Future in Your Hands

Our nostalgic obsession with the handmade  stems from a desire to play it safe, says  Carl Burgess. Digital imagemaking, in contrast,  is risky, exciting and allows us to talk about  our world today and our hopes for tomorrow 

We worry too much about offending people. When somebody, somewhere, is calling for a public apology almost every day, perhaps that’s not a surprise. Thanks to the toxic combination of social and tabloid media the whole nation seems in a permanent state of outrage: the urge to play it safe is irresistible and understandable.

I grew up in the 80s, when everything was much more ruthless and brash. Our visual culture reflected our aspirations to luxury and our excitement about the future. We used to have Brass Eye and now we have 8 out of 10 Cats. The new Robocop was rated a 12A, the original was a gory 18. In advertising I was once thrilled by the surreal brilliance of Silk Cut ads, now we celebrate the cosy charms of a John Lewis Christmas commercial.

It’s all so safe, and nothing is safer than our obsession with ‘craft’ and the handmade. Speciality bread, gourmet coffees and craft beers – everything is ‘artisan’. Sometimes it seems as though we only equate value with processes that are generations old; a mindset which filters into our visual culture via the inky-fingered nostalgia of letterpress printing and handlettering.

CG, in contrast, is still very much in its infancy. It is a medium that is rarely recognised in the art world, instead it is associated with ‘special effects’ and computer games rather than a legitimate method of making work. Doing something in CG, rather than ‘for real’, is perceived as taking the easy way out even though it involves just as much time and effort, often more.

CG is everywhere but it is rarely celebrated or brought to the fore; it’s hidden away, confined to ‘photo-real’ ads and abstract graphics. Unless you are in the industry you would struggle to appreciate the man hours and level of craft that go into making such images. It is far easier to understand and value a charming animation that took, say, 500 man hours and 10,000 sheets of laser-cut paper.

Even in Hollywood, the aesthetic contribution of CG is often downplayed. The vast majority of shots are digitally created but they are heavily composited so that any element of craft is hidden away under a mountain of layers – if you can see the effects then they have done a bad job.

Now, thanks to Vimeo and YouTube, we can strip away those layers and enjoy pure isolated special effects breakdowns. When taken out of context, these short demonstrations of, say, CG smoke billowing from an unseen steam train or a wave of digital water crashing into the sea, possess great beauty.

As CG image-making becomes more accessible, people can create sequences in bedrooms that were once reserved for Hollywood movies. As a result there’s an almost outsider art culture hidden away in the corners of the internet devoted to pure CG. Here can be found a huge range of amazing and, admittedly, quite odd work that’s challenging and fresh. So why isn’t it being commissioned by our champions of creativity?

I blame the rise of the ‘making-of’. These pseudo-documentaries are now often seen as an essential element to any communications campaign, adding much-needed extra views and social media buzz around every project and providing more ‘content’ to impress the client and justify the fee.

Lately, I have been involved in quite a few jobs where the initial conversation was all about how to make the project shareable and how to document the process above the actual job itself. Is it any wonder then that a handmade or process-heavy approach often wins out over the purely digital? After all, there is nothing compelling about watching a room full of people sitting in front of computers – it is naturally far more interesting to see an artist painstakingly exercising their craft. Never mind that a lot ‘making-ofs’ seem to be largely fantasy: were all those suspiciously neat notebook sketches actually made? Were all those Post-it notes really on the wall? Did you really need to make everything in wood?

Handcrafted work has a natural friendliness and it allows large corporations to appear human. As a result, it’s much easier to sell to a client.

It’s far more challenging to get across a similar degree of warmth with digitally created images. Cold and perfect, in CG any imperfections, smudges, scratches and personality have to be considered and consciously added.

But this obsession with the handmade is anachronistic and twee. Worse, it betrays a fear of the future. Why are we expending so much time and effort reviving outmoded industrial processes when we have such a huge array of exciting tools to make images and work that truly reflect and address our world today? Look at what we can do with data visualization or code. Or the work of the artist John Rafman who mines the virtual worlds of Google Streetview and video games to explore the impact of technology on our consciousness. Our future popular culture will be based on data and code, not ink and paper.

Perhaps, in comparison to traditional processes that have been perfected over centuries, the aesthetic quality of CG imagery is not quite there yet, but it will be. When fashion photography went through a transition into fashion film, the first attempts were crude and lacked the polish and sophistication of the former. Today high fashion has embraced film wholeheartedly and brands such as Prada and Kenzo are experimenting with CG too.

Why? Because CG represents the future, the modern, the world as it might be not as it was. It’s the opposite of safe and cosy. So let’s open the Nescafé Gold Blend, download a copy of Maya, leave yesterday behind and embrace tomorrow.

Carl Burgess is creative director of More Soon, moresoon.org


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