Project 30

Never before have creative people had so many tools available to them. But while digital technologies promise the sheen of perfection and seemingly infinite possibilities, some artists have returned to pre-digital or analogue tools: composers who prefer pencil and manuscript paper to notation software; animators who prefer the hand-drawn to computer-generated imagery; photographers who favour the darkroom and developer over pixels.

I propose a feature story that surveys a group of “analogue” artists and asks why they have opted for old-fashioned, labour-intensive and sometimes unpredictable technologies, and shunned the new digital wonder-tools.

The story would be done as a package in the suggested project area of “Innovative Technology”. It would comprise a written piece of journalism of 3000-4000 words, video clips of artists at work, audio and video examples, and online interactive features. These are explained below.

Background to this story

I started thinking about this story during the 2009 Arts Journalism Fellowship. We visited Mister Jalopy’s shop in Los Angeles: a fantastic store of gadgets, gizmos and nostalgic charm. In a discussion about the “Maker Movement”, people expressed frustration at some digital tools – Apple products were mentioned – that purport to offer unlimited scope for creativity but which are actually closed proprietary systems, resistant to modification. The Maker Movement, on the other hand, favours experimentation, human handiwork, and the freedom to be imperfect.

This chimed with my own experiences and preferences: disdain for the auto spell-checker, the feeling that I would write on a typewriter rather than a laptop if it were convenient to do so, and resistance to commercial products that restrict freedom in the name of profit.

With this inkling of a story idea I began to see and hear about artists who prefer to work with pre-digital or analogue tools. They include (and these are all Australian examples for now): pop band the Audreys, who release their albums as vinyl LPs; the Point Light gallery that shows darkroom-produced photographic prints; and composer Liza Lim, who writes her complex compositions with pencil and manuscript paper.

As the story will be discussing some media-based art forms – such as photography, animation and recorded music – Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction may be pertinent. For some artists, the choice between analogue and digital reproduction is an aesthetic one, not necessarily motivated by commerce or convenience.

Story elements

All story elements can be produced for online publication:

1. Video interviews with artists at work. Artists may need to be selected for this story before the Fellowship, in order to choose the best talent and obtain permissions.

2. A written piece of 3000-4000 words, a master narrative that brings together the surveyed artists and their work and makes observations about their similarities and differences.

3. Audio and video examples of the art works discussed in the story.

4. Interactive games that allow online readers to experiment with analogue and digital tools. For example: a traditional test of an artist’s draughtsmanship was their ability to hand-draw a perfect circle. We ask readers to try drawing a circle (with mouse, admittedly), and compare this with a “perfect” circle that has been produced electronically. Can readers tell the difference between a photographic print produced from a negative and a digital photograph, or between hand-drawn and digital animation?

Conclusion

The key to the story is to identify and explain the tension between handmade or “analogue” art, and art produced with digital tools. Do we perceive perfection in digital art, or do we subtly register imperfections in analogue art as the sign of a human artist at work?

The story has pressing implications for the field of arts journalism too. With so much journalism now in the digital realm, how can journalists accurately report and critique art that is resolutely not digital? A clever piece of narrative journalism will tease out the apparent contradiction of a story about analogue art forms being told via a website.