Tate Papers Issue 14 Autumn 2010: Ed Kr
Cinematic Drawing in a Digital Age
The meaning of the apparent ahistoricity of drawing is determined by the other technologies of representation that co-exist with it at any given moment. This effect itself is a historical construct. Drawing becomes ‘archaic’ in the age
of mechanical reproduction, yet this archaism makes contact with the tactility of the most up to date mediums. And if writing with light began by imitating drawing, as analog photography itself becomes an archaic medium, drawing will aspire to the condition of the photograph, not as a projective representation,
1but rather as a resemblance produced by contact.
As art historian Michael Newman suggests, the meaning of drawing’s specific
qualities is conditioned by the field of other visual technologies with which it shares a space at any one time. As verb or as noun, drawing will appear differently when considered in relation to painting or to writing, to sculpture or printmaking, to photography, film, or digital media. Indeed, it is argued here that a richer and more precise conception of drawing’s specific
capacities can be arrived at by exploring its alignments with, and differences from, other forms of practice, rather than by attempting to determine the properties supposedly intrinsic to drawing in itself. Because the field of available technologies is constantly shifting, this kind of relational definition of drawing would also need to be acknowledged as historically contingent.
The more precise implication of Newman’s argument is that the impact of
digital media has been so dramatic as to force into alignment existing
technologies, specifically drawing and photography, which have ‘analogue’
2conventionally been considered to operate very differently. As is frequently
noted, when compared with the digital, analogue photography’s indexicality
3becomes newly prominent. We might add that film’s celluloid support, composed
as it is of a linear, discontinuous sequence of internally continuous frames, also gains new visibility in a digital age. This essay explores some ways in which our conception of drawing is reconfigured by the arrival of digital media. One aspect of this is to extend the implications of Newman’s insight, and to
consider drawing’s relationship with film: to explore the notion of what the
4poet and artist Henri Michaux called ‘cinematic drawing’.
A second aim, however, is to exceed the specifically technological dimension of the analogue/digital opposition, and to explore the way in which this binary might also be used to specify a conception of thinking as backgrounded by the body’s liveliness and interference. That is, how concepts and processes associated with the analogue are particularly attuned to articulating the kinds of conversions involved in embodied perception, as well as the intensive or affective register of those processes. This shift in emphasis draws the discussion away somewhat from the issue of medium specificity, and towards more phenomenological questions regarding duration and embodiment, which are nevertheless crucial in thinking about the production and reception of drawings. In this I shall focus upon the blackboard drawings of Tacita Dean, which she
began making in the early 1990s, and William Kentridge’s Drawings for
, a series begun in 1989, and to which the most recent addition was Projection
5Tide Table 2003. Both artists came to international prominence during the mid to late 1990s, a moment with a degree of remoteness from our own, when the Web was in its infancy and digital imaging was not yet supported by the kind of processing power that has made it the utterly pervasive and indispensable
presence it is today. In the works discussed here, both artists specifically dramatise the relationship between drawing and film; both have explicitly embraced anachronistic or obsolete objects and technologies; and both have also spoken of a connection between their drawing process and particular modes of
Analogue and digital
As media theorist Lev Manovich explains, whether built from scratch on computers or sampled from analogue sources, digital media objects are characterised by their reducibility to a uniform numerical code, to vast
7sequences of I/0 combinations. This kind of composition stands in contrast to analogue signals, which are continuous in both time and amplitude and are irreducible to a numerical form. In an analogue microphone, for example, a continuous sound wave is converted (or transduced) into an electrical signal, with each modulation in amplitude registered in a corresponding change in voltage. An analogue signal can also be translated into digital data in a process involving two steps: sampling and quantisation. Here, a continuous signal is converted into a series of discrete units, each being then assigned a numerical value. This process inevitably involves some loss of information, depending upon the frequency with which samples are taken (sampling rate) and how finely the output values are differentiated (resolution).
Together with numerical representation, Manovich asserts, the second crucial property of digital objects is that they are subject to ‘algorithmic
8manipulation’ and so are fully programmable. This is without historical
precedent, and, Manovich argues, these two basic principles of new media objects – numerical representation and programmability – produce a series of
9second-order characteristics and operations, one of which is transcoding. To
transcode something is to translate it from one digital format into another (as opposed to transduction, an analogue term, which refers to the conversion of
one type of energy into another). This possibility is enabled by the fact that digital data is composed of the most basic differential units, to which it can be decoded, edited if desired, and then re-encoded into another output format. This enables Friedrich Kittler to announce:
The general digitalization of channels and information erases the
differences among individual media. Sound and image, voice and
text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as
interface … Inside the computers themselves, everything becomes
a number: quantity without image, sound, or voice. And once
optical fibre networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a
standardized series of digitalized numbers, any medium can be
translated into any other. With numbers, everything goes.
Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage,
transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping – a total media
link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium.
Instead of wiring people and technologies, absolute knowledge
10will run as an absolute loop.
The indifference of algorithms to medial contents or sensory fields means that, as critical theorist Mark Hansen argues, ‘the very task of deciding what
medial form a given rendering shall take no longer follows from the inherent
11differences between media (which have become mere surface differences).’
Digital image files such as JPEGs and TIFFs are composed of pixels, the values of which are derived from a uniform code, distributed on a pre-arrayed grid. The analogue image, by contrast, is the product of photochemical processes that do not have recourse to any such intermediate coding in their qualitative conversions of light.
Debates concerning the impact of digital media on existing visual technologies have so far centred on lens-based media. Indeed, the extraordinary new
potentials for image making and image manipulation offered by digital tools have rendered analogue photography and film all but obsolete in the everyday
12 With a world, with major companies discontinuing their production lines.mixture of pragmatism and poetics, Dean has protested against this annihilation of the analogue and the abandonment of its aesthetic potential: ‘We are giving
up our ability to make as near as perfect [a] simulacrum of our visual world, which digital still fails to replicate despite its increasing proliferation of
13pixels, and we are doing so willingly.’ One of the problems with the digital
image, for Dean, is that, ‘It is too far from drawing, where photography and film have their roots: the imprint of light on emulsion, the alchemy of
14circumstance and chemistry, marks upon their support.’ Indeed, ontological
questions arising from the departure of the digital image from the indexical status of the photograph have been prominent in theoretical discussions of the
15stakes of these shifts for visual art. Although re-touching has long been a
feature of the final preparation of analogue photographs, the ease and extent to which seamless and traceless revisions can be made to digital images, at the
16level of their fundamental coding, is unprecedented.
Aside from within various exhibition spaces, conferences and publications specifically devoted to new media and digital art (for example, SIGGRAPH and Ars Electronica), drawings made using digital means are still largely absent from the landscape of major exhibitions and publications devoted to post-war
17practice. This relative invisibility takes place against a backdrop of the ubiquity of software programs such as AutoCAD (first released in 1982), which have revolutionised the world of architectural, commercial and industrial draughtsmanship. Digital drawing tools have afforded artists and designers an extraordinary array of capacities to produce, store, overlay, rework and duplicate graphic schemes. The mouse or stylus replace conventional drawing tools, and the frictionless luminosity of the computer monitor is substituted for the tactile grain of the paper sheet. Since the 1980s, digital drawing tablets have been available for the home computer. Here, a sensitised surface
18acts as a page, with the drawn image usually appearing on a separate monitor.
Sensitivity to the pressure and tilt of the stylus is now very acute, and the replication of visual effects generated by different brushes, pencils, crayons and erasers extremely sophisticated.
The relative invisibility of digital drawing in a visual art context suggests that, despite numerous claims for the waning of the aura of the art work since
s famous (and ambivalent) essays of the 1930s, a fascination Walter Benjamin’
remains with drawing’s tracing of the singular, finite activity of its own
19making. While the expressive doxa that drawings provide access to the artist’
s inner being have not survived the practical and theoretical onslaughts it has sustained since the 1960s, it remains apparent that the drawn mark does
20evidence the process of its making with particular immediacy. What claims can
legitimately be made for the meaning of that bodily residue is an open question, but, at least since the invention of the printing presses, the idea of the authentic corporeal trace has remained important to the phenomenological encounter with drawing, even if the dominant emphasis, at least since the 1960s, has shifted away from the conveyance of expressive contents and towards the
21more literal elaboration of systems, signs and processes. This involvement of
the body in the production of drawings nevertheless implies a responsive relationship with conscious intentions or unconscious processes of the artist, and contrasts both with the production of most photographs, which tends to actively bypass the interference of the maker’s body, and with the numerical
mediations involved in digital images.
Together with its changed relationship to the body, digital drawing also involves a movement away from the material heterogeneity common to ‘manual’
drawing practices. When compared with painting or sculpture, drawing would hardly be thought of as dramatising its materiality; indeed, as French art historian Henri Focillon wrote in the 1930s, ‘[Drawing involves] a process of
abstraction so extreme and so pure that matter is reduced to a mere armature of
the slenderest possible sort, and is, indeed, very nearly volatised.’ However,
Focillon continues, ‘matter in this volatile state is still matter … Its
variety, moreover, is extreme: ink, wash, lead pencil, charcoal, red chalk, crayon, whether singly or in combination, all constitute so many distinct
22traits, so many distinct languages.’ In light of drawings by Joseph Beuys, Ed
Ruscha or Cornelia Parker, for example, Focillon’s list is in need of radical
extension, but the way in which drawing foregrounds the variety, contingency and fragility of its material constitution continues to be crucial to its effects. In its slightness, drawing’s materiality can become more rather than
less powerful: from the flickering miasma of Georges Seurat’s black conté
chalks on Michallet paper, to the truant bleed of Henri Michaux’s supple, inky
glyphs, to the delicate activation of Agnes Martin’s infinitesimally
23differentiated grids. Drawing’s precise engagement with a material spectrum of liquidity and dryness, frangibility and obduracy, porosity and impermeability, remains a vital source of its power, foiled as it is by the ubiquity of everyday interactions with the durable plastics of computer hardware. Moreover, the materiality of drawing is not only important to the mark as it is inscribed, but also as it is removed. In the process of writing or drawing on a computer, it is very easy to delete a pixel or character,
24instantly removing it from view. Erasure works differently, and it is
impossible to actively erase a material mark without some effort or residue. Both Dean and Kentridge dramatise this work of erasure, the insistent visibility of which announces their shared attachment to the temporality, materiality and bodily investments made newly visible in ‘analogue’ drawing
by the arrival of the digital.
The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days (Board 2) 1997 Seven parts, chalk on blackboard
2400 x 2400 mm each
? Tacita Dean, courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery,
New York/Paris enlarge
The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days (Board 4) 1997 Seven parts, chalk on blackboard
2400 x 2400 mm each
? Tacita Dean, courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery,
New York/Paris enlarge
Tacita Dean’s The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days 1997 (figs.1–2)
is composed of seven eight-foot-square blackboard panels bearing white chalk drawings and fragments of written script. They describe the progress of a sea adventure, complete with raging storms, an imperilled crew and an eventual homecoming. The sequence begins with a minimally worked panel, annotated with a title at the top: ‘Roaring Forties – an epic C19 sea movie’, as well as some
initial filmic cues: ‘fade up from black’, ‘start’. The second board shows
a crew of sailors clewing the sail (‘long take’); in the third, the presence
of a gliding albatross warns of what is to come: in the next two boards the vessel and its crew are in trouble, thrown and listing amidst a howling gale. By the sixth board, a close-up of the swell with no horizon, the storm has subsided, and the seventh and last board offers a happy ending as the surviving sailors row into frame and towards dry land.
As its full title suggests, the series was made over seven days, with Dean working in situ at The Drawing Center in New York. The blackboards retain the foggy traces of erased and re-worked passages, particularly evident in Boards
25II and VI. The chalk sometimes dissolves into a grey mist, and at others trails the outline of forms like a running current. The visible work of erasure further foregrounds the performative dimension of the drawings, with the time and labour of their making openly exhibited on the surface of each board. These unstable drawn images interact with clusters of short text fragments, which offer directions for imaginary camera angles (‘close up on swell’, BD6),
special effects (‘fx wind’, BD4), atmospheric conditions (‘wind abates’,
BD5, ‘full sunlight’, BD7), exclamations (‘man overboard’, BD5, ‘land
ahoy’, BD7), extra descriptive details (‘capable hands’, BD4) and narrative
progress (‘she’s still afloat (just)’, BD5).
The Roaring Forties takes its place within a series of blackboard works by Dean
26relating to the sea. The artist has made explicit the connection between these drawings and the instability of their subject, the driest of materials proving the perfect vehicle for conveying the sea’s liquid dynamism: ‘The flux, the
drawing and the redrawing, the erasure and the rubbing out belong to the sea, and nothing else has that same flux. I need that for working with the chalk. The drawings can’t be fixed because it would take the chalk off. They are a
27kind of performance.’ In the midst of a fog of erasures in BD2, Dean has written, half-erased, the words ‘Sorry Leonardo’. This apology in fact refers
to Dean’s erasure of an image of a ship drawn by New York artist Leonardo Drew,
28which is still visible above and to the left. However, given the emphasis in
the work upon process and movement, and indeed upon the dynamics of water, the name Leonardo cannot help but evoke the celebrated Renaissance polymath, whose corpus of drawings was crucial in establishing a new relationship between
29drawing, indeterminacy and the movements of the mind.
The Roaring Forties refers to a zone in the southern Atlantic, between 40? and
50? latitude, infamous for its treacherous winds. The drawings were made at the beginning of 1997, just a few months after Dean completed her breakthrough film, Disappearance at Sea (1996), which she famously related to the ill-fated
30sea voyage of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst. Shot at dusk at Berwick
Lighthouse in Northumberland, the film moves between close-up footage of the rotating lighthouse lamp, and broader views of the sea, cliffs and setting sun. The opening sections are dominated by the hypnotic rotations of the lamp’s
clanking machinery and the chromatic intensity of the sunset. As darkness descends, the bulb is illuminated and projects its rays into the night. In the slow final shots, the sense of fragility and isolation is palpable, as the beam is all but smothered by the gathering darkness. Metaphorical connections with Crowhurst’s precarious mental state seem inevitable. The film closes with a finger of light cutting through the blackness with a slight, glancing beam, which barely picks out details of the rocky cliffs and the shifting surface of