Fillip 11 — Spring 2004

A Manual for the Discrete and the Continuous
Kate Armstrong

Digital Foundations: Introduction to Media Design with the Adobe Creative Suite by xtine burrough and Michael Mandiberg is a practical guide to design principles and essential digital concepts geared toward foundation-level digital art and design studio classes.

The book is a software manual, but it blurs more boundaries and raises more questions than might seem usual for this genre. The book covers everything from how to create a file in Illustrator, to using layers and making curves in Photoshop, to what a URL is and how to build a Web page. Readers learn how to upload images to Flickr, encounter an overview of RGB vs. CMYK, and get the basics of style sheets. But it also contains a major innovation: The book uses the formal principles developed by the Bauhaus and applies them to the project of learning the Adobe Creative Suite of software tools, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, and Flash. In the words of the authors, the book is a “mash-up between the Bauhaus Basic Course and the Adobe Creative Suite”.1

The Bauhaus, the influential art school founded in Germany in 1919 by Walter Gropius and others, sought to reconcile the artist and the machine, pursuing “new forms and new solutions to man’s basic needs as well as his aesthetic ones”.2 The Bauhaus’s Basic Course, which provided the pedagogical foundation for many studio courses in North America, returned to basic materials and rules of design, fusing technical, aesthetic, and social considerations.

In recognition of the fact that materials cannot be mastered in the abstract, that making is a form of knowing, and that ideas emerge from the space where materials encounter both analysis and play, the pedagogical method pioneered by the Bauhaus involves hands-on learning—thus the significance and innovation of the studio class.

It makes sense, then, to bring this approach to the project of software training, which for years has suffered from a fundamental illogic or gap: in order to effectively use design software, one must understand basic principles of design. Yet design as theory and software as technical skill remain separate in most curricula, and many students when they set out to learn design software are at the beginning of their training in art or design. Within art schools and universities there has to date been no set method of approaching how to blend these subjects: students often learn design principles and technical software at the same time, yet they do not usually learn them as two sides of the same coin. Digital Foundations makes this gap visible and provides a pedagogical approach for learning both things in tandem. In this book, design histories are used to ground software exercises. Ideas and methods are brought together into a space of applied play and experimentation that might have made Gropius happy.

The twenty sensibly constructed chapters make connections between theory and practice on many levels and make use of critically engaged references. For example, Chapter 4, “Type on the Grid,” which covers typography and the historical and conceptual trope of the grid, is also where you will learn to turn rulers on and off in Illustrator. Gesture drawing is contextualized alongside a practical how-to on making curves in Photoshop. Instead of the “drop shadows and outer glows, and the author’s mediocre vacation photographs” 3 with which students are often told to experiment in traditional software manuals, Digital Foundations discusses Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung’s psychotronic collage Maodonna in connection with the concept of fair use, presents Johannes Itten’s colour wheel next to an RGB schematic, and mentions the first photograph ever produced, by Nicéphore Niépce, in a discussion of how to set up a scanner.

The authors (both artists and assistant professors—at California State University and the College of Staten Island/CUNY, respectively) have found a style that is radically interdisciplinary—hitting a “sweet spot” of commonality among art, design, advertising, net art, journalism—and compulsively art historical. The layered squares produced during the exercise focussing on the Photoshop “rectangle” tool recall Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. In explaining how style sheets work, the authors refer to American architect Louis Sullivan, whose use of steel rather than masonry allowed the appearance of a building to be considered separately from its structure.

True to the Bauhaus’s form-and-function ethos as well as to concepts from digital aesthetics such as relationality and sharing, the book seems to explore praxis as a principle, strategy, or ethic. These principles are embodied in the examples given in the book, but also in the book itself, in the way that it is experienced, manifest, and used. Open source becomes a subject not only where the book discusses it (Chapter 2, “Searching and Sampling/Copyright, Fair Use, Appropriation”) but through the fact that the book is released under a Creative Commons license and is available for free download. Those picking up this book are exposed to concepts of participation and co-authorship within the subject matter of the text and additionally through the project wiki, where the authors encourage readers to reuse, remix, and build upon the book—for example, translating it or augmenting it with visual examples and tagging their contributions with “#digitalfoundations.”

In fact, Digital Foundations seems to occupy a sliding space somewhere between digital and analogue, between the book and the web. A window opens between the book and the network: something unfinished from within the volume opens and connects. The text of the book can be found online but the introductory chapter of the printed book is titled “read_me” in the manner of software files. Rather than embracing the longstanding tradition in software textbooks of embodying the digital into the physical object by providing a CD-ROM, this book provides a URL. The book itself has a Flickr account.

Is it obvious or absurd to have a lesson in praxis? In this book the ideas are embedded in the ideas, you learn as you learn, you see as you see. It’s like talking to a local and learning not only the language but finding out about the good restaurants. Against this frame, past software manuals may teach you how to speak, but you might have nothing to say. This book shows us that our software operates within a larger culture, not just in a lab. We need to know why—not just how—to use it, and though part of that knowledge lies in the aesthetic principles of the modernist past, a portion lies in questions that we experience in the present. These are questions like: How are images part of our cultural syntax, and what is the role of making? How has our understanding of production changed against the backdrop of participatory digital cultures? How do changing currents of visual and popular culture affect how we use software, and how should proprietary software be taught in an open source world?

The questions become larger in scope as they reach into other disciplines. How can a book address currents in contemporary art and culture such as net art, hactivism, and interactivity while creating a foundation in visual principles like symmetry, unity, or abstraction? Which design principles underpin both physical and digital production, and how do we determine what is foundational for an interdisciplinary space where art, design, media, culture, and activism meet? Most important are questions that relate to how art and design can be best taught in a culture where distinctions between real and virtual, past and present, singular and multiple, object and network, theory and practice are constantly evolving, creating new crossovers and new spaces of blur.

The physical object that is the printed book is referenced in a way that starts to get quite “meta” (from Greek: μετά = after, beyond, with, adjacent, self): in a discussion on colour and file types, the book says, “Note: This book was designed and printed in CMYK”.4 In a discussion about appropriation in contemporary art, the authors write “Ironically, we do not have copyright permissions to show Warhol’s paintings or photographs of his Campbell’s soup cans in this book. Try an image search”.5 It’s a reminder that this book, too, was once a file. The effect is one of shifting, ongoing connection between the digital and physical, between the files and the network that knits the files together, and the myriad outcomes all this information can take—complex constructions of print, link, and image.

About the Author

Kate Armstrong is a writer, artist, and independent curator based in Vancouver.

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