Alphabet Aerobics


30 March 2016

Upon graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2012, designer Anton Alvarez dedicated three years to developing his graduate project the Thread Wrapping Machine, a tool that binds pieces of wood using glue-soaked yarn. In 2015, Alvarez began designing a new machine. Working with ceramics instead of yarn, the Extruder is a new experiment in autonomous manufacturing.

“In some ways I created the Thread Wrapping Machine to be independent, a machine that didn’t have to rely on anyone else. But I noticed that the project depended on me as a physical being,” says Alvarez. “I wanted to try and develop a new project that was independent from me. I didn’t need to be producing the objects anymore, instead there could be a more autonomous way of doing it.”

Unlike the Thread Wrapping Machine, the Extruder does not require any expertise to operate; instead the machine is activated by remote control. Although Alvarez is the designer of the machine, and has therefore conceived the rough aesthetic of the ceramic sculptures that it creates, the Swedish-Chilean designer has effectively removed himself from the making process. “I am excluding myself and that can be a danger in a way; I am saying that I am no longer needed in the process of making these objects,” he says. “But I guess I am still needed in terms of the objects’ existence – in the creation of the idea and of the machine itself.”

The Extruder comprises a horizontally-positioned cylinder that is filled with clay. Powered by an electric motor, the clay is then pressed out through a series of interchangeable slides onto a disc-shaped mount that rests on a flat stainless steel surface (positioned directly underneath the cylinder). The flat surface can be raised or lowered as desired, altering the height from which the clay falls.

The sculptures that the machine produces are abstract in form. While interchangeable slides that manipulate the distribution of the clay allow for a slight amount of control, the final outcome of each piece cannot be fully determined. Each sculpture takes approximately 10 seconds to create, with the speed of production and the subsequent movement of the clay evident in the sculptures’ smooth folds. “Some people see it like an ice cream and I can see that,” says Alvarez, referencing the lever-operated confectionary machines that create perfectly formed whippy ice creams. “It is like an ice cream machine pushing out the clay.”

The Extruder is currently on display as part of Alphabet Aerobics, a solo exhibition hosted at the National Centre for Craft and Design in Lincolnshire, east England. The exhibition’s title references the rough form of each sculpture, each of which is formed using a letter-shaped mould. The use of letter-shaped slides stems from Alvarez's desire to limit the possibilities of each sculpture’s form. “There is both a luxury and a difficulty in creating a piece when there are endless options as to how they could look like,” he says. “It allowed me to narrow down the possibilities.”

The exhibition has been designed to emphasise the near-autonomous nature of the machine with all the sculptures on display being produced by the museum’s employees. Each day the museum uses the machine to create a new sculpture and with a kiln located within the museum’s premises, the production of the sculptures featured in the exhibition will be based entirely on-site.

This decision to base all production at the museum is partly a pragmatic one. “When I was looking at the budget for the project I made some applications for funding,” explains Alvarez. “For each application I had to detail the full budget of the exhibition so they could see where the money was going and I could see that a big portion of the exhibition costs goes on museum staff.

“I wanted to use that part of the budget in some way. That is why, instead of producing the work in my studio with my assistants and at a much greater cost, I placed the production at the museum.”