Jan Svenungsson

"The Art of Attention", in: Dublett – Annette Kierulf & Caroline Kierulf, Hordaland Kunstsenter, Bergen, Norway 2013

Annette and Caroline Kierulf are artists who have chosen to work with woodcuts. In a review of one of their exhibitions, a critic labels their use of this technique as "old fashioned'":

... there is something unmistakably woodcut-like and old fashioned about the stylised and angular figuration, the muted colours and the flat pictorial space.(1)

I wonder if it is not, in fact, the critic's way of thinking that is antiquated.

In my own work as an artist, I too have developed a special love for the woodcut, which unfortunately is expressed all too rarely. For me, the woodcut offers an inviting combination of several elements: the necessity of planning the image in advance, the direct imprint of the tool and the impossibility of making corrections – and the subtle random factors added by the analogue printing process. In addition, I appreciate that multiple copies of the finished image can exist. I can give one away and still have more left.

The technology used in creating an artwork is never without meaning, of course. Art arises through artists in some way making ideas and expressions manifest in a form outside themselves. To ignore an artwork's physical substance and qualities would be to ignore the artwork. Instead, the issue is how these qualities are actually conveyed to us, and what they mean.

Before I continue, I want to pose a few short and general questions about how artists work. I will not answer all of them. What is the difference between production and reproduction? Where does the border between thinking and making lie? What significance does the word "handmade" have? Does tactile knowledge exist? What role does printing play in contemporary art? What is the function of the computer? What comes after photography? Is there a way back? How do we go forward?

Today, what sensible person wants to carve a picture as a relief into a block of wood, smear it with paint and press it against paper in order to create a two-dimensional image? Is it not absurd? We have the Internet, Facebook and Instagram. Everything can be published instantly! Why take detours? An inkjet printer is so much more precise. It can print the same image ad infinitum without deviations. I want to avoid any errors! I love my digital camera! It is so wonderful to be able to take an unlimited number of exposures, not to mention the retouching. Everything can be corrected, thanks to my computer, finally! What would I do without it? How would Damien and Jeff and Takashi survive without any of the above? How would they create their global brands? Thanks Marcel, and all the rest of you, for the insight that art is nothing more than what we say it is. I have my ideas. The world is full of technical possibilities. You just have to make up your mind.

Working as an artist today means consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, working in the wake of Marcel Duchamp. There is no way to undo Duchamp's contribution, just as there is no way to ignore the ongoing digital revolution. These developments affect the conditions of art on both a large and small scale. A question arises: what is the significance of handicraft today? Is there any inherent meaning in craftsmanship, after the definitive breakthrough of idea-based art? When (so many) artworks are no longer valued in relation to the practical skill invested by the artist? When so many manual processes can be executed with tools steered by computers?

What is it that makes sober, intelligent and ambitious artists choose to express themselves through woodcuts, or other artisanal printing methods, today, in the year 22?(2) Can it be something other than a longing for a time before the Internet, before the inkjet printer, before digital cameras, before Photoshop, Illustrator and Instagram, before computers, conceptual art, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons? Or could it be that in the artisanal processes challenges arise beyond the tactile – challenges that are also intellectual?

All artists must reflect on what they want to achieve with their work and their choice of medium. There is no way of working artistically that cannot be questioned. It is part and parcel of being an artist. It is not possible to use artistic means of expression to convey something without at the same time questioning the tools themselves – and thereby the message. It is never possible to prove a deficiency in a work of art, nor is it possible to conclusively determine a work's entire content.

There were many who in and with the digital breakthrough saw working with printed images as something increasingly obsolete. Art schools closed their workshops. The arrival of the computer had led to the belief that the artistic use of printing methods had in some way become hopelessly out of date. But the development would over time in fact go in the opposite direction. Never before has the art world seen as many printed images as now, thanks to the development of various forms of inkjet printers.

When, in English, one speaks of "printmaking", traditionally one thinks of the production of artistic images via print on paper, using techniques such as woodcut and etching. Today, almost all "photography" could be labeled "printmaking", too. What the development has really made anachronistic is the nostalgic fetishisation of technology that early on was expressed in, for example, endless discussions about how the concept of "original prints" should be defined. No one cares any more. What is the point of arguing about what portion of the printing process must be executed by the artist himself, when Wade Guyton earlier in the year could fill the Whitney Museum in New York with his paintings; paintings that were composed with graphics software and printed using an Epson Stylus Pro 9600?

There are, in other words, new reasons for discussing the printed image's role and status in the creation of contemporary art. It is both dominant and continually questioned. If computer-controlled printing tends to complement and replace more traditional methods of production, what reasons are there for insisting on working with artisanal printing methods like, for example, the woodcut? What does an artist gain by choosing to work with such a technique? What does it mean that an artist chooses to work with an archaic technology? Must it mean anything?

When artists in Europe began to make impressions from carved woodblocks in around 1400(3), this signified the start of a technological revolution of equal magnitude to the digital conversion we are currently living through. In less than half a century this innovation led to Gutenberg's printing press with movable type, which in its turn led to fundamental changes in the entire structure of society, as the printed book made the distribution and exchange of knowledge possible at a scale previously unimaginable. Copper engraving, an imaging technology with an even higher degree of precision, was soon added to the woodcut.

So when at the beginning of the sixteenth century Albrecht Dürer created his woodcuts and engravings, he was working high-tech, just like Wade Guyton is today. Dürer was ultramodern. Woodcuts and copper engraving were quite simply the most advanced technologies available for the production of images for circulation. By publishing his images, Dürer could communicate with a public that was spread across larges portions of the European continent. For its time, Dürer's way of working was industrial. Working in his studio were craftsmen specialised in each part of the production chain: the production of woodblocks and copper plates, form cutters who cut out the drawings, engravers, and printers. Dürer gave one of his assistants a drawing and got a print back, which he either approved or sent back, demanding adjustments. He may have cut or engraved certain images himself, but we can only speculate on which ones. Does it matter? What definitely has significance is the way in which Dürer's work with cutting-edge printing technology spread new image models and content, which still inspire followers and interpreters.

The Japanese master Hokusai and his colleagues worked in a similar manner some 300 years later. The artist made a drawing that was glued onto a woodblock; then the picture was carved by an assistant and printed by another, whereby the first prints were glued to new woodblocks to be cut to different blocks for each colour used. The goal was the widest possible circulation. When the printing plates wore out, they could be replaced by new ones. Meanwhile, competition between different artists and publishers led consistently to bolder and more advanced imaging experiments, with amazing colour contrasts and perspectives. After Japan opened up to the West in 1854, artists in Paris discovered the Japanese woodcut with great enthusiasm. Here they saw a new mass-media imagery that could be transported from one culture to another and provoke change. Without the innovations derived from the Japanese woodcut, modernism in art would have unfolded completely differently.

At several stages in the history of art the printed image has exercised its influence: not only in its ability to be distributed, but also in the specific way its process of creation invites experimentation. This is the case with Edvard Munch, who switched back and forth between the printed image and painting while stubbornly repeating his themes. His deliberately primitive printing methods resulted in a variety of errors that the artist embraced and utilised to enrich his image. Munch was a pioneer of an anti-perfectionist approach. Errors made his expression more direct: the image's detour through the printing process became a shortcut to more meaningful content.

Picasso worked with different forms of printing methods in parallel to his painting, right up until his death. During his life the conditions for printing and publishing changed radically, as radio, television, computers, colour photography and offset printing were discovered. And yes, even laser printers, portable telephones, the Internet and email came about during his period of activity. The whole time Picasso continued to make images with artisanal printing methods. In what way did the contemporary changes in technology and communication affect Picasso's development as an artist? How did they influence the public's reception of his work? How have they influenced our understanding of the value of the image? How has our understanding of the image's 'aura' changed?

Walter Benjamin discussed the aura of the work of art in his famous essay from 1936, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". In this text Benjamin claims that photographs, like different forms of printed art, lack aura, since they exist in multiple copies and are made for reproduction. He writes:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

And he continues:

One might subsume the eliminated element in the term "aura" and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.(4)

This concept of the reproduced (or reproducible) image's fundamental handicap was shared for a long time by many art lovers. In the late 1980s, when I myself started to use photography as a means for my work, I observed many cases of inferiority complexes among traditional photographers. In "photo circles" there was an ongoing discussion of how one could raise photography's status as art. The photographers felt that the art world was not ready yet to take their work seriously, because of their technological dependencies. They could not foresee that technical categories were about to lose their meaning. Today the photographers' struggle is long over and the impact and meaning of Benjamin's essay has been re-evaluated.

Through and with the global digital revolution new scales of value have been created and old concepts have been turned on their heads. Today, reproducibility and possibilities for multiplication are often used as arguments for higher value, not lower. A collector interested in raising their status has the opportunity to buy into various "clubs", which consist of the celebrated – and publicly listed – owners to the copies of an edition of a renowned photograph or sculpture. Today's concept of authenticity is based on an agreement between the parties involved, rather than a physically demonstrable link between the originator and the work. Artists like Damien Hirst make a point of not only letting assistants paint his paintings, but even delegating their conception to auxiliaries. A photographer such as Andreas Gursky offers collectors the possibility of "renewing" a work. For a certain price the artist will exchange an old copy of the photograph for a new one, in the same size and finish.(5) As long as the work is "authorised" by the artist – confirmed by a signature, an edition number, and is accompanied by official papers – the aura is transferrable.

Does it matter at all to a work's significance what technology has been used to produce it? Does it matter at all for an artist's significance what technology they choose to work with?

Obviously technology plays a role – depending on how well it functions as a catalyst and interface for the artists' ideas and their desire to express themselves. The technology itself has no value, but the relation to it has a decisive value for the artist.

Today's media developments replace the old hierarchies with a new value scale. Today all art is made to be published – when it is, it gains value and rises in the hierarchy. The value is determined by the echo it creates. The technical differences between different forms of art have not lost their meaning for the artist, but they are of no interest when it comes to ranking the work. Within a few years there will only be four categories of visual art:

2D = images: paintings, drawings, prints, photographs. Unique or in editions.
2D+ = images with an additional (or several) dimension(s), for example time. Films, videos, animations, holograms or forms yet to be discovered. Unique or in editions.
3D = objects, installations, sculptures. Unique or in editions.
3D+ = objects, installations, sculptures – with an additional (or several) dimension(s), for example time, interactive or social aspects, or something we cannot now image. Unique or in editions.

Another category is probably needed for art completely without any physical manifestation, art that is pure idea. We can call this "+". I do not think this category is or will become large, since the need for the artwork's physical manifestation is deeply rooted in people emotionally. In a global echo chamber like the World Wide Web, the notion of a foundation in the physical world is an essential value. Our desire always has a direction.

All hierarchies based on technology and tradition are disappearing and are replaced by a new hierarchy of attention. An artwork's place is not defined through a consensus on its physical manifestation, but through the strength of its echo, in its different forms, which the artwork provides and generates. Then it no longer matters what technology, size, or grade of inaccessibility the artwork is executed with. A woodcut does not differentiate itself from a digital animation. A drawing takes the same place on the screen as a monumental sculpture. The Kierulf sisters' choice for the woodcut as a technique can, in this new era, once again be considered ultramodern, just as when Albrecht Dürer made the same choice 500 years earlier.

All art that exists somewhere casts shadows, available to anyone looking. A sculptor shows shapeless works in an exhibition and waits for them to make an impact on the web in blog posts, commentaries, images and stories. A graffiti artist spray-paints a piece under a bridge, the wall illuminated by their forehead lamp. In daylight the result is photographed and uploaded for everyone to see. Someone carries out a performance in a square or an action in a bedroom. We find out about it. A performance without mediation is unthinkable.

After technological and content-based hierarchies have collapsed only one overarching technique in art remains: that which aims to generate attention.

Jan Svenungsson