Introduction: Duck Confit, Perfected

At Instructables headquarters, you will often hear that food is the gateway content for new online followers of the website. I find that fact refreshingly wholesome when compared to some of the internet's less savory preoccupations. With that in mind, I give you...

Duck Confit, Perfected: A Maker's Guide to Being a Resident Artist at Instructables

Step 1: Preface

Likely, during your stay at Instructables, you will easily avoid the pitfalls that I did not, as you are more responsible than me and less helter skelter, more familiar with a professional work environment, feel less resonance with the man pictured above while navigating Pier 9, are more diligent with email communication and more at ease in the Age of Connectivity, better at project management, and are, generally speaking, more of a grown up. I enumerate our differences so you will read my guide with a grain of salt. But perhaps, insofar as these differences made me more likely to bungle even the simple facets of the Instructables Residency, I am the perfect person to catch and report upon potential snafus.

Step 2: Never Press Ctrl-Z in the Instructables Editor

I am beginning with this simple warning because it is present on my mind. I failed to remember it myself not twenty minutes ago, as I was making a few final edits on the preface you just finished reading.

While using the "Instructables Editor" to make a post, ctrl-z is not the undo with which you are familiar. Through conditioning, you expect it to undo individual key strokes, but here it will serve as a temporal meat cleaver. By the time your reactions kick in and you realize each click is hacking off a large chunk of work, as opposed to a few letters, it will be too late. The ever-dutiful auto-save will immortalize your mistake before your blood pressure has even begun to spike.

Though a simple solution would be the usage of an external text editor, there is a more important lesson at hand: you should mention issues such as this to the Instructables staff. They are good, caring folks and want your feedback. By the time you are reading these words, this issue may very well be resolved.

Step 3: Read Good

Actually read the emails from Vanessa and Noah and the program in general. By actually read, I mean just that. You will be tempted to feign understanding by skimming, like you did in highschool English. But, the emails (though they can be dauntingly long and frequent) are packed with instructions and useful information. If you do not actually read them it will be both to your detriment, as you won't know how to do stuff, and to Vanessa and Noah's detriment, as they will have to answer already-answered questions. By skimming the emails, you will potentially look like a total dumb-ass. I skimmed the instructions for creating an Air Profile, and erroneously overwrote the residency's master template. Dumb-ass.

Begin with the "Getting Started as an Air" document. Though not a page-turner, per se, it will make your entry into the world of Pier 9, much, much smoother. Also, if you read it, the answers to all of your questions will not begin with, "Well, that's in the 'getting started doc,' but..."

Step 4: The AiR Mantra

Publish your work, and publish it often. You will hear this over and over again. It is one of the residency's catch phrases. We have a perverse tendency to ignore catch phrases, for which I blame rampant and insipid, slogan-based marketing. But, nevertheless, you should mind this advice. In particular, you should mind the phrase's second tenet: publish often.

I have the tendency to go years without updating my website, much less documenting my work. It is unforgivably stupid. Operating this way at the Residency is unforgivably selfish. Publishing Instructables is your most important part of the quid pro quo. "Often" is the key to easy publishing – truly. Noah and Vanessa will advise you not to wait for the end of your residency to publish your work. You will psych yourself up to follow this advice and vow to operate during the residency in a more organized fashion than you do in your normal practice. But, you are in maker wonderland, and all you want to do is make, make, make. You are taking lots of photos with the fancy cameras and convince yourself that this is tantamount to keeping up with your publishing responsibilities. It is not. You should frequently put those pics into an Instructable draft and type up some rough notes. Otherwise, come the end of your stay, you will be slammed by a mountain of very time-consuming work. The writing process will be twice as laborious, as your mind will no longer be engaged with the subject matter.

Some residents have been publishing their projects in snippets, throughout the creation process, which sounds like a damn good idea to me.

Step 5: Keep It Simple, Stupid

The Pier 9 Workshop is a mind-blowing facility. It makes my metal shop look medieval. There are so many exciting tools at the pier, and your horizons will broaden with new possibilities.

But, like they say, there is no free lunch. Pier 9 is a crazy (and awesome) leap of faith for big company like Autodesk. Crazier still, is to have the workshop's primary user base be wing nut artists, often with little or no workshop experience. Understandably, to prevent Darwinian processes from reducing the pier's population, and for general liability purposes, there are stringent safety procedures. Additionally, the workshop is perched above the protected waters of San Francisco Bay. Fairly benign chemical spills require a phone number to be called. Then FIMA arrives.

For these reasons, you need to take lengthy and sometimes tedious training classes for all of the tools. At times you will be thinking, "Okay, I'm ready to build now". Deal with it. 'Tis a very small price to pay, and you will learn a lot.

But, and here is where the KISS principle comes into play, do not hastily follow the voice or your inner dreamer. That voice is pitching project after project that require all of the hi-tech tools: the DMS router, the TIG welder, the HAAS mill, the Metebeam, the waterjet, the Jukis, the Objet printers, and so on. When listening to that voice, your excitement is justifiable, but do not forget that even the basic tools require training or a certification test. When the time comes to assemble your insanely futuristic wizard project that utilized all the hi-tech tools at the pier, you will inevitably need to use basic tools like the drill press, band saw, grinder, etc.

Get certified on the basic tools. You have to schedule the classes or certification test in advance, so don't wait!

Step 6: Empathy for Your Facilitators

Noah and Vanessa have amazing, yet brutal jobs. As the face of the residency program and your liaisons at Pier 9, they need to be "on" all the time. I am barely on some of the time, so I can only imagine their pain. During my off days I don't interact much. Noah and Vanessa don't have that luxury and must soldier through. Some days, you may detect in them bitterness, frustration, depression, beneath a thin veneer of chipperness. On these days, they may even seem a bit curt. Keep in mind their position, and keep in mind that your questions, despite being new to you, are questions they have received countless times from countless previous residents.

A byproduct of their positions is that they are effectively your boss during your residency. Few people like being a boss. I would hate it, and am sure it is not their favorite role. They are good people that want to help you thrive and feel fully accommodated. So cut 'em some slack!

These burdens are shared by the shop techs at Pier 9 as well, especially in regards to questions. Largely, they receive the same questions all day, every day. In my experience, they handle this inherently annoying aspect of their job with admirable grace. Especially when compared to various other shops I have worked in. Often, you will see the shop techs and other employees hanging out and working around the pier during off hours, either at night or over the weekend. For the most part, they are still happy to help, but keep in mind that during those times they are off the clock and helping you is a favor.

Step 7: Open AiR Meeting Decorum

Weekly meetings are part of the gig. Some days you will be trying to hustle out some work, and AiR meetings will feel like a chore. But, take a breath. The residency program is full of super bright and talented people. You will learn from them. They will inspire you. You will help one another other. You may even collaborate.

With adherence to a proper code of conduct, the AiR meetings are quite efficient, informative, and helpful. The code of conduct is as follows:

1. Be on Time. Of course this goes without saying, but it really is important. Being late implies that your time is somehow more important than everyone else's.

2. Take it Offline (i.e. after the meeting). This applies to all matters that only affect you or just a small portion of the group. If you are trying to make a reciprocating dingle arm that reduces sinusoidal repleneration, and there is only one other dingle arm specialist in the room, do not engage. Earmark that conversation for later.

3. Witty Banter. I love it, and the AiR group in general is a witty lot. At some of the meetings I attended, I was likely the chief banterer. If you are prone to this, you will realize the error in your ways when you attend an AiR meeting in which you are feeling particularly pressed for time. At this meeting the banter will not amuse you. Banter, comic relief, and lightheartedness are a must, but the appropriate dosage is probably in the 5% range.

4. Soap Boxin'. This is a big one. At the AiR meetings, the residents take turns presenting their work, receiving feedback, and fielding questions. When you are presenting, you have a captive audience, literally. If you begin with a twenty minute digression about past work or your life history, it is likely that everyone will be too polite to stop you. Some of the room may be entirely engaged and happy to listen, but, as the audience is captive, you must consider the contingent that is not up for lengthy digressions at the moment. There is a time for such subject matter, and it is the initial introduction meeting in which you are asked to discuss your background. Aside from that, there will be ample time to swap stories later, over a beer or four.

5. Relevant Questions and Feedback. During the Q & A following someone's presentation of work, do not violate rules 2, 3, or 4. That is to say: lengthy and technical advice should be offered, but slated for offline delivery; keep the David Letterman in you under control; do not segue from feedback into long-winded discussions of your own work or history.

Step 8: This Is Ground Control. Do You Copy?

The workshop at Pier 9 will inspire you to shoot for the moon. That is part of the pier's magic, but be realistic about what you want to accomplish and stay on track. I was the worst at this. So, if nothing else, my legacy will attenuate your embarrassment if you repeat my mistakes. However, I would suggest following my advice instead.

My advice hearkens back to Step 5, in which I warn of blindly following the voice of your inner dreamer. That voice will conceive more projects to create at the pier than you could accomplish in a few years, much less a few months. Be realistic! Factor in time for properly documenting and publishing your work. Factor in time for mistakes and tool certification and acclimating to new processes and an unfamiliar shop.

Much of the CNC fabrication and prototyping machinery at the pier was new to me. I had the misguided notion that these machines would yield exactly what I wanted every time and with infinite precision. Not true. All machines, even crazy future machines, have their quirks and create objects governed by the laws of material science. There is a learning curve and you should allow time for it.

Meanwhile, stay on track. See your projects through to completion. I can start a project with the best of 'em, but finishing projects at the pier was not my forte. I was so excited to do so many things. Before I was half-way through one thing I would start two more things, which is a great recipe to finish zero things. You should avoid this.

Step 9: Take Advantage of Software and Resources

During your residency, regardless of your computer savvy upon entry, you will use design software. This could be as simple as making vector files for laser cutting, or as complex as 3D modeling for the Objet printers. You may even use G-code for CNC machining. Whatever the case may be, you should take advantage of the super knowledgeable and helpful folks at Instructables, Autodesk, and the artist residency program itself. During my residency, I watched people with almost zero design experience crank out amazing projects on the really hi-tech machines with skills they learned during their stay. If you are feeling intimidated and behind the curve, you are not alone! Don't procrastinate: reach out for help early.

I entered the residency program with a strong foundation in the 3D modeling program Rhino. I decided that my 3 month stay was not enough time to learn new software and accomplish my goals. In hindsight, that was a poor decision. Surrounded by experts at the pier who want to help you succeed, learning Autodesk software will be less work than you think. Once you are up to speed, those experts are a great resource for ongoing support as you hit stumbling blocks during projects.

Step 10: Final Presentation

If you are looking for an excellent gauge of how well you followed this guide, preparing for your final presentation will be just that. When your time arrives, if you were a scatter-brained, overreaching dreamer, with patchy project documentation like myself, putting together your presentation will be hellish. This is all the more reason to document, write about, and publish your work diligently throughout your residency.

Otherwise, your presentation may or may not be preceded by an all-nighter. That all-nighter may or may not be punctuated by a cat nap on the floor of the upstairs conference room. And that cat nap may or may not conclude with the 7:00 AM appearance of an out-of-town business man, briefcase in hand, wearing a grey suit with white pinstripes, peering through the glass wall with bemusement, as though you had dosed off inside the penguin exhibit at the zoo.

Outlandish and embarrassing as that scenario may be, it is actually a flattering caricature of the magic that is Pier 9. It is a place that breaks down pre-existing notions of what an office can and should be. A workshop full of artists over the Bay at one of the world's largest software companies is as much a leap of faith as it is a gift. As beneficiaries of this ongoing experiment, it is our job bolster the program with our best efforts and help to keep it available for resident artists yet to come.

Step 11: Have Fun

I sure did. Thanks Pier 9!

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Bio: I am an inventor. With a notion of utility that is irrationally broad, my work explores the full spectrum of practicality, whimsicality, and usefulness. For ... More »
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