25 October 2010
"Mechanical Turk is also twisted," said Clement Valla, who uses the interface to engage people creatively. He has written a software program that enables Mechanical Turk workers to create collaborative paintings made of up 1600 discreet one-square-inch pieces. He titles these works Seed Drawings because they emanate from a single tile that multiplies iteratively. Users are asked to copy the tile that is next to their own assigned blank tile, but because each new copy is essentially made by hand or an inexact process, each newly-filled tile ends up looking slightly different than the previous one. Sometimes a user decides not to follow the instructions, and whole new patterns evolve in the paintings.
Mechanical Turk is an Amazon.com platform for employing human users to perform tasks that a computer is unable to carry out. In an interview with Artists Speak, Valla explained the origin of the name. An 18th century contraption, the Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing automaton that appeared to be a robot. A reputed chess-champion, capable of beating most human opponents, the Mechanical Turk was actually a human disguised as a robot. Behind every automaton lies a human hand.
Before developing the software that would spawn his Seed Drawings, Valla elicited the help of distant human artists for his Master's thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studies and teaches in the Digital + Media MFA program. Encouraged to work in an unfamiliar medium for an assignment in a theory class, Valla took on the challenge by ordering custom paintings from Chinese artist villages. What started out as an experiment would transform into an entire body of work for his thesis.
Fully embracing the digital paradigm of instruction-based art, Valla asked the Chinese painters, who all had Western names, to paint the view outside their window. Unlike most of the orders they received from other clients who asked for copies of famous Western paintings, like Monets and Van Goghs, Clement's instructions sought to humanize the process of ordering copies from a production studio accustomed to mass customization in an outsourcing economy. For the 2009 Wassaic Project arts festival, Clement ordered an oil painting that combined three different contexts and eras from the Wushipu Chinese Painting Village in Xiamen, China. Set against a background sky of a painting by the Hudson School painter Frederick Church and a Google Earth relief of Wassaic, NY is a building in Xiamen. The building just happens to evoke the stature of the Wassaic Mill, which is where the arts festival is held each year.
Drawing from the minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Mel Bochner, Clement Valla explores the structural potentials of form-making. His work examines repetition in a digital medium within the confines of a pre-existing system. When ordering paintings online from China, in order to communicate with artists, Valla subjected each image that was produced to a digital critique. He would send instructions to his overseas workshop by email, and with each exchange, a copy of a copy would insert itself into the internet-based feedback loop and ultimately make its way into the final object. The difference between the Wushipu paintings and the Seed drawings is that the former participate in an additive process where each new layer masks what was there before, whereas the latter record and divulge each additive transformation in horizontal and radial format. Nonetheless, for his thesis show, Valla had ordered copies of copies of copies of copies of paintings from artists working in China, and structurally, his commissioned, instruction-based collection looked a lot like the more abstracted and minimal Seed drawings that were to follow.
Digital production and hand-made craft combine nicely in Clement Valla's work, whether he is crowdsourcing the production of his Seed drawings or outsourcing his MFA thesis. The results are beautiful and document a modern-day palimpsest of working class creative output through a critical-productive framework.
Read Clement Valla's Master's thesis Original Copies: