Artist Focus: Tina Aufiero

    One of my favorite things about the Max community is how diverse and interdisciplinary it is. Pick just about any medium or practice and you’ll find a Maxer in one of its corners. Today I’m happy to introduce you to Tina Aufiero. For the past six years, Tina Aufiero has been the Artistic Director at the remarkable gem of an institution called Pilchuck Glass School. Established in 1971 by Dale Chihuly, Pilchuck is a destination for glass designers and artists in every corner of the world to learn, share, and build community. As a new media and glass artist and veteran educator, Tina has fostered a unique culture at Pilchuck by blending these worlds through curriculum design and careful curation of the Artist in Residency (AiR) program.
    In 2016, I was honored to participate in the AiR program with my NoiseFold collaborator, David Stout. We had no prior experience in glass and weren’t quite sure why we had been invited. But Tina knew what she was doing. The three-week session ended up being one of the most creatively engaging, demanding, inspiring and transformative experiences of my life. The community of artists and educators was vibrant and engaged and there was a culture of open sharing of techniques and ideas. I emerged with a revitalized sense of creative possibility and wonder.
    A couple of weeks ago, Tina announced she was stepping down as Artistic Director and I had a chance to talk with her about her background in Max and her time at Pilchuck.
    Hi Tina, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Can you just talk to us a little bit about how you got interested in Max?
    I was introduced to Max because of my proximity to artists using it at Parsons School of Design. What was going on in my work was that I was trying to embed video into objects, into sculptures, and so I was using video editing and Director as a tool, and trying to use sensors and interactivity that would activate the video. I was having so much trouble with the video part, and everyone kept saying, "You've got to go to Max/MSP/Jitter, because you'll have a lot more control over what you're trying to accomplish with your videos." I was trying to really mediate the video, change it, and I was very limited.
    I was teaching at Parsons School of Design at the time and the internet was at its beginning, and I was really influenced by all the designers and artists who were my peers at Parsons in the Department of Design Technology. I became very interested in the idea that I could activate my forms or the space that they sat in. I was interested in this notion of interaction. I kept thinking about what's that like when you apply it to sculpture.
    Then the concept of feedback was really intriguing to me, because I hadn't really thought about that as an option for making a three-dimensional form in space and what that does for the viewer. If I use interaction in my work and there's some sort of feedback, I can surprise my viewer or invite them into the piece or inform them or entertain them about something I want to express or talk about. I got really interested in physical computing and sensors, and that led me to Max/MSP/Jitter. Jitter particularly was presented to me as software I needed to learn to apply my ideas to the imagery and how I wanted to use it. Because I had this history with glass as a material and when I was first making my physical projects when I was exploring Jitter and Max and computers, I wanted to see how the material glass could be used not only as a material to project at, but also a filter. So I started to take sensors and put them behind - like distance sensors, proximity sensors - and tried different kinds of glass, whether it was cast glass or a blown ring of glass, to see how that affected the information coming through the sensor and then into Max [...] to affect the images that might be displayed.
    Thrust (2013) Tina Aufiero. Slipcast ceramic forms with LEDs
    Then, I also then moved on to sound, so that if you walked near an object, you'd get either some sort of quacking or some sort of sound coming back at you, or chirping. I could take the content of what I was interested in in my artwork and then sort of mediate it through Jitter and Max to get the sound or the visuals that I wanted. That's really how I got to the material.
    Chirp (2011) Tina Aufiero. Glass egg with speaker and electronics
    So that interaction you had at Parsons with other disciplines kind of set the stage for your approach at Pilchuck.
    When I was invited to be the artistic director, one of the greatest pleasures of being an artistic director at Pilchuck Glass School is that you set the tone of what artistically you want to explore as artistic director. It's kind of multifold. I had to acknowledge the history of glass and the studio glass movement and sort of the traditional ways of working, but I wanted to have a little bit of R&D for myself as well. I was curious to see, because I'm in no way a master of knowing how to use code, what would happen if I brought artists such as and you David to the school who use code as a medium.
    Through [the visiting artist’s] artmaking, I got to learn about all the different ways that glass and technology can pair up and create different kinds of outputs. That was really a pleasure for me, and I got to do it in different ways with different artists over the years I did this program. That was really important for me also, to show Pilchuckers, to show artists that use glass as a material - whether it's in craft or design or fine arts - that there's these other disciplines out there that we can work with or collaborate with to expand the possibilities of what we want to talk about as artists. That was really important to me because Pilchuck was a little bit behind the curve when I came in. Or what I felt was behind the curve, coming from New York and Parsons, which was pro-technology and at the forefront of it in some ways in its curriculum. So [...] I wanted to get it up to speed with the technology of the 21st century because so many artists are trying to use it, are using it. It's ubiquitous at this time period, so I thought it would be a great moment for Pilchuck to explore it and all the possibilities.
    Detail from Happiness (2018) Tina Aufiero, Cast glass
    Over the 6 years you have been there, have you noticed a significant change in the culture at Pilchuck and the people who are coming to work there?
    Yeah, I think we really attract right-out-of-college students. That is our biggest demographic, around 27 to 35 years old. These young artists, they're all coming now with a certain knowledge of what a microchip is, how to maybe write some code. So it's a very different student than there was even 12 years ago at Pilchuck, very different. It's ripe for this sort of the synergy because there's not a fear of technology from the more maker side of artists who are more in the crafts, who've often in the past felt they couldn't take on technology and learn something complicated that required math skills and applications like that. I think we're just at a right moment where technology is ubiquitous in our lives, and it's coming into the arts in all sorts of ways now. I do think there's also a difference in how fine artists - when they choose to use data - how they apply it in physical manifestations as information to inform the form, shape, design, image. That's real different than I think, again, 12 years ago or 15 years ago. I think that's part of the interest as well these days.
    Michael Saruko sonifying a glass vessel (photo courtesy of Pilchuck Glass School)
    I think that in part the term "new media" came about because of that discomfort with using newer technologies. So at this point it maybe the category doesn't quite have the utility that it used to. Many people may not immediately see how glass connects to the world of art and technology, a connection that you have explored both as artist and pedagog. What is new media to you? And how does it function at Pilchuck?
    Yeah, we kind of all accept it, like of course it’s new media now, you know? For me, new media is the paradigm of how technologies, and computers affect the material output or the aural output or the visual output for an artist. Steina and Woody Vasulka, they're like my heroes. What I was really interested in with new media is artists like them, and you and David. You come to using computers as the medium. It is your medium and that is your mediating element. And so what happens when you take that and you take another sort of more physical thing like glass, and you smash those together? Then what do you guys create? That's been what's really been exciting for me and the artists that I've invited that use computers technology, interaction, code, to make things, microcontrollers, is that how they each came to the material glass with their knowledge of their methodology of how they operated in their practice. And then each artisan approaches it uniquely and differently, and the outputs, and the realizations of work are very different, and I think really exciting and unique for the students at Pilchuck. They get to see then this more complex relationship between ideas and forms and how artists get that to happen. Or how they mediate the materials through a number of things. I think that's what's been really exciting for Pilchuckers is to see this physical output coming through a computer that maybe they would never have thought of using as an intermediate for creating content or an object, or creating context for their piece.
    Pilchuck in extruded clay (photo courtesy of Pilchuck Glass School)
    That, I think, I could bring to Pilchuck in a way that hadn't been there before. That's the pleasure of Artistic Director is that you get to bring in your vision and use, particularly the artist in residence program, to show the outside world what your vision is for the curriculum of the school. I could bring in artists in residence, see how they interacted with glass, then create a course that students could come back to and experience what they found out about as artists in residence. That's been really fruitful, I think, for Pilchuck as well.
    One of the biggest takeaways for me was that everywhere I went there was an openness to sharing techniques and exploring new ideas. Coming from the world of academic new media, where ideas are often held close to the chest, this was as surprising as it was inspiring. Is this a byproduct of the collaborative nature of the glass medium, or have you, as Artistic Director, fostered this in the community? For me, entering technology was just so similar to the hot shop. If I was working on something in the lab and I didn't know how to do it, I would turn usually turn to students who knew more than I did about coding or things, because I was just learning. And they'd share knowledge with me. That was so familiar to me, I could fall right into it because I was so used to working in glass shops where people need each other to make things happen. You see it very much in hot glass making because you need a team of people. Not everybody does. It's not absolute, but most people will work with a team so that they can execute their work, and use the people around them that have the best skills.
    When you're working with designers and artists who are working with technology, they also understand this idea that a team creates sometimes a better event, or a better visual, or sound, or performance. Or you have multiple people doing different things. Somebody might be working on the code while somebody's working on the output. Or you have people working with dancers, like Bob (Robert Campbell), and they know it’s the team that is putting together these ideas. For me learning technology has always just been a very synonymous experience to how I learned how to learn in working with glass. So, that was easy.
    Pilchuck, in particular though - it's inherent, the openness that you talk about, that you took away. It's one of the cornerstones of Pilchuck. It really comes down from the vision of Dale Chihuly when he started the school and created the artists in residence program in a very informal way at first, because Dale would always bring in artists, designers, architects, thinkers from all kinds of disciplines to share with the students blowing glass and experiment with them on different ideas. I think that legacy of Dale's is still very current at Pilchuck and it moved into the more formal artist in residence program. But the idea in that program is to invite artists, thinkers, designers that don't know the material of glass to see what the artists, see what we can all learn from that experience. Bringing in outliers into a material that they might not have access to.
    Yeah, as a glass outsider it was remarkable to me that there was so much willingness and excitement to bring David and me into the dialog and process. And the whole process of making the objects was so collaborative.
    Yeah. I think it's really unsettling for a lot of creative people at first. A lot of people are used to working alone for a lot of their practice, and then maybe pairing up with people or getting it out to the gallery or to an event, or something, or to a performance. It is definitely unique. And I think it is unique to the glass world, particularly because places like Pilchuck started almost 50 years ago, and it's now become ... of course there are artists that use glass that don't share their ideas and their techniques. But in general, it's a community of artists that is used to this because that's how it advances the field for itself and for others. I think that's really helping glass move, and I guess move into the fine arts.
    Being very young when I started using glass, it was always interesting to me how people categorized crafts, glass, art, fine arts, but I think glass is really one of these hub materials that so many disciplines can come to and use. I think that's one of the goals at Pilchuck, is just to really have a space for that kind of creative research for the material. I think that's what the program does best, is keeps pushing glass into areas that it hasn't been or the new ways of using it.
    Hot casting in CNC milled graphite - Fred Kahl (photo courtesy of Pilchuck Glass School)
    When you started working with glass, how did you navigate that tension between this idea of craft glass versus fine art glass? I think I had my foot in a little bit of each for a while. Yeah. I think I had a multidisciplinary life. As a fine artist, I used it one way, but then the opportunity to create design and then have it produced, and then also have it be a form of income was another way to apply it. Then as an educator, again, to teach it and learn it as I'm teaching it because there wasn't a lot of people ... There aren't books you could go to in the early '80's and even still there probably isn't. I think again, I compartmentalized how I used the material and how my practice approached it.
    I think that's probably why someone like me can become artistic director at Pilchuck as well, because I'm not just a studio artist, and because I've been so passionate about learning and educating others. I've always been in areas where there's a lot of learning going on, where people are figuring things out, and I think I really like that energy of the experience and that sense of when someone is discovering something new. To watch artists in residence get excited over using glass as a material, that's so exciting for everybody because it's a new way of looking. It's a new way of seeing and experiencing not only the material, but also you get to be a viewer of someone's practice, going down a new path.
    Yeah, it was very exciting to experience! That process as an artist felt very natural and semi-automatic for me during my residency. The breadth of artists, instructors and subjects led to a very plural view of the medium in a very digestible way. I have a feeling that there was a lot of thought and social engineering put into facilitating the structure and culture that made it possible. Can you talk a little bit about how you structure sessions at Pilchuck to create that kind of an experience?
    There is a lot that goes into it. It's kind of like weaving together ways artists are working, personalities of the artists, and then this idea of giving the session a theme. Now, some of this nuance goes right over the heads of people that are there, but other people pick up on it and start to see the threads. I think it's about that plurality - not that every session has a little bit of everything that you could possible do with every technique in glass - but to look at how practice and material come together in seemingly similar ways, but then they're different. It's very nuanced in some ways. And I think I just put that together and there's a lot of algorithmic thinking going into it. The fit of the personality, the usage of the space, who's going to back up against who, and studio space and materials. So I do try to figure out a little bit, and it's not like I'm going to try to control the outcome. I just sort of set it up and see what happens sort of thing. And sometimes it happens really well and sometimes it doesn't come together at all.
    Fred Kahl, center, using Max and Teensy to illuminate cast glass (photo courtesy of Pilchuck Glass School)
    Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask if your time as Artistic Director has changed your relationship to the glass medium?
    Yeah, it's gotten me itchy and off-center. That's part of the reason I need to step away. I’ve been watching everyone explore and make, and I got to only so far in my personal investigations. Specifically using Max in my pieces. I want to get back to making and I just can't find the time. I still have a lot of stuff I want to explore and learn. And so that's a real big reason why I'm stepping away. I mean, I'm definitely taking with me all that I got to observe through the classes and the artists and residents that I brought to Pilchuck that focused in technology. And so I'm kind of excited to get busy again for myself and not just be sort of an orb floating around Pilchuck watching everybody do the making. I want to get back into the making scheme of things.
    Next for me is really just sort of moving back into studio practice. And then yeah, taking it one day at a time and see what I can do. Have a little bit more flexibility in where I can go and what I can do. And yeah, I'm kind of interested for the first time in my life to just sort of go to the studio and make some artwork and not be sort of distracted by teaching and juggling administrative jobs.
    To find out more about Tina Aufiero and to follow her work, go to:
    Or find her on instagram at tina.aufiero.
    To learn more about Pilchuck Glass School and the AiR program, go to: