Printmaking and New Technology
Introduction to the Code Of Ethics For Original Printmaking
(by Richard Ste-Marie)
Written in collaboration with Nicole Malenfant for the Conseil québécois de l'estampe.
Hand and Tool
As long as the technical aspect of printmaking was defined by the manual processes artists used to intervene directly on a matrix, the problem of authenticity did not arise. Somehow, identifying the hand that made the marks was sufficient. But when printmaking techniques evolved with developments in reproduction processes, delimiting the technical realm of printmaking became more problematic. Where did work «executed by the artists hand» stop, and where did the «mechanical», if not «commercial», work of the operation begin?
It would have been simple to decide only manual work was worthy of the rank of art, forgetting that printmaking arose precisely from the invention of the press and that, over time, it assimilated technical innovations developed by trade and industry.
The question has reemerged every time new reproduction processes appear: do these processes foster the creation of authentic works of art? If so, do the works produced belong within the domain of printmaking, as far as were concerned? What denominations must be used to identify them?
With a view to updating its Code of Ethics for Original Printmaking, the Conseil québécois de lestampe has been initiating reflection on its members practice for a number of years. This investigation has led to several realizations, which it would be interesting to summarize as follows:
Evidence would indicate that contemporary artists get enthused about developments in image-technology and printing as they emerge. Aware of their place in the tradition of printmaking, artists welcome the advent of new technologies as the continuation of older modes of production, the survival of which they thereby seek to guarantee. They explore new media from the aesthetic point of view, convinced that saying something in a new way often leads to saying something else, and that new tools let us get a new look at the particular features of contemporary reality. Like their predecessors, these artists attempt to develop new means by adapting them to their personal poetic practice, diverting them, so to speak, from their industrial and commercial functions.
In this way, and in their way, artists who use these new technologies contribute to renewing the two pillars of the printmaking tradition: the broadening of the field of the practice, and the development of the trade.
New Fields of Practice
In 1996, based on this line of reasoning, such thinking on new technologies brought the Conseil québécois de lestampe to propose to members that three new artistic practices in printmaking be introduced. These were copigraphy, art offset and digital printing. Accepted by a large majority of Council members, this proposal proved to be all the more important and justified since the artistic community had already integrated these practices in an updated definition of original printmaking. Indeed, on October 25, 1991, during the Venice Biennale, an international commission recognized such technical processes as photo transfer, stencilling or clichage, photochemical etching, photocopying and computer-assisted work, in response to the creative needs of artists.
Copygraphy, art offset and digital printings respond to specific criteria of printmaking, i.e., work on a matrix, creating an image by exploiting the characteristics of the medium, transferring the matrix image to a support, and capacity for multiplication. Copygraphy, art offset and digital prints also share with traditional prints the singular/multiple paradox.
The existence of the matrix in each of these practices is self-evident. Indeed, we recall the work of David Hockney, who has worked directly on metal offset plates before transferring them for printing. Some members of the Conseil québécois de lestampe used the same technical approaches at the second and third international symposia on art offset in Vila Praïa de Ancora, Portugal, in 1991, and in Trois-Rivières in 1993.
The electrostatic matrix for copigraphic prints is on a drum inside the photocopier. The matrix image resulting from the artists actions on the glass is ultimately transferred to the support. Due to the electrostatic phenomenon, this matrixs feature is that it exists only during printing. It is immediate and momentary, and cannot be preserved for later use. The logic of this process is undoubtedly one reason copigraphy artists print unique proofs.
The digital print generates, processes and stores images in the computers memory in the form of a map. This map establishes the distribution of each of the images components in a matrix called a «bitmap». Any modification visible on-screen and during printing is the consequence of transforming this matrix, which also has a particular characteristic: unlike the matrices in other processes, where an image can only be printed in its original dimensions, computer matrices make it possible to print an image in different sizes and with renderings that vary according to the means of printing. The size of the matrix is one variable, as is the choice of computer printer.
Characteristics of Technique
Like traditional procedures, new practices use machines and techniques that are recognizably their own. Artists strive to master and maximize the distinctive effects inherent in each process in order to create original work. Originality is now found as much in the artists intervention in the making process as in the finality of the end product.
Image Transferring and Reproducibility
It goes without saying that introducing new technologies into the family of printmaking is only conceivable to the extent that these processes share similar supports. New printmaking technologies allow multiple production and are obviously subject to the same criteria of originality and permanence as traditional techniques.
The Singular/Multiple Paradox
Because of reproducibility printmakings recurring theme all printmaking techniques share an «original sin» which, according to Michel Melot, asserts that, in terms of art objects, what is multiple can be unique. In printmaking, there is no original unless there is a copy. This copy or rather, «print» or «proof» is not the reproduction of an already-existing original, but the transfer of a singular and unique matrix image onto a support. The work as such only begins to exist when the first copy is pulled; twin works, duly identified as such, follow (or dont).
By their own characteristics, new techniques visibly share this originality paradox with traditional practices: consequently, they should use the same system of proof identification.
At their inception, all printing processes were «new technologies». This expression is recent and doubtless slightly inaccurate, because there was never any question of naming them such when they appeared. From the current perspective, surely we can use this formula to refer to inventions that brought about a revolution in the communication of knowledge. The development of printing is fast and constant; we are witnessing an increase in new forms of printed matter and new ways of printing. For example, it is entirely possible today to make an edition of digital prints on several printers around the world simultaneously by sending the necessary matrix information to printers via modem, fiber optics and satellite relay. This is one of the new realities of contemporary printmaking. It is also one of the joys modern life brings to artists, and which can be added to the pleasurable scent of ink.
The evolution of our artistic endeavours obliges us to constantly question the processes we use. We must be vigilant that the ethics of our profession as printmakers progress along with the transformation of our practice. In this sense, ethics remains a necessary and ongoing exercise.