Altered States

Artist and educator Phil Taylor discusses how the pristine nature of the digital interface (GUI) and its associated processes attempt to emulate actions in the analogue world, IRL…and fail hopelessly.

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Blood meridian, or, The evening redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. I have read it, re-read it, left it and then returned to it again, never disappointed. Why? It’s simple – I don’t think you could make a film out of this book. Its scope is too epic, its vision too expansive, and above all, it requires you to apply your own imagination. You have to work with it, bringing your own set of faculties and interpretations, responding as you progress through its grand vision. The book simply doesn’t let you go until you have entered into a kind of pact with it, a pact of collaboration and surrender. In this sense, to me, it is not unlike the process of working with analogue media: there are no obvious routes to follow, no sequence of signposted mouse clicks or finger swipes to reach your promised goal, no instant gratification. It only works if you accept there is alchemy at play, ‘happy accidents’ or unintended results that arise from employing methods that explore analogue practices.

 A simple example is of the light sensitive film used in analogue cameras – the only way the parameters and capability of a camera like this can be defined is first to experiment, to explore, to take risks, ‘purposeful play’ as Josef Albers of the Bauhaus school advocated as an integral part of the learning process.

The great Swiss Typographer, Wolfgang Weingart, has been described as the ‘enfant terrible’ of modern Swiss typography. Why? Because he doesn’t play by the rules, he is experimental in his approach, he utilises analogue methods, materials and processes to arrive at highly imaginative outcomes. You could emulate these on a computer, with software, but you could never predict the outcomes from the creative processes he has employed because of the combination of curiosity about the process, imagination and ultimately the alchemy – the handmade. Weingart explains how he created the graphic image of the Matterhorn for a poster by crumpling a handkerchief with his hand and then making a Xerox to create the image. You could use Adobe Photoshop to do this, but how could you initially think of using software tools such as ‘crumpled handkerchief’ without knowing the analogue process?  

My students today enjoy the alchemy and unpredictability of playing with an old carbon ribbon typewriter, digital is second nature to them, they have grown up with it, but they are initially very uncomfortable about taking a leap of faith into a process that is not ‘non-destructive editing’, where surprises may happen that can influence the direction of the creative process, or everything may fail.

I see students laboriously working through Adobe Photoshop with the aim of attaining the miracle of an unpredictable result when you also have the security of saving a copy, the History Palette etc. – pushing you towards becoming risk averse. Even the tools themselves, with their naming conventions rooted in the provenance of a pre-digital era: Canvas, Dodge, Burn, Hand Tool (but you can only use a pen or mouse to work the ‘hand’), Sponge and Smudge Tools (that will never touch water), option to ‘Extrude to 3D’ (Weingart’s handkerchief approach) tease you with their references to the real world but never fulfil the actual experience of allowing your imagination, intuition and physical interaction to explore the journey to the outcome.  

In a comparable way, this is why I keep coming back to McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, because each time I read it, it rewards my willingness to allow the role of imagination to explore and reimagine, and to enter a world that is only drawn with words. The alternative, some digital process in the movie industry machinery, decided upon by someone else’s imagination – that would get far too crowded a place.