The Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan recently opened an exhibition called Blueprint. The idea, wrote the curators, was to use the defunct medium of the blueprint to ask artists and designers to “identify a place of origination for their work in the literal and metaphorical form of a blueprint.”
All of the 50 artworks from the creators’ earliest days were printed in the traditional format of a blueprint, otherwise known as a diazotype. The process, once widely used in architecture to reproduce drawings cheaply and easily, has been banned in many locations because of its toxic ammonia release. So it is now effectively obsolete, and difficult to obtain. But as this exhibition demonstrates, outdated media can acquire a newfound charm, and not just for the one-off art show. In an era in which digital design dominates every creative field, many artists are returning to (or in some cases, never abandoned) analog processes to rediscover a specificity that’s lost in digital translation.
Graphic designer Mark Fox never starts a new trademark design without his trusty rapidograph technical pen and compass. “Unfortunately, they’ve discontinued this attachment,” he says, showing the part that allows for connection to the compass. Likening this obsolescence to the demise of Kodalith film, or Polaroid printing paper, Fox’s admiration for a vintage graphic design tool isn’t part of a hipster revival movement. “I’m too old for that,” says the 50-something designer, with a grin.
The problem with digital, he says, “is that if everyone uses the same tool, it will yield the same results. Design has been homogenized by the mass adoption of the Mac. It’s a powerful and omnipotent machine, but in the end, it is a simulation of the real tools.”
Fox, who is one half of the 2-person San Francisco firm Design is Play, also uses a Mac, of course, and is completely fluent in the latest version of the Adobe Creative Suite. He just thinks that when designers get too comfortable with digital creation and digital printing, their work suffers and becomes more one-dimensional.
His view, shared with many others, is that an exclusively digital artist might never know how to manipulate physical media, and can only experiment with a program with pre-existing limitations. For instance, a line drawn with Illustrator has a default setting: it is one point thick, black, and perfectly straight. But a line drawn with a pencil, pen, oil crayon or sponge brush can be any weight, color or texture, and the evidence of a human hand adds character. “The program is actually tricking the designer into thinking that their work is ‘finished’ when it is just ‘polished,’” says Fox.
Dr. Jesse Drew, who teaches a Media Archaeology course at UC Davis, explains that this is true of most of the digital technologies developed in recent decades. The new tools are often a false, showy equivalent to the original methods.
“Designers will think these are just the tools you use, and that is that. Their work becomes cliché and boring and repetitive,” he says. “You can look at digital graphics and know what tool or filter was used. It’s not just for Photoshop, but throughout contemporary history, filters and effects become in vogue, and then they become kind of a joke, and people move on.” Drew cites Instagram as the prime example of a gallery of prefab filters that millions of users employ. “Rarely do people figure out how they are going to create their own unique filter.”
So does it help to master the original version of cropping and cloning and filtering in a darkroom before using the simulated tools in Photoshop? Does every architecture student need to know how to use a T-square and drawing table before they take up mouse-click vectors? These methods are more time-consuming, and often more toxic (which led to their obsolescence in the first place), but do they create better work?
Nataly Gattegno, whose architecture firm, Future Cities Lab, is featured in the Blueprint exhibition at Storefront, received a traditional undergraduate education in architecture at Cambridge University from 1996–1998. “We hand drew, made models, referenced pantone chips for color and rendered our drawings in the typical way,” she says. “But in my graduate education we were just on the cusp of starting to learn CAD [computer-aided design] and 3D modeling, and working with a laser cutter to fabricate.” Perhaps as a result of the hybrid education she received, her firm’s design process is still in both camps.
“I will sit and sketch and then will quickly try to make a digital draft, print something out, make another model, redline it, and then go back into the computer. It’s a feedback loop between analog and digital,” she said. Gattegno believes it is this fluidity between the two methods that promotes authenticity and originality. At the California College of the Arts, where Gattegno chairs the Architecture department, students receive instruction at the Digital Craft Lab, which experiments with this analog/digital feedback loop. Students are told to ask this set of questions:
Why is it that architects are taught to be mere users of technology rather than innovators? Why are the core creative tools of our profession designed by systems engineers? What creative potential exists at the heart of these machines, where bits intermix with atoms, where digital code meets material logic?
Last year, an assignment challenged students to design drawing machines, reversing the usual method of translating an analog drawing into a digital one. Gattegno explains: “We asked students if they could make a machine to hold a pen to draw. Can they feed in digital information and get an analog result?”
The aim here is to foster critical thinking about technology, so that it doesn’t predetermine the work. Gattegno doesn’t see the future of design education privileging the analog methods necessarily, but rather, that students should better understand how they can manipulate the new methods. “You can use design programs in a standard way or you can hack them,” says Gattegno. “It’s important to leverage the tools for what you want to do.”
Dr. Jesse Drew takes this idea even further in his course called “Electronics for Artists.” He has students go dumpster diving for old hardware like VCRs, cathode ray TVs or old computers. The students dismantle the machines to identify the components. They are then instructed in how to read schematics, how to build circuits and how to work with the circuit that already exists.
“Rarely do people have any clue what is going on inside the box,” Drew says. “Everyone has devices, but they don’t understand what is going on in there at all. Twenty years ago, people used to know how to add RAM and switch a hard drive in their computers. When HTML started, everyone was experimenting with it to code their own web pages, but now we use WordPress,” he laments.
Watching media flourish and die out over decades, Drew has hit upon an essential truth of the modern artist: She must not only develop her creative vision, she also must be a master of all of the tools she is using and an archivist of her work. “That becomes your second occupation,” he explains. “You used to make a painting, a sculpture, or even a photo and it would be around and accessible for the rest of your life. But now you make things and you store them in a computer file, and in five years you can’t access them because the technology is outdated and you don’t know how to convert it.”
A recent Mother Jones article argued that in pre-literate culture, scribes were the ones who could read, and everyone else relied on them to transmit and interpret information. In our mediatized world, modern day “scribes” are coders that the rest of us rely on to write and interpret the codes that we use in our ubiquitous technology. Coders are now necessary for us to be able to communicate, create designs, and share them. Drew says that in recognition of this new reality, coding has recently become a requirement of the UC Davis Technoculture curriculum.
Is this the start of a movement? Perhaps one day, if we structure our education right, everyone will learn coding as a second language.
We’ll all have the ability to hack our programs, bringing more analog sensibility into the digital domain. But this doesn’t solve the problem of obsolescence of art media. Only a few methods will have their revival moment like the blueprint, or the Polaroid.
In an essay written in the late 1990s, the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling called for a cataloging of dead media, a global archive of our rapidly accumulating defunct technology.
“Some media do, in fact, perish,” he wrote. “Such as: the phenakistoscope. The teleharmonium. The Edison wax cylinder. The stereopticon . . . How long will it be before the much-touted World Wide Web interface is itself a dead medium? And what will become of all those billions of thoughts, words, images and expressions poured onto the Internet? Won’t they vanish just like the vile lacquered smoke from a burning pile of junked Victrolas? As a net.person, doesn’t this stark realization fill you with a certain deep misgiving, a peculiarly postmodern remorse, an almost Heian Japanese sense of the pathos of lost things? If it doesn’t, why doesn’t it? It ought to.”