5 Questions with Hack Arts Lab’s Kent Lambert

by Sanaa Imani, UChicago Lab School Junior

Photo courtesy UChicago Alumni Association.

Photo courtesy UChicago Alumni Association.

In the heart of the Media Arts Data and Design (MADD) Center in the John Crerar Library is a glass-enclosed, makerspace-style workshop called the Hack Arts Lab (HAL). Designed to support a breadth of activity from undergraduate projects to faculty-led exploration, HAL provides an open-access laboratory for creative digital fabrication and visualization. Outfitted with 3-D printers, a laser cutter, advanced graphics, and microcontroller workbenches, the lab supports the curricular needs of courses as well as self-directed projects of UChicago students, faculty, and staff. 

“HAL is meant to be a space that can be used by all sorts of different people for all sorts of different projects,” says Kent Lambert, assistant director of HAL. “Part of the experiment is seeing what happens if you have people coming in with different objectives working in the same space. Are there collaborations that will happen? Can artists be influenced by scientific processes, and vice versa?” 

UChicago Arts sat down with Lambert to talk about the lab’s new home in MADD, its impact on the UChicago community, and more.

UChicago Arts: For those who aren’t familiar, what is the Hack Arts Lab (HAL)?

Kent Lambert: HAL was founded by Department of Visual Arts (DoVA) faculty member Jason Salavon about seven years ago as a resource for the intersection of engineering and science technology with art making. Jason’s artwork intersects with data, fabrication, and very high-tech tools, so he is particularly interested in using cutting-edge technology. 

Up until the opening of the MADD Center in spring 2019, HAL was run out of the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation Media Center at the Logan Center for the Arts. I worked as one of the managers of the center for many years, supervising a satellite staff of students who ran it. It’s meant to be a space for anyone who is University-affiliated, and while it has arts in its name, and was intended to support fabrication tools in an artistic context, it's not exclusive to that. For example, when HAL was located in the Searle Chemistry Laboratory, there were a lot of people who used these tools who were doing it expressly for medical or scientific purposes.

UCA: What demand was HAL originally designed to fill? How does it do so?

KL: HAL was intended to take tools that were primarily associated with engineering or product development and address them to art students. We have done orientations for classes with Jason and some other DoVA faculty where they have brought an art class over for a session. If they had critiques or final projects coming up, they had the option to expand on painting, drawing, and sculpture using these tools to make artwork. It’s always been open-ended; in its past life, when people would come to HAL, they would spend one class out of ten here and a small percentage of students would decide that they wanted to laser cut something for their final piece. 

I think HAL fulfilled its purpose in the past, but now there’s just much more available in our new space. The main purpose was to introduce the interaction of computer design with physical fabrication, and to build out those resources on campus. There are other schools with makerspaces as part of the arts, but I think HAL was a first on for UChicago. We’re very much about the intersection where computer science meets art making, and in this case, game development and design. 

Spaces like this should exist on a college campus where people are being challenged to think critically, generate ideas, and advance debate, inquiry, thought, and practice around different issues.
— Kent Lambert, Assistant Director of HAL
Students working in HAL. Photo courtesy UChicago Alumni Association.

Students working in HAL. Photo courtesy UChicago Alumni Association.

UCA: What purpose do makerspaces and other similar facilities have in a community? 

 KL: There are tremendous possibilities for all kinds of problem-solving using the tools that are at HAL. Art in different forms is crucial to the functioning of society and an outlet for addressing pressing societal needs, so having tools that can take an idea and manifest it as a physical object can have tremendous value in an artmaking and a scientific or medical context. 

On one level, people look at something like a 3D printer and think, “You're just making a bunch of plastic junk,” which in some cases isn't a completely inaccurate description. However, we can promote uses where something that seems like “junk” can be used as a piece in a board game or tabletop game. That game may attempt to take an issue like voter suppression or a matter of political urgency and find a way to talk and think about it, increasing empathy. Another example is that there's someone who works at the medical center who’s using our 3D printers to prototype a device that will be used during heart surgery. There're people who are creating things that may very well save lives. 

There's lots of ways a makerspace can be used to serve an artistic purpose, whether it’s to make work exhibited in a gallery to provoke debate and thought, and also through being part of a functional object. Spaces like this should exist on a college campus where people are being challenged to think critically, generate ideas, and advance debate, inquiry, thought, and practice around different issues. 

UCA: What surprises have you experienced during your time at HAL?

KL: From this quarter, we realized that we need to be open more hours, especially because there's a demand for these tools outside of coursework. We want to make our resources available for more than a few classes that are using the space for ten weeks—like those who want to come here, relax, and do a creative project that’s completely separate from their major or their coursework. 

HAL is a relatively small space that has fewer hours than the MADD Center at large, and during our first quarter in operation, we had at least three different classes who were using the tools in HAL. One was about human-computer interaction (HCI) and part of the MADD minor, based in the computer science department; it focused on wearable technology. Simultaneously, Jason was teaching an art class called “Data Algorithms and Art,” in which students used data sets to make work that could be of interest in an art world context. Both classes were using tools at the same time—the art class had a critique coming up while the HCI class had an assignment due. The HCI class assignment involved specific criteria and required them to use a laser cutter, while the art class assignment was more loosely organized, and students could try the laser cutter or 3D printers. There was some jostling for tools, particularly the laser cutter, because of the difference in projects, which highlighted some challenges in resource sharing.

Lambert shows students how to use a 3-D printer in HAL. Photo by Robert Mitchum.

Lambert shows students how to use a 3-D printer in HAL. Photo by Robert Mitchum.

UCA: Are there any projects you’ve been particularly passionate about?

KL: One thing I’ve noticed at HAL is that there's something different about an object, message, or text that's etched into wood rather than a piece of paper, or even a sticker. There's this notion that you've created an object that has more value and impact than a flyer that's handed out. Someone might keep it forever because it has more literal and symbolic weight than something ephemeral, like an Instagram post. 

As for projects, the art class I mention started with the idea of etching something into a potato, and our staff had to point out that the laser needs a flat surface, not curved, because that's a limitation of the machine. The students had to rethink their idea on the fly. They ended up slicing their potato, etching the Gucci symbol into it, and putting it into a Ziploc bag and hanging it on the wall. I loved the piece. I wasn’t able to be at the critique, but I think it’s an artistic move to take a symbol associated with fashion and celebrity culture, etch it onto a potato—something that starts to turn brown and look disgusting—and then put it in a Ziploc bag, hang it on the wall, and call it art. 

The Hack Arts Lab is located in the Media Arts, Data, and Design (MADD) Center on the first floor of John Crerar Library, 5730 S. Ellis Ave. It’s open Monday–Friday from 9am–4pm.


Initiated by Jason Salavon, associate professor in the Department of Visual Artsand the Computation Institute, and managed by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation Media Center, the lab is generously supported by the Computation Institute, the Logan Center for the Arts, the Institute for Molecular Engineering, the Office of the Vice President for Research and National LaboratoriesIT Services, and the Division of the Humanities.