Monument: Coding a Woodcut
Triumphal Arch (Class II), 2012, 96” x 138”, relief print on Rives BFK. Edition of 2.
Beth Howe and Clive McCarthy
October 28th, 2016 to December 3rd, 2016
Opening: October 28th, 5-8pm
Artist Talk/ Walkthrough Friday, October 28th, 5:30pm
Coding a Woodcut features work from an ongoing collaboration between artist Beth Howe (Vancouver) and Clive McCarthy (San Francisco) that explores the possibilities that come from fusing algorithms and machine tooling with woodcut printing.
"Can we make code ‘material’? What does the process used mean to the image that is made? Like the CNC machine we use to cut the relief printing blocks, the imagery we are working with is that of the industrial and monumental and yet rather commonplace: bridges and overpasses, public transit, boulders and debris piles. In the process of making prints for Monument, we have watched the failures and constraints of translation (from photograph to custom code to machine cutting to hand printing) generate new visual possibilities: moirés, fouled plates, strange artifacts, unexpected mark-making, and a beautiful wobbly line that was not in the code but perhaps was a ghost in the machine."- from artist statement
Coding a Woodcut text by Andrew J Milne
The material constraints of creating a woodcut impose a binary upon its printed image. A representation results from an accumulation of solid regions and voids, as choices are made between ink or paper, black or white, yes or no. Coding a Woodcut by Beth Howe and Clive McCarthy intelligently presents a series of images and complex relations which consider the material definition of digital process.
It is worth describing Howe and McCarthy’s innovative process before attempting to move toward uncovering a digital materiality: selected images are initially captured via digital photography and subsequently passed through an algorithm that translates the tone of the image into computer-aided-manufacturing toolpaths. These toolpaths describe motions and actions to be expressed physically by a CNC (computer numerical control) router. The spinning cutter travels along the generated toolpaths, through the material, resulting in a relief pattern cut into the woodblock. Printed manually, the image completes its journey at the traditional destination of ink on paper.
Standing back from the process, the images reveal an organization of binary marks that depict civic concrete structures. Simultaneously monolithic and isolating, these concrete overpasses are future artifacts. Structures that realize the dreams of 20th century futurists, Fritz Lang, and Hugh Ferris among others, to simulate the reality of a present metropolis that is moving toward a discernable utopian tomorrow. It is of course, a “Tomorrow That Never Was” (Gibson p24). The notion that we will architect a contemporary culture through a unified systemic approach has long displayed its tendancy toward the totalitarian. It is a future that has happened and has never become, and yet these overhead paths remain, pointing the way to imagined obsolescent tomorrows.
It is not coincidental that the architectures depicted within the images were all constructed with the aid of digital manufacturing techniques. If there is a digital materiality we can expect that we will also see these themes appearing in Howe and McCarthy’s process.
The digital translation of image to toolpath separates the cerebral and intuitive aspects of the craft from its labour, which is performed by a machine. It would be expected that this division would enforce a sense of alienation throughout the work. The final stages of the process however, are completed manually by Howe bringing her expertize as a printmaker to physically translate the algorithmically constructed woodblocks into ink on paper. The introduction of a traditional hand rendered quality to the work through printing creates both a calculated inefficiency and an inevitable point of somatic connection for both artist and viewer. Printing manually disrupts any notion that the digital processes are introduced as an expression of disinterest in direct participation. However, the use of these digital process has enabled a production of prints at a scale and quantity that would be impractical if these woodblocks were to be carved by hand. The temptation to move toward a conclusion that the digital process creates a loss of intimacy in the finished product is also interrupted by its evident contribution to the work in opening new modes of expression and creation that become part of the experience of the makers and thereby the viewer.
In addition to an ongoing cycle of manual testing (‘coding, cutting, printing, recoding, re-cutting, reprinting), McCarthy has added a simulator into the code that allows Howe and McCarthy to envision the resulting image without printing. This allows preliminary choices and modifications to be made while reducing the physical labour and materials required to test out new images and ideas. A degree of simulation is also present within the final prints. Lines that would otherwise appear straight are subtly varied to playfully obscure the process by which the woodcuts are manufactured; this gesture creates, to an extent, a simulacra of a hand-made woodcut. Delving into the component functioning of digital hardware reveals that simulation is structurally encoded within digital processes. The nature of digital storage creates a fixed relation in which it is impossible for a quantity to exist within a digital system without first, in some way, existing outside it; even the generation of random numbers within a computer is a simulated process. However, looking beyond digital process it becomes clear that these limits are general to all forms of reproduction and representation (ie film, photography, drawing, measurement), and thereby, not exclusive to digital process.
While Howe and McCarthy place digital manufacturing in a position of high relief, it resists singular distinction. Is it perhaps this resistance to identification and definition that is the material nature of digital process? Tracing its history reveals it to be an extension of its predecessor. “[The] fact that an order of simulacra is maintained only by the alibi of the preceding order” (Baudrillard, 63), suggests that if we look beneath a software algorithm we will find a weaving loom; in lifting a digital photograph we will discover a woodcut. Digital process is perhaps inherently undetectable as it extends the simulation of simulations, a copy of copies, copying. In combining contradictions, creating grey from yes and no, Howe and McCarthy inscribe an outline of an invisible monolithic.
Gibson, Burning Chrome - The Gernsback Continuum. Arbor House, 1986
Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 2006
Andrew John Milne is a professional self-taught media artist, based out of Winnipeg Manitoba. His work involves the creation of anachronistic post-cinematic devices that explore the motives of techno-scientific imagination by reframing emerging digital technologies through participatory inventions. He is a founding member of the Bent Light Post-Cinema Collective and creator of the traveling exhibition project: the Museum of new Ideas.
Beth Howe’s practice investigates the built environment and how architecture affects and reflects the way we perceive and understand landscape. Her work involves printmaking, drawing, artist’s books and multiples and she currently serves as Associate Professor in Print Media at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, BC.
Clive McCarthy was born in Upton Park, London and following his graduation from University of Salford, he worked in the semiconductor industry. His engineering work ranged from working in a wafer fab clean room to managing a chip and software development organization with 200 employees. His artwork invariably uses computers and he is based in San Francisco, CA. Beth and Clive have collaborated on combining code and relief printing since 2010.