Hand it to the Machine? Celebrating technology (by Olga Norris)

Tuesday 15 October 2013 is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of women in science, technology, and engineering.  The other day there was an interesting article in the Guardian newspaper linked to this celebration, and highlighting the attitudes to women using technology.  I was amused to read that the author, Helen Czerski likened learning to use an arc welder to icing a cake, and immediately thought of Sokari Douglas Camp, whose splendid sculptures are made by welding.

Sokari Douglas Camp: The Finger 2011 Steel, beads, tin can, silk thread

Sokari Douglas Camp: The Finger 2011 Steel, beads, tin can, silk thread

In the textile world we have been used to using advances in technology forever: the loom and the needle for a start.  And in our textile world it seems to be women who use the technology designed and devised by men.  On the other hand, I’m always delighted to find a user who is quietly competent at taking her sewing machine apart and putting it together again.  Way back at the end of last century I attended a workshop on machine embroidery by Pamela Watts who was also learning to fly a helicopter.  Women certainly seem to be eager to embrace technological advances in the textile world.

There is as much of a buzz around the latest machinery as there is at the thread and fabric stalls at exhibitions like the Festival of Quilts, and the Knitting and Stitching Show in the UK.  Books can hardly keep up with all the ways of exploiting the newest gadgets to prod and pull, join and cut stuff.  Folks are also always finding new ways of using kitchen technology to help with making art: microwave ovens for dyeing, liquidisers for mushing paper, etc.

The point of technology is to help us achieve, to push us further from the smallest incremental aid like the rotary cutter’s advance on the scissors to the great leap forward of using lasers.   The Schiffli Project has spurred many works of art, such as recent pieces by Alice Kettle (an interview with Alice here).

Alice Kettle: Ormopenthesis 2007 Schiffli Project 160 x 160cm

Alice Kettle: Ormopenthesis 2007 Schiffli Project 160 x 160cm

Sarah Hartland has experimented with an industrial laser to etch fabrics in her printmaking explorations.  Karina Thompson used digital stitch in her art, as does Charlotte Yde, better known for her art quilts.  Sculptor Janet Echelman is a great advocate for modern technology use in making art.

Janet Echelman: 1.26 Denver 2010 Sculpture Project at the Biennial of the Americas

Janet Echelman: 1.26 Denver 2010 Sculpture Project at the Biennial of the Americas

I also remember being blown away on seeing Marilene Oliver’s take on printmaking at her degree show at the Royal College of Art a few years back.  Now living in Angola, Africa, I am interested to see how her work is developing.  The article below was found in the yellerzine blog on her exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers earlier this year.

Marilene Oliver: work in the Confusao exhibition 2013

Marilene Oliver: work in the Confusao exhibition 2013

Confusao
Marilène Oliver
Edinburgh Printmakers
16th March-11th May 2013

Oliver has worked for many years with medical imaging data to create sculptures and installations. This solo exhibition, the first since the artist has moved to Sub Saharan Africa, sees the artist refining her practice to a series of dark and haunting etchings. Continuing her project of working with the anonymised dataset Melanix, Oliver uses radiology software to produce digital 2D renderings that are later combined with intricate collagraph drawings. Oliver’s inspiration for the images in this series comes from the many powerful experiences she has had since living in Africa that have caused her to rethink her relationship with the scanned body. Whereas before the CT dataset was a material that she could manipulate and transform to create complicated sculptures, it now has a strong symbolic resonance, signifying privilege both in terms of wealth and access to digital technology. In ‘Confusao’ Melanix is shrouded in the dark, weightless void of digital space, emerging to find herself appropriating traditions and rituals of African cultures she barely understands but is captivated.

Marilène Oliver works at a crossroads somewhere between new digital technologies, traditional print and sculpture, her finished objects bridging the virtual and the real worlds. She works with the body translated into data form in order to understand how it has become ‘unfleshed’, in the hope of understanding who or what it has become. To this end she uses various scanning technologies, such as MRI and PET, to reclaim the interior of the body and create works that allow is to materially contemplate our increasingly digitised selves.

This is just a tiny number of those who grasp the tools they need to make contemporary art – and who let the tools lead them to stretch their ideas.  But a niggling attitude seems to persist in appreciating art – even from those who are creators themselves.

Why is it then that having something made by hand seems to carry so much approval as being better, more authentic?  And why is using the computer in any form seen as an advance too far?  Why still the dismissive statement used about the computer as tool – as if the artist’s thinking, creativity, decision-making, and even hand skills had somehow been removed the moment that switch went on.  As someone who extensively uses a computer where others use a sketchbook and more, I have become perhaps overly sensitive to denigration of that use –  but why this recurrent disproportionate praise for the hand made?

In this morning’s newspaper I was interested to read this last sentence from Grayson Perry in an interview: “I think the artists who will go down in history are the ones who in some way respond to the moment they’re in.”

I would like to know what others think about the technology we all use to make work, and whether the less technology we use – the more primitive the tools the more worthy/authentic the work.  Is the means of creation really more important than the intention and/or the end?

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4 Responses to “Hand it to the Machine? Celebrating technology (by Olga Norris)”


  1. 1 kay warner October 20, 2013 at 7:25 am

    I am a doll-making embroiderer. I use my sewing machine for hard-wearing seams, an embellisher (needlefelting) machine to “mash” fabrics and fibres together and often times I scan and print out my designs instead of tracing or to resize before working them up. So is my stuff handmade? I think so. I remember a terrific fuss from the quilters when pre-programmed stitches and
    long arm quilting machines were introduced, (not to mention the advent of art quilts!) the same from embroiderers when free machine embroidery started to become popular and lots of criticism from the purists when people started using embellisher machines for things other than making flat pieces of felt. Heavens above, some of them didn’t even needlefelt on both sides! Nothing stands still. I think we should embrace new technology and modern materials to enrich our work.

  2. 2 june October 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    It’s a strange world of revolving ideas, almost circles. Printmaking originally was reproduction, done to aid painters in circulating forms of their paintings. Then prints became works of art in their own right. And now, digital prints (thanks for the clean language, Olga) are pretending to be original art. Sigh.

    The other part of the use of new techniques is that, probably inevitably, the first work to appear out of them are pretty crude. Better artists see the less good attempts and figure out how to use the technology in artistic ways. And other artists use those better works to build their own fine artworks on. But it takes time for the public to catch up with the changes. Not everyone is reading Ragged Cloth:-)

    Finally there are the inevitable luddites and back lashes, which simply make me sigh. I used to sew by hand. Believe me, nothing I did faintly came close to the work I did with my machine. Hand work in my case was definitely home made.

  3. 3 marja-leena October 13, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Excellent article, Olga! I will be spending time looking at all the links.

    As a printmaker (on paper), I have also felt some of the denigration of my use of computers and creation of digital prints. I believe some of those negative reactions have been caused by the use of that technology to make reproductions of original works such as paintings. There is, for example, a very successful and internationally well-known artist here who does that and sells those prints as if they were originals. It is a contentious issue with printmakers who work hard to explain the difference between original prints and reproductions. There needs to be honesty about this from the artists doing this and the dealers selling that work so that buyers know the difference…. and there should be a significant price difference.

    • 4 Olga October 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      Yes, Marja-Leena, lack of knowledge and information can mislead an audience. I think that the only way to try to overcome ignorance is to keep putting out information as much as possible. In the business of appropriation, of course we are not helped by increasing ease allied with diminishing awareness of responsibility. But we should not let that put us off continuing to use whatever technology we need to make our work.

      In your medium of printmaking, for many years the term giclee was used to try to distinguish original digital prints from low quality reproductions, but that term was also misused. I am always very pleased to see the straightforward label ‘digital print’ used more and more, even in Royal Academy exhibitions. It dissembles less, and gives a more honest description.


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