2014: WritingDID YOU D.I.Y.?Handyman essay for Flood Gallery, DublinEVB
Before the advent of the printed newspaper, the major kind of periodical news publication was the handwritten news sheet. In 1556, the government of Venice first published the monthly Notizie scritte (“Written notices”), which cost one gazetta - a Venetian coin of the time, the name of which eventually came to mean “newspaper”.
The shift from script to print revolutionized western culture. Hand methods of production were laborious and costly and precision was difficult to achieve unless highly skilled. Access to reading material and literature was available only to the elite few. The early printing machines allowed texts and images to be duplicated and reproduced by block printing.
In the 1450s Johannes Gutenberg developed the handpress with a moveable type system. The high quality and relatively low price of the printed books that were produced created a printing revolution that spread across Europe as it headed into the renaissance and would eventually spread around the world. The Gutenberg handpress remained, in its fundamentals, virtually unchanged for 350 years, its movable type hand set by skilled hands.
By the 19th century the industrial revolution was replacing many hand production methods with machines. The newspaper industry was at the forefront of many changes to the printing industry with presses expanding to supply the growing demand for larger print runs and an expanding reading public. Book printing using hand set type held out until the mid-20th century until the print industry met its next arm wrestle, the digital revolution.
Handmade Vs. ready-mademade by hand, not by machine, and typically therefore of superior quality
The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 18th Century was a reaction to the industrial revolution and stood for traditional craftsmanship and folk styles of decoration and production in which the whole item was made and assembled by an individual or small group. The Arts and Crafts philosophy was influenced by John Ruskin’s social criticism. Ruskin thought machinery was to blame for many social problems and that a healthy society depended on skilled and creative workers. Arts and Crafts artists opposed the division of labour implemented and an economic strategy during the industrial era where factories saved money by having workers perform single or limited tasks eliminating the long training period required to train craftsmen, who were replaced with lesser paid but more productive unskilled workers.
The Arts and Craft movement mourned the loss of traditional skills and creativity and sought to reinstate the value of craftsmanship, quality of materials and original design. Another reaction by artists to the age of mechanical reproduction was the concept of the ready-made. Marcel Duchamp coined the term ready-made in 1915 to describe a common, mass-produced object that had been selected to be an artwork by an artist and not materially altered in any way.
It was the later reaction to industrialisation that went on to influence much of western 20th Century arts education with its questions of authorship, originality, and man vs. machine. Walter Benjamin examined the development of mechanical visual reproduction from copying a master’s work, Greek founding and stamping, woodcutting, etching, engraving, lithographs and photography demonstrating that technical reproduction is not a modern phenomenon, yet modern methods allow for greater accuracy across mass production and modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art.
A Reality Check
In 1919 Duchamp drew a slightly larger than life-size hand drawn cheque made out to Duchamp’s dentist, Dr. Daniel Tzanck for some dental work he could not afford to pay for. The cheque is a highly detailed reproduction. Duchamp is quoted as saying, “I took a long time doing the little letters, to do something which would look printed”. His handmade work is an imitation of a ready-made, man imitating machine, but it fails because the artist can only make it look as close a resemblance as he can, but ultimately it can only be looked at, it cannot be spent. Duchamp bought the cheque back 20 years later from his dentist for a much higher price than what it was made out for. I wonder how much it is worth now?
Back to the Future
Instead of entering the 21st century with a confident vision for the future, we seem to desperately be clinging to the safety of a bygone era. A combination of fear of the digital age and the economic recession inspired a thrift psychology which saw us return to a home-grown, handmade, folk aesthetic which spawned the Mumfordication of popular culture with an ideology reminiscent to the Arts and Crafts movement of a century earlier. We don’t have time, skills or inclination to actually make things by hand, again it would be too laborious and costly, so instead we mass produce objects and then humanize them slightly with a sprinkle of icing like a hand decorated factory made cake. We find reassurance in the gesture of the hand finished, hand picked, handmade even though we are aware of the production lie.
In art too despite assassination attempts on the author we still look for the hand of the artist for authenticity and to add value to a work. Reproductions or ready-mades may be readily used to disguise the gesture of the hand but the artist has an awareness of the craft values of printing, of editioning, hand tinting, to infer nostalgic and auratic qualities of the handmade and its impurities and uniqueness. It’s harder to attach this kind of aura (and value) to brand new technology whose imperfections and tactility aren’t yet apparent to our undiscerning touch.
Retro Repro Revisited
The hi-tech machines of the present are the lo-tech outdated machines of the future. AA Bronson paraphrased Marshal McLuhan, when he said that when a medium dies, it becomes an art form. So when you see artists using a particular medium, it is a sign that its life as an integral part of popular culture is ending, or over.
The race to develop new technology with its constant updates and latest models have left a rusting trail of machinery that can still be used for production if people are prepared to role up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. The arsenal of retro repro and old technology; Letter Press, Photocopiers, Risograph, Lithograph, Super 8 and 16mm film cameras has lost their market value are practically being given away. Will they acquire a new value the older and rarer they get? The equipment is no longer in the hands of industry or trained professionals either, nor does it need to be used for their original purpose as that function has since been replaced.
The advent of desktop publishing on home computers led to the possibility of the individual producing books that had previously been created and assembled using multiple skill sets and processes. Typesetting, plate-making, filmmaking, impositioning all used to be separated and controlled by a chain of skilled workers. We now have the control and potential to do everything, but do we have the skills? DTP coincided with the introduction of digital printing and print-on-demand publishing meaning that print has become cheaper and more accessible than at any previous time in history.
This new relationship with print has made us actively revisit previous print production processes to the extent that print will probably survive the digital revolution through the innumerable small independent presses all over the world fascinated by the art of printing.
D.I.Y culture is an attitude rather than an aesthetic, it is not about the handmade, and it is not anti-industry or anti-technology. On the contrary it will continue at the pace of technological advancements, only a few feet behind.