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A closer look: Timothy Noble's 'Semi-Automatic Chalkboard'


Artist: Timothy Noble // "The Semi-Automatic Chalkboard" // Burchfield Penney Art Center // Friday through May 25

Human creativity and technological innovation converge in this high-tech installation by Timothy Noble, which uses open-source software, servo motors and parts created with 3D printers to create automated chalkboard drawings. During the installation's run in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the installation will reproduce drawings by Charles Burchfield that he made in preparation for his major painting "Grain Elevators," which he completed between 1932 and 1938. The contraption, a result of countless hours of work and tinkering by Noble, is a multipronged attempt to explore the replacement of human labor with machines as well and to encourage viewers to think more deeply about the thought and planning that goes into creative efforts that some may view as purely spontaneous. "My hope," Noble wrote in an uncommonly smart and accessible statement copied after the jump, "is that viewers will reflect on the time and consideration that Burchfield put into each brushstroke and recognize that there’s more to appreciate than just the final painting."

--Colin Dabkowski

Timothy Noble's statement:

It’s about labor – an attempt to make visible the work behind an aesthetic artifact. Call them artworks, but how often is an accounting of the invisible time and effort part of their appreciation, their interpretation? Do we see the work within the art?

I've long lost track of how many hours have gone into the design, construction, revision, repair, packing, moving, assembly and coding behind this device. I recall estimating at one point that I had spent more than 100 hours just running the laser cutter for the plywood components. The four weeks of preparation for this show were mostly spent making prophylactic changes to the circuitry and machinery of the apparatus in order to make it robust enough to survive a long run in a museum environment -- and this was after showing the piece publicly four previous times.

Along the way, performing the labor required by the machine became the art and the physical artifact became mere evidence of the real work.  In this sense, I’m particularly pleased to mate this robot with the sketches of Charles Burchfield, done in preparation for Grain Elevators, 1932-38.  My hope is that viewers will reflect on the time and consideration that Burchfield put into each brushstroke and recognize that there’s more to appreciate than just the final painting.

It's about labor in another sense too. This machine was built using other machines, most notably a 3D printer and a laser cutter, and runs using similar coded motions. Both of those technologies are products of a decades-long project to replace skilled workers with programmable machines. Its highest goal has been the fully-automated factory without workers – without the possibility of strikes and with the greatest possible control for management over labor. Computer Numerical Control, or CNC, began as an early Cold War dream of military planners disturbed by the tendency and ability of skilled machinists to agitate and strike for better working conditions. This simply would not do. It was clear to the paranoid futurists at the RAND Corporation that American global dominance would be dependent on the aerospace industry, and in turn reliant on high precision parts. The effort to deskill and disempower the workers on the shop floor attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to abstract into code the thoughtful work of humans informed by experience .

Something unintended happened as well. As the internet-centric culture of open source software turned toward open hardware, hobbyists, tinkerers and artists repurposed CNC technologies to their own ends, developing and sharing the parts and processes which make this machine operate. Kits to make your own 3D printer can now be had for less than $500. Whereas a decade ago, they were only accessible to firms or academic departments willing and able to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars, there is a growing renaissance at the low end.

Today garages and makerspaces accumulate technologies of remarkable precision and capability and a rhetoric of hype envelops this new form of decentralized manufacturing. But where does the human fit in this brave new future of automation? How do the social and the handmade persist within this increasingly coded landscape? Most importantly, to me anyway, what sort of literacies must we cultivate to maintain some agency in a world overrun at top and bottom by machines?


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