Looking through the eyes of machines as humans

eyespublicationLaidler. P (2016) Mapping a Mental Change: Beginnings and departure points, Working Proof, No2, pp 59 – 62.

Looking through the eyes of machines as humans is a publication that has been developed and produced by myself as part of an academic role at UWE. The publication was initiated as part of an international student exchange exhibition between The University of the West of England, Bristol and The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, USA. The article Mapping a Mental Change: Beginnings and departure points is a subtext to the publication title and exhibition theme. The article was written in response to one of the questions that I asked each of the participating students. The slightly re-framed question heads the proceeding text below and the full publication can be found on issuu.

It has been suggested that digital technologies have brought technical innovations to the field of graphic arts practice, but have also and most importantly, have provoked a ‘mental change’ in the creative process. As a student lecturer within a graphic arts field do you believe this statement to be true and if so could you offer any insights on what this ‘mental change’ could be?

It has been suggested by a range of established commentators that digital technology may have potentially created a ‘mental change’ within the creative process of making images and objects. Although this statement is somewhat broad and our ability to understand change often requires a certain amount of time to have passed (before the significance of an event may be better understood) the compulsion to begin considering these ruminations became central to the ‘Looking Through The Eyes Of Machines As Students’ project.

My interest in this area stem from a practice-based perspective within the field of graphic arts, leaning towards the process-led discipline of printmaking. The root of this inquiry has predominantly developed through my teaching experience in the graphic arts, and what it means to think through an established discipline in a technological age of multifaceted practice and outcomes.

Beginnings:
To shed some light on this idea of a ‘mental change’ or a shift in consciousness we may consider the historical impact of printmaking on communication. The process enabled access to – and storage of – information on an unprecedented scale, one that would go on to revolutionise how we understood, saw and described the world. Digital technology has further extended the proliferation possibilities of the printed artefact and offered attributes such as computational speed, interactivity and networked content.

Within a visual arts context the early incarnations of a digital presence can often be identified through the technology’s associated aesthetic. These visual cues refer to the construction of images and artefacts through the use of pixels or in a 3D environment, the voxel. Today the former tends to invoke a retro feel with a nostalgic outlook whereas the revealing of the digital building blocks in glitch art (where an image is purposely degraded or corrupted) promotes an aestheticisation of malfunction in a slick and seamless image world. For the majority of people who were born in the pre-digital period these image associations were originally encountered on screen as far back as the 1980s. The period is often referred to as the ‘digital revolution’, when the technology became mainstream and entered our visual consciousness with the first personal computers. The proceeding years would see advancements in graphic user interfaces, design software packages followed by output devices such as the desktop printer. The connecting of hardware and software tools alongside affordability provided a framework for artists and designers to begin extending mechanical production methods and establish a screen-based environment for art and design disciplines.

These technological possibilities describe some of the inherent qualities that digital tools offer, yet it is not how we technically master these tools that concerns me. Instead it is the consequences of how these tools permeate into our thinking as makers and provide some clues about this ‘mental change’… perhaps!

Postdigital variations:
In more recent years the relationship with digital technology has seen a return to the physical and tactile. This development is epitomised in schemes such as ‘The Internet of Things’ that seeks to create applications for real world objects by augmenting and connecting them with the Internet. Projects that fall within this area tend to foster design-led questions that create new products for an ever-increasing digital market place. The approach is predominantly utopian in its outlook and nurtures a kind of homecoming that could be considered as a humanising of digital technology. Work of this nature also falls within a post-digital period where we have overcome the shock of digital technology as a disruptive force and are now indifferent to whether or not something is digital or physical. Conversely being ‘post’ something also foregrounds a period of self-reflexivity and questioning about ‘progress’ under the previous regime. This is not necessarily an anti-digital movement but rather a place where ideas arise from a digitally-informed scene.

Post-digital work can be found in a return to the physical through augmentation but there are also post-digital persuasions that do not necessarily subscribe to the technologically enabled mind-set. The opposing route is perhaps best summarised in the shift of questioning from ‘what can I do/’, to ‘why am I doing this?’. One example of a slightly more critical view of technology that consists of digitally informed practitioners is the Internet Yami-Ichi group. Internet Yami-Ichi (that translates from Japanese as ‘black market’) is a small art/flea market showcasing online and digital themes that have been translated into physical works with a dystopian edge. The event essentially flips the ‘Internet of Things’ and its utopian outlook on its head. Internet Yami-Ichi provokes critical reflection on our ever-increasing digital dependencies by employing humour, uselessness and absurdity to draw attention to the darker side of the Internet. The Japanese word Yami literally translates as ‘dark side’ and can also mean “sick for” or “addicted to”. Productions from the market’s vendors include; bottled Mac Book Air ‘air’, Internet explorer tattoos, handwritten spam letters and binary porn, to name but a few. The outlook is one that seeks to make work that asks questions rather than designing products that provide answers.

Mediating the Mediated:
Similar critical reflections on today’s increasingly digitally-mediated world are touched upon in the 2015 exhibition Mut Mut curated by Illustration academics Darryl Clifton and Rachel Gannon. The curators considered the illustration industry’s predominant mode of reception through print and screen as the departure point for the exhibition. The curatorial decision to deliberately fabricate one-off, bespoke or sculptural pieces in a temporal and spatial setting, sought to discard industry-driven formats and re-consider communicative relationships with its audience. Similarly the conscious decision to adopt a visual language that engages with craft and materiality questions why we would continue to make physical things in an age of automation and dematerialisation? From this perspective, digital technology has helped reinvigorate traditional crafts by allowing us to re-evaluate their significance – as a carrier and conveyor of information.

Although the exhibition still relies upon digital dissemination (cause I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise) the nature of documenting work for online platforms has begun to influence the making of an actual artefact or event. For this type of practitioner, the question ‘does it look good online’ is far more likely to be considered at a much earlier stage in the making process. Here the selection of materials and colours are based upon the image’s success onscreen whilst the designing of situation and presentation may yield greater coverage and dissemination for the work. Today’s preoccupation with the screen-based representation and sharing of imagery via social media has (to some degree) become a testing ground for the success of the physical/original. This feedback loop appears to have usurped the original work and its aura, or like the Mut Mut curators, this maybe a timely opportunity to unplug and ‘reconnect’!

The Nimble Digital:
The manipulability of digital information is probably one of the defining qualities of the technology. Sean Cubitt (Professor in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths University, London) considers the new possibilities for rendering digital information as a pivotal shift between analogue and digital processes. Cubitt explains that from the standpoint of the computer, any input will always appear as mathematical and any data can be output in any format. For example an audio input can be output as a video image, as text, as a 3D model or a printed artefact. The ability to render information in numerous ways shifts from a fixed analogue system (that dictates the treatment of information for a specific process and therefore limits the outcome) to a situation where information is supple and has potential to instantly shift into different spaces, materials and disciplines.

This situation also offers some potentially interesting positions on established art and design disciplines – especially when considering their associations with materials and artefacts. For instance, historically within art and design the connotation of the word ‘material’ refers to the physicality of something that has a direct relationship with the hand, and a traditional dialogue with craft. In a digital context the word could also prompt conversations where ‘material’ is discussed as information, albeit an immaterial material – where physical touch becomes a haptic interface and craft extends to programming. Similarly, the rendered outcome of digital information questions traditional associations with, and expectations of products and artefacts that are attributed to a specific discipline. For example, if the entire cohort of a printmaking degree suddenly began producing films, one might wonder why they would choose to study printmaking and not film? This does not mean that film is off limits to printmakers but like it or not, disciplines exist for a reason – namely specialism, heritage and disposition.

The T-Shaped:

In essence, digital technology has predominantly been utilised as a tool for optimising existing processes and later extending the boundaries of established practices. Digital technology is a medium (that differs from all others) and facilitates new forms of communication and interaction that change how we think. This is epitomised in Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote on the impact of new technology where he stated, “First we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. The interesting questions begin when we attempt to describe the disposition of a technologically-informed individual who may extend established practice or offer a complete departure from it.

Perhaps some of the technologically-informed characteristics of these individuals may engender the ubiquitous and connected nature of digital. In this context they would have no problem with working across different disciplines. The approach also resonates with the concept of ‘T-shaped people’, a metaphor mainly used in the recruitment industry (not my best ever reference) that describes individuals who possess a very deep knowledge in one discipline (the vertical bar of the T) but are promiscuous enough to have the grace and confidence to move across disciplines (the horizontal part of the T). The T-shaped person is by no means a new concept; similar attributes can be found as far back as the Renaissance and the idea of the ‘Renaissance Man’ – the example often being the work of Leonardo Da Vinci who could demonstrate a high level of proficiency in a number of different subject areas.

It is also worth noting that the discipline of fine art does not necessarily consign itself to a particular process, medium or outcome – especially since the inception of conceptual art in the early part of the 20th century. The prominence of idea before outcome enables the discipline to actively borrow from and enter into other fields. That said, graphic arts disciplines have, and also do produce conceptually-led and interdisciplinary works, but the field is historically associated with the design industry and the applied nature of this practice.

Today I believe that the vertical bar of deep knowledge is still grounded in an established pre-digital discipline that retains its heritage – and so it should. Increased activity on the horizontal bar is perhaps another indicator that the pervasive nature of digital technology is seeping into the mindsets of graphic arts practitioners where transferability, mutability and something else with ‘ility’ on the end is becoming more predominant with each generation.

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This means something. This is important.

‘I can’t describe it, what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, this means something! This is important’ are the words of Roy Neary played by the actor Richard Dreyfuss in the 1977 science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the film Neary is depicted as an adult who never really grew up, a character that gradually becomes obsessed about an image in his mind – followed by the ensuing need to externalise his vision. More specifically this sweeping analysis of the film refers to the the bit that I am interested in.

Form Follows Fiction

Although the actions of Roy Neary in the ‘mash potato scene’ are largely induced by his previous alien encounter in the film, his child like conduct and obsessive behaviour provide the first segue in to what appears to becoming a series of art works (Stretch out with your feelings & Ray Kinsella) that embrace the theme of Form Follows Fiction. Here the obsessive and compulsive nature (and sometimes child like) provide a parallel with the artist and designer, individuals that can embody a similar preoccupied disposition – often attributed to the single minded pursuit. Other ‘artistic’ segue include; technologically enabled ‘remakes’ and a continuing fascination with objects that initiate oscillations between fiction and reality.

The Making:

Devils Mountain, Google Earth View
Google Earth View of Devils Tower, Wyoming, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was originally interested in developing a series of drawings for this project by using Google Earth as my point of reference and vantage point. The outcome would be to continuously produce multiple drawn copies of Devils Tower. The continuous re-drawing of the tower would eventually result in the image becoming fixed in my mind – a subtle nod to the plight of Roy Neary. I would therefore be able to recall and draw its image at will, continuously recreating Devil’s Tower in multiple form. The idea would be to explore today’s situation where the body is no longer the dominant measure of space. Instead it is digital technology that dictates how we see and experience the world – affording a new mediated measuring stick. I may still undertake this approach although I would need to carry over some further facet of the Google Earth program – in order for the work to mean something, something important.

3D render for Devils Tower, Wyoming USA
Terrainator render of Devils Tower, Wyoming
3D render for Devils Tower, Wyoming USA
Terrainator render of Devils Tower, Wyoming

 

Anyway, some months after this initial thought I was speaking with a friend who mentioned that he was thinking about 3D printing a trek that he had recently walked in the USA. To cut a long story a bit shorter I researched the 3D capture and print possibilities for landscapes and found an online company called Terrainator. The company use an algorithm to extract the topographical data from Google Earth and extrude this information to create a three dimensional file. The generated 3D data is exportable to the print on demand company Shapeways who specialise in 3D printing. Alternatively you can purchase the 3D file and print it yourself – much cheaper. Above are two views of the topographical render created by Terrainator for the national monument Devils Tower in Wyoming, United States.

The 3D image file that was produced by Terrainator wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This was mainly due to the fact that the top of the tower wasn’t flat – like it is in the Google Earth image or in reality, and more importantly like it is in the film!

Wire Mesh for Devils Tower
Wire Mesh for Devils Tower
3D file of Devils Tower
3D surface render of Devils Tower
3D build file for Devils Tower in Mash Potato
3D build file for Devils Tower

Once in possession of the 3D file (and to initiate the Form Follows Fiction theme) it seemed only logical that the physical rendering of the data should remain true to my filmic reference, that being mash potato. Whilst I say mash potato I really mean the instant mash potato brand Smash. Smash / mash potato is not one of the more common material’s used in the 3D printing world and I therefore had to access a more novel approach to printing. Luckily two of my colleagues at the CFPR Peter Walters and David Huson had had some previous experience printing with Smash and designing bespoke extrusion systems for the process.

Extrusion System and Printing Material

Interestingly the printing process allowed me to recover the flat summit of Devils Tower, the bit that had been lost in the 3D generation of the file. This achievement was not so much an insightful bit of software manipulation or a crafted adjustment to the hardware. Instead it was accomplished by the timely pressing of the pause button, about a minute from the end of the print. The printing of the mash potato tower also included a fixing agent in the Smash and water mix. This helped the structure retain its shape whilst drying. The previous 100% Smash and water mix had resulted in the structure slumping after an hour or so. The resulting prints conjured visions of printed objects by the Biltong creature in Philip K Dick’s 1955 dystopian novel ‘Pay for the Printer‘. In the novel the Biltong is an alien that serves humankind by duplicating everyday objects but over time the Biltong’s have become exhausted, to the point of extinction – and are no longer able to produce accurate copies. The quality of these inferior objects degrade each time they are replicated to the point where nothing has any longevity, buildings are collapsing in on themselves and newspapers become nothing more than a mishmash of meaningless words. The loss of function is described as ‘puddinged’, an adjective articulated in the novel where several copies later a Swiss watch has become nothing more than a piece of misshapen metal. Mmmm ‘puddinged’.

That said the new addition of the binding agent still has a few structural integrity problems but it was good enough to produce a 3D print that could be photographically recorded for the Annual Miniature print show at the Arnolfini. Unlike the scale of the 3D printed Devils Tower artwork Beautiful Minds (2017) by the artist Anya Gallaccio my 3D printed mash potato version has an altitude of 14cm and is now located in my desk draw waiting for further developments of the idea.

3D Printing of Devils Tower in Mash Potato
3D Printing of Devils Tower in Mash Potato
3D Printing of Devils Tower in Mash Potato
This means something. This is important. (2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements:

Big thanks to Peter Walters and Dave Huson for allowing me to print on their machine and with their assistance.

 

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