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Automation of Art (Part 01)

Copyright Lorenzo Duran
Copyright Lorenzo Duran

Perhaps this line of thought continues on from my scribblings on digital and analogue photography in my last post. I’ll start by saying I am an ‘ubergeek’ and I do love technology, hence why I am quite excited about gizmos like the new Lytro Illum camera; it just looks cool and really opens up endless possibilities to photography, ‘Who needs a focusing ring any more’. Overall I just welcome such inventions and digital applications into the creative fold; I do wonder though if they start to conflict with the act of making and the overall significance of art.

Anyhow, there are two particular inventions from the last few decades that I have found to be really fascinating, both in their engineering qualities and the final resolutions they can produce. Both were made for the manufacturing and fabrication industry; which, over time they soon became assimilated into the creative world, which has led to some stunning creative investigations.

This first machine that peaked my interest is the laser cutter; effectively an X,Y plotter that has a high powered, focused laser emitter at the end. Primarily developed for metal cutting and routering within an industrial setting; these machines can now be typically found in art colleges and universities. With such devices an artist can enter their CAD based design into the computer and basically hit print, or in this case ‘Burn, baby burn’. The laser cutter then cuts through or burns away layers of the chosen medium through precise control of the depth and power output of the laser.

Over the years I have seen a growing number of items produced in this manner, from greetings cards to shadow play installations. The designs can be very intricate and do indeed look quite amazing; yet I will admit that I have started to become a little blasé and jaded in my appreciation of work produced via this technique. From my own experience I know how easy a free licensed vector design can be downloaded from the Internet tweaked and modified slightly to then go through this process to create, what is essentially a new yet appropriated piece of artwork.

It seems that my appreciation of artwork, is guided by the making process, this has become my principal criterion in ascertaining its interest and worth to me. It is although the finished article has become secondary unless I know that a certain level of skill has been used in its formation. This has happened recently when I saw the work of Lorenzo Duran, ‘pictured above’; my first reaction was, they are good, probably done with a laser cutter, nothing special, NEXT! Then I found out that these highly detailed stencil works have all been meticulously hand cut, so now I find the work interesting, why?

Now, I am really drawn to the work of Eric Standley and his amazing 3D layered stained-glass window inspired pieces. I viewed the work, armed with the knowledge that it was laser cut; yet I still found them quite pleasing, perhaps it is the intricacy of the designs and the use of negative space that I found to be noteworthy. Anyway in this short video he states about initially making straight copies from other designs, further tweaking them for his work. So where is the skill and does this work lose any artistic substance?

Through this automated process, has now the artist become an artisan, and through this mechanised system, is the work looked upon as craft. I noticed in the video that Standley’s work is beautifully framed and placed onto easels, in some ways elevating them as unique pieces of art. Yet through this laser cutting technique, hundreds of identical pieces could be produced in a day; does this matter, if these designs were painstakingly hand-cut, would they then give more of an impact?

Does the digital process and the automation of creating take anything away, perhaps through this mechanised making machine, the lines of art, craft, artist and artisan are getting thinner?

For some more great work see:

Caroline Jane Harris

Rob Ryan

Hina Aoyama

Posted by author: Russell Squires
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12 thoughts on “Automation of Art (Part 01)

  • The camera looks really interesting but is this another case of the manufacturer hyping the abilities of some new idea they’ve had, like Canon and the claims made for the new IS system on their macro lenses? The lens does look awesome though with a constant f/2.0 throughout its range.
    Those leaves! Well, what can you say. The detail is amazing and the level of skill he’s developed in such a short time is truly remarkable.
    You ask ” if these designs were painstakingly hand-cut, would they then give more of an impact?” No they probably wouldn’t have any more or less of an impact but each one would be entirely unique whereas the laser-cut pieces are just a manufactured product no different from anything else off an assembly line and unless it becomes unique in the future because few of them survive through time, then they’ll become like a vintage car, oohed and aahed over as ‘works of art’, though the hand-cut items would have been considered works of art since they were made simply because no two would be exactly alike.

    • I feel it is a shame that work can and is judge by how it is created. Yet strip all that away and the work can still be appreciated for what it is, the final piece should speak volumes above how it came to be.
      The Lytro is a game changer though, I believe there has been talks about using the near field technology in smartphones.

  • Thanks Russell. I do not usually respond to these things as my time is consumed by my studio, but I like what you are saying here. The tools at our disposal these days have already lifted our expectations. I believe these same tools can also bring new work to into existence – things that were otherwise impossible.
    I ask myself the same question; does a work have to be pain-staking to raise its aura? I am personally attracted to artifacts that exceed the confines of expectations- that destroy impossibilities. They are measures of a person’s faith in what they are doing.
    I do not measure my own work by the amount of suffering I endure to produce it. Actually I do not think it is suffering at all- but I do know I am compelled to do it, no matter what. I am admittedly obsessive… but I try not to think or apologize for that either. I just have to make the work. In doing so, I am old-school using new-school tools… takes me about six months to vector draw each layer, not counting the compositional testing and cutting. Then about 60 hrs of laser time, which I do not consider glamorous, but akin to a sand mandala drawing- long, complicated compositions that are then produced patiently over a weeks time. I can only make about 2 larger works a year, the smaller are tests for larger compositions.
    I design the work, and more importantly scrutinize it (sometimes to death). I do not think the choices I make over the time it takes to draw these works could be automated. I’d like to see that- how synthetic that might be. Despite my tools, I’m on the John-Henry side of this discussion…

    • Indeed the technology is opening up new avenues of exploration that were physically impossible before, so there could be exciting mediums just around the corner. Some of which may be mentioned in Part 02.
      Certain aspects of photographic labour I endure I do wonder its worth; for example spending hours behind a screen cleaning up high-res scans of large format negatives. Yet once completed I do enjoy the fruits of my labour.
      Perhaps through witnessing photography’s swift technological advancement that has paved the way for certain automated aspects I have a a slightly jaded view. Yet, regardless of how an image has been created its judgement and appreciation is a swift and merciless act.

  • On a related note I often wonder why self-styled art photographers flogging B&W prints in local galleries make so much play of the time they spent slaving over a bath of hot hypo. Is it a belief that this effort somehow makes a rather dull monotone of Buttermere any more worthy?
    For me the essence of art is the central idea and a good idea is a good idea, no matter how created. I loved the Duran above even before I realised it was a “sculpture” of some kind.
    I think the line between art and artisan blurred years ago – with Duchamp – if not well before.
    Eric – I love your line about “exceeding the confines of expectation”. As an idea it is a pretty good explanation of why the Duran works for me, and why most hyper-realist painting seems to me a waste of time. The leaf far exceeds my understanding of what a stencil is or can be – while a hyper-real painting falls far short.

    • The hot hypo has almost been replaced with semi-pretentious techniques such as saying a print is a Giclee; I know, I have done it as it is what the art buyers are after. You daren’t call it an inkjet…
      I will always appreciate the skill of hyper realist painters, yet it is a style I find perplexing, is it flattery to imitate photography? Still if you got a photo and applied a faux watercolour effect to imitate a painting you would be laughed at.

  • The great artists of the Renaissance would have had no qualms, I think, about engaging a studio full of assistants to execute parts of their works, and many of the images that are most admired were not created by a single person. The objective was to produce a work that was artistically pleasing – whether to a specific audience (e.g. the sitter for a portrait) or a general public (’s fellow “salonistes” for the Impressionists).
    Taken at that level, the substitution of machines for human beings in the creation of a work should arguably not condition whether it is of artistic merit.
    On the other hand, an art-buying audience likes the idea of owning something unique, so the financial value of a work that could be reproduced is likely to be lower than one that can’t, assuming all other factors are the same – (for example, a Hockney etching should cost less than “A bigger splash”?).
    Are we at risk of marking down the artistic quality of a mechanically produced work because we believe, consciously or subconsciously, that uniqueness determines value? Or is uniqueness itself an essential element of great art?
    Either way, thanks for highlighting the Eric Standley work – utterly stunning!

    • Quite true, some of the great frescos would not have been painted by one person but a score of artisans under the direction of the commissioned artist. It is interesting to think about painted portraits that were commissioned, that they are now considered works of art, I wonder if similar photographic portraits of today will be considered such in a 100 years or so.
      It does come back to art buyers market; like with Saldagos series Genesis it was shot on DSLR’s, but to appease the buyers market the images were converted to negatives to enable hand prints to be produced. So no Giclee’s this time…
      Yet with Lorenzo’s work if it was laser cut and not done by hand, each piece would still be unique due to the medium of using leaves. Was this a conscious thought to make them twice as unique?

  • This is a very timely discussion for me: I’m just starting my final module (printmaking 3) and I want to start blending in some digital or even 3D work into my ideas.
    I have been hum-dee-hawing about where to draw the line on (i) how much digital/ CAD I should ‘allow’ into my work, and (ii) how much support I can ‘legitimately’ get from expert technicians to help me realize my ideas.
    I also needed to think about printmaking vs painting (because printmaking – like photography I suppose) usually involves a mechanical element to bring it to fruition…so how do I feel about this playing a role in the finished work, and how do I feel about the idea of editions?
    I re-read the essay by Walter Benjamin ( the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction) to help me sort my thoughts out, and I realize that I have a very strong bias towards individual pieces. So even though prints can be created specifically to be editioned I don’t want to do that. Instead I would rather have each version in a series build from the last and take on a story (and aura) of its own. They might be similar, but each version involves a unique creative decision process and for me that makes it more meaningful.
    I used to work in product development and manufacture, so I suppose I have a bias that says if a thing is designed to be reproduced then it is a product. It might be beautiful, and I might appreciate the artistry of the designer, but in the end the design leaves the hand of the designer and becomes a shared development and ultimately a product (and loses that singular aura of the work of art).
    Benjamin resolved his dilemma with film and photography by saying that (i) if it changes people’s perceptions (he believed Modern Art has a political purpose) and (ii) if the means by which the image has been created/ produced is hidden (and therefore seems magical) then he allows it as art.
    I suppose we could apply these criteria to the laser cuts.
    – do they change your perceptions?
    – can you forget how they are created, and lose yourself in the magic?

    • A lot of water has passed under a great many bridges in the nearly 80 years since Benjamin wrote that and the world itself is a very different place. We have media that he could only dream of and so we need not only to accommodate these but also think how their existence modifies how we think about pre-existing media and definitions of art, and if that is even useful today.

  • Nice Carol bringing Benjamin into this discussion. Ritual is important to me in my work as well. The phenomenon of compositional and conceptual choices that guide us during a studio process is that “magical” element that is unique (to the moment, the artist, etc). My intention lives in the ritual/process, and does not always survive in the resulting artifact. If aura exists in the artifact, it is brought there by the faith of the viewer (…now sliding into Duchamp’s Art Coefficient).
    I will sprinkle in a little Daniel Pink (Whole New Mind), just to spice up Benjamin: What cannot be automated, subcontracted or mass-produced is in the invaluable realm of the creative thinker (the artist). I ask myself this question in relation to my process- what elements could I hire someone else to do and what elements can only I do? All elements are important of course, but what parts are exclusive to my participation beyond conception? I do not actually have the luxury to hire or subcontract work, but this got me thinking about what I exclusively bring to the studio. Tools and technology are in service to the creative process. If the creative process necessitates it, CAD, lasers, biomechanics or whatever must be embraced and exploited fully.

  • “If aura exists in the artifact, it is brought there by the faith of the viewer ” is an interesting point.” Discussion of the ‘aura’, the status of an ‘original’, the whole concept of authorship (see Barthes ‘The Death of the Author in Image, Music, Text) and originality (check out Sherrie Levine’s work ‘After Walker Evans’) were at the very heart of discourse throughout the Postmodern era and still are now in our post-Postmodern condition. I find it sobering to think that Benjamin, for whom I have the greatest regard, died at the end of the 1930s, a sort of Marxist, a sort of Modernist. That his writing, thirty or forty years later would be so fundamental to Postmodern theory is remarkable in itself, that it can still seem so relevant staggering. Nevertheless even at the height of its relevance as a theoretical foundation stone ‘Mechanical Reproduction’ was having to be modified in light of the mass media and so on. It was re-reading this essay that prompted Berger to script the first episode, and the first chapter in the book of the programme, of ‘Ways of seeing’ (1972) and Burgin’s paper (the first chapter in ‘The End of Art Theory’ 1986) ‘Modernism in the Work of Art’…and look how long ago they were! My comment on Carol’s post was intended, not as a rebuttal of what she said but to prompt a reappraisal of Benjamin’s thoughts in a world that even Berger and Burgin would have been amazed at…what would Benjamin make of Facebook, the Internet in general, digital photography and video? How does the world of instant gratification and global communication affect the way we apprehend works of art?
    Berger’s Ways of Seeing (Penguin Modern Classics) is pretty readable but with the caveat that it is about 40 years old, nearly half way back to Benjamin, and highly recommended. Burgin’s ‘The End of Art Theory’ (Palgrave Macmillan, best bought second hand!) less approachable perhaps but worth the effort, again not a contemporary book. Hal Foster’s ‘The Return of the Real’ (MIT Press, again look for it second hand) may not deal with the matter directly but I think can offer much food for thought and the anthology ‘Appropriation’ edited by David Evans (Whitechapel Gallery 2009) has a whole host of texts that have a bearing on matters raised by this post and discussion.
    We live in interesting times, we still have to sort out where we are going, how we respond to our rapidly changing and increasingly global world. The issues of authorship and originality, so simulation and simulacrum, of spectacle and reality are as central (and unanswered) to our practices to day as ever…it is exciting if it doesn’t drive you insane!

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