Sunday, 10 November 2013

A blast from the past

The text below has been adapted from a much larger article due to be published in 2014 by the Brazilian Journal Porto Arte. The (currently unpublished) article is a conversation between myself and Prof Paul Coldwell that discusses the convergence of old and new technologies in art practice – aptly entitled Printmaking New and Old Technologies - A Conversation.

Murmurs from Earth, Paul Laidler (2010)

Anyway I have more recently been revisiting (with a view to restructuring) my interests in post digital artworks and the thinking that gets assigned to such things. So following on from the article topic of old and new technologies I thought it might be interesting to present some thoughts on a digitally engraved work that I made in 2010 entitled Murmurs from Earth.

Before discussing the work I reckon it would be useful for me to say a little bit about the production of the work - or more specifically how the laser cutting process works and therefore what the viewer sees in the photographic recording of the artefact Murmurs from Earth.

As it’s name suggests the laser cutter is a burning process that cuts through and into materials. The laser’s function can be controlled in one of two ways; by either cutting straight through a material, or by engraving into the surface. Murmurs from Earth is a digital photographic image that has been laser engraved into the surface of a black cotton based paper. The varying levels of engraved depth in the paper refer to the tonal information that is present in the digital photographic image. The tonal information in the digital file is read as numerical values of grey (255 levels of grey with black and white at either side of the scale). The laser cutter then transcribes these numerical values as different power intensities, creating a depth field for the engraving process. For example, where the image is darker in tone the laser will cut deeper into the surface and where the tonal information is lighter, the depth of the engrave will be shallower. As a result the engraved vinyl image in Murmurs from Earth is made visible because of the different tones of black paper fibres that are present in and on the paper surface.

Diagrammatic I

The artwork Murmurs from Earth is developed from the same sentiments that were employed by the NASA space exploration programme that took place in the 1970’s. The mission involved the deployment of a spacecraft that would carry a message from Earth beyond our solar system with the intention to communicate our sights and sounds to an extraterrestrial audience. The recording of these images and audio were transcribed by engraving the information into a gold-plated copper disc to produce a twelve-inch phonograph record known as the Voyager Golden Record. The latest celluloid film technology of the time would not with stand the conditions that the journey would subject upon the recording, so a more sustainable format from the past was revisited to resolve the present and future technological issues of the mission, hence the use of the phonograph record.

Without telling the whole story, the Voyager Mission[i] prompts technological considerations that occur when we move from one technology to another; such as transferability, readability and compatibility. These transition periods, or the state of ‘in between’ bring together the relationships with form and function, analogue and digital that are central to this work.

During the conversation between Paul Coldwell, and myself Paul mentioned how the development of photography moved toward a ‘greater and greater fidelity to the real’. This progression has increased with the advent of digital technology and its potential to simulate space and enhance material qualities from photographic capture. It is this potential to digitally record and render material properties that led me to combine the laser engraving process with black paper. The combination produces a facsimile quality in that the exposed black fibres of the engraved paper mimic the material appearance of black vinyl. Here the possibilities of reproduction become more than photographic in so much as the transfer of the analogue object retains a material form although the function is lost.

The appearance of form without function in Murmurs from Earth refers to the possibility that the Voyager disc will be unreadable in some distant world or inevitably, the disc may never be heard - it is a one-way message. Here the Voyager Golden Record is best seen as a time capsule or a symbolic statement, rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life. To some degree it is this sense of failure that allows the laser engraved record in Murmurs from Earth to function.

The digital recording and rendering of an analogue format initiates the combing of old and new technology that has been central to this article. Murmurs from Earth has developed from a historical event to communicate with another world yet we might surmise that there are two communicative worlds within our own the analogue and digital.

A brief video explanation about the work with Hong Kong Open Printshop at Impact 8 Printmaking Conference, 2013 and the engagement with digitally mediated print at CFPR Editions.

[i] Voyager The Interstellar Mission, Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology [Internet]. Accessed 12 February 2010. Available from:

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

By popular demand, here is the print on demand.

Figure 1: Paul Laidler, Digital image file for the Print is Dead series

OPD (On Popular Demand)
The series of paintings described in this post is an ongoing body of work that I started in 2010. Over the past couple of years I have written and talked about the series intermittently, from a variety of different perspectives and for different audiences. Subsequently and somewhat to my surprise I have received a number of requests to make the work/text available online. Given that the series has been published 'in print' this version has been edited and refocused.

Printed Paintings
The post discusses the themes of printmaking, collaboration, process, and the digital age as a series of concepts toward the initiation and production of a digitally mediated ‘print’ series ‘Print is Dead’ (figures 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5). Here the preoccupation with production and process is emphasized over the end product as a means to address the collaborative print process and the conceptual considerations for the work, engaging with printmaking themes. Whilst the resulting works are not prints in the truest sense, printmaking is imbedded as a means to consider the broadening definition of ‘print’ in the digital age. In this instance printmaking is considered as an expanded term through the production of paintings whilst the digitally mediated ‘print’ is realised through the Print on Demand model - a facility synonymous with digital technology. Collectively the themes and production processes highlight the often de-emphasised collaborative undertaking by printers for artists, and the subsequent acknowledgement of this art category, whilst the resulting artworks challenge assumptions of authorship and originality in the production of artworks for artists.

Historically within the fine arts, print was used as a means to reproduce other works of art such as paintings - a medium of seemingly higher esteem. Although the premise of the reproduction was often for disseminatory and financial reasons, the quality of execution was still important. The reproduction was dependent upon the original source material, the skill of the engraver and techniques developed over the years to accurately transcribe and replicate. 
The transcription processes used to produce the Print is Dead series differ from the historical rationale for replication in art. Instead the work can be seen as an examination of a process rather than the reproduction of a subject; elevating the 'reproduction' to the status of an 'original'. For instance, the dependence upon an original source for accurate replication becomes impractical in this context - the source image exists as only an infinitely reproducible digital file that is susceptible to a number of transformations in appearance, both on screen and as a printed image. The resulting series of individual artworks can only ever be copies of the original digital file, yet remain unique in their systematic production. 
The allusions to production processes within the Print is dead series are considered in much the same way. The artwork is conceived by thinking about the print medium in terms of a process rather than producing printed artworks; the medium is addressed in relation to print’s inherent relationship with reproduction, where the Publish-on-Demand facility becomes the appropriated tool. The content arises from the seamless integration of digital technology within pre-digital processes, practice and media. 
The resulting (non-digital) artworks can be seen as a response to Marshall McLuhan’s “rearview-mirror view of the world” observation, that we are initially numbed by new technology until it has been completely superseded its predecessor. McLuhan states that in this transition period of ‘the present’, our senses become overwhelmed so much so that we go from the unfamiliar back to the familiar. We attach ourselves to the objects and atmospheres that characterise the past where we feel a compulsion to make the old environment more visible. 
The resulting non-digital artworks reflect McLuhan’s technological transition period in that the field of printmaking is still awaiting the arrival of its digital natives. The process and production of the Print is Dead series is representative of this current juncture between technologies and conscious of the fact that it is an analogue work within a digital age. 

The POD (Print-on-Demand) facility is a relatively new addition to the artist’s possibilities for producing printed artworks via digital means. The development of the technology is a product of the digital revolution that has democratised the opportunity to self-publish. The democratisation has been possible because of the technology’s economic potential to reduce the costs previously incurred through mechanical printing processes such as offset printing. A large percentage of the POD industry caters for book and artist's book publishing, although there are a growing number of POD facilities that specialise in fine art, digital prints for both artists and publishers. 
From the self-publishing artist's perspective, the process follows a system-based procedure through a set number of options for printing a digital image. These options often include a choice in scale and substrate before remotely uploading the digital image (via the Internet) to a POD facility server. Once stored on the server, the digital image is then downloaded and printed to the previously established print options. Because the digital file can be reproduced and stored indefinitely, the edition size may be left open allowing for further renderings of the digital file at the client’s request – hence print on demand. 
The democratisation of digital technology and the marketing potential of the POD facility developed the idea of the ‘personal factory, where you can make almost anything – including electronics, homeware, fashion and furniture’. Consumers in search of bespoke designs can now access digital fabrication technologies through companies such as Anyline , imaterialise, Ponoko and 3DDC using a range of Laser cutting, rapid prototyping, 3D rapid printing and surface coating options. 
Although the Print is Dead series does not directly use digital fabrication technology, the artwork shares similarities with the fabrication process as part of the artist-fabricator approach to making. These associations consider the human crafting approach as part of a systematic and automated method to making, by employing the technical skills of others to help realise the work that informs the idea. 
Unlike most POD facilities that produce printed images for clients, the facility that I chose for the reproduction of The Print is Dead series use the hand-rendered method of painting as processes to reproduce a digital image. 

Figure 3: Paul Laidler, (order272)completed.jpg, Painting produced by Odsan Gallery, China

Figure 4: Paul Laidler, (order542)completed.jpg, Painting produced by Odsan Gallery, China

Replica Factory
Figures 3 and 4 are oil painting's on canvas produced through Odsan Oil Painting Gallery in Dafen, China. The company is one of many in the region that employ academy-trained artists within a factory-line approach to reproduce vast numbers of old master oil paintings. The act of copying great masters’ works by artists has been a continued practice throughout the ages. Conventional practices have often required that artists access the original painting to capture the intricacy, scale and presence of the work. I do not profess to being a master artist - the idea of having a work reproduced in paint that contains none of the traditional precedents for reproduction was what interested me.
More specifically the conventional reproductive process becomes inverted as the facility takes a digitally printed image and reproduces it by hand - in essence the machine and human exchange places. The use of a digital image also highlights the problematic situation of what is being copied and therefore; what is believed to be the original work?  If we consider that a digital image is susceptible to scale and colour changes through different computer monitors and print devices then the work becomes less concerned with reproducing a subject but examining a process.

Figure 2 Printed image used by Odsan Gallery to create figure 3

Perpetual Painting
The Odsan Gallery's reproduction process functions in the same manner as the POD facility when offering a client the possibility of ‘self-publishing’. As previously stated this involves the transfer of a digital image (figure 1) that is rendered to the specifications of the client. Figure 3 was created from a digital print (Figure 2) made from the low resolution digital file (figure 1) that was requested by the Odsan Gallery to create the artwork.  In this situation, the rendering is by hand, not restricted to the scale of a print device and can be reproduced in a range of different painting styles. The resulting painting for the Print is Dead series, is a photo-realistic style reproduction of the digital print that was used as the source image for the work. In this instance the reproduction of the source image contains a magenta hue produced by the printing of the digital file. 
The inclusion of the colour cast in the painting is not seen as a fault with the reproductive artwork but as a reminder of the parameters of the tools and processes we use. In his article The Aesthetics of Failure, the American composer Kim Cascone discusses the positive outcome of imperfection:

'Indeed failure has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them'. (K. Cascone,  “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music’. Computer Music Journal, Volume 24 Issue 4, 2000, p.12)

Figure's 4 and 5 are painting's also created from photographic sources although these photo's are taken by the Odsan Gallery to show the client the painted image before posting the actual canvas. In essence the photos are proofs that need to be approved by the artist/client before the next stage can be implemented. By photographing the painting and e-mailing the digital image for approval a perpetual system for further paintings is developed. These approval photos are then used as the source image for the next painting and so on and so forth. Despite the absence of print production in the appearance of the paintings, the association with the reproductive process is embedded within to the content of the work. The possibility of an indefinite number of copies remains, although the reproductive endeavour is one of human automation or human printers.

Figure 5: Paul Laidler (order547)completed.jpg, Painting produced by Odsan Gallery, China

Further (extended) texts relating to the Print is Dead Series can be found in:
Laidler, P. (2011) Human Automation. Printmaking Today, Vol 20, No 4. Winter 2011, p. 28 ISSN 0960 9253
Laidler. P. (2012) The Human Printer featuring the Print is Dead series. (Impact 7 Printmaking Conference, 27th - 30th September 2011, Monash University, Faculty of Art & Design, Melbourne, Australia) Monash University Publishing ISBN: 978-1-921867-576