Time Presses – inspired by the sign outside Aldus Manutius’ (1452-1515) printing shop
I need to make a confession. I am not a printmaker. I am not an art historian who is specialized in printmaking. And never have I as a curator made any exhibition based on printmaking. However, I am interested in the subject matter concerning prints or printing or the printing machine or the story of printing. Perhaps due to my background in design communication, I was amazed through the capacity of offset printing, how information can be printed, repeated and multiplied in a short period of time. How, with the power and money an entity has could produce massive quantity of prints producing standardized information. Never have I thought the ‘power’ the printing machine possesses and its utility, which has benefitted or afflicted society and the rest of the world.
Through my limited knowledge, there have been numerous exhibitions based on printmaking – from traditional printing methods such as woodblock, engraving, lithography, silkscreen to the expanded practice of artists who adopted painterly approaches, explored a certain degree of experimentation, challenged the convention in what is permissable, demonstrated sophisticated control of process, anticipated opportunities for chance and surprise and I could go on. What seems palpable is the repeat pattern of thematic exhibitions about extending, challenging and revising technique and tradition. An updated phenomenon could be the popular question of what is the possibility of print. There seems to be a similar sentiment towards an often-repeated source, in the context of fine arts, the rockstar of printmaking, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) – whose works are the first to be considered the most refined from the simplicity of the ‘Bibles of the Poor’ and celebrated due to its meticulous and dynamism of its forms, which never failed to feed on the ecstacy of our sight. Due to that the functional aspect or perhaps the agenda of print seems to be forgotten and currently downgraded to a mere superficial or decorative one.
But it is unjustifiable to discount significant curated exhibitions, which share a similar intent to the one I envision and aiming to suggest that we should not ‘look’ at prints but to look ‘through’ them. Here I am recommending to revise and study what type of communication which predates prints or printing, the ‘scientific’ philosophy applied together with the advent of the Gutenberg printing machine and the magnitude printing affected the engineering of governance and the habit of society. One exemplary exhibition is The Power of Multiplication. The artistic and theoretical exhibition investigates pre- to post-digital reproductive art or from etching via Xerox to VR; discoursing on the question of reproducibility in this day and age. Also, not forgetting to reflect on additional footnotes to Dürer’s practice and its influence to significant personalities and events; and its relation to the fifteenth century Gutenberg printing – signifying the almost forgotten ecosystem of German heritage in printing.
I find this an opportune setting albeit the afore-mentioned shortcomings, the discovery of interest, thoughts and findings I am about to share in this essay. My aim, as an accompaniment (yet not meant to be complementary) to the formation of artworks surrounding the notion of printing, is to bring a certain degree of consciousness what was before its phenomenon, the moment and after the invention of the Gutenberg machine and how the printed matter changed or affected the world. The artists’ visual responses are meant to be symbolic visual cues; deliberately sprinkled and indicative of noteworthy points to be shared in this essay but not as entities completely detached from the context of the exhibition.
What was written in the curatorial letter dated 5th December, 2018 emailed to the artists with regards to the exhibition framework:
… that the exhibition should be positioned to instil a point of discussion on its phenomenon – what is its consequence in this day and age; the context of the evolution and revolution in printmaking or print – from mechanical to digital; and on the essence of the tradition or the emergence of the mechanism of multiplication and repetition. These initial questions shall be aimed to bridge or bring to light the precursors of printing – the written word (scribe/manuscript) and the art of the spoken word (oral/storytelling).
While organizing the first exhibition of traditional printmaking by orthodox printmakers in the Private Museum Gallery by a historian may seem ‘comfortable’ yet enticing. I am proposing a rather ‘precarious’ ride in addressing the exhibition; recalling an advice by Edward Said that we should always moving away from the centralising discipline towards the margin, perhaps seeking a change. With that I am inviting everyone to consider this position – to ponder on the crisis – to make a migration from the comfort zone – to shift the focus to the point of discussion rather than the end product.
I am urging everyone not to dismiss your respective strengths in your respective mediums but to contemplate on the content – to think with the wide spectrum of circumstances in the advent of printing. Feel free to navigate between its pros and cons – does it serve as the ‘grace of God’ or the ‘force of evil’?
One definite consensus the artists and I have is not to realise a medium-based approach exhibition or to put it as literal as possible, a printmaking show. There were/are numerous printmaking shows, past and present, which focused or/and are focusing on its technique and aesthetic but it is considered a rare point or discussion to perceive an exhibition based on the evolution and revolution of printing.
To set the tone aptly it is appropriate to bring an attention to a reference which resonates strongly with me, Phaedrus, written by Plato (427-347 BC) based on a dialogue between Socrates (470-399 BC) and his friend, Phaedrus (444-393 BC). Socrates related to Phaedrus about Thamus who once entertained the god of Theuth, the inventor of many things. There was a series of approval and disapproval as judged by Thamus over each of the invention. But when it came to writing or letters Theuth declared:
Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King,which will improve both the wisdom and memory.” To this, Thamus replied , “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who will acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant, And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
The wisdom of Socrates paused me to think about the notion of writing, its systems/technology and reading. What I thought these as the basis or definition of knowledge towards wisdom needs to be revised; which encouraged me to revisit modes of communicating and receiving knowledge – what then is the essence of communication which could utilize all senses and not make any of them excessively reduced to the temptation of technology? The chain of reading textbooks, authoring texts, the advent of the Gutenberg machine, the invention of alphabets, writing and copying manuscripts, reading and decoding writing systems such as pictograms, traditional printing such as woodblock – tracing all these to the oral mode of storytelling is indeed a journey of discoveries; which made me experienced a series of consciousness with regards to the community and the individual.
What was related by Socrates, who by the way did not submit to writing his words of wisdom and made them highly accessible during that age, is indeed a foretelling relevant where we are now highly dependent on reading texts or textbooks and charmed to exercise blind memorisation without proper understanding. What we thought the ‘successful’ progress or achievement is a mere deception to the reality, which has been technically and carefully veiled from us. What used to be an age where our ears were the main utility has been reduced in importance to the sight, an organ much used today; so that the pairs will be made to fix on what is before us – making us forget to think further. Marshal McLuhan (1911-1980), author of The Gutenberg Galaxy appraised J.C. Carothers (1903-1989) who asked and wrote much about ‘The Written Word – how literacy in society operates’ at length:
I suggest that it was only when the written, and still more the printed, word appeared on the scene that the stage was set for words to lose their magic, powers and vulnerabilities. Why so?
I developed the theme in an earlier article with reference to Africa, that the nonliterate population lives largely in a world of sound, in contrast to western Europeans who live largely in world of vision. Sounds are in sense dynamic things, or at least are always indicators of dynamic things – of movements, events, activities, for which man, when largely unprotected from the hazards of life in the bush or the veldt, must be ever on the alert… Sounds lose much of this significance in western Europe, where man oftens develops, and must develop, a remarkable ability to disregard them. Whereas for Europeans, in general, “seeing is believing,” for rural Africans reality seems to reside far more in what is heard and what is said.
… Indeed, one is constrained to believe that the eye is regarded by many Africans less as a receiving organ than as an instrument of the will, the ear being the main receiving organ.
Although the elements of sound and speech are introduced when the inventions of telegraphy, telephone, radio and the bombardment of the digital and social media are established during the ‘electric or electronic age’ they can never supersede the consequences of the Gutenberg printing; which first conquered our sight and mind. In fact, it paved the way for the inventions of the aforementioned – and in unison they so far has successfully managed to reduce our purposeful ears to the ‘helplessness and ineptness’ of our eyes, which always succumbed to any hidden agenda of any entity.
It is also fitting to mention early writing systems; from the coded hieroglyphs to the practice of writing and copying manuscripts, which still pay emphasis on oral culture –read by the few for the many – the few who were from the priestly order and the many who were the commoners. It gives us a sense on what supposed to be conveyed ought not to be diluted with any constituent of self-hood or self-opinion but came from an unbroken chain of respective religious beliefs. What was read from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Chinese pictograms are representative symbolic or visual cues to assist them in the narrative structure of the story or the thought framework of the speaker. This paints an understanding that if the ancient tablets were given to the commoners, they might not be able to read or understand what needs to be conveyed. Walter Ong (1912-2003) elucidated this well in Orality and Literacy:
Human beings had been drawing pictures for countless millenia before this. And various recording devices or aides-memoire had been used by various societies: a notched stick, rows of pebbles, other tallying devices such as the quipu of the Incas (a stick with suspended cords onto which other cords are tied), the ‘winter count’ calendars of the Native American Plains Indians, and so on. But a script is more than a mere memory aid. Even when it is pictographic, a script is more than pictures. Pictures represent objects. A picture of a man and a house and a tree of itself says nothing. (If a proper code or set of conventions is supplied, it might: but a code is not picturable, unless with the help of another unpicturable code. Codes ultimately have to be explained by something more than pictures; that is, either in words or in a total human context, humanly understood.) A script in the sense of true writing, as understood here, does not consist of mere pictures, of representation things, but is a representation of the utterance, of words that someone says or is imagined to say.
Nadia Oh, whose practice rests comfortably between the exploration of digital and traditional methods; usually reflecting on everyday accounts. The technical process of her practice by far has been moderate – a juxtaposition of the speed of digital printing on fabric and the much slower pace of sewing and painting. Her fond of projecting visual on fabrics reminisces the basic woodblock prints on medieval garments. In this occasion still maintaining the projection of the everyday, Nadia digitally prints glimpses of abstraction of reality through the application of previous photographs. Everyday life in her language is made to be a peek-a-boo world before the eyes of the public. To provide glimpses of everyday life and imprinting it on diverse fabrics has been Nadia’s leitmotif in her practice.
Nadia aims to make an impression of the narrative or sounds of everyday life. What Nadia has seen during her series of travelogues, its familiar forms are negotiated to a semi-unpicturable ones as if to project one’s struggle to articulate experience in printed texts but found solace in expressing memorable images through memory and speech. What is before us, these contemporary formation of tablets, may be an ardous task to decode through sight as they are only familiar and serve as cues to assist Nadia to narrate her everyday life.
I used to think how, positively, the printer or the invention of the printing machine is perceived to be the sensational technology; the aphabets to be the extraodinary invention; and the act of reading books to be the beautiful habit. All these phenomenon seems to be representative of scientific progress and perhaps the human renaissance. Our perception of what is good could be also deemed as bad based on the opinions and research from thinkers and scholars.
Before the invention of printing, knowledge and communication was based on orality in the primitive cultures and the practice of writing and copying manuscripts. It was essentially based on the listening ears until Johannes Gutenberg (1400–1468) introduced the movable type printing machine in the mid-1400’s, which impactfully and gradually changed the perceptive habit – the visual stress of providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, fixing everyone’s gaze to the alphabet (directing to the fixed point of view); which comprises of irrelevant letters detached from the essence of its meaning. William Ivins (1881-1961) clarified it well in Prints and Visual Communications:
Each written or printed word is a series of conventional instructions for the marking in a specified linear order of muscular movements which when fully carried out result in succession of sounds. These sounds, like the form of letters, are made according to arbitrary recipes or directions, which indicate by convention certain loosely defined classes of muscular movements but not any specifically specified ones…The result that each sound we hear when we listen to anyone speaking is merely a representative member of a large class of sounds which we have agreed to accept as symbolically identical in spite of the actual differences between them.
What could be more perplexing than the above is the history of the alphabet known to have commenced since the Egyptian dynasty. It seems that the process was engineered systematically to disassociate senses and to transform cultures in an aggressive and universal manner, paving and leading the way to the Gutenberg era or the printing press. David Diringer (1900-1975) mentioned in The Alphabet of its simplicity, adaptability and suitability to serve the needs of the modern world and how it has detribalized and individualized mankind into a ‘civilisation’ of its own. Dilinger also pondered on its makers:
At any rate, it must be said that the great achievement of the invention was not the creation of its signs. It lies in the adoption of a purely alphabetic system, which, moreover, denoted each sound by one sign only. For this achievement, simple as it now seems to us, the inventor, or the inventors are to be ranked among the greatest benefactors of mankind. No other people in the world in this world has been able to develop a true alphabetic system.
A mystery indeed… and what did it do to us? Our habit changed. Besides print, with its uniformity, repeatability and limitless extent, brought life and fame, it most significantly created the detribalized and individualized mankind. What was once a society through oral and ritualistic means receiving or listening to narrated chains of a singular source of commandments, parables and announcements has transited to a ‘civilisation’ of individuals reading translations of religious scriptures, reading about vain authors or novels and reading about themselves. What was a singularity of collective consciousness has developed to a multiplicity of individualistic unconsciousness. The concern is not based on personal perception and criticsm or the private point of view but with an awareness of the change that left us unnoticed. Neil Postman (1931-2003) desribed it at best:
… with the printed book another tradition began: the isolated reader and the private eye. Orality became muted, and the reader and his response became separated from a social context. The reader retired within his own mind, and from the sixteenth century to the present what most readers have been required of others is their absence, or if not that, their silence. In reading, both the writer and the reader enter into a conspiracy of sorts against social presence and consciousness. Reading is, in a phrase, an antisocial act.
Speaking about the starkness of human condition, we are now entering Miguel Chew’s delusional perceptive oeuvre, which technique of silkscreen printing suits its bold, sharp and crisp visuals. The play on various silhouettes either serving as mere aesthetics or inviting discerning minds to inspect its rationality or reality has been repeatedly produced. From the stark outlines of humans, objects and most recently to the exposure of its interior, the enticement develops into an intriguing subject matter – the sea’s vicious beauty – the jellyfish. This time in its form or notion, silkscreened on several surfaces continues to lure us into a visual sensation; capturing our memory and making us forget that they are armed with stings. Another layer is added, in a typical Miguel fashion, a deliberate confusing pair of study is ambiguosly printed – which is which? Which one is the poisonous jellyfish?
The paradox of the jellyfish and printing bear a stark resemblance. Its seductive and hypnotic movement isolates our senses whilst diminishing its interplay and consciousness. While we may succumb to the beautiful sight of the luminous bells and graceful silent hissing tentacles of the sea medusae, we should also consider the consequence of the advent of printed novels, which represent the transaction between the self and the world.
When concepts of beliefs were brought down as revelations, they were conveyed through prophets who then delivered the sacred doctrines orally to the common people. As far as I have known, no prophet did connect their revelations to writing; until they were written down by their disciples, companions and saints. Istuan Hajnal who discussed about the teaching of writing in medieval universities, relayed the view of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):
I answer by saying that it is fitting that Christ did not commit his teaching to writing. First on account of his own dignity; for the more excellent the teacher, the more excellent his manner of teaching ought to be. And therefore it was fitting that Christ, as the most excellent of all teachers, should adopt that manner of teaching whereby his doctrine would be imprinted on the hearts of his hearers.
Even so the common practice of old manuscript was reading aloud. The language came alive favoring an interplay of the senses and tactility. Its conversational attribute was also based on the audience – something to be listened to the public rather than silently in private and to be conceived of as conversation with or an address to. The act of reading aloud facilitated audience through all classic literatures, ancient theatres, declamation festivals and public reading of epic poems until its gradual substitution of the alteration of our sense lives by way of literacy.
About forty years after Gutenberg converted an old wine press into a movable type printing machine, there were presses in 110 cities in six different countries. Fifty years after it was invented, more than eight million books, which had previously been unavailable to the average person had been printed. There were books on law, agriculture, politics, botany, linguistics, pediatrics and even on good manners. The selection does not exclude religion. In fact, there is a movement which once succesfully exploited the Gutenberg machine – Prostestantism.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) deemed the Gutenberg machine as ‘God’s highest and extremest act of grace’ and his reliance on printed pamphlets and books as a means for religious propaganda is well documented. Postman explained on how religion was translated and made the vernacular into a mass medium succintly well here:
Luther, of course, was a great advocate of vernacular printing and exploited the fact that the written word goes rolling all about “unaware to whom it should address itself.” He wrote a German edition of the Bible so that the Word of God could reach the largest number of people. It would take us some way off the track to discuss here the many interrelations between print and religious rebellion, but it is necessary to stress the obvious fact that the printing press placed the Word of God on every family’s kitchen table, and in a language that could be understood. With God’s word so accessible, Christians did not require the papacy to interpret it for them.
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s (1923-2016) meticulous study of printing, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change confirmed way earlier before Postman and McLuhan that Luther’s publications which sold over 300,000 copies were able to make exact, standardized and ineradicable impressions on the mind of Europe. She further expressed that for the first time in human history a great reading public judged the validity of revolutionary ideas through a mass medium. With this in mind, would there be a consequence when the many attempted to interpret the biblical verses without any consultation with the wise ones and would there be a possibility of a mistranslation, miscommunication and misadventures?
Eisenstein suspended the hypothesis below for a deeper contemplation. We are so used to isolating ourselves and seeking solace in religious scriptures without extending to consultations and negotiating its differences. Can we be the better judge?
The question of whether one should encourage or block the new forces which were unleashed became a bone of contention within every church. Conflict was further aggravated by problems of exegesis which were posed by copy-editing and which set off furious and interminable disputes between biblical scholars and theologians. In view of the carnage which ensued, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could regard the more efficient duplication of religious texts as an unmixed blessing. Heralded on all sides as a ‘peaceful art,’ Gutenberg’s invention probably contributed more to destroying Christian concord and inflamming religious warfare than any of the so-called arts of war ever did. Much of the turbulence of the early modern era, I think, may be traced to the fact that the writings of church fathers and the scriptures themselves could not continue to be transmitted in traditional ways. As a sacred heritage, Christianity could be protected against most forms of the ‘spreading of glad tidings,’ Christianity was peculiarly vulnerable to the revolutionary effects of typography.
This transits aptly to one of the threads of Shin-Young Park’s development from previous artworks to her current one. One of her signatured works which comprised of the use of alphabets or letters is the word-find series. The letter-based works, according to Shin-Young are meant to be elementary and directive with the intent to fix one’s gaze to her ‘stubborn statements’ for fear of any misinterpretation. They are considered as visual aids to signify her primary concerns for the many notions of ‘misses’ such as the misconception of beauty, misrepresentation of migrant workers and misunderstanding of domestic issues.
A significant leap and also, a remarkable relevance in Shin-Young’s development is the juxtaposition of her word-find series with biblical verses. It seems the word-find series truly found its reality; from the cold personal statements, Shin- Young seeked solace and found warmth in the inspiring ‘1 Corinthians 13:13’ for Faith, Hope, Love #02. Both contextual intent and application of visual aesthetic rest well on the cold metal blade. The title serves as words of comfort and relief to the distress and difficulties inflicted upon earth and its occupants.
Ephesians 5:22-33 is a series of the afore-mentioned verses, in a pair of contrasting translations, printed repeatedly on ten sets of diverse plates freshly (and uniquely) baked from the oven. The decision of printing the verses on domestic plates marks another change from Faith, Hope, Love #02. Certain and courageous at the same time Shin-Young shifted the context from social to personal and proved her decisiveness in portraying a fitting visual allegory of a common domestic life. In this work, she weds 10 pairs of diverse identities with a pair of mistranslated verses. What strings them together is a common pair of verses but what makes a big difference is when they are fixed to the ‘meaningless’ alphabets; not only depicting unreadability but also revealing and suggesting a misunderstanding through literacy.
To proceed on discussing Urich Lau’s practice and current proposal for the exhibition, we should revise the attributes and consequence of the printed word or book, the archetype of all subsequent mechanization. Physically it intensified perspective and the fixed point of view; hence developed space as visual, uniform and continuous towards the means of self-expression. While socially it brought new forms energies such as nationalism, industrialism, mass markets, and universal literary and education. Print, as an image of repeatable precision breaks the individual out of the traditional group while providing the method to add individual to individual in massive agglomeration power. This has led minds to create giant corporations both military and commercial – in the name of detachment and noninvolvement – the power to separate thought and feeling, to be able to act without reacting.
A relevant form of social energy to Urich’s The End of Art Report for Singapore Biennale 2013 is Nationalism, the amplification of homogenization, which created the ‘new mindset.’ A mindset gradually built upon political unification of populations through means of vernacular and language groupings. And the root of its emergence was through printing. An editorial comment to Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908-1986) Encounter,1995 very much relates to the phenomenon of nationalism:
…and to obtain this it is almost necessary, in our age, to be a member of a national community that has, along with whatever moral and aesthetic excellences, the quite vulgar quality of being in some degree powerful – of being regarded attentively by the world and, most important, listened to. The existence of such a community seems to be a precondition for the emergence of a national literature sufficiently large in extent and weighty in substance to fix the world’s eye and give shape to the world’s imagination;… it was the writers themselves who helped call into being this thing called “national literature”. At first, their activity had a pleasing artlessness about it,… Later under the spell of Romantic movement, moribund languages were revived, new national epics were composed for nations that as yet barely existed, while literature enthusiastically ascribed to the idea of national existence the most supernatural values…
Urich’s heavy use of the electric media about mass media in his practice could be perceived as a commentary, response and negotiation to its dichotomic character; akin to seeking ways to understand its function and consequence. What is the essence of electric media/mass media? Besides the amazing invention and commencement of the telegraph line by Samuel Morse (1791-1872) in 1844, electric media allows us to react to the world as a whole to a much greater degree. Its speed serves any agenda as an integrated system of information handling and it creates an integral whole of both private and public awareness. Essentially, the most relevant to our contemporary phenomenon of facebook, twitter and instagram, it creates instantly a total field of interacting events in which all of us participate. The visual continuity, fixed point-of-view and the immediate participation of the instant media… how these work to propagate, serve and define Nalionalism through the printed books, newspapers, telegraph, telephone and radio are indeed compelling.
Mission Statement: Trichotomy Version 1.0 , is a three-component work based on an ‘under negotiation’ with a nationalistic value. Set in a formation that suggests ways to read the projection of repeated texts, it simultaneously increases the challenge to perceive and understand its legibility as well as practicality. Its suggestive precariousness refers to a visual analogy of a specimen, which Urich has been responding and reflecting upon – an inspection of a common specimen formatted through various electric means namely the ‘electric trap’, ‘electric swing’ and the ‘electric one-eyed surveillance.’ This, I feel, resonates well with one of the attributes of ‘Technopoly’, a term coined by Postman – a standardized form that required us to constantly check boxes and fill in the blanks – bureaucracy; which I believe, its process, which comprises of assembly lines and automation has its root in the Gutenberg printing. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) articulated it well here:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
Let us revisit the conversation between Thamus and Theuth, whereby every invention was scrutinized and commented. In essence the progress of technology comes with a consequence, which could alter the structure of our interests, our characters and the nature of community; hence changing the things we think about, the things we think with and the arena which thoughts develop. Harold Innis (1894-1952), the father of modern communication studies, repeatedly emphasized ‘knowledge monopolies’ created by technologies. In parellel with Thamus’ wisdom, Innis spoke of those who have control over the workings of a particular energy accumulate power and form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology. This is what Postman defined as Technopoly, the unnoticed phenomenon which has been enveloping and cornering humankind throughout the centuries.
I need to shift the spotlight to a technocratic personality, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) whom Postman singled out, not only prophecised that science was the way to progess but also the improvement of human condition; which eventually would lead to ‘the happiness of mankind.’ Bacon was not himself a scientist and an inventor but he was known to be the world’s great essayist and a master propagandist who devoted much of his time to educating mankind to see the links between invention and progress. In Novum Organum (new instrument of science) he wrote:
It is well to observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which origin, though recent, is obscure; namely printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these changes.
I have a very strong sentiment that the above or Bacon’s treatise could well be the guide or the instruction booklet for Colonialism – to navigate, invade and propagate. This is where printing was most effective in fixing the native’s mind in classical and scientific literatures and gradually they formed cultures that were subconciously adopted. In the name of science and progress did the Baconian method find its audience in modern industrialists with a technocratic mindsets who were/are pleased to control societies loosely controlled by social custom and religious tradition and driven by the impulse to invent and produce cheaply the goods that people want. In the name of science and progress did the Baconian method pave way for ‘successful’ technologies and ideologies such as medical technology, computer technology and scientism; which not only celebrates the glory of humankind but also brought about its negative consequence. In the name of science and progress did the Baconian method create a great extension of humankind replacing the traditional notion of life and purpose. Postman conveyed on the technological alternative:
To prayer, the alternative is penicillin; to family roots, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal through scientific polling.
What has been repeatedly portrayed and printed in various printmaking methods, both traditional and digital, in Mona Choo’s wide body of work is ‘people.’ They often appeared genderless, inexpressive and passive; very much akin to a herd subjugated by an unseen higher power. I perceive a gradual process in its postures; which suggest bodily-spatial movements ranging from freedom to restriction. Another subject matter worthy of mention is Mona’s relentless search for ‘consciousness’, which she indicatively projected in her series of ‘people’ being framed, cornered, stretched, overlapped, bended and moulded into a fixed, enclosed, uniformed, standardized and repeated sizes, shapes, streams and systems.
Mona’s response to the current exhibition framework revises her current musing – contemplating on the possibility of science replicating DNA structures through 3D printing. The new process to the four types of nucleotide; abbreviated as A,C,G and T, which could be arduous, in the long run, could reproduce humankind. What would be glorified as a revolutionary invention; and slowly towards commodity may, yet again, proved to gain immoral and disastrous consequences.
Mona’s artworks could also be read as the product of challenging negotiations between science and spirituality (series of shifts), which has been altering (repeatedly) our consciousness throughout the centuries. Who or what or which higher power set this up? We used to have a tool-using culture, which exercised our human senses but has since transformed to the technocratic culture – the extensions of mankind; which made us use less tools but more dependent on machines; be it medical and computer technologies or science. This refers to McLuhan’s essential point from The Gutenberg Galaxy:
It was the Gutenberg method of homogeneous segmentation, for which centuries of phonetic literacy had prepared the psychological ground, that evoked the traits of the modern world. The numerous galaxy of events and products of that method of mechanization of handicrafts, are merely incidental to the method itself. It is the method of the fixed or specialist point of view that insists on repetition as the criterion of truth and practicality. Today our science and method strive not towards a point of view but to discover how not to have a point of view, the method not of closure and perspective but of the open “field” and the suspended judgment. Such is now the only viable method under electric conditions of simultaneous information movement and total human interdependence.
Indeed, mankind is loss in ignorance.
I mentioned earlier in the beginning of the essay on the generic or simplistic perception of Dürer’s prints. There is in fact more knowledge learnt through Eisenstein’s diligent study, which covered the ‘artisan-author’s’ networking with other significant personalities of that era such as Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Martin Luther. The thought of these personalities alongside other relevant ‘greats’ from the fifteenth to sixteenth century made me construct an imaginative playing field of players representing the ‘printing’ ecosystem.
This relates to what many may not know of Dürer’s polymathic nature or perhaps obscure facts besides his famous prints; which are:
• not only he was a goldsmith’s son, he was also the godson of Anton Koberger (1440-1513), the greatest entrepreneur of the printed book-trade in the fifteenth century;
• he, the figure of scholar-printer, was deemed as the ‘new man’; equating to the ‘spirit of the Renaissance’. The social forces which have shaped his life and work are civil loyalties, class structure, military technology, the peasant rebellion, Erasmian humanism, Lutheran Protestantism and other contemporary developments. In Eisenstein’s view he was the most significant ‘new element’ both in the late fifteenth century and positioned as one of the noblemen and savants – a circle which included the most distinguished mathematicians and astronomers of the day;
• and despite the controvesy between the emphasis or de-emphasis of religious imagery in the context of the Protestant Reformation, his practice in the new arts of printing and engraving increased opportunities for image makers and assisted Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) to launch art history down its present path.
What could be considered notable is Dürer’s frequent visits at printers’ workshops since his early boyhood. In these workshops scholars did mingle with artisans through Eisenstein description:
The new mode of book production not only brought the work of philosophers to the attention of craftsmen and vice versa. It also brought bookworms and mechanics together in person as collaborators within the same workshops. In the figure of the scholar-printer, it produced a ‘new man’ who was adept in handling machines and marketing products even while editing texts, founding learned societies, promoting artists and authors, advancing new forms of data collection and diverse branches of erudite disciplines. The sheer variety of activities, both intellectual and practical, sponsored by the more celebrated firms of the sixteenth century is breathtaking. Greek and Latin classics, law books, herbals, Bible translations, anatomy texts, arithmetic books, beautifully illustrated volumes of verse – all these, issued from one print shop, pointed to fertile encounters of diverse kinds.
Besides the above-mentioned, typographical fixity and the preservative powers of prints did raise artists, composers, playwrights and poets to the ‘new’ rank of ‘immortals.’ Reflecting again (repeatedly) on the mysterious engineering of the ‘new’ knowledge and nationalism. Was it in any way by accident? Eisenstein denied. She suggested through a very slow gradual progress that the possibility of having one’s words or work fixed forever, created a new and widespread idea of selfhood. Such personalities who utilized the printing press as a PA system would be Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), the first mass-producer of confessional writing and pornography and Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Francois Rabelais (1483-1553) who invented and developed a writing style which celebrates their uniqueness, quirks and prejudices. They were the symbol for self assertion and celebration.
Weixin Chong and I did converse about the consequence of social media – how it affected the behavioral traits of society. The information explosion/implosion – fast swapping, moving and flashing of images seemed to entice the millenials. This includes the majority of the population also known to be the ‘keyboard warriors’ who prefer caption-sized reading texts, who enjoy creating daily headlines of themselves or reading news of their virtual friends, and the worst, becoming instant priests, judges and scholars clearly resonate what happened in the sixteenth century. This instant total field is referred by Postman as the peek-a-boo world; an improbable world advocating technological progress, which serves to accommodate the requirements of ‘new’ technologies. Printing paved the way from a controlled and regulated reception of information to an uncontrolled information glut. We are living in the world of information without meaning. And we cannot seem to control it.
The classical technique and camaraderie together with the primary concern on the information glut of today discussed earlier set the premise for Weixin’s artwork. A beautiful combination is at work. The work would be a marriage of Weixin’s early practice of relaxed and measured technique of printing on various surfaces, while constantly conversing with companions with regards to refining its methods; and the projected images of ‘screens being touched,’ a current spectacle practiced by the masses. Weixin’s artistic progress could be identified as the representative story which printing has departed since fifteenth century until the present day. The practice of the classical technique and the emphasis on spiritual orality are obviously not a popular medium today but we tend to align our interest to the latest digital medium and knowledge disseminated through the electric media. Is there any way that we could strive against this or find a middle path?
In finding a solution to this ambivalence Postman found comfort in the ‘Loving Resistance Fighter’. This coined term elaborates to solving not through passive and judgmental approach but a ‘gentle’ one – the wishful and encouraging constructive thought. To plant a certain degree of awareness is definitely a good start. Postman suggested a list of ways, which I selected seven from the many here; for those who could resist the ‘fixed’ attribute of contemporary Technopoly are people:
• who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;
• who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
• who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;
• who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest form of human achievement;
• who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that same person to be in the same room;
• who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;
• who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why.
If I could locate, symbolically, the ‘resistance fighter’ in the context of this exhibition, it would be Yeo Shih Yun’s practice; and its point of departure would be Project 6581, a collaborative effort with ‘men and machine’ – a former classmate and his technician; and his technician’s traditional offset printer model, the Heidelberg Printmaster QM. The consensus of the collaboration was to break every traditional rule and it resulted in 500 spontaneous, unique and varied prints; which essentially resisted the fixed, standardized and uniformed. The precise and perfect repeatability of the printing machine was aesthetically expressed, negotiated and intergrated by their constructive thoughts. There was, in fact, harmony between Shih Yun’s collaboration and the machine they utilized; which echoes Postman’s commentary on tool-using cultures that ‘the tools are not intruders. They are intergrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its world-view.’
The resistance continues… Shih Yun’s ‘surrender’ to authorial control continues… the mark making with silkscreen printing and a team of robots towards visual randomness and haphazardness continues. All these with an added dimension of un-uniformity – that shadows do dance beyond the frames. This unwavering resistive spirit reminisces G. H. Bantock’s ‘new’ mode of presentation:
In a world of increasing socialization, standardization, and uniformity, the aim was to stress uniqueness, the purely personal experience; in one of ‘mechanical’ rationality, to assert other modes through which human beings can express themselves, to see life as a series of emotional intensities involving a logic different from that of the rational world and capturable only in disassociated images or stream of consciousness musings.
A gentle reminder. This is not an essay about the history of printmaking. It is meant to raise an awareness about what is beyond the frame of printmaking through the artists’ symbolical visual cues. Of course this essay is not meant to be exhaustive and conclusive. It is supposed to plant the seed of interest to pursue more on the pre and post Gutenberg era – to think about, from the mnemonic and formulas of the oral culture to the fixed and sight-dominance of the technological culture. With that, I conclude with a short passage by Ian Dallas also known as Abdalqadir as-Sufi (b. 1930), who authored The Engines of The Broken World. Be it celebration or grief, it is for us to think through:
The names of things. This means the naming of things. Naming is the link between the creature and creation. It is the differentiating faculty. It indicates threshold, limits and indications. The name itself is the primal signal of language. By language the human social group are able to give both order and meaning to lived existence. Language, significantly, in this it is the opposite of species, begins in great complexity and runs down and dies by simplifications. It begins capable of sustaining long memorised folk records passed through generations, but it ends a grammar fragmented creole that can only point and name.
Thank you for your patience.
Zaki Razak has developed a rich artistic practice that spans the fields of street art, graphic design, performance art, writing, curating, installation art and education. He graduated from LASALLE College of the Art with a Masters in Fine Arts and holds a Diploma in Visual Communication from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. In 2004, his work was exhibited at the SENI exhibition at Singapore Art Museum. Since then, he has participated in many local and overseas exhibitions. Zaki was also the associate artist (2012-2014) of The Substation’s Associate Artist Research Programmes, and an artist-in-residence (2006) at The Land Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In 2013, Zaki was recipient of the Young Artist Award, Singapore. Currently Zaki is a lecturer in the School of Creative Industries at LASALLE College of the Arts.
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