designer, inventor or craftsman
Anton Alvarez assumes many roles in his artistic process: engineer, inventor, tool maker, designer, and craftsman, all in an effort to design machines that break with standard notions of aesthetics.
He designs his own universe—one with big, powerful machines that he considers extensions of the human body. For Alvarez, operator and machine are catalysts in the generation of objects. Without an author controlling every detail of the creation, the object makes itself, emerging from the process with natural and self-controlled force.
Alvarez’s Extruder Machine reflects the importance placed on constant evolution in the creative process. Each piece is unique and more evolved than the last, as are the knowledge and skills of the operator. The title of each piece is its date of creation. This has to do with the importance placed on awareness of exact moment of completion, and how process and technique can determine the uniqueness and irreproducibility of every sculpture Alvarez creates.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Alvarez over the phone. Despite being the end of a hard workday, the conversation flowed easily. We spoke about how design can give an artist the power of changing context; creating unique objects through the ideation of one’s own tools; and, as the conversation went on, I realized that sometimes we should return at the beginning of things before thinking of its final form.
Interview by Gemma Peña
Gemma Peña: How did you get into object design?
Anton Alvarez: A long time ago I was studying cabinet-making to become a wood craftsman, and at the time I thought that was what I wanted to do. After that I started thinking and studying other things. I went into architecture and then I went to the Royal College of Art in London. I took different educational paths to get to where I am now.
GP: What was the first machine or tool you created?
AA: The first tool I created was actually a knife. It was the first thing we were asked to do in a cabinet-making school; a school where we learned how to make fine wood furniture. It was a piece of metal and a piece of wood and we were supposed to make our own knife. And that was the first very basic tool: how to approach a piece of wood and how to shape it into something that it wasn’t before.
Actually, I apply my product design background to the design of machines. I take the role of the designer and engineer, maybe inventor, when I’m designing my machines. And with the help of those tools I create my objects that create these sculptures or pieces or architecture.
GP: I saw that many of your projects are based on thinking about the process. And, as you said, you create your own tools and machines for making them. Why is it important for you to think about the process and methods?
AA: I think that if I create my own tools I have some sort of control over the situation, and I can hopefully create something that hasn’t been done before. If I would work with standardized tools that already exist, I might be touching on some sort of subject that is already out there. So by creating my own tools, I’m creating my own universe.
GP: You work as a designer in the creation of your machines, as an artist in the making of the pieces, and also as a craftsman for the close treatment of the matter. Is there a specialist stage that suits you best? Which stage do you like most like being in?
AA: I think I appreciate the different stages a lot as they are. In the designing of the machines, my clothes are clean and I can sit on my desk with the computer and make phone calls and work like a regular office job. But then when I go to my machine, I might be messier, there might be glue and threads all over me and that would be another kind of scenario that I also like. I appreciate them differently, the different stages of my creation.
They are completely different, almost opposite of each other, and I think that’s what I like. As a creator, artist or designer, I can also design my own context of work. If I get bored, I can create something new and change this environment. If I don’t like to sit at my desk, I can just create a process that is much more hands-on and much more physical. If I don’t like being dirty, I can create something that’s the opposite of that. So that’s what I like with my practice—that I can always change what’s around me.
GP: How did the idea of the Extruder Machine come about?
AA: Again, the very first machine or tool that I created was a knife. But the very first refined machine was The Thread Wrapping Machine (2014), which I created while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London. That machine was very much an extension of my body.
I had been experimenting a little bit with wrapping threads onto objects and joining objects with threads, but it was very time consuming. I saw that I needed a machine that could do that for me and this machine was born.
In that project I was very involved physically: I was holding the pieces and creating the process as it was happening. After a while, I got a bit bored with that, of having to do everything to make something happen, so I created the next machine: The Extruder, a ceramic press. And that machine, in the beginning, was like a rejection of the idea of me being involved. I wanted to take a step back and have other people work my tools and create my objects.
The very first time it was presented, it was put in an exhibition in England together with 2000 kilos of clay, and the staff at the museum were the ones that were supposed to operate the machine and make the objects for the exhibition. The exhibition was like three different stages, where there was the clay, the machine, and drying and the firing. All of that had to happen in the gallery room, and the staff usually sat at the desk and talked with the people. I bought them some working clothes and I asked them to build the exhibition themselves.
That was the contrast with the Thread Wrapping Machine, where I was the one building. The Extruder Machine was made for someone else. After that, I took it back because the result was very interesting.
GP: I can see in your art that this part of the process is based on experimentation and, as opposed to other artists who choose to hide this step, you always show it in your work. Do you think that the final result and the process have the same value?
AA: I have been taking this approach in recent years. I like to see sometimes that I did not make the object, that the object made itself, and that’s what I want them to look like.
They were not interacting with a human being or with me—they came out like a natural force. And why I like that is because if I make a sketch or if I make a plan of what something would look like, it’s almost like it already exists and I don’t see the interest in making it. The element of surprise is the biggest joy in my work. I want to surprise myself, and that usually happens in the process of making or the process of creation.
GP: The Extruder Machine makes me ponder the distance that this causes between man and matter. Using a machine for shaping the material, in comparison to how the ancient craftsmen used to work, removes any direct contact with the craftsman’s hand. What’s your take on this contemporary discourse between man and machine?
AA: Sometimes my machines might be something far from a human, but they can also be an extension of a human being—a repetitive movement, like the rotation of the machine in the Thread Wrapping Machine. Then it’s something that basically could be done by a human being but it would take a very long time. So my machines can be sometimes a little bit artificial, but they are also very much like an extension of myself into a stronger, faste, or bigger version of what I could do with my hands.
GP: I saw in some videos that you can remotely control the distance, the force, and the speed of the machine. So, an operator needs to be present to work the material. Do you feel connected with the material without having a direct hand in it?
AA: I put something inside of the machine and it comes out differently than I thought it would, and that is a part of my work that I like. Like I said before, the machine is like an extension of my body, and the materials which are processed in this machine will change it to something else.
GP: Every piece that you create with the Extruder Machine is completely different from the next one. Was the uniqueness and originality of each piece a decisive factor when designing the machine?
AA: It’s very important for me that all the pieces that come out are unique. It’s pretty hard to repeat a piece exactly the same way. Because of that, the title of each piece is its date of creation. So, if a piece were made on the 23rd of January 2019, at 11:01, that is the title of the piece. It’s a number that says when it was made. That way, each piece is like an evolution of the previous one, so I can follow how things, how my knowledge has evolved during this work in progress.
GP: This detail also speaks to the importance of process for you.
AA: Exactly. It’s like the evolution of skills because I’m operating the machine. Also, the machine and I are like catalysts for the generation of the object. And I might learn or understand a little bit about the process, and when I do that I try to add something else so that it becomes this unexpected result again.
There is something uniquely magical about Alvarez’s machines. To strike a futuristic note, they are like cybernetic enhancements of his own body. And even though he can remotely control The Extruder Machine, placing distance between himself and his creation, there is a blurring of the lines between operator and machine, between the natural and the artificial. Where does one begin and the other end?
It’s clear that Alvarez doesn’t really want to offer a definitive answer. Nor does he want to create a machine that, unlike most automated devices, creates uniformity with assembly line precision and efficiency. As he said, the element of surprise is fundamental to his work.
This impulse seems to extend to question of who creates the art: the operator or the machine? Depending on Alvarez’s whim, it could be one or the other, or both. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter, and it really is about the process of design and the air of the unexpected.
Interview by Gemma Peña