Podcast 1: Thinking Physically
In this first mini-episode of my podcast, I’ll be talking about the object at the core of my project for this semester, or the object that, really, is my project: my drawing tablet.
It’s unclear if my drawing tablet was made before it was ordered as my 23rd birthday gift for September 3rd, 2020. It’s possible that it was only put together after it was ordered, in a factory near Shenzhen, China. Through the years, thinking of things to put on the birthday wishlist has grown more and more difficult, and so my mother pestered me for ideas until I sent her the details for a low-mid range drawing tablet, $129.99, on Amazon, the XP-Pen Deco Pro Medium.
Made of metal and plastic, it’s hard to believe this black and silver tablet is, essentially, the doorway to an entire art studio. Dubbed the ‘Deco Pro Medium’ by its manufacturer, the XP-Pen company (this information is easily discovered by turning the tablet over and reading the small writing centered near the bottom), it is approximately 40cm x 22.5cm x .75cm, though the left-hand side, which houses the scroll wheel and the hotkeys, has a thickness of 1cm. Accompanying the tablet is a USB cord, about 160cm long, and a stylus pen, which is approximately 15.25cm. Images of the tablet are posted to this blog, so have a look.
Plastic is confined to the top of the tablet, making up the drawing space and the central hotkey pad, while metal encases the bottom and the control board—there is a slight seam where the two materials meet, as well as a seam in the drawing space where the touch-sensitive plastic meets the tablet’s plastic frame. Two rubber strips run along the tablet’s base, meant to keep it from slipping during use. The tablet is inert until plugged into the USB port of a functioning computer or laptop upon which the proprietary XP-Pen tablet driver is installed. When it is plugged in, four corner brackets on the black plastic drawing space light up. The stylus pen is encased in metal, with a rubber grip and a long, thin oval button on its side. The removable nib seats into a plastic head, and has some give when one applies pressure.
The hotkey panel to the left contains a large circular zoom wheel and eight buttons, grouped into four pairs above and below the wheel. At the center of the zoom wheel is a small circular touch-pad, which allows the user to move their mouse/pen across their computer screen without using the stylus pen. The drawing space, which makes up the majority of the tablet, is nearly full-matte black. When one looks at the tablet surface and the stylus pen nib, one can see this tablet has been used a great deal, despite its only having been ordered and gifted last September. There are scuffs across the drawing space from use, and oil-spots from where hands have touched it. The plastic nib of the stylus pen has been worn down a considerable amount, and has a slight foot where the material has been compressed around the sides. Additionally, the USB cord has a slight wobble where it inserts into the tablet, indicative of jostling (whoops, my bad).
When the tablet is connected to a drawing software, such as Krita or Clip Studio Paint, it can perform all number of functions with digital art materials. Brushes can make images reminiscent of traditional art, or lines so clean they are clearly digital, or even pixel-art. While the art isn’t tangible, it can be endlessly reproduced in digital format, or printed in order to make it tangible. Line stabilizers and the ability to manipulate one’s brushstrokes allow for an art process that is both organic and more controlled, especially with the tablet’s hotkey buttons, which are mapped to switch between brushes, zoom in and out, grip and move the canvas, and undo actions.
As I’m describing the tablet and its functionalities (which, for the most part, come from its software developer located in Silicon Valley, a notable distance from Southern China), you might be thinking: how is it different from any other art surface? From an easel, or a sketchpad? Enter the Model 1913 Keuffel and Esser Co. Sketching Board, model 1913, from the collections of the Hoboken Historical Museum. I’ve included images on the blog post, if you’re curious, and I recommend taking a look.
While the Keuffel and Esser board appears just to be several pieces of wood held together to form a blocky drawing surface (and it is, to some extent), this drawing board, meant for sketching during survey work out on the field, has multiple functionalities, including a compass meant for locating one’s drawing and an attachment to a tripod, which is, sadly, not included in the object catalogue. On the reverse of the board, we can see the (somewhat limited) instructions for care and use:
- Store board flat with this face up.
- Use nothing except clips to attach paper.
- Screw board tightly to tripod.
- Set up tripod to give approximate orientation.
- Make final orientation by turning board on tripod.
- After final orientation, screw board firmly on tripod.
- Never use force to make any adjustment.
- For sketching mounted: carry board over shoulder by cord through holes in corners.
Maintenance and repair instructions are limited, mostly because there is little to break. The board’s longevity and its continued good condition are, in large part, a testament to that. Should the compass in the board have broken, the user would likely have had to have it fixed rather than fixing it themselves, but other than that, with good care and a bit of polish, the board could be kept in good shape and used for whole books full of drawings.
Thinking about this in comparison to my drawing pad today, what is most striking is the way that technology has made repair both simpler and more difficult. Though I might like to, I will not be opening up the tablet for repairs today, as I haven’t the experience to safely handle an electronic item like that or to put it back together again. However, I will reflect a touch on the care required and how it differs from the Keuffel & Esser board.
The most obvious difference is, perhaps, the fact that my drawing tablet is digital. There is nowhere to affix paper, because there is no paper used. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t use the tablet as a drawing board–it just means that that isn’t its intended purpose. When it comes to care and upkeep, in order to make sure that the pressure sensitivity of the tablet works properly, I have to ensure that the devices drivers are up to date. As I use the tablet, I have to be careful not to pinch the wires or pull them too harshly–something I accidentally do a little too frequently.
Aside from drivers and wires, perhaps the only other things to be done in the way of care and maintenance are checking the settings and replacing the pen nib when it grows too dull–which I haven’t done yet, as it’s not dull enough to remove. Additionally, the drawing software I use needs to be updated and maintained, which one could say is part of the tablet upkeep as well.
When reflecting on the various care needs of my tablet, I’m struck by how little I can actually do. I can’t open up the tablet. I can’t write my own driver updates. I can’t always remember not to pull on the wires. I can’t program my drawing software. The only things I really can do are download software and replace pen nibs. In this modern age, does that put me in a more precarious position? I have to wonder if the fact that I can do more with digital art comes at the price of being less connected to my tools. Though I still feel connected in that it takes skill to make art, and to manipulate the drawing programs, when compared with the drawing board of the past, it seems my materials are much less hands-on. But in the end, both board and tablet allow their users to create, and to create according to their will and whims.
And this, this continuity of creativity, is what binds the Keuffel and Esser Sketching Board to my digital drawing tablet. The differences between both in technology are, really, when it comes down to it, negligible. They are both for drawing, for making, and require the same types of skills. If we were to think about the drawing board with traditional notions of obsolescence and evolution, we might imagine that the drawing tablet’s design, shape, functionality, would fade over time. But, really, when we think about the past, we come to the drawing board, we come to the easel, the sketchbook, the various incarnations of portable drawing surfaces, and all of them are, not just visually similar, but functionally nearly the same. They share the purpose of relating one’s experience of the world around them.
Yes, there are, as has been mentioned, differences in technology. My tablet is digital, my art supplies made out of software—they aren’t real But, just to be contrarian, couldn’t we say that all art materials are ‘not real’? Art is about representation, it can never be full reproduction. Magritte tells us exactly that when he paints a pipe and says ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’: this is not a pipe. Even with the differences in software, then, both my tablet and the Keuffel and Esser tablet seem to share more than not. At the end of it, my object, my drawing tablet, is just the same thing as every single other collection of art supplies—just with different packaging, a different look, and a different social context. And I don’t think it will be becoming obsolete any time soon.
Podcast 2: Thinking Theoretically
In this portion of the podcast, I want to move from thinking physically about my tablet to thinking theoretically, not just about the tablet as object, but about its object-relation to myself and the art that I/it produces. While the purpose of this mini-episode is not to move too far away from the tablet as an object, I do want to ask, and try to answer, one question that I’ve been grappling with through the course of this whole project: where does the tablet end? What are its boundaries?
Physically, this is a simple question with a simple answer. The tablet is a finite object. It’s 40 centimeters by 22-and-a-half by three-quarters. It’s got a cord about 160 centimeters long and a stylus pen that’s just over 15 centimeters. It’s a thing, and it has limits in the world. But! This thing also is inherently connected to the digital world, something that complicates its ‘thingness’, and on top of this, it’s been connected to me by circumstance, something that changes and shapes both it and me.
The tablet, one could argue, is as much the object as it is the software. Certainly the tablet controls and the software drivers for the tablet itself, released by XP-Pen, are part of the tablet. By that logic, one could say also that any software the tablet is used with becomes part of the tablet. When the tablet becomes the key to drawing software like Krita or Clip Studio Paint, those software become indistinguishable from the tablet as the thingness and the digital thingness of the tablet is bound up, literally plugged into the software. Further, the digital component of the tablet is directly tied to my use of it. I use the tablet to make art, digital art. Is the digital art connected to the tablet? To my computer? To me? Are all of these things, including the drawing software, part of the tablet?
This dialogue brings to mind Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ and specifically her concept of the cyborg: ‘a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.’ Haraway’s argument places the cyborg ‘as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings.’ While I don’t want to go too deeply into this to the point where I lose all footing, I do want to think on what she says, and how she characterizes the cyborg, and what that means for the object limits of my drawing tablet.
For Haraway, ‘by the late twentieth century, … a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.’ I’m not going to debate the truth of this on a wider level, mostly because Dr. Haraway is much more versed than I am in posthumanism. What I will do, however, is think about the tablet as a ‘cybernetic’ enhancement of myself, an object that is both distinct from and connected to me.
I use the tablet. I use the digital object, in my daily life and in my life as a content creator. The way I use the tablet, it becomes a pipeline, an extension of myself, both literally and figuratively. In use, I hold the stylus in my hand, use my fingers to control the button panel, and my mind to decide what to create. During this physical process, my movements create an image on the screen. I’m literally connected to the tablet as I use it, as I hold the stylus in my hand and transfer my thoughts into movements, which are transferred into images by the software. Figuratively speaking, I’m connected to the tablet by its position in my life, by my sense of valuation around it and the skill it serves. I consider myself a content creator (I hesitate to use the word artist, if I’m honest, despite the fact that I do make art, but that’s mostly for personal reasons), and this tablet helps me to define myself as such by being the medium through which I create content.
So, we’ve established that the tablet is connected to me, that I am—and /we/ are—a cyborg, a cybernetic pairing of object and human. What about the art that I make with the tablet? I believe I can say with some ease that, as the tablet is also a digital thing, connected to the drawing software, it is connected to the art produced on it. The digital nature of the art means that the original will always be a collection of binary code representing an image formed through movements and strokes on the tablet’s input. It can be printed out, but it will always be originally digital. This is where the tablet differs from an easel. The canvas is always part of the tablet, and therefore any art produced on it, necessarily is of it.
But then we come to the art and the self. Historically, there have been plenty of discussions about the artist’s presence in their art. The presence of the artist, and the artist’s identification with and in their work, has been subject to different levels of desirability. In realism and more ‘traditional’ art genres, such as Hellenistic Greece, Imperial Rome, and the High Renaissance, the self is sometimes harder to find in art. The goal isn’t to represent the artist, but to relay the world around and outside the artist. There is, of course, room for symbolism here, but the artist’s body and physicality are less present. In more photorealistic pieces, the artist tends to disappear somewhat, not because of a lack of stylistic signature necessarily, but because the artist is secondary in recreating the photorealistic image. More abstracted art styles necessarily contain more of the artist within the pieces; notably, Jackson Pollock’s art was considered to be a footprint of the artist, a record of his physicality and existence, as is much performance art of recent decades.
All of this is to say that the artist creates their art and has some control over how much of their ‘self’ goes into that art, and how important the self is to the art. Additionally, the act of creating art is inherently personal. It is work, and can become physical labor, and in that process, the body becomes connected to the final creation in numerous ways. The act of working on the art may give the creator an aching back, tired eyes, cramped fingers. This is inseparable from the final product. On this level, keeping in mind the pre-established connection of the self to the tablet and the connection by necessity of the tablet to the art, it feels right to say that the art is also connected to me. Especially given the stylization of my work, I am personally present in it. Viewers can see it specifically as my mediation of the outside world, my representation of something both exterior and interior. So, together, I, the tablet, and the art, form a circle.
Lastly, if I’m connected to the tablet, and my art is connected to the tablet and then also back to me, and together ‘we’ make a sort of closed circuit, an extended, cybernetic ‘self’, then what are the ways we have changed each other? How is my social life shaped by my tablet, how is the social life of the object related to my use of it, and what is the social life of the art produced, and how are they all connected?
It’s time, here, for a bit of a story. The tablet arrived a few days after my 23rd birthday. I know almost nothing about it before it came into my possession, except that it was made in a factory near Shenzhen, in Guangdong Province in Southern China. When it was delivered, I unwrapped it with far more glee than I had expected. The moment I plugged it in and used it for the first time, it became real. The abstract notion of digital art that I’d had in my head since I joined DeviantArt at the age of 12, the thing that popular artists were doing and that I’d never been able to, was now concrete. This moment was a shift in the tablet’s social life, as it entered my possession and became mine, something connected specifically to me and my hobbies.
Then my tablet changed again, adding another step in its evolution from abstract thing to an object of daily life. When I opened commissions for digital art and began offering pieces for payment, the tablet became a part of my personal capital. It adds its worth to mine and allows me to expand upon my worth in a capitalistic society, while still doing something that brings me joy. Haraway would have a number of issues with this, I’m certain. But what’s important here is that the tablet changed. It became something I rely on, rather than something I use, which feels a very small but also very important distinction.
The tablet also, however, changed me. I’ve been able to grow as an artist, and my art style has evolved. It’s changed my art, as well. I’ve also become, technically, a professional, as I can now sell my time and labor in the form of art made on and with this tablet. So, not only has my art changed in style, but also, technically, in value and capital. But Laura, you ask, what, at the end of the day, does this have to do with your original question? What are the limits to this object? Where does it end, and where do you begin? That’s the thing! I still don’t know! The lines are blurred, and the limit, as ye olde saying goes, does not exist. I don’t know if I look as cool as the cyborgs from the movies, but I’m connected to this tablet now, and there’s no changing that.
Final word count: 3345