Becky Huff Hunter, part of ICA’s communications team, kicks off Art Journal’s new online conversation series on new media art with the article A Fine Line: Drawing and the Digital Ground in the Work of Tamarin Norwood.
The interview circles around ICA’s first web-based artist commission, A Fine Line (2014), Norwood’s suite of four short digital videos exploring relationships between surface and line—inspired by the museum’s Agnes Martin survey exhibition (1973).
The conversation ranges across Norwood’s interest in lines and surfaces, her views on the digital vs. analogue debate (specifically, questioning binary distinctions between “digital” and “analogue” materials, processes, and forms of communication), and why studio art counts as a legitimate form of research.
Becky Huff Hunter: Tell me about your interest in lines.
Tamarin Norwood: The Fine Line videos began with an interest in the form of the line as a representational device. The line can be a graphic element in a diagram or drawing or stretch of writing, in which case it exists as a material form on the page but apologetically so: really it means to be transparent, as though the page were a pane of clear glass looking onto whatever the image or text is meant to represent. Historically this aspiration toward transparency has provoked a great deal of play in representational drawing and writing. You can draw or write in such a way that the eye is forced to focus on the surface of the glass instead of looking through it, so that anything being represented is secondary to the virtuosity of the lines themselves—a sparkling metaphor or rhyme for instance, or a quavering mark that speaks more to the gesture that produced it than the object it was produced to represent, if it represents anything at all. Self-apparent literature, metafiction, and certain abstract and expressionist practices are examples of this kind of play, though I think it runs through all representation as a critical undercurrent.
The converse is also true. Thread, wire, a beam of light—these are all linear forms that exist as opaquely nonrepresentational material, but their opacity can provoke a similar play or agitation. They can be seen in terms of the material properties that determine their practical use, but those properties can also be read for what they might represent, like seeing pictures in clouds. I saw some wire drawings by Gego at the Henry Moore Institute (Leeds, UK) the other week. Very often what looks like a pencil drawing turns out to be a skein of manipulated wire hanging in the air against a white backdrop. A couple of these drawings were made from wires crimped and crinkled from some previous use, perhaps in electrical equipment, and in this context the originally incidental crinkles acquired a new aesthetic or pictorial value, without altogether forgetting their origin in the bare function of the material.
I see A Fine Line as part of this play or agitation of the line. Shot from a certain perspective and with particular lighting, the lead of the retractable pencil resembles a line even as it produces other lines. Working with the time-based medium of video and with digitally generated forms allowed me to develop this visual ambiguity further—incorporating the black line that marks a split screen for instance—and think more about the relation of the screen to the camera lens, to the sheet of paper, and even to the surface of the video while it’s being edited and is still pliant.
Becky Huff Hunter: It sounds as though you’re thinking of the computer screen, the lens, the editing software, and the paper as having something in common through all functioning as supports for the work, rather than making binary distinctions between them as analogue and digital. Do you agree and, if so, could you expand on those thoughts?
Tamarin Norwood: That’s right. The paper, the computer screen, the camera lens, and the pliant surface of the video-in-production all share the quality of being grounds for the figures they support. You could count the pane of glass I mentioned earlier as another of these grounds. Each is a ground in a different way—for instance the lens isn’t strictly a ground at all—but nevertheless I find it productive to imagine what they might all have in common.
As a set of relationships emerges between the line of the pencil lead, the graphite lines it leaves on the paper, the digitally generated lines, and the split-screen lines, it’s compelling to imagine a parallel set of relationships between the grounds—the worlds or terrains inhabited by each species of line. The play between each line and its ground reveals something new about drawing and figuration. Little discoveries are made on each terrain; by lifting them from one terrain and testing them against another, there can be a compounding of new insights into drawing, figuration, figure, and ground. Does the hand-drawn line relate to the digitally generated line in the same way that the page relates to the computer screen, or is it different? Can we say the same for the pencil lead and the carefully angled camera lens? What can we make of the angle of the lens, and how does it relate to the angle at which I view the raw video footage as I sit at the computer editing? These elusive commonalities strike me as more productive than the distinction between analogue and digital, though of course this is also a feature of the landscape.