‘Prints are like repeated stories, passed on from one to another, sometimes accurate recordings, other times with added variations and distortions, either by design or accident. Working within a series, prints become a game of whispers, each story retold, misheard and elaborated on to create new meaning and context’. – The Mechanical Hand
The series of paintings described in this post is an ongoing body of work that I started in 2010, so get ready as I’m gonna prattle on for a bit. 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.
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.
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.
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.