Timothy Noble’s Semi-Automatic Chalkboard is an automated drawing machine that uses servo motors and open source software to render images on a chalkboard from an early twentieth century schoolhouse. The images being produced are interpretations of sketches by Charles E. Burchfield that were made in preparation for the oil painting Grain Elevators, 1932-38.
The drawings will be performed daily and erased before the next day’s performance. Images will be rotated throughout the run of the exhibition. The work is both a performing automaton and a kinetic sculptural object. Many of the components that make up the actual device were created through the use of the technologies that the device employs.
This artwork could not have been built without the use of numerous open source software programs and the help of various individuals. The work was first shown in Western New York at Galeries NFS in 2012.
It’s about labor – an attempt to make visible the work behind an aesthetic artifact. Call them artworks, but how often is an accounting of the invisible time and effort part of their appreciation, their interpretation? Do we see the work within the art?
I've long lost track of how many hours have gone into the design, construction, revision, repair, packing, moving, assembly and coding behind this device. I recall estimating at one point that I had spent more than 100 hours just running the laser cutter for the plywood components. The four weeks of preparation for this show were mostly spent making prophylactic changes to the circuitry and machinery of the apparatus in order to make it robust enough to survive a long run in a museum environment -- and this was after showing the piece publicly four previous times.
Along the way, performing the labor required by the machine became the art and the physical artifact became mere evidence of the real work. In this sense, I’m particularly pleased to mate this robot with the sketches of Charles Burchfield, done in preparation for Grain Elevators, 1932-38. My hope is that viewers will reflect on the time and consideration that Burchfield put into each brushstroke and recognize that there’s more to appreciate than just the final painting.
It's about labor in another sense too. This machine was built using other machines, most notably a 3D printer and a laser cutter, and runs using similar coded motions. Both of those technologies are products of a decades-long project to replace skilled workers with programmable machines. Its highest goal has been the fully-automated factory without workers – without the possibility of strikes and with the greatest possible control for management over labor. Computer Numerical Control, or CNC, began as an early Cold War dream of military planners disturbed by the tendency and ability of skilled machinists to agitate and strike for better working conditions. This simply would not do. It was clear to the paranoid futurists at the RAND Corporation that American global dominance would be dependent on the aerospace industry, and in turn reliant on high precision parts. The effort to deskill and disempower the workers on the shop floor attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to abstract into code the thoughtful work of humans informed by experience .
Something unintended happened as well. As the internet-centric culture of open source software turned toward open hardware, hobbyists, tinkerers and artists repurposed CNC technologies to their own ends, developing and sharing the parts and processes which make this machine operate. Kits to make your own 3D printer can now be had for less than $500. Whereas a decade ago, they were only accessible to firms or academic departments willing and able to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars, there is a growing renaissance at the low end.
Today garages and makerspaces accumulate technologies of remarkable precision and capability and a rhetoric of hype envelops this new form of decentralized manufacturing. But where does the human fit in this brave new future of automation? How do the social and the handmade persist within this increasingly coded landscape? Most importantly, to me anyway, what sort of literacies must we cultivate to maintain some agency in a world overrun at top and bottom by machines?