Do digital and hand work mix? I have to say NO!

At the recent College Book Arts Association meeting (Oregon College of Art and Craft, January 8-10th, 2010) one of the more exciting discussions was on digital media in book arts. I wish it could have continued. While I have a dual appointment in the both art and interactive media, I share some of the misgivings over the “digital blessing” that have been bestowed upon us, and I council students on how and when to make use of them as practical tools. I spent a recent sabbatical doing hand bookbinding and letterpress printing.

Slowing down to the pace of handwork gives more time for reflection and observation. I sometimes liken it to the difference between walking and driving a car (and all the extensions of that metaphor). Perhaps the Pacific Crest Trail versus the Pacific Coast Highway.

Do digital and hand work mix? I have to say NO!
From teaching drawing, I found over and over it was not good to teach perspective systems at the same time I taught responsive observation—different parts of the brain, I suppose. Some people can intuitively do both simultaneously, but most, particularly students, trip up in the process. .

A better approach is to keep distinct times and places for each process. Certain environmental cues can facilitate the shift to a slower more reflective kind of work. I would suggest for individuals, set up a special desk or work area specifically for hand media. Different ergonomics, including lighting and chair configuration are required for sustained handwork versus digital work. Don’t try to keep your sketchbook beside your computer. Instead, clean off that old drafting table, pull out the cutting mat, sharpen some pencils and (for God’s sake!) open the blinds and get some daylight in, or get a good lamp.

This approach can apply to classroom settings and offices as well as the individual studio. We have reduced the size of desks and increased the amount of clutter: usually centering on them a keyboard and monitor. This makes it all but impossible to do serious manual work. Drawing, cutting, handwork of any kind, requires a more meditative and fluid workspace. I don’t want to go too far with the notion of “chi” here, but there is a body of thought that holds that to do any craft work (draw, cut, carve) you had to be physically rooted and balanced: feet on the floor and aware of your physical and emotional center.

When to teach digital media? To be a responsible educator, I have to equip my students with what they need; teachers and practicing craftspersons need to know digital media. But I find most undergraduates hungry for digital media; and I have to satisfy that hunger before I can expect some of them to appreciate the alternative. (Note “SOME”—not all will be able to or want to loosen their grip on the mouse.) That said, it is terrific that there are places, the OCAC, perhaps, for people who are ready to make that leap; where they can go and embrace the craft aesthetic and process. One of the great things about the American educational system is that there is room for programs that cover the full spectrum of possibilities.

My most recent bookwork came out of digital media. The little cast of characters in my most recent book projects (http://www.flickr.com/photos/portfoliolab/sets/ ) were created originally for some fun flash animations. (http://designwriting.info/indexl2.html)

2 thoughts on “Do digital and hand work mix? I have to say NO!

  1. Inge

    The CBAA conference was a blast, lots of good conversation, especially in the digital media in book arts session for sure. I think basically I agree with the above statements, but not the blanketed notion that digital and handwork do not mix. I do agree that in an ideal world it would be best to focus on them separately, they are different ways of thinking and making and require different approaches. However, there should always be room for conversation and assignments within the same course that demonstrate those very differences and highlight why and how one might want to use one over the other or in combination. They should not be exclusive of one another and in this day and age I just don’t see how that is possible. Then there is the fact that many small colleges like OCAC can’t afford many separate classes some focusing on hand skills and others on digital skills with a student body of 150-200 students. I believe the students are adept enough to embrace this idea in this time in our culture – given the right framework. I really don’t believe that some colleges because they are craft oriented should allow their students to graduate being digitally illiterate – which is what OCAC and other craft based schools were in peril of. For me I think it is essential to teach digital and hand skills in any given craft, but to teach it in a way that separates out the different ways of thinking and making that each require. I can understand the above argument especially coming from a design education background, where hand skills and physical thinking and making have been lost to virtual thinking and making in many institutions. However, from the perspective of those immersed in physical thinking and making, it is important for us to embrace new tools and keep craft relevant in a contemporary art and design world. I’m for a balance of education of both digital and hand skills and the really interesting question for me and my colleagues is how to teach both successfully. This is a new conversation and perhaps at a future CBAA meeting we can share our investigations into how best to teach the two realms to encourage our students to have the best understanding why and how to use these processes in an effective, thoughtful way.

  2. admin Post author

    Yes, new media and traditional craft are both important. But the two do not seem to flow seamlessly together. Just as Barb expressed frustration with a digital exercise inserted in a mostly manual course, I have seen the same thing occur in reverse when students have to shift from digital to manual work. After years of blaming students or myself for failure to perform, I am prepared to entertain the notion that there may be factors at work here that may benefit from specific strategies.

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