Robert Urguhart You were talking about mistakes. What is a mistake when you are creating something and how is it really to do with the process of elimination, what you take away and what you leave in?
Penelope Wakeham Yes, the possibility for endless undoing and saving snapshots or versions that you can do forever. With the computer's ability to store information, there doesn't have to be a process of elimination. You just save and move on knowing that you can always return.
Alison Gilry How do you prevent that from happening?
PW My desire to touch and physically manipulate the image I see on the screen, helps me to make the difficult decision of when to stop. That decision is as difficult as for a painter using a brush to organise the distribution of pigment. Once I've printed the image and I have the pigment laid out before me, I don't go back and redo. It's like when you paint; if something doesn't work you scrape the paint off and redo it. You leave a trace behind which builds up the surface. I can take off pieces that don't work and put on something else but there is always a trace left behind. I don't go back into the computer and
remove that trace.
RU Do you think that digital art, the use of computers in fine art practice, is really a craft because you're using a tool to create
something, a tool that doesn't necessarily have a function that we would see as fine art?
PW No I don't think digital art is a craft. Craft comes in when hands are involved. Of course you use the mouse, but you're not in touch with anything material. Craft is to do with skill and expertise and in this sense to use a computer is no different than using a chisel, paintbrush or needle and thread. It's the intention rather than the means that differentiates craft from art.
RU Returning to the notion of hands on experience, is that why when you finish with the computer and you go on to the
latter stages, you allow accidents to happen? Because you want to retain an element of human contact?
PW No. It's about sabotaging the control of the computer and allowing something unforeseen to happen. It's also about
trying to return something of the lit screen to the work without actually having to put a light behind it or use a light box. I don't like the idea of having to switch something on to view it. So it's not about reintroducing craft or hands on experience, more to do with restoring an element of chance, but mostly it's about allowing light into the pigment to illuminate it. That's one of the reasons why the work is built up in transparent layers. By building the piece in layers, the work also acknowledges its multilayered computer source and is a continuation of that process of making.
AG So how do you practically go about doing that, how does that multilayered end piece come out of the computer?
PW Parts of an image on screen are printed and then encompassed in transparent medium. The paper is removed and the pieces pasted together to form a transparent sheet. These are layered in much the same way as they were created in the
AG So how do you take the paper off. How does the pigment get trapped in this transparent stuff?
PW It just does.
AG And then you just peel off the paper?
PW Yes. The paper onto which the printer lays the pigment provides a binding agent and a uniform opaque surface. I don't want that, so I discard it. Sometimes I want to see through to the layers beneath and sometimes I don't, so I return the opaqueness by painting white beneath some parts of the image. This allows me to create physical depth in an image; in one place being able to see through layers of transparent colour and not in another. Placing the whole on a white surface enables light to bounce back. I am looking for a more tangible form of that light that you get on screen.
RU And the title of the exhibition Painting with Numbers how did that come about?
PW Because I feel that I'm painting; painting is only the distribution of pigment over a surface, and the code the computer uses is made up of numbers. Originally it was going to be called 'I Digress' because I saw this work as a temporary side step from my previous digital work, which was figurative.
RU And how has the exhibition come about then? Do you feel as though you've reached a turning point or do you feel as though it's a review of what you've been doing recently or is this work a departure?
PW It is a departure from the figurative language. It came about because while I was working I became more and more
interested in what the computer could do; the light, colour and the materials themselves. So I let go of the narrative element just to see what I could do. My fascination with transparency and plastic pushed itself forward again and I went with it.
AG Why did you become involved with the computer in producing art?
PW Through my wish to manipulate the photograph. My postgraduate study at Reading allowed me the freedom to
experiment with something I had been obliged to abandon. I explored photography, print and video but they had the same
drawback. Even the computers, which were largely used for animation, didn't at the time offer what I was looking for and that was to be able to manipulate, change, shape or paint with the image after it had been produced. I didn't see the image
produced as the final result but the raw material to make something else. I hit on the photocopier as a way of further altering an image created by other means. It was after leaving Reading that I really started using a computer when my son showed me a program called Photoshop. I was hooked.
AG What role does the computer play for you?
PW The computer is a tool pure and simple, a means of organising things. It is the means by which I bring together pieces of visual information like different instruments to play together. I can sample, make marks in or outside the computer and feed in and change almost anything that takes my fancy. I would really like to start some kind of discussion about the use of
computers as an artist's tool. Programmers are stuck with replicating existing techniques. You can use the computer to look like painting in oils or watercolour, a pencil or pastel drawing, an etching or a photocopy. If you want a watercolour, go and do a watercolour!
RU That's a very good question isn't it? You're using a computer and you're talking about the computer giving the same recipe for painting if you like.
PW Malcolm McCullough's book, Abstracting Craft, The Practiced Digital Hand., says that when we are given a new tool we use it to perform existing tasks. On the other hand, faced with a new task we will adapt an existing tool. Software for the computer artist relies on the existing tools of paintbrushes, pencils and pens. We can 'paint' on canvas, textured paper or even wet plaster! It's easy to be seduced by the fabulous things computers are programmed to simulate. As an illustrator's tool, they're fast and efficient but for the artist, there has to be a better reason to use other people's ideas and decisions. That is not to say that these simulations cannot be used, only that there must be justification for their use. For this reason I try to keep what I use as simple as possible and make my own decisions. When I hear the word 'effects' I'm wary. Here is the root of my ambivalent feelings about the computer as a fine art tool. I love what I can do but I want to take it a step further and make my own tools. Rather than reinvent the wheel, computer artists must find a new means of expression that speaks of the things that are of digital media.
RU You're trying to subvert the use of the computer in that way. Which leads me on to why are you presenting the work as
PW I don't think I am but the work ends up being a two dimensional object in common with paintings as well as photographs, prints, textile pieces and many others. Display has been a problem for me for some years.
RU What's the problem?
PW What to do when I've made it. I have it in the computer. It's in there and the light is shining through the colour and it looks scrumptious. Then I want to bend and shape what I see, so I take it out of the computer and get my hands on it. I think it's the possession of the stuff, the actual material, the texture. When it's on the screen, in a light box, reproduced as a photograph or similar, I can't get at it. It's a process of elimination really. I have investigated different ways of displaying the finished image and hanging them on a support on a wall proves to be the way that remains.
RU It's that constant battle between the screen and reality. In other words you're saying leave it at the stage where it's almost come undone from a flat image, a representation. Do you think that there is a compromise then made by the technology? A compromise between what you want and what you get?
PW Oh yes. Unless images are to be projected in some way or to be viewed on a screen, digital art output must come to us via a printer. However, the breadth, variety, depth and colour of images within the computer are strangled by the bottleneck of its two dimensional output. As the input became more and more sophisticated the makers of ink jet and then laser printers adapted their machines to keep pace with the images being created. Printers can now print images that look like photographs, art prints, pencil drawings or etchings. All hark back to previously invented technology. However, the print can't look like the image on the monitor. The subtractive colour system of the printer appears flat and lifeless compared to the additive colour of the lit screen, saturated with light. Further to this, no matter how many layers there are, how often the re-thinking
necessitates over painting, the final image is still only one pixel thick. There can be no working up texture of the surface: only the illusion of layers, scratches and texture can be created. So yes there are restrictions inherent in the technology. Unless you settle on something to do, a formula if you like and rest on that, you're always searching for something else. Something just out of reach.
RU So in a way the work represents the on screen image by offering a physical reincarnation of the layering process of making.
AG More than this; the final work becomes something other, due to the physical layering process you adopt in retrieving the image from the computer.
PW Yes, you have it. The combination of computer, printer and the artist's hand and eye to attempt something greater than the sum of the individual parts.
AG You kind of try and take the digital layer that comes from the virtual world and put it into the 'real' world.
PW Yes, it is made into a work that really is multi layered. When I'm making a piece, I have many layers, so yes, I take a layer and print it out. I don't know how it will differ from how it looks on the screen. The layering of colour in the 'virtual world' as you put it doesn't correspond directly to the 'real' world. I know that when I look through two or three layers I'll see
something different. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
AG Do you allow yourself to make changes to any of the output layers?
PW It depends what you mean by 'changes'. Once the pigment is encased in medium there is very little opportunity for change. If something is not working I can manipulate, add another layer of colour or take off something. Having said that, I prefer not to. I like the surprises and mostly leave them be. I will turn their faces to the wall for a while and see how I feel about them when I turn them round. I can always start again.
RU Has transparency entered your work before working digitally?
PW Yes, although I was perhaps not aware of the thread. Looking back at notebooks and slides of earlier work I realise I
continually came back to transparent objects and space. I used to collect transparent plastic bottles and plastic bits and pieces, convinced I would find a use for them but I couldn't bend and shape them in the way I wanted. I worked with resin which was good but it is so hard and shiny and again not pliable. So when I look back I can see this constant interest in plastic stuff, plastic see-through stuff. I just love it.
AG What stops you from displaying it in that form?
PW It comes back to the way the light goes through the pigment. It is necessary for the light to travel through to the white backing and return, preferably through the colour. I've used heat sealed plastic but then you've got this untouched smooth surface again. I like the fact that you can see that it's layered and that it's physically layered and not just an illusion of layers.
RU So do you see your pictures as sculptures as well as painting?
PW There is a stage when a piece has a three dimensional quality but then they cling to a flat surface.
RU But no one sees that do they?
PW No, this aspect of the work is not seen.
RU Its sculptural stage is a transitional form if you like before it comes back round to being a two dimensional object.
AG Do you think that people who like paintings are perhaps better equipped to read the work than those who enjoy digital art?
PW I would like to think that my work could be appreciated by both.
RU Does it matter if some people might not realise that you've used a computer to make the work?
PW No. If they responded to my work, I think it would be rather good for them to find out afterwards. Particularly if they have
preconceived ideas about what digital art is and perhaps were not keen on computers.
RU Are you happy being called a digital artist? Or do you feel there are no labels or terms?
PW I see myself as an artist. I just happen to use a computer. I think labels like 'digital artist' are restricting because a
computer is merely one of the many tools at the artist's disposal.
AG Will you continue to use the computer?
PW Yes, this is only a beginning. I said before that I couldn't see the point in using a computer to do what we can already do by other means. I believe that the computer can do something else. I have made a start in thinking about what that something else could be.
Published 2000 by Colville Place Gallery
Copyright Penelope Wakeham