To err is almost human was an artistic publication project, carried out in collaboration with the designer Cecilia Costa. It has as its subject a machine which I have built for writing, drawing, cutting, and carving.
The project formed part of the work upon which basis I received my masters diploma from the Dutch Art Institute in July 2008. Each year, the DAI organises a collaborative publication project in conjunction with the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem. A small budget is available to each graduating student for the printing of a limited edition of 200-250 copies.
As already mentioned, the subject of my publication was the writing, drawing, cutting, carving machine which I have been working on since the beginning of 2008. There is more specific information about this machine elsewhere.
What was most interesting to me was the research process itself, the slow ritual of trial-and-error during which the machine was developed. It became apparent that sometimes the mistakes and setbacks which inevitably occurred on the way in fact produced the most interesting results. In contrast, “progress” in the scientific sense has as its unspoken purpose the exclusion of doubt, unpredictability, and error.
I became aware that there lay great potential for artistic exploration in this situation. Whereas plenty artists have been “inspired” by science, an approach which I personally find little more than illustrative and in fact quite tautological, there appeared to me to be a more interesting and more involved alternative: to use scientific and technical research as a medium for art.
This last statement merits some explanation. Whereas a scientist or engineer who is pursuing a programme of research has as their goal a certain desirable state of affairs (a cure for a deadly disease, a more efficient type of air filter, the complete genome of a certain species), the artistic method which I am outlining has as its goal the research itself. This process will enthusiastically embrace whatever unexpected results and intriguing mistakes happen to emerge along the way. At the risk of cliché, it may be said that it is about the journey rather than the destination.
Of course, this naturally begs the question of how such research can best be presented. The publication To err is almost human is an attempt to visualise and explain the theory which underpins the very practical process which has lead to the coming into being of this rather quirky machine, with all its curious, fickle unpredictability.
All the drawings and carvings in the publication were made by the machine. Each is reproduced at its original scale, with a sequence number and date clearly showing its place on the evolutionary timeline. This timeline in fact runs in reverse chronological order, with the earliest, most primitive (and in my opinion, the most beautiful) drawings at the end. In this way the passage of time and of progress is stripped back to a core, to an idea. What remains is something strangely distant, a primal relic.
Of course, a lot of the very particular quality of the drawings is lost in the process of conventional offset printing. As a means to offset this, the title of each book and its position in the edition was drawn “by hand” on each copy. In this way, each is unique – while the machine has at reached a level of some sophistication and virtuosity, it will for example never write an “8″ in exactly the same way twice.
Finally, it is worth stating that the publication can be approached in two ways: either as a written work, or as something visual. Whereas both serve as differing approaches to explaining the core message, they are nevertheless tightly interwoven in a coherent whole. For this in particular I must express my admiration for the skill and insight of Cecilia Costa, the graphic designer with whom I worked throughout the project.