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Cultivating Collaboration

Cultivating Collaboration

As a biodesigner and studio manager of RISD Co-Works, David Kim MFA 14 DM is deeply committed to principles of inclusion and interdisciplinarity.

As technology and programming manager at Co-Works, David Kim MFA 14 DM (left) helps students work with advanced equipment.

“I’m still a total science nerd,” David Kim MFA 14 DM says about leaving a career in laboratory research to earn a master’s degree at RISD and make art “at the intersection of digital media, living media and social practice.” And while he continues to read scientific journals to inform his artistic practice, it’s clear that for him working as a biodesigner and educator is fulfilling in ways that for-profit scientific research was not.

“The business of science”—where funding dictates research and too often requires ethical compromises—“is what turned me off,” says Kim, who now runs Co-Works, RISD’s interdisciplinary fabrication space. “But ironically, after I started [making art], I realized that a creative practice demands just as much research—and in ways that give me much more freedom.”

“The business of science is what turned me off. But after I started [making art], I realized that a creative practice demands just as much research—and in ways that give me much more freedom.”
David Kim MFA 14 DM

Kim found his experience in Digital + Media to be “pivotal” to developing his interdisciplinary awareness, which is now central to his role as technology and programming manager at Co-Works, where students in all disciplines make use of advanced equipment for 3D printing, 3D scanning, CNC routing, laser cutting, vacuum forming, machine embroidery and knitting, and more. The culture-building he’s now doing through the 3D fabrication studio has proven to be “an unexpected but natural” career fit. “I like to see the people who work here as a cohort,” he says, pointing out that the students who use the space—through the Intro to Digital Making seminar and other courses, along with special projects—help develop curricula and discover innovative uses for these new tools.

“My favorite part about this job is being a mentor, supporting pedagogy that is about interdisciplinary investigation and seeing what the students figure out,” Kim says. And using a “hacking mentality,” they figure out things he says he wouldn’t even think of trying. “It’s amazing to see all that creative energy.”

Continuum of research
Given his own background and ongoing work as an artist, Kim is excited to see cross-disciplinary learning and course proposals that make use of Co-Works to engage deep conceptual issues unencumbered by departmental boundaries. “Much of my work is about cultivating systems,” he says. “Maybe they’re digital systems, maybe they’re biological systems, maybe they’re both.”

Through the Biome Arts collective, which includes several fellow alums he has met since coming to RISD, Kim is creating projects such as The Core, an installation that integrates computer networks, projection systems and cultivated and wild insects in an immersive conversation space. He’s currently working on biometric visualizations for Swale, a floating food forest by ecological installation artist Mary Mattingly that will launch on the Hudson River this summer. Called Eco_Hack 2016, Biome’s projections will be powered by measurements of plant growth, moisture and other data with the intent of “creating a new kind of large-scale ‘cybernetic ecology.’”

As an artist working with biological organisms, Kim holds himself to high ethical standards. “When I work with living organisms, I try not to treat them as material, but more as collaborators,” he says. In a show this spring at Boston Cyberarts Gallery, he will exhibit Unsent Unburdened Subconscious Subterranean, an installation for which he has raised an earthworm colony for the past three years. It’s the second in a deeply personal series focused on his estrangement from his mother.

“Much of my work is about cultivating systems. Maybe they're digital systems, maybe they're biological systems, maybe they're both.”

As a gay first-generation Korean American, Kim draws inspiration from the “idea of intersectional identity politics, both in terms of [his] personal narrative and the broader landscape.” Unsent Unburdenedfirst shown at RISD in 2013—presents a compost pile of letters the artist wrote to his mother and then fed to the worms. This work follows Compartmentalized, an installation that invited viewers to navigate through projected images of his mother, and then write responses to her letters that Kim had not read.

“I was terrified to do [Compartmentalized] initially, but the response was overwhelming,” the artist says. “Reading other people’s responses to the letters helped give me the courage to read them myself.” Kim hadn’t imagined this as the beginning of a series, but when he arrived at RISD in 2012 he discovered new ways to use his art practice to process the complexity of his feelings regarding his mother. For the third and final piece in the series he hopes to use the Unsent Unburdened compost pile to grow a peace offering to send her.

Moving beyond his early “lab lackey” experiences to create bio-rich artwork and foster an egalitarian culture at Co-Works clearly aligns more with Kim’s values and sensibilities. Yet, in general, both are part of a lifelong “continuum of research,” he says. “My science background and my arts practice are just different facets of that. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I see myself as a researcher [than as an artist] and it’s just now that I follow an avenue for that research that’s better aligned with my investments.”

text by Robert Albanese / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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