»If the Plopps simultaneously belong to the future and the past, then we might ask: how does our culture stand or operate on the axis between these two poles? Ultimately, this is why I hope work feels unstable, speculative, and immediate.« –Kai Franz
Kai Franz builds machines and sets up systems and processes in order to create his work. Plopper (Dual-Axis Precision Deposition System) is a hijacked large-format printer (plotter), which now functions as a kind of low-res 3D printer. Franz has been working with this machine since 2012. The Plopper fabricates sculptures and paintings that combine the aesthetic potential of technological production (serial nature, algorithmic language, tool manifestations) with phenomenological interests and a new form of materiality. The machine takes CAD drawings, 3D models, and/or algorithmic behaviors as input and translates these into neo-physical realities.
Some of these CAD Seeds (as Franz calls the information-based digital drawings), the artist develops himself, others are found and appropriated from virtual 3D models online. Reproduced as Plopps, in both cases, these fabricated sculptures stand in front of us as aesthetic experiments that combine computational demarcation with the will of matter.
In October 2015, artist Clement Valla visited Kai Franz in his studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island/USA. Inside the studio, we find paintings, mountains of sand, and instructions on how to execute paintings, alongside digitally fabricated artifacts and machines that fabricate art objects.
Clement Valla: When I look around in your studio, I see a lot different instances in which your work takes place. You build and program machines that fabricate objects, you work with virtual 3D models and digital drawings, you write software, and yet your studio is filled with physical sculptures and paintings. In a lot of cases it seems like you are mapping digital processes onto analog matter. What is your interest in the relationship of the digital and the analog?
Kai Franz: My work operates in-between these two realms. Usually we think of the digital and the analog as opposed. In certain ways, I am interested in bringing them closer together. The Plopper, for example, is a machine that fabricates objects based on digital drawings and information. It injects physical matter with digital information and thus translates the information into the physical realm as it produces material objects or artifacts. In that sense, the Plopper could be seen as a sort of 3D printer. But unlike 3D printing, which has a mimetic relationship between the virtual 3D models and the 3D printed results, the Plopper produces sculptures or paintings that sit somewhere halfway in-between the digital and physical. I like to think that the Plopps belong to neither, and simultaneously to both of these categories.
CV: So are you mapping digital processes onto analog matter with the Plopper?
KF: To me, that would imply that the process is somewhat linear and that there is a direct relationship between the digital information that drives the machine and the physical mediation or outcome. However, I would argue that the Plopper activates the will of matter. Ultimately, the material properties, the physical characteristics, and behaviors of matter co-author the Plopps as much as the digital information does. Let me explain the process of the machine a little bit more in detail: The digital drawings drive the machine, they are pure information that determines the tool path for the machine – they are literally food for the Plopper. The machine itself will follow this tool path in the execution process with great precision. It deposits various powder and liquid materials, such as polyurethane resin or sand, following the exact path set out by the drawing. But when released, the matter activates: The sand falls, its grain accumulates and piles, the liquid flows and sinks into the sand, gravity and the material properties take agency and infuse the raw matter with life until it comes to rest. In the end, the Plopps owe their existence as much to the numerical information that drives the machine as they do to the will of matter. The Plopper in that sense speaks both of these languages or translates back and forth between them.
CV: What do you think of 3D printing?
KF: On the one hand, I can admire its promise for an emancipation from mass-production. On the other hand, its products, still today, seem entirely deprived of any meaningful real existence. From a perspective of life in the real world, it appears as if any mass-produced object cannot help but laugh at all 3D prints. By this I mean that 3D prints as objects are entirely dumb, hollow, and disappointing. Their physical existence mimics their virtual reality as 3D models with mediocrity. In most cases, 3D prints are unsatisfactory objects. I think this has to do with the fabrication limits, such as materiality, scale, size, and resolution, but also with the production process itself, the fact that a 3D printer forces material to behave and be without voice. A 3D print will almost always merely function representationally. In this sense, the Plopper can be seen as a critique of 3D printing. Martin Beck, a Berlin-based philosopher who I met at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, addresses this in his contribution to my recently published book Serial Nature  :
»[…] The Plopper is something like the bad conscience of this formal idealism: as a 3D printer it translates the smart, trim, and generally wonderful numbers, points, lines, and algorithms into the thick, viscous, cumbersome, and opaque realm of the nexus, of matter and reality. By doing so it shows no ambition of deceit or ideology: sand and resin, gravity, surface tension, and chance produce objects that are both utterly useless and fragile. No useful commodity, no product we can be proud of, no structure we (or even our small pets) can inhabit arises. Their actuality is not one of human constructive ingenuity and creativity, but of passiveness, metabolism and digestion: compared to the ingenious grids and algorithms they owe their existence to, they appear like poorly risen, disfigured biscuits or fossilized excrements.
But the Plopps not only grind against human excitement about our grand technical ability to construct and fabricate, but also against our belief in our faculty for deep and intense sentiment. From their appearance the Plopps seemingly try to look like art, maybe like paintings or objects of abstract expressionism. These had been part of the great antithesis to the wonderful story of techné, construction, mathematics, and control: the story of the deep human power of sentiment and its artistic forms of expression and poiesis. If we want to deceive ourselves in that direction, we could see the Plopps as almost human-like, soulful inspired beings, whose handless bodies try to form gestures to tell us everything about the profundities of human life and sentiment. Yet this desire for identification is nullified by their spiritless and utterly superficial origin. Their kinship to the landmarks of human expression is itself only a very superficial one: they are the contingent product of stupid numbers, a spiritless machine (which is a pleonasm), and the physical contingencies of their surroundings.« –Martin Beck, Serial Nature 
CV: When you are making work that is both a tool and a process, how do you make these show in the work?
KF: It really depends on the work. With the Plopps for instance, I believe that you can see the process within the artifacts. The indexical marks that the machine and the process create read as traces of technological production. The tool manifestations produce computational or mechanical demarcation in the aesthetic of the Plopps: serial language, algorithmic morphology, repetition, etc. Of course this does not explain the process, but it leaves hints. In some works, this reads more clearly than in others. Therefore, I view some of the Plopps as calibration pieces, in which for example the machine or the process are clearly identifiable. You can then, for example, literally see the difference of a horizontal line versus a vertical line as a result and index of how the machine was built: On the X-axis, the deposition head of the machine moves; in the Y-axis, the bed, or ground with all the sand, moves. In each case, the outcome of the line will be entirely different because of the mechanics of the machine – here the tool visibly manifests. In other more complex works, this might be less readable to the viewer. To me, these works become total abstractions that maybe speak more to Martin’s latter point in the quote above, when the Plopps form a mirror to the observes themselves. But to go back to your questions, I usually show the works of the Plopper together with a selection of the CAD drawings that created them. The juxtaposition then allows for comparisons between the input and outcome, between drawing and Plopp, between information and matter-negotiation. Or say if someone buys a Plopp, then I will also give him or her a copy of the drawing that created the work, and maybe a photograph of the Plopper itself. I am interested in the economy of »real« and representation that this produces. I am also not opposed to exhibiting the machine next to the works that it fabricates. My only worry with that is that this dialectic might construct a certain old-fashioned and for me problematic question concerning the author of the machine. Maybe that’s why I haven’t done this yet.
In my solo exhibition at the end of my stay at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, I also included a series of videos that show the CAD drawings in motion, exposed to virtual gravity. These computer-based gravity simulations were an attempt to undermine the authority and stability of the drawing. At some point, I simply became frustrated that the CAD Seed Drawings were compositions made by a human author. Although they never followed any rules of composition per se, let us say for the purpose of expression or as an inquiry into aesthetics for their own right, the idea that the drawings preceded the Plopps unmediated bothered me. It also seemed too traditional for the Plopps to follow a logic that went from idea to sketch (drawing) to execution (making) to final result (painting or sculpture). Because of that, I started using 3D models found online and randomly computer-generated drawings to destabilize the authority of the drawings and their nature as a priori. With the gravity simulations that exposed the drawings to a virtual gravitational force, it was a similar attempt to disrupt this order. One of the videos in the show, for which I collaborated with artist Mimi Cabell, includes subtitles next to the ongoing force simulation that exposes the drawings to gravity. The subtitles in this video show a fictional conversation between two particles that inhabit the printing bed of the Plopper. Their stories are a playful account to the process of the machine.
CV: How does indexicality function in your work?
KF: Take these four algorithmic paintings, for example, that I am currently working on. To create these works I follow instructions generated by my computer. The machine literally has me perform Conway’s 1970 Game of Life. The Game of Life (an example of a cellular automaton) is a zero-player game, it is »played« (computed might actually be a more appropriate term) usually by a computer on a two-dimensional rectangular grid of cells. Each cell can be either alive or dead. The status of each cell changes each turn (also called a generation) depending on the statuses of each cell’s 8 neighbors. The system represented a revolution for the natural sciences because it introduced novel bottom-up thinking; as a result, the experiment no longer rests in the proof or disproof of a hypothesis, but rather produces effects and phenomena of emergence. Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. In the paintings, I deposit spoons full of paint in a grid onto a wooden board. Where cells come to life within the computer simulation or algorithm, I simply drop paint; where they die, the paint dries. I am interested in the aesthetic manifestations of marks that lack agency. In the context of visual art the paintings may read as abstract expressionist; in truth however, they are literally the product of the characteristics and behaviors of the paint, gravity, room temperature etc. Every drop of paint has therefore an indexical relationship with these forces, but also with the underlying algorithm that is performed. But unlike the computer simulation that creates the instructions, where cells die and come to life without further consequence, the history of the algorithm becomes important within the paintings. Initially, every drop results in a perfect circle. The more paint accumulates, however, the more each cell becomes distorted by its precursors. Ultimately, each of the four paintings will accumulate 20,228 cells or spoons of paint. Conceptually, these works relate to my work with Plopper (Dual-Axis Precision Deposition System). Both the Plopper and the new paintings investigate notions of authorship and automation as they question expression within contemporary culture, art, and art history.
KF: I recently met Eyal Weizman, who was the juror that selected me for the fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude. Eyal, familiar with my work from the application, introduced me to another person. When he described my work with the Plopper, he referred to it as »photographic sculpture.« I had never thought about the Plopps this way until then, but it is interesting to me to view it in this light because of the Plopps’ relationship to indexicality. Charles Peirce’s term »indexicality« refers to the physical correlation between the object photographed and the resulting image. If the photograph is an indexical imprint that represents what has been photographed, then the Plopps operate similarly in that they capture reality and freeze it in time. Paul Levinson emphasized the ability of photography to reflect or capture »a literal energy configuration from the real world« through a chemical process. Here, light sensitive emulsion on the photographic negative is transformed by light passing through the lens and diaphragm of a camera. Since the Plopps are three-dimensional, we could view them as photographic sculptures, as photographs with a third dimension. One difference however being that as such, the Plopps do not represent, but in fact are the object depicted. They are indexical to nothing but themselves. In this sense, the Plopps simultaneously embody the photographic subject, the negative, and the image it produces. This is why the serialized landscape of the Plopp does not function representationally but becomes a question of being. Yet temporally within the Plopps, time comes to rest. Like the photograph, they reference a moment in time, taking life out of the equation to produce a static image, which fabricates an absence while remaining real and present.
CV: It seems like you have an interest in slowing down the process. What is the role of time in your work?
KF: I am not so much interested in slowing down the process or creating endurance. However, time plays a critical role within the Plopps. Again, I am going to back to Martin’s essay where he remarks on the notion of time within the works:
»The Plopps have a strange temporality, are subject to a time lag of some kind. It seems we could either think of them as immemorially old or very futuristic. On closer examination however, their futurism is also set in future perfect tense: even in a science-fiction scenario they would already be old, left-over traces of some dead civilization.«
I am interested in this temporal displacement of the work. If the Plopps simultaneously belong to the future and the past, then we might ask: how does our culture stand or operate on the axis between these two poles? Ultimately, this is why I hope work feels unstable, speculative, and immediate
CV: How does your background as an architect influence your work?
KF: Most of my training has been in architecture. I did my undergraduate education in architecture at RWTH Aachen and ETH Zurich. This certainly influenced the way I think and work and it continues to do so. Early in my studies, I developed a great interest in computer science. As an architect who was also a programmer, I became interested in generative and computational approaches in architectural design. I wrote software and algorithms that designed buildings. To set up a system in which design decisions are made relative rather than absolute was something I was fascinated by, because it facilitates an entirely new methodology and with that challenges notions of authorship, subjectivity, and objectivity. Additionally, this brings questions of emergence into the foreground. A Fulbright fellowship gave me the opportunity to continue this inquiry in the field of fine arts while I was enrolled in an MFA graduate program at RISD in 2009. I started to engage these questions on a more fundamental and metaphysical level with my work. But it was also a rupture in the sense that the discipline and discourse was entirely new and different. On a basic level, the work was not representational anymore, but was indeed the work as it stood in front of me. I sometimes jokingly say »that’s what messed it all up.« I just could no longer be the architect I was. Of course, that change came also with both maturity and experience. After my excursion to the fine arts, I went on to study architecture in the master’s program at Princeton University. It was the perfect place because I was able to digest this estrangement in a very focused and rich community of critical thinkers. The discipline of architecture was maybe less open to the artist inside of me, than to the architect, but nonetheless, I was able to continue my practice as an artist. It is therefore no coincidence that my work with Plopper, for instance, actually started as part of my thesis in Princeton. That said I am not very interested in the horizontal relationship of art and architecture. The questions I was interested at the time were more focused on concerns of architecture. The Plopper was a critique of the way we use technology in architecture, of the underlying methodologies and certainly of what we might call the »parametric project« in architecture. The disciplinary discourse in these fields is vastly different, and I think it is crucial to engage this discourse from a disciplinary perspective in order to push and advance the discipline. I passionately believe in post-medium specificity for this reason. Still today, I can discuss the Plopps in the realm of architecture or in the context of art. The conversation however would be utterly different.
Interview by Clement Valla, a Brooklyn-based artist whose work focuses on computer-based picture-producing apparatuses, and how they transform representation and ways of seeing.
From January 28, 2016 – March 5, 2016 Kai Franz will be showing his work in a solo exhibition at ROCKELMANN& in Berlin.
EXHIBITION: KAI FRANZ, »THE PARTICLES FELL SILENT«
GALLERY: ROCKELMANN&, Berlin
OPENING: January 28, 2016, 7-10 pm
Duration: January 29 – March 05, 2016
Artist Talk: March 10, 7 – 9 pm
- Kai Franz’s book Serial Nature is available for purchase here. Link: http://www.akademie-solitude.de/en/publications/projektiv/serial-nature~no3680/
- Martin Beck’s essay DIAGRAM, GESTURE, RIDDLE, BONE — THE PLOPPER AS A PHILOSOPHICAL MACHINE can be found here. Link: http://www.download.kaifranz.de/SerialNature_MartinBeck.pdf