique all at once.

It’s no secret that housing costs have skyrocketed in San Francisco caused by a cocktail of causes ranging from foreign investors snapping up all the real estate, income inequality, renters and homeowners alike shutting down new construction, etc.

People already subdivide the only shared spaces in their apartments to ease the burden of rent, and people are even living in wooden boxes in apartment living rooms. The only place left to go is through the windows.

These Bay [Area] Windows allow even more relief for outrageous rent costs. They’re a kind of parasitic growth on the faces of these cute victorian townhouses where the renter crawls through the window and sleeps suspended over the street. They’ve got the added benefit of having windows and skylights, which are already a luxury for some renters.

The visibility of these parasites is a critique of our aesthetic sensibilities. We want these neighborhoods to look just like they did in the 1890’s because we’re nostalgic for an idealized past, but they’re no longer relevant or fit for purpose.

Tell me about how you got involved in creating Ungloo for the California Biennial’s Hugh Desert Test Sites? 

It was part of a studio course at SCI-Arc taught by Stephanie Smith. Each student was to design and build an off-grid living prototype, assemble it on a site in Joshua Tree, and present it as part of the 2008 California Biennial’s High Desert Test Sites.

My project was called the Ungloo (like igloo, but you’re unglued because you’re off the grid- get it?). The studio brief called for a semi-portable off-grid living system for a community of surfers. I based the form on the Buckminster Fuller Geodesic Dome which is the pinnacle of efficiency (least material for most space), but I tweaked it to be more empathetic to the human body.

I framed the project as though it were a family of products that included a shower / bathroom, a kitchen, and a sleeping unit. I was exploring the idea of living comfortably in small spaces, which I see as a way to reduce waste with the added benefit of avoiding the kafkaesque bureaucracy of building codes.

I would like to talk about your theory and concepts that connect the pieces you have at The Compound for Laserbeam Technomania. What do you have there and what inspired this work?

The pieces in that show all center around a very important concept for me, maybe the most important: a personal relationship with technology. At SCI-Arc I took a philosophy of technology course by  Wes Jones, and most of it focused on a work by Martin Heidegger called The Question Concerning Technology. It’s incredibly dense and I probably only grasp it on a surface level, but what I got from it is this: technology and humanity are intertwined, and our relationship to technology has dramatically changed with the industrial revolution. We no longer understand it.

In ancient Greece, for example, technology consisted of fabric, clay pots, bronze swords, etc. Humans depended on and were surrounded by technology, but everything was easily understood. You knew how that clay pot was made, you knew the guy who made it, you knew the part in the river where the right clay could be found, etc. ​

Nowadays, we’re almost completely divorced from the process of making. I don’t really understand how my smart phone works, and I most certainly couldn’t make one. I want to reconnect people with manmade objects without discarding all of these awesome new tools that make my life so much easier, and that make my work so much more precise and manageable.The pieces in the Laserbeam Technomania! show are all attempts at breaking down that barrier between a slick, polished product and hands-on making.

The Memorette is a custom film playing device that takes interchangeable film cassettes. The cassettes contain music boxes that function like a player piano: holes punched in the film strip trigger tines that make the music box sound, and a sequence of frames are printed in sequence with the music. This project brings ephemeral media art into the physical world, and the transparent plastic construction exposes the inner-workings of the machine.

The Split Flap Display is another object that performs a sophisticated task (text and animation) by obvious mechanical means. You push a big arcade button and a gear turns a wheel with a series of flaps on it. There are three text positions that allow you to communicate in 3-letter abbreviations (LOL, BRB, WTF, ETC) while the 4th position is a cat video animated with a stop-motion effect (it’s actually the first ever cat video- a photo motion study by Eadweard Muybridge).

The XYZen Garden was also included in this show. This is my favorite piece and, I think, the best example of the concept I’m working with. It’s basically a zen garden that works like an Etch-A-Sketch. I think this project is the most successful of the series. It doesn’t rely on electronics like the other two, so there’s a direction connection between your hands and the movement of the machine. The concept of zen meditation, insofar as I grasp it, has to do with reaching enlightenment through participating in a mundane activity. This machine demands your focus, nothing about it is hidden or mysterious, and its laser cutter fabrication is unmistakeable.

Your work walks the line between art and design, architecture and environments. As I go from one project, Bay [Area] Windows to the  Driftwood Lamp, to Ungloo I see a theme emerging. Back in March when I got to sit in our your Venison Labs session. I saw this world emerging in which you act as the sci-fi futuristic inventor/ problem solver for our growing contemporary problems. How has your contextualization of your work developed since we first spoke about world building?

Here’s my distilled understanding: the best artists focus on posing questions and offering critiques, and the best designers solve problems. Ultimately, the best artists and designers achieve these goals while making beautiful things.

If I imagine a possible future or alternate present (an artist’s critique), I can then put on my designer hat and dive into the details.

That Venison Labs session gave me a new perspective- world making allows me to be an artist and a designer at the same time.

Has this brought you to working on any new projects?

We discussed the driftwood lamp project during the Venison Labs discussion. The big idea gets back to the relationship between nature, technology, and human agency. I approached this project as a designer, which I’ve come to realize isn’t the best expression of this idea.

I 3D-scanned some driftwood, making a more or less exact copy of it in the 3D modeling environment. I used this model to design some fitting parts that would leave the driftwood untouched– a kind of high-tech interface with a natural object. After spending a lot of time with it and coming up with lots of iterations, I realized that the practical concerns that come with making a functional lamp were distracting from the idea.

At this point, I’m thinking of it as a much more abstract project. I think all I’m going to do is create these high-tech joints that connect the pieces of driftwood to each other. I’m re-making the tree in a sense.

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