A FIGMENT Special on Technology and Art Featuring Ashley Newton
March 11, 2017
Something phenomenal happens when technology expands the reaches of an artist’s imagination. Ashley Newton, a San Francisco-based artist, spent her days doing market research in a cubicle before stumbling on that discovery. Newton and her business partner, Sean Stevens, were teaching a class on creating arboretums when one of the students mentioned something revolutionary: a robotic flower. Just like that, the internal gears of a maker began to turn.
“We called it Sustainable Magic, because we wanted to create something magical,” Newton smiled. Soon after opening their business in 2012, Newton and Stevens applied for 2013’s Priceless Art Festival in Belden Town, California, to create radiant mechanical flowers that amaze attendees. The team painstakingly laser-cut the delicate designs. From petals and pistils, Sustainable Magic was born.
The San Francisco Bay Area’s appreciation and support for the arts piqued Newton’s interest, promising a place for Sustainable Magic to thrive. Though some artists see the tech and art worlds in opposition to each other, Newton explains, “Tech hasn’t drawn away from the art, because ours is technological.” In creating Sustainable Magic, they knew they could foster the type of experience that inspires people to think, “what else is possible?”
Laser-cut flowers aren’t the only robotics Newton’s explored. In examining the intersection between nature and technology, the team encountered a revolutionary way to create their art: 3D printing. Sustainable Magic’s flowers transformed as the technology for them developed. Technology doesn’t replacing art—it’s for helping it evolve.
3D technology offered bountiful creative possibilities. Enchanted, they felt the technology could help them do more than just light-up a space. Newton knew that 3D could enable her art come to life, and even interact with people. This lead her to the San Francisco Market Street Festival, where winning artworks are installed along the street to encourage people to engage with the city. “I wanted to create an ECG-headset and heart-rate sensors, so the flowers could understand people’s physical state,” Newton explained. “As you continue to relax, one flower would open, and then another, and then all three.” This is the basis of Neuroflowers, a bouquet of mind-controlled flowers.
Watch her Neuroflowers come to life!
“With our art, people are participants, rather than passive observers,” Newton reflected. That’s why “it’s important to bring these flowers to more people, so they can see it is possible: you can learn it and enjoy it, too.” The duo brought their innovative and enchanting designs to events such as the “Bad Ideas Hackathon,” helping technical and non-technical types merge skills through rapid problem-solving. Ultimately, bringing robotic art to events shows people if they can imagine it, they can build it.
Laser-cutting and 3D technologies are becoming increasingly accessible to more people. “Our latest laser-cut flowers come with parts you can snap together—like a kit,” Newton said.
Both Stevens and Newton have attended FIGMENT multiple times, broadening their impact by reaching more appreciators. “In creating Sustainable Magic, we’ve built an ecosystem for other artists and makers,” Newton said. Through their workshops, they’re able to teach people the craft of laser-cutting technology.
When Newton attended FIGMENT the first time—with only fluorescent materials—people were mystified and intrigued at the same time. But for her second FIGMENT, she brought actual robotics, and “people seemed to really love it!” As soon as night fell, cloaking FIGMENT in a blanket of enigma, “people started to really notice the flowers,” dazzled by technological beauty.
Like the feeling of FIGMENT after dark, Newton and Stevens wanted to “be a venue for people to dabble in the unknown.” In creating a newfound community of “artists dedicated to the art of robotics,” Sustainable Magic has been able to turn obscure technology into breathtaking beauty. Sometimes, a flower blooms as night falls, turning the wonders of our imagination into a maker’s oasis.