The TECHNO-FETISH in printmaking

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The TECHNO-FETISH in printmaking


Cornwell, Graeme.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Aotearoa New Zealand | Australia

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The TECHNO-FETISH in printmaking

The TECHNO-FETISH in printmaking.
by Graeme Cornwell

Theory and Practice: Dangerous distinction between ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’. Dangerous to theorise practice or practice a theory as if none of these ways were not already practiced or theorised.

‘I am going to be in a group exhibition soon. It’s going to be called Artist-Printers. You know, an exhibition of prints made by artists not by printers’.

What is this if not a criticism? And what is it a criticism of?

Of Course:

‘The label of Print Maker refers, not so much to Printmaking as ... art but to an inability, on the part of the artist, to move beyond the boundaries of craft’.[1]

This typical observation of print makers, an observation which is also a criticism, is that printmaker’s are too concerned, obsessed even, with technique.

But is this true?

Quotes from Imprintreveal the perceived threat of technology:

Print makers are: ‘easily seduced into sheer illustration, pretty-picture imitation and empty display of craftsmanship’.[2]

‘The emphasis on technology ... [leads] to a corresponding emphasis on the decorative.[3]

‘One must be responsive to the particular dictates of the medium ..... But this is not to say one is a slave of that medium at all.[4]

‘Technique is reduced to its proper place in the scheme of things, as servant, not master, to the ideas and the needs of the moment ....[5]

‘A good collaboration requires sensitivity on [- the printers -] part for the artists intentions without overwhelming them with technique.[6]

‘He developed his talents in the medium of Print Making somewhat inadvertently.[7]

‘He began almost accidentally with the carving of a drawing onto a woodblock .... the end product proved to be the block itself.[8]

‘the process itself will determine [the end result].’[9]

‘He creates with the medium rather than by the medium.[10] He places ‘great emphasis on exploiting to the full the potential of the process to develop the concept’.[11]

‘Technique is reduced to its proper place in the scheme of things, as servant, not master ...[12]

‘I have not used any photographic methods in my printmaking as I seem to have an inbuilt feeling that it is the easy way out, perhaps cheating a bit.[13]

‘There is something greater and more personalised from works that have been manipulated, drawn into, collaged and so on.’ Photography can have an effect of ‘distancing the artist from his/her subject matter that I attempt to balance with hand drawing.’[14]

Photographic technology presented a ‘risk of takeover by the material with resulting loss of theme’.[15] ‘Something to be guarded against.’

Certainly, there is a strategy to define an artist’s individual aesthetic by manipulating a technological grid – the inherent ‘logic’ of technology. In other words, an artist’s individual aesthetic is framed, circumscribed and inscribed by a concept of art which is fetishised as fundamentally anti-technological. The logic inherent in technology, is promoted as a site/cite of non-self-presence. It is therefore, regarded as an evil necessity, dangerous, seductive, a threat, something to be avoided.

In all the institutions I have taught, in almost every article in Imprint and Art and Australia, there has been a tendency for artists, lecturers and writers to orientate and draw upon this technological grid in order to map an individual’s aesthetic, so that one begins to suspect these people of a complicities naivety, even a guilty recognition, of a theoretical structure. Technology must be accounted for in such a way that the artist’s individual aesthetic is defined emphatically – thrown into relief against this technological grid. This is not intended as a criticism. On the contrary, this practiced naivety becomes a springboard into a theory. There lies the very positivity of what might at first glance seem a negative inquiry.

This attitude is not confined to Imprint or Art and Australia. This symposium reveals this orientation. It is a Print Making Symposium – a symposium already defined by technology. The theme of an inherent logic within technology must be negotiated as it impacts; technology must be constrained as it is put to use. It is thanks to technology but also in spite of it, that we are privileged to see the spirit of the artist.

This is not accidental or coincidental. Technology (whether ‘new’ or ‘traditional’) represents a death or a swerve away from the true aboriginal nature of the artist (what Rousseau has called the ‘good path’). The seductiveness of technology (always perceived as a threat) must be overcome, coerced, subjugated, denied, refused, deployed, avoided, kept at arms length, held at bay, held in check – in order that the artist’s individual aesthetic might flourish. Technology (that which must be suppressed) is promoted as ‘dangerous’ and even ‘fatal’.

But to develop a theme which acknowledges that Technology is a dangerous and an even subversive element which must then be ‘reined in’ – in order to limit its inherent logic requires a certain duplicity, even culpability on the part of the artist. It requires of us as observers to remain naive to the obviousness of the theoretical construction; asks us breathlessly to ignore the detour through the technological field against which this individual aesthetic receives its edge.

* Contrary to popular belief, printmaking is already theorised. (It is a discipline which incidentally but not inadvertently nor ill-advisedly treats technology as more important than imagery in order to define itself).

* This theory of printmaking is hinged on a calculated, and practiced naivety – (the techno-fetish construction is willed into forgetfulness).

* When discovered, uncovered, and recovered, this deliberate and calculated naiveté anticipates a printmaking praxis which is highly focussed – a determined set of structured relationships – whose attributes and privileges are already assigned. They correspond to a condition of forces and translate an historical calculation; a historicizing that discloses the calculating (pre)determinations of a ‘subject’ always defined against a technological field – the sophistications of culture.

* The framework of this theory constructs, deploys and employs a concept of technology as a site/cite of non-self-presence within the confines of the discipline (in order to maintain a stranglehold on subject-hood).

* Central to this theoretical core is the notion that a ‘pure’ ‘subject’ is to be found where the cogito is exhausted, in technologies (Cultures) diametric opposite: immediacy, the ‘hand-done’ – Nature.


The individual aesthetic created by writing on Art Printmaking has been diverted by the desire for the subject to be revealed in opposition to the cogito and knowledge (represented by mass reproduction). It is, properly speaking, a subversion of the subject; a displacement of the subject and merely perpetuates an academic framework whose criterion is the unity of the ‘subject’. This is a subject emphatically isolated against reproductive technologies, ‘as if it were a question of the return of a certain subject of knowledge, or as if the physical had to obtain its credentials as a double of the physical organism’.[16]

The fate of Printmaking has been signed and sealed with the invention of a definition of ‘originality’ in prints (the law which is not a law) which construes originality through technological means not imagery. That this definition should undergo rehabilitation from time to time reveals that fate. To act out the dualism expressed by the definition; to continue to construct the ‘subject’ by pitting it against an authority of the object, imagined to reside in reproductive technologies, is to act out a system of closure. It reveals what has been suppressed all along: the appearance of the fading subject.

Such a ‘unified’ subject as this, qualified by the laws of its own construction (the definitions of ‘originality’ is not a primal law by any means), is foreshadowed by closure. As a result, the subject, generated by this construction fades, or at very least, threatens to fade.

What remains here in the concept of the technological, if not the trace of what must be in order to fall from being? The deployment of the techno-logical is the deployment of the fall or swerve away from the natural/aboriginal nature of the artist. Technology becomes the stumbling block which reveals the uniqueness of the individual. Not in how the artist employs technology but how technology is ‘reined in’; how the logic inherent in technology is kept in check.

Early print makers Blind Stamps, authenticating Marks and Chops clearly demonstrate the threat of this fall from grace and how the threat of technology was held in check. Printers took over the task from Monks (the illuminators) of reproducing and disseminating Gods word. To do so required a certain faith in technology and the printer’s ability to erase their ego. These early marks chop out the ego of the printer (Chop means to hack down or cut out). Recent writing on collaboration revives this concept. The ‘collaboration’ is always styled as ‘unique’ and so-called successful collaborations are promoted as ‘special relationships’ where the acknowledged printers ego is erased or shunted to one side.

In contemporary writing on collaboration, the printer always ‘provides’ a ‘tradition to be combated’ or a ‘tool’ to be used and manipulated; the provider of technological expertise. In all cases the artist is seen to act out a role prescribed. The printer’s ego is reduced to the tabula rasa and the artist allowed to ‘play’ at being god. Thus the individual aesthetic of the artist is defined by illuminating the ego-less printer’s role – keeping technology at bay – not overwhelming the artist with technique. Technology, the perceived threat to the naturalness of the artist, is highlighted and then effaced.

This is not a criticism.

Lesbia Thorpe, writing in Art in Australia, that ‘barometer[17] of contemporary Australian taste, explicitly derides technology, as a ‘dangerous’ tool.

Thorpe writes:

‘The print as an art form usually has failed if the viewer is sidetracked by a pre-occupation with technique ....... Technique which relies heavily on the use of sophisticated materials has less to do with art .... than creativity.[18]

This declared Rousseauism, condemns technology and cultural sophistication, in order to define an authentic creativity. Rousseau’s notion that our modern, complicated order of social existence is a bad necessity that somehow supervenes upon nature and forces us into all manner of violent, corrupt human relations, is mirrored. For Thorpe (and others of like mind), the use of technology, like Rousseau’s use of writing is a dangerous practice. It always tends to take over from the business of straightforward authentic self-revelation.

The use of a concept of technology as a necessary ‘evil’ to be guarded against – developed in Australian print making – requires a series of rhetorical gambits designed to head off the ultimate question as to whether printmakers mean what they say, or whether they are using the confessional mode of address as a means of evading this ethical injunction. The desire for an honest self reckoning gives way to a different desire, one that places the interests of narrative complexity and intrigue above the requirement of straightforward truth-telling virtue. Instead of innocently lacking sense, the project begins to be suspected of a certain duplicity. These artists and writers, are caught in a curious textual predicament whereby every attempt to acknowledge some weakness or fault of character (in the technology they use) becomes twisted into some kind self-justifying narrative logic. It has the effect of a guilty recognition which brings about the notion that a concept of creativity, resides in a concept of an aboriginal nature brought about by calling to account a concept of technology, that represents the fall from nature.

This is print making’s great virtue. This negative side can be put to use – it is a source of a theory (not the only theory). Writing (Imprint/Art and Australia) holds firmly to these ethnocentric values while subjecting them to a kind of involuntary auto critique. The treatment of technology, signs of cultural emergence, represents a swerve away from an aboriginal nature. It is the refusal to acknowledge this predicament which is the cause for complicating and ‘confusing’ tensions within the discourse of print making.

The fetish of a fundamentally anti-technological notion of art was encouraged either consciously or unconsciously in the teaching of print making in Australia from the 60s onwards.

To quote from an interview with a respected teacher of print making:

My perception of how technology fits into being an artist is that it is a very intrinsic part ... you need to be utterly comfortable with the technique that your dealing with so that its invisible; so that you've forgotten about it.[19]

This is how the construction is willed into forgetfulness.

When one reads Imprint, what becomes inescapable, is the importance of the concept of the technological as a metaphor for cognition and the sophistications of culture, which are woven throughout the discourse of print making’s ‘subject’, a subject that could not be articulated without effacing the dangers that this metaphor heralds.

Undeniably, print makers think technology a dangerous supplement.[20] But we must ask ourselves what is its purpose?

Technology is: “a ‘fatal advantage’, is properly seductive; it leads away from the good path, makes it err far from natural ways, guides it toward its loss or fall and therefore it is a sort of lapse or scandal. It thus destroys Nature.’[21]

The techno-fetish is placed in the service of a philosophical structure which marks the ‘subject’ by calling into account the ‘dangerousness’ of the technologies of print making. Technologies that must be intervened by the artists ‘hand’. A technology which must be subjugated, impinged upon, expunged, repulsed, exploited, deployed, employed, utilised, coerced, concealed, erased, effaced and so on, in order to give the ‘breath of life’ to the artist's individual aesthetic; to release the ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ of the artist.

Within all of the examples which I have used, Rousseau’s ‘dangerous supplement’ is put to work. Within the ‘logic’ of the supplement, what Derrida has called the ‘graphic[22] of the supplement, is a ‘voice’ – a ‘dangerous’ voice that:

‘....transgress[es] a prohibition and ..... experienced within culpability. But, by the economy of difference, they confirm the edict they transgress, get around a danger, and reserve an expenditure. In spite of them but also thanks to them, we are authorised to see the sun, to deserve the light that keeps us on the surface of the mine.[23]

It is in spite of technology; in spite of the dangers which technology herald’s – the dangers of cognition – but also thanks to them we are authorised (by a law which is not a law) to find within the stamp of an authentic unified 'subject' for which we yearn but which is constantly fading from view.

This is not a criticism.

© Graeme Cornwell, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.

[1] Margaret McGuire, ‘Eros Aneschi: A Personal Vision’ in Imprint, vol. 24, no. 2, 1989, p. 5.

[2] Udo Sellbach, ‘Noel Counihan’, Imprint no. 2, 1970.

[3] Allan McCulloch, ‘Letter from Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre’ in Imprint, no. 3, 1974.

[4] Charles Mereweather, ‘Noel Counihan (The Force of Commitment: An Article/Interview with Noel Counihan)’ in Imprint, no. 3, 1976.

[5] Julie Ewington, ‘Political Postering in Australia’, Imprint, no. 1, 1978.

[6] Ruth Johnstone, ‘Grafica Uno: Giorgio Upiglio At the Australian Print Workshop’ in Imprint, vol. 24, no. 4, 1989, p. 7.

[7] Craig Gough, ‘Ray Beattie’, Imprint, no. 1, 1977.

[8] Lilian Wood, ‘James D. Watson (1913-1979)’, Imprint, no. 1, 1980.

[9] Janine Burke, ‘Alun Leach-Jones’, Imprint, no. 1, 1976.

[10] Ruth Faerber, ‘Earle Backen’, Imprint, no. 3, 1976.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Julie Ewington, ‘Political Postering in Australia’ in Imprint, no. 1, 1978.

[13] Doug Croston as quoted by Imprint, no. 4, 1984, p. 4.

[14] Theodore Tremblay, as quoted by Imprint, no. 4, 1984, p. 4.

[15] Lynton Perry, as quoted by Imprint, no. 4, 1984, p. 8.

[16] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, A Selection, Trans. Alan Sheridan, Travistock, 1977, p. 294.

[17] Editorial, Art and Australia, vol. 21, no. 2, 1983, p.168.

[18] Lesbia Thorpe, ‘Print Makers Today’ in Art and Australia, vol. 21, no. 3, 1984, p. 318.

[19] G. Cornwell, A Conversation with Rose Vickers, 6/7/92, Appendix.

[20] Quotes page 8.

[21] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Trans. Gayatri, Chakravorty Spivak, John Hopkin University Press, 1974, p. 151.

[22] Ibid, p. 165.

[23] Ibid.