Has Technical Become a Dirty Word: Part One - The Age of Invention

Chimney, Ben Dolman 2013

When I started writing this post it was just going to be a couple of musings on the role and impact of technologies in the arts today but it has grown in subject, scope and reflection quite a bit more than what I first envisaged. I will now be posting ‘Has Technical Become a Dirty Word’ in three parts now to allow it to become a bit more digestible and due to my poor writing skills and non linear thought process [I keep on wandering off at different tangents] time to shape and correct.

The three parts of ‘Has Technical Become a Dirty Word’ will be;

Part One: The age of invention
Part Two: The end of the twentieth century, the fall of the maker
Part Three: The rise of the tweed jacket

At first one may ask why is Ben writing this post ‘has technical become a dirty word’ he is doing a MA in Photography about the English landscape, why is he not just writing about landscape photography and its ilk. Photography for me is one of the most technical of the art forms, born out of the industrial revolution its analogue and mechanical roots maybe more discreet and less obvious today as it is re-defined by the digital revolution, but the process of making is still the same, some terms and processes may change from the print darkroom to the digital darkroom, film replaced with a memory stick, chemistry by binary code. I propose that the technical aspects and the processes of making are as relevant today as they have been to past generations of artists and if forgotten or subjugated in the era of the smart phone their rich diversity and depth will be lost. This post grew from a couple of issues raised in a previous post ‘Photography as Object’ and the general state of making and creativity, the future of technology and process driven work in art and design education, the art market, the creative industries and in the wider cultural social environments.

I must point out at the start of this essay that I am a ‘technical’ tutor, a hybrid, by some seen as a bridge between the ‘technical’ and the ‘academic’ but by others it is seen as just merely support of teaching and research, an underling, at service of it’s betters. I see myself and the role of technical not as support but fully engage with and part of the creative and intellectual act of making, to teach and not just demonstrate the technical process and how it can interact, shape and define an artefact, to visualise a concept, to materialise an idea and test it.

There are four elements that for me at least are required to make an 2D or 3D artefact, a drawing, a painting, capture and make a photographic image, devise a digital virtual object, edit a video, construct a CGI animation. The four elements are the technical and process [workflow, material and tools], subject, concept and context and the maker, the artist and designer. The first three elements technical, subject and concept are in my humble view are all equal, none is subservient to another, all three work in tandem, sometimes one becomes more heightened than others depending on the project and the maker. Any notion of hierarchy between these four fundamental elements of making is damaging and limiting not just in art and design but also to lesser and greater degrees in other disciplines.

Human evolution and the development of different human societies have been marked by certain ages, ages that were enable by technical innovation and new concepts that humans used to engage with each other and their environment. The Stone Age - the age of the hunter and fire, The Silver Age - the age of farming and architecture, the birth of civilisation, The Bronze Age - the age of tools and war, The Iron Age - the age of the rise and fall of empires, The Middle Ages - the age of the Church], The Renaissance - the age of the arts and rebirth, The Enlightenment - the age of science and reason, The Industrial Revolution - the age of the machine and world war and finally The Digital Revolution - the information age and the fate of the planet.

In each new age that dawns on human kind the length of each proceeding age becomes shorter, more radical, intense and faster, all new ages of humankind except for the middle ages have been jump started by some kind of technological innovation. The human body can be seen in three parts working in unison in making things and altering nature, the hands are our most immediate form of technology, they are our natural tools, our minds gives rise to new concepts and interpretations, our hands and minds when working together through the body of the maker devise new technologies and processes that alter and refashion nature, our most immediate subject.

If we look at the renaissance to the industrial revolution we can see how our present time was shaped, the middle ages for me offered little in the way advancement, time was held back in western society by the power and dogma of the church. The renaissance, a time of rebirth when artists and architects looked back at greek civilisation, the classical and the humanist traditions and re-imagined them, it was a time when new art and ideas flourished. In the arts painting and sculpture sought more natural realistic interpretations of a subject that used new media and techniques such as oil paint and glazes. The perception of natural phenomena was captured with new perspective systems that gave the appearance of depth and a new spacial realism, light and shadow rendered in a three dimensional manner, new aesthetics of the mathematical beauty of symmetry and composition were developed. There was a curiosity of how things worked, the mechanics of things, how the earth orbited the sun to designing flying machines, there was a technical marvel to the age that continued into the age of enlightenment, perhaps this cross over best exemplified by the advent of the Gutenberg printing press, a new means to communicate these new ideas and questions.

The age of enlightenment continued the developments from the renaissance through scientific inquiry and experimentation, the stranglehold of the church was broken that led to the rise of free thought, technical developments, and new concepts swept froth leading to the industrial revolution, the age of the machine. The industrial age was marked in the arts by invention of the photographic process which was to supplant painting as the main means of visual communication but this did no harm to painting as it actually liberated it from representation and illustration and led it onto a new radical path throughout the 19th and 20th century of discovery and invention to provide what we now term modern art. In the workshop hand crafted objects were replaced by machine-made mass production, for the worker this robbed them of their traditional skills and status, this led to the start of segmentation of a roles in production, the worker, the designer and the manager. The social fabric of the country was ripped apart with the mass movement of people from the countryside to the new industrial cities and towns, the urbanisation of society was rapid and relentless to feed the insatiable appetites of the new factories their machines. The advent of stream power unleashed the second part of the industrial revolution from water power, the third part of the industrial revolution was that of electricity and oil which came to dominated the twentieth century.

The industrial revolution’s urgency and drive for efficiency created technologies that brought in new production line methods of manufacture that broke down the parts of the process of making, workers from all industries from the textile mills to the Model T Ford factory found themselves assigned to an increasingly smaller part of the greater whole, a part that was highly regimented, segmented, repetitive that required no independent decision making or creativity of the operator.  Technology can become inhuman as seen from the smoke stacks of the mill towns to the trenches of the Somme, society was being conditioned and treated as automatons, unemotional, a mechanical part of the machine, the new system. The pursuit of technical innovation in the absence of human emotion and creative impulses is not dissimilar to that of an ideological driven concepts be they religious, secular or political thought, when pursued in the singular and subjected to untethered fundamentalism they can have some unintended darker consequences on society and the world around us. Even when technology and concept are wedded together depending on the subject they can be either for the benefit or decrement of humanity. Take the scientific and theoretical research into sub-atomic structures at the beginning of the twentieth century for example, it led to the splitting of the atom and nuclear physics. Now depending on the subject, war or peace this new technology could be used for a new unlimited source of energy or the extinction of humanity - MAD [mutual assured destruction]. The consequences of technical advancement now have a greater impact on humanity from sticks and stones, the flint stone, forged iron, to sub-atomic particles, what is of interest is now is how it is employed, by whom, for what purpose and to what ends.

When the new technologies, social changes and ideas that erupted during the industrial revolution were used for peaceful, constructive and more progressive purposes there was a sense of optimism, a can do mentality that the modern age could solve the worlds and societies ills. There were some prolonged periods of stability before and after the world wars that gave rise to a new civic cohesion in cities and towns, a community pride that saw the building of new schools and libraries, a free education for all, public hospitals that provided a universal care to the cure for polio and the introduction of penicillin. There has been the exploration of outer space and the universe to our inner most self in the sequencing of DNA, the invention of the telephone to mass communication, the new freedom of self expression of the internet, the freedom to travel to see the world and experience different cultures and lands, to explore the land in a car, to glide through the air in an aeroplane, to hear rock ‘n’ roll and the electric guitar, go to cinema to laugh, cry and scream, the list goes on. The question I ask myself can we continue to have this progressive progress without war, social and gender inequality, famine, pollution and destruction of our habitat. How do we humanise technology and the sciences, perhaps we embrace them within the arts and humanities? Can the optimism, risk taking and invention of modernism be rekindled in the present, a present that seems to be consumed by scepticism and revisionism, a post[modern] idyll for the egotistic?