Why An Enterprise Technology Company Sponsors Emerging Artists

By Kathryn Nave, Contributor

On the ninth pier of San Francisco Harbor a group of artists are experimenting with robots. They’re doing things like teaching them to provide tattoos and dancing with humans. They’re also using 3D printers to create scaffolds for growing human stem cells, or to develop affordable prosthetics.

In addition to drawing in tourists from around the globe, the Bay Area wharf is home to Autodesk’s Pier 9, a 3,500-foot workshop jutting into the water.

Since 2013, the enterprise technology company has used to the space to host Pier 9 Residency, an artists-in-residence program that gathers the kind of boundary-breaking creatives that make up much of Autodesk’s customer base. The idea is that, in working alongside the artists, Autodesk will better understand what its products are capable of achieving when in the right creative hands.

As a member of one of two 16-member cohorts per year, each artist receives a $2,500 monthly stipend, use of Pier 9’s production-quality 3D printers and CNC machines, and access to Autodesk’s full suite of software. The suite includes everything from graphic design and game development to architecture and engineering.

The only requirement placed upon the artists is that they must publish instructions for how to recreate their Pier 9 projects through Instructables, a community DIY site Autodesk acquired in 2011.

“You can find Instructables [instructions] on everything from baking cookies to building bottle rockets,” Paulo Salvagione, Autodesk’s artist-in-residence program manager, explained. According to Salvagione, having the artists post their processes there is about paying it forward both to the next collection of residents and also to people in the outside world.

So far, the model has worked to draw positive attention to innovations coming from Autodesk. “Looking at the number of views on Instructables coming out of the program, I’d say it’s doing pretty well,” Salvagione said.

In particular, he points to French residents Johan da Silveira and Pierre Emm, known collectively as “Appropriate Audiences,” whose creation of the world’s first robot tattooing arm drew a significant amount of press to Autodesk and the Pier 9 Program in 2016.

In terms of trends, for both the company and the residency program, Salvagione pointed to robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. His current enthusiasm is the work of new resident and visual artist, Tahir Hemphill, who uses machine learning to extract and visualize the content of hip-hop lyrics.

“Have you ever wondered who is the best rapper ever? Who used the word ‘hater’ first? Which sneaker is more rap or which country uses [a word] most?” Hemphill asks in an early Kickstarter video. As a member of Autodesk’s 2017 Pier 9 Residency cohort, Hemphill uses Autodesk technology to deepen this research and art.

A Creative Collective

Salvagione first came to Pier 9 in 2014 as an artist to work on a mechanical fountain that would use colored string to rise and fall like The Fountains of Bellagio. The final project used a cluster of tiny, 3D-printed motors to propel the multicolored strands up into the air for them to fall again like a stream of water. Like all the other Pier 9 projects, viewers can find the instructions to duplicate Salvagione’s project on Instructables.

Paulo Salvagione’s String Fountain project

Salvagione eventually moved to a managerial role, and he’s not the only former artist to have gone on to work for Autodesk. Fellow 2014 graduate, Andreas Bastian, became the company’s 3D Printing Research Scientist, after spending his residency bringing Autodesk software to an online community that makes prosthetics for children.

With Autodesk’s research team working in the same space as the artists-in-residence, the flow of inspiration runs in both directions.

“Employees have access to the workshop, and people who are already employees could very well apply to be residents themselves,” Salvagione noted. “Sometimes I don’t know if someone’s an artist or an employee when I’m walking through the space.”

That type of close collaboration is particularly beneficial for Autodesk’s software development team. In addition to providing compelling demonstrations for the outside world of what Autodesk’s software is already capable of, the artists often also expose flaws in the current design, or a need for additional features.

“They’re our ‘customer zero’, the first person outside the development team that actually gets a chance to use the software,” Salvagione explained. That feedback then gives Autodesk’s developers an early chance to identify missing functionality, to test out new features, or get initial feedback on possible interface designs.

“The manufacturers particularly enjoy the weekly meetings with the artists, because they see what else can be done,” said Salvagione, “and by having them in house, we really gain a sense of what our customers are doing and how they’re doing it.”

“They’re our ‘customer zero’, the first person outside the development team that actually gets a chance to use the software.”
—Paulo Salvagione, Autodesk’s Artist-in-Residence Program Manager

The Next Cohort

The option to work within Pier 9 is not only available to Autodesk’s own employees, but also to key clients. After customers were given a tour of the facility and kept asking how they could participate in it, Salvagione was tasked with organizing a client collaboration. The result was Autodesk’s Innovators-in-Residence program.

Organizations that have taken part in the program include the US Marines, who had a team spend four months at Pier 9 developing a design for a new 3D-printed drone, and Levi Strauss & Co, who have two members of their Innovation Design team currently in residence at Pier 9.

As Salvagione’s plans for the next five years, his chief ambition is to expand the range of people he brings into Pier 9. This potentially means adding residency programs to Autodesk’s other centers in Toronto and Boston. Of course, the interest in the program is global.

“I have employees from Barcelona asking if they can use their sabbatical to come and work at Pier 9,” he said. “I’m working with our diversity VP to bring a much broader range of individuals in the program. We have a huge educational division working with a number of schools all over the world and I’d love to see a couple of residents come through that.”

When it comes to selecting the next cohort of artists, program leaders have only one stipulation: Artists must be excited to use Autodesk technology to create (and document) surprising, innovation projects.

“This is all about helping us find intersections that aren’t traditional,” Salvagione explained. “We already have people looking at Internet-of-Things for the home, but what does it look like in the dance community? What happens when you mix 3D printing with post-consumer waste? Pier 9 is about finding the unknown unknowns.”