7 Vanishing Technologies Making a Comeback through Art
An increasing number of millennials have never used a landline, worn an analog wristwatch, or mailed a handwritten letter. They’re also not learning art and design technologies that previous generations took for granted. Does that mean these tools are on the verge of extinction? Fortunately, it isn’t that simple.
The scope of digital technology has made many things obsolete, from traditional
In the hands of artists and designers, a bygone technology can take on a new significance. “In the past, some of my students didn’t recognize a handmade garment as a ‘real’ garment because it didn’t look perfect the way clothes do in a store,” says artist and Parsons professor Pascale Gatzen. Now, perhaps in response to the homogeneity of mass-produced fashion, more students want to create by hand. “There is a strong desire to move beyond this generic reality and move towards a more intimate and experiential space,” Gatzen adds.
For the next generation of artists, there can be real value in resurfacing tools and techniques that may have been dropped from the art school curriculum. Here are six vanishing technologies to consider pursuing, and one that should potentially be avoided.
According to a 2015 article in TIME, the volume of film produced for the U.S. market has decreased by 98% in the past decade. For the average consumer, the convenience and economy of digital photography put the nail in film’s coffin, and the popularity of smartphones with high-resolution cameras buried it. However, analog photography’s ability to capture detail, as well as its authenticity, has kept it popular among dedicated amateurs and artists. (Take a spin through the popular I Still Shoot Film photography blog, and you’ll see for yourself.) Young people represent film’s potentially fastest-growing market, with a recent survey showing that 30% of film users are reportedly under the age of 35. Film offers structure (a limited number of exposures per roll), but even still you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get out of any given set of shots. Light leaks, optical distortion, unintentional double exposures, chemical stains—there are endless possibilities for happy accidents that often yield unexpected but desirable outcomes.
Nothing balances nostalgia for the past with the fleeting present quite like a Polaroid picture. Beloved by artists from
Digital fabric printing is offered in art schools and by companies like Print All Over Me, a textile print-on-demand business based in New INC, the New Museum’s cultural incubator. But while some commercial uses of silk-screen printing have been displaced by digital (which is less technically demanding but can be prohibitively expensive), silk-screen is more omnipresent than ever before as a fine art medium. Much like analog photography, printing by hand invites a more intimate experience with the materials. Opportunities to try this technique abound, especially in Brooklyn, where nearly every neighborhood seems to have its own print shop. Shoestring Press in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which gives its members access to the materials for silk-screen printing, etching, and lithography for a low monthly fee, also holds classes and runs an exhibition space.
Practical Special Effects
Before the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI), which really showed its teeth in Jurassic Park (1993) when digital dinosaurs menaced the actors, movie effects were achieved through elaborate makeup and intricate scale models. According to a recent story in Quartz, the rise in digital technology has made things so bad for one practical effects studio that they’ve turned to fields such as medical modeling and government work. While old-school effects artists claim that models are often cheaper than CGI, they have to be paid for up front, and robotic models, unlike their CGI counterparts, can’t be updated throughout production. As a result, budget-conscious studios often opt for digital effects. Though you might think CGI would be embraced by artists seeking cutting-edge tools, some prefer low-fi effects, while others have budgets and limits on man-hours that do not match those of major movie studios. (James Cameron’s 2009 3-D film Avatar, which reportedly required 50–100 hours of production per frame, at 24 frames per second, was budgeted at $237 million.) As such, practical effects are alive and well in the art world, where artists as varied as the Quay Brothers,
Sign painting is a skillset and profession that’s been quietly disappearing from American life, replaced by cheaper, but less artful vinyl lettering and digital printing. A recent documentary, Sign Painters (2013) profiled several masters of the craft, whose work combines design, illustration, painting, and calligraphy. As handmade signage disappears from storefronts, hand lettering is making a comeback in the rest of the design world in a big way, particularly in the work of the wildly popular designer Jessica Hische. In recent years her hand-drawn letters have graced everything from commemorative U.S. postage stamps to the beautiful titles and credits of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012).
To say mail delivery is on the wane may be an understatement. From 2005 to 2015, the United States Postal Service has reduced its staff by more than 200,000, and total volume of mail delivered has decreased by 26%.
Cadmium pigment is an old favorite that young artists may want to avoid. The chemical element cadmium was discovered in early 19th century by a German chemist, and by the mid-1840s it became a revolutionary asset for artists’ paints—when they could afford it—beloved for its unmatched fiery oranges, deep reds, brilliant yellows, and staying power. (
Illustration by Jan Buchczik for Artsy.