Catalogue essay from the exhibition tech which first opened at Jason & Rhodes, 4, Burlington Place, London and ran through July and August 1998 and later travelled to Paris where the works were seen at galerie eof, 15 rue Saint-Fiacre, 75002, Paris, through the latter half of November to early December 1998

notes on tech

mick finch

Technological change has meant that photography, film, video and more recently holography and digital forms, are now widely acceptable artistic mediums. But beyond this adoption of technologies by artists lie deeper questions. Technological impact in the context of mass culture is transforming how we view and experience the world. How can artistic practice examine all that constitutes this transformation? Historically artists have not simply up-graded their artistic practice by adopting new technologies. Leo Steinberg used painting to formulate a concept of how information works. In 1968 he examined a changing relationship between painter and image which, he argued, was dependent upon the way general representational models were being influenced by mediated information.

‘The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes’. 1

For him this marked “the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture”. 2 Rauschenberg was a major reference for Steinberg’s essay. His early paintings were a prophetic configuration of the painting as desktop upon which differing categories of information, objects and representations can be gathered. Since then, the desktop has become the most efficient way of conceptualising the screen interface of the personal computer.

Since Steinberg’s essay there has been a revolution in imaging and reproduction technologies that rivals the invention of photography. Digitisation has thrown into question the perception that photography is a way of producing ‘naturalistic’ visual imagery. Digitisation has also, ironically, repositioned painting in the front line of critical concerns. Anne-Marie Willis has described this when she said:

‘(I)t is as if the scene or object at which the camera was pointed imprinted itself on the film. With digitised photo-imagery the viewer will never be able to be sure of this any more – the index will be erased as the photo becomes pure iconicity. In this sense digitisation reverses the history of imaging technologies and takes photography back to the ontology of the infinitely manipulable medium of painting. If Paul Delaroche declared in 1839, “from today painting is dead” now we would say “from today photography is dead”. And ironically it is a simulated form of painting that is displacing photography.’ 3

The indexical status of photography as true evidence of a raw reality can no longer be maintained. The larger issue that photography has to now address is that it is a medium, it mediates to arrive at a representation, just like any other medium. This was true before digitisation, but now technology has placed photography into an endless process of manipulation which brings it closer, on one level, to painting.

It is often said that from its beginnings photography has been locked into a conflict with painting. Photography stripped away the functions that had given painting in an earlier era a utilitarian value. Though other art forms were also transformed by the arrival of photographic images painting was placed in the extraordinary position of having its very existence challenged. The invention of photography was accompanied by enthusiastic claims that painting was now dead and just a redundant technique from an earlier and less technologically developed phase of western culture. This way of thinking about painting in terms of mechanical techniques of representation is still operative today. Painting has to justify itself fundamentally as a living and engaged form of representation if it is not to fall foul of denouncements of it being anachronistic, nostalgic, serving the cult of the individual and expressivity or anything else that will marginalise it in terms of avant-garde culture.

However entertaining their process may be, there is the doubt that in general yBa strategies only serve to uphold rather than critique the forces which are laid bare in the work. YBa tends to match like-with-like, displacing the intense sensations found on advertising hoardings or tabloid newspapers into the context of the gallery space, bringing life into art. To theatricalise the forms of the spectacle may leave the spectator as passive in front of the work of art as in relation to the spectacle itself. The journalistic jingo that celebrates yBa tends to cast painting in the role of a superseded consumer durable. Thos position was most recently aired in Waldemar Januszczak’s Guardian article, ‘Wrong medium at the Wrong Time’ which was a familiar cry that painting has had its day (a chant of dead, forever, always – now) 4

The persistence and value of painting can be attributed to other causes. The distance that painting has from technological innovation places it in a critical space. It may not ‘mirror the information’ age as Januszczak would argue (an account that sees art as an impersonator of the ‘real’). It can instead offer a critique of it. This critical position is distinct from the role that self-criticism played in formalism around the specific qualities of the medium. As Hal Foster says:

‘ “Quality”…exposed as an imposition of a set of norms, is displaced as a criterion of “interest”, and art is henceforth seen to develop less by formalist historicist refinement (as in “pursue the pure, extract the extraneous”) than by structural historical negation (as in “how can I as an artist expand the aesthetic and ideological limits of the artistic paradigm that I have received?). At this point, too, the object of critical investigation becomes less the essence of the medium than “the social effect (function) of a work” in the present, and perhaps most important, he intent of artistic intervention becomes less to secure a transcendental “conviction” in art and its institutions than to undertake an immanent critique of its rules and regulations. Indeed, this last may be seen as a provisional distinction between formalist-modernist and avant-gardist- postmodernist art: “to compel conviction” versus ‘to cast doubt”; “to seek the essential” versus “to reveal the conditional”. 5

Edward Chell, Ashley Elliott, Gwen Hardie, Adam Lowe, mark Wright and myself are all painters, who indifferent ways, are responding to a context that arises from imaging technologies and its implications for painting. The references operating amongst these artists’ work constitute a number of areas of concern. In the work of Chell, Lowe and Wright photography is a reference or is used in the actual process of production in their work. Wright uses depth of field and focal qualities to create uncertain spaces. There is a play between the virtual appearance of the space and the identity of what is being represented. The microscopic images from which the paintings are derived and the large scale of the final works throw the reading of them into uncertainty. Chell uses photocopy to transform drawings that he has made. These are then transferred to the painting. Representation of motifs and the resulting grid structure generate terrains (close up textures? /landscapes?) which form an image that shifts through a range of potential readings. Lowe uses of his own paintings within a process where mediation and transformation take place. The painting is photographed, reworked and then reprinted setting up a tension between the original and reproduction. An idea of image is thrown into question by these three artists through processes of mediation and shifts of scale between the pictorial result and the notion of referent.

The second grouping of artists are questioning the ground that exists between the status of a work as a painting and the possibility it can be read as an image. Hardie plays the flatness of painting off against its illusionistic potential. By asserting the objecthood of painting she displaces a virtual reading of the image. The position of the viewer is thrown into question in these works as it is in Elliott’s paintings. He achieves a screen-like semblance in his paintings by using horizontal lines which obscure images. The identity of the painting is uncertain. My own work is also concerned with issues of image and abstraction. The gestalt properties of the geometric form of Mickey Mouse is obscured and revealed through painterly process calling into question the operational condition of the image.

We can see a tendency in all the work shown to relocate ideas of the real onto uncertain ground away from an essentialist horizon. Serving as material in the rhetoric of these paintings, the potential for origin or objecthood to form a syntax of a fictional absolute is displaced into a shifting ground of possibilities.

1. Leo Steinberg. From The Flat Bed Picture Plane published in Other Criteria, London and New York, 1972.

2. ibid

3. Anne-Marie Willis. Digitisation and the Living Death of Photography. An essay published in Culture technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. Philip Hayward, John Libby. 1990

4. Some might say that it is sculpture, as a specific medium, that has sunk without trace and not painting.

5. Hal Foster, ‘The Crux of Minimalism’ p.177. (A revised version of this essay was included in the ‘Return of the Real’). My reference here is twofold as Michael fried uses a paragraph of Foster’s in ‘An Introduction to My Art Criticism’ for his recently published collected essays, ‘Art and Objecthood’ (Chicago Press, 1998). Foster here is responding to Fried’s essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ of 1968 in its sense as a critique of Minimalism. Fried’s essay also serves as a positioning of painting as being by definition anti-theatrical. My essay here is not the place to enter into this issue but it is important to note that anti-theatricality can be thought of, potentially, as a critique of spectacle. Within technology’s relationship to mass media forms, resides the potential for it to be used for the needs of the spectacle. With this mind anti-theatricality and thus, generically, painting is potentially positioned within an immanent critcal field.

A major part of this essay was first used as New Technology, New Painting published in issue 17 of Contemporary Visual Art Magazine who have kindly granted permission for it to be used for this catalogue.