An Instrument of Value

A computer-controlled carving machine - reprogrammed, refitted and repurposed.
Defying its intention of production to continuously draw patterns in sand.

Each geometric patten is plotted slowly, neatly, in white sand and as it completes the machine dwells for a short while, allowing viewers to appreciate and contemplate its performance but not own or collect it. Then, in decisive brush strokes, it sweeps away the sand to clear the plate for a new design, again and again. 

With this work I hope to open up the question of how technology shapes our society, and what are the cultural values that dictate the direction in which technology evolves. Can we imagine a world in which meditation and presence are not at odds with technological progress? How could a meditating robot inspire us to imagine such a future?

The piece is made of a repurposed X-Carve CNC machine, used typically as an automated carving machine, custom software I wrote to generate vector mandalas as SVGs and convert them into G-Code, that can then be plotted by the X-Carve. 

To extrude the sand I used an Arduino micro controller to identify signals from the X-Carve's controller that are meant to activate a drill. These signals turned a custom-built funnel I built out of brass on and off, letting sand out at a constant rate.

We make technology in our image, an extension of our bodies and senses. In return, technology, through automation and mechanisation, shapes human society. But as some aspects of human function, such as production and association, are accelerated, other parts of the human experience are diminished. This societal “tunnel vision”, driven by globalized values of production and consumption, stands at great odds with spiritual and cultural practices that place meditation, presence and impermanence at the core, rather than the periphery. 

I remembered visits to Zen temples in Japan, where I saw monks endlessly rake rock gardens and picking moss, or the dedication of Tibetan monks as they draw sand mandalas only to sweep them away upon completion. I was inspired by this contrast and conflict of values to use technology in service of meditation, true experience and presence. Using machines of production automation and reprogram them into agents of continuous practice, defying their purpose of production, focusing on the performance of a task rather than its material outcome or accomplishment. 

Bill of Materials

Hardware

  • Modified CNC mill

  • Arduino UNO

  • Custom-fabricated brass nozzle

  • 3D-printed parts

  • Servo motors

  • AxiDraw

Software

  • Paper.js

  • Node.js (with additional libraries)

  • CNC.js

  • Arduino