Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Technology: friend or foe?
by Kim Gurney

Technology could lead to new visual, physical, conceptual and virtual forms of drawing and printing, according to David Henderson from Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen. Speaking to delegates at the 3rd Impact Printmaking Conference held in Cape Town last month, he was upbeat about the potential for merging traditional and digital technology

His topic was certainly a recurring preoccupation from the start of the conference. In his opening address, South African artist William Kentridge said software offered new techniques for those with a natural affinity for technology and should be treated by artists as they would a master printer. To elaborate upon his point, he referred to Malcolm Payne's new series of digital prints: "The medium is entirely suited to [Payne]; it seems to me in line with what he has been doing for years anyway."

Kentridge said the two initial logics of printmaking - low cost and multiple copies - were redundant in the current age of mass media. But he said there was still a sense of an absent public in its making - even if its function as disseminator of mass information had fallen away.

New technology certainly seems particularly suited to modern contexts in which printmaking is now making an impact. Steve Mumberson, from Middlesex University in England, gave a presentation that focused on the proliferation around London of stencils and stickers connected - usually subversively - with culture, music and politics. The assumed permanence of a print is in this context also eroded - the stencils are often painted over by concerned city councils within days and sometimes hours.

Ruth Pelzer-Montada, a lecturer at Edinburgh's Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies, said that in pre-industrial ages, practitioners of craft travelled extensively to learn and practise. Experience and knowledge were therefore transmitted in their making. But mass production encouraged the view that technology led to alienation. Quoting Walter Benjamin's ideas, Pelzer-Montada said this was not the case: imaginative power was inherent in technically produced objects.

But some delegates were not convinced. One asked: "Viewers - particularly non practitioners - are often challenged by the mystique and engagement with the technique. Will digital prints sidestep that?"

Carole Shepheard, professor of Fine Arts at Elam School of Fine Arts in New Zealand, responded: "We face dismissal of digital images every day by curators and collectors. But when I watch a print being produced on a [digital] printer, there is the same level of fear I would experience in a print studio. We have to develop a way of looking at digital images quite differently� the mark [left by the artist] in the electronic process requires a new set of eyes."

Professor Malcolm Payne, the head of Michaelis School of Fine Art, told the plenary session that printmaking was defined by a strange pathology. With the advent of new technologies, he said notions of the craft of printmaking go through a crisis. "Maybe that's the nature of printmaking, which often has to take the brunt," he added.