Pat, my good colleague from Big Fag Press has been helping me with the scanning and pre-press for the very first prints which are on their way to the MCA.
The first diagram shows all the “ins and outs” that I could summon to my mind, of the process of making, funding, organising, delivering, exhibiting, and maintaining an artwork in the museum. It’s a schematic chart (rather than being specific to any particular artwork or museum).
An early draft of the diagram is here – the new version has been enhanced, it’s heaps bigger, allowing me to squeeze in many more ins and outs, and it’s printed in blue and red. I’ll post up a photo of it soon, I’m pretty excited about it!
While we worked away, scanning and photoshopping, Pat observed that this process of trying to come to terms with the resources consumed in the making of a particular activity (and the products generated as a result) reminded him of an essay he read some time ago. The essay is called “I, Pencil”, by Leonard E. Read. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a great read.
The essay is narrated from the point of view of a Pencil (hence “I, Pencil”). Here’s an extract:
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!
On one hand, Pencil just wants to be better understood. It’s a humble, simple Pencil, right? No moving parts, no fancy upgrades year by year. Over time, the pencil remains the same. And yet, an incredibly complex confluence of skills, chemistry, forestry, and industry make it what it is. In this sense, Read’s essay (perhaps like my recent search for the origins and manufacturing methods of the paper I’m using for my prints) calls for deeper intimacy with the very materiality of the world around us.
On the other hand, “I Pencil” takes quite an interesting turn towards its end. Pencil argues that because of all the radically distributed contributors to its manufacture, no individual can ever understand how to make a pencil. By extension, nor can any government body can ever oversee every aspect of the process. It is only through the exchange of goods and services on the free market that something as miraculous as a pencil can come to be.
The moral of “I, Pencil” is thus that industry and commerce should be free to exercise their “creative freedom” unfettered by regulation and top-down control:
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let societyâ€™s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.
Pencil’s manifesto is a capitalist-utopian lesson, linking human ingenuity with the natural forces of creativity . But, written in 1958, the blind spot in this analysis is the finitude of the natural resources upon which all these creative forces depend: clean air, water, minerals, forests…
An updated version of “I, Pencil” (“I, Pencil 2.0” ?) would have to take these things into account. But what would encourage Pencil’s beloved unfettered market economy to actually do this?