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In the beginning there was a drawing

Drawing, as much as it seems to be an action executed by hand/eye coordination and the

hand’s trained ability to make delicate movements with a pen or brush, is, as Michelangelo

Buonarroti pointed out some 450 years ago, really an activity, which takes place in the brain.

Nothing shows this more clearly than if one switches materials, or uses no materials at all like

in the case of electronic drawings, where all the drawing is done through binary coding,

arranging pixels on a screen.

In a way this is the only technique to make a truly flat work of art, since these pixels are only

arranged side by side and each drawing mark, marks a decision between 0 or 1, there are no

grey areas like in the ordinary human experience, there are no maybe’s or ambiguities. It’s

yes or no, black or white. Neal Stephenson equates the binary code in his essay ‘IN THE

BEGINNING WAS THE COMMAND LINE’, to a God like quality, the writer of the code needs to

know exactly what he wants the computer to do, only then does the magic work, and we non-hackers,

see through our GUI glasses a spreadsheet or drawing developing.

I am not writing code, I am just using a Graphic User Interface (GUI) in it’s most advanced

form as an iPhone app to draw with my right hand middle finger, things, figures and portraits,

all from life, plein air. It is surprising that this mediated technology allows for a spontaneous

and propriety drawing behavior. The drawings I made with it so far all show the same

“handwriting” than my on paper sketches and drawings, considering that I do not normally

draw with a bare finger but rather graphite sticks and pencils, it gives evidence to

Michelangelo’s statement: “A man paints with his brain and not with his hands”.

But drawing is also visualizing concepts and ideas, even the simple act of drawing an object or

figure from life is such a visualization, by choosing the object, the angle, the trajectory of the

line etc, a concept or idea of the object or figure is formulated. It is important to understand

that by drawing a figure, we are not making it, or create an illusion of it, but visualize an idea

of that figure in a different world so to speak. In the case of electronic drawings one could call

it a flatland world.

There seems to be an inherent connection between drawing and binary code in the sense that

both are used as abstracting measures, creating an interface, which allows for the expression

of ideas and the transmittal of information. Drawing is a lot like binary code in the sense, that

it also is a yes and no decision making process, either there is a line or there is none, there

are no grey areas, not even in shading a figure drawing, it is always about to either let the

empty space (non mark or NO or 0) speak or choosing the line (mark or YES or 1). So in that

way drawing, and much more so electronic drawing, is a quite pure form of creation,

mimicking the ultimate creation of ‘something out of nothing’.

It is an interesting question where and whether an electronic drawing really exists in its

electronic form as binary code. It becomes clear when it is printed or displayed on a screen,

that the information has been somewhere (I guess on a memory chip occupying some virtual

or real space?) but is that really a physical or rather a metaphysical existence?

Or is it a combination of real and virtual in the way that the drawing is somewhere in it’s

potentiality, but realizes only if given the command to display in some form of material media?

In a way that seems to be a satisfying concept, mirroring the human condition in it’s in -

between status of potential and realization and eventually transformation, where one could

say that all three stages signify some kind of existence on some level.

And then there is the magic of the interfacing apps I am using to draw on my iPhone, which

allow not only to take steps back and forth, but also records these steps as a screen video,

which is like an old painters dream coming true: to be able to see whether one actually makes

progress by continuing to work on a piece.

Some 30 years ago I had long instructional conversations with E Bert Hartwig, a then already

senior painter, who in turn got his instructions at the Bauhaus from Paul Klee who reported

that some Bauhaus masters made a point in using photography in order to record the daily

changes they made on a painting or drawing and how great it would be if one could see the

actual process of creation unadulterated by ones own consciousness of having a camera

behind recording every step one makes.

In a surprising way touch screen technology has made all of this possible and contrary to the

technology phobia of the sixties and seventies of the last century that expressed enormous

anxiety about the potential death of all creativity and human expression through technology,

mostly information technology, it has rather provided an unprecedented freedom from

material boundaries.

A freedom we have only begun to comprehend and put into use in the creative and artistic


David Stern

New York, NY, May 11 2010

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