A machine that makes art
Turntable LightClick the image to enlarge

The inspiration for this month’s column comes from the great conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s statement: ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,’ (from ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ in Artforum #5, p.80, Summer 1967).

LeWitt’s ‘machine’ was metaphorical rather than literal, nevertheless this radical concept raised questions about the notion of art process and creative behaviour. It even challenged the notion of what art was or could be. To what extent does the hand of the artist need to be involved in the art-making?

Traditionally the mark of the master goes along with the myth of artistic genius as a central tenet of art history. Yet most Renaissance masters relied on studio workshops of apprentices who painted selected aspects of the work under the master’s direction.

Similarly today many contemporary artists (Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst among them) have become infamous for their use of specialist fabricators, craftsmen or foundries to realise their ideas as art objects.

Artists throughout history have always been at the forefront of adapting new technology to suit their aims yet, since the time of Leonardo, have been trying to distance themselves from being labelled ‘craftsmen’.

Musicians and scientists were the intelligentsia - painters were mere craftsmen. (Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy hid his camera obscura in the guise of a book.) Although an integral part of art production, the use of tools and machines could be associated too closely, for some, with connotations of craft.

So why, more than forty years after LeWitt’s comment, is it still such a leap of faith for some in the mainstream art world to conceive of the involvement of a machine? The answers to this conundrum are myriad and we hope to address some of them in this column throughout the coming year. But this limiting viewpoint has led to much neglect of this type of art.

The history of the use of analogue mechanical systems and machines in art goes back to pioneers including Ben Laposky, Mary Ellen Bute, John Whitney and Desmond Paul Henry. Jack Tait’s work comes from within this tradition.

Although he has produced some digital programming in the past, now, Jack says, ‘Virtually all my work is analogue but with the caveat that the ideas have the same thought processes as digitally programmed work.’ What is in common is the use of simple instructions to generate complex and visually arresting art works - a theory central to LeWitt’s practice, in fact.

Jack believes that given the pivotal part machines have played in our civilisation, as soon as we had one able to carry out instructions and take decisions then we would ask it to draw for us. He also thinks that creativity is not necessarily a property of the object but more a recognition of the process by which it came about.

Jack seems himself firmly rooted in what you could term the constructivist tradition within art history which, post-WWI, celebrated technology and aimed to create a non-representational aesthetic incorporating man and machine.

He lists his inspirations as the Bauhaus movement and the philosophies of Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Kandinsky and Klee. Klee’s famous statement - ‘taking a line for a walk’ - about the concept of drawing (from his Pedagogical Sketchbook published in England in 1968) seems particularly apt here and has inspired many artists in this genre.

The aesthetic is similar to oscilloscope art, particularly that of Laposky. In the 1950s Laposky created abstract images from long exposure photographs capturing the fluctuating electrical signal from an oscilloscope and is often credited as making the first graphic image generated by a machine.

Jack has been working for fifty years designing and building drawing machines (his first machines were built of Meccano and scrap parts). Last year he gained his PhD in this subject and held an exhibition at MIRIAD, Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design.

He now has seven sophisticated machines - electromechanical systems using gears and linkages - and is continuing to construct more. These machines can draw with pens and with light onto a digital camera. Some have integral programming, others are tied to an analogue programmer, of which there are four in use at present.

Some are programmed by mathematical ratios and the physics of their components; others rely on timer control. Jack explains that by incorporating a measured degree of pseudo-randomness in programming, richness is created in the resultant drawings. He believes a degree of repeatability, allowing images to be developed, is essential if a machine is to be used as a design tool.

He says, ‘When instructing machines to draw, particularly analogue, most components of the activity are transparent, unlike conventional hand/eye coordination where we are still trying to unravel the “black box” of our neurological processes.’

All of the images he produces are termed ‘Taitographs’ by the artist. This describes a hybrid image, part drawing or photograph, processed in a digital computer and output as a print.

See page 65, Autumn 2007 (from CAS website) for pictures of the machines and much else about the work of Jack Tait.

A very happy New Year to all.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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Jack Tait, Turntable light drawing 14, 2011.

Taitograph, dimensions variable.

Copyright the artist, reproduced with permission.