Fig.1 Towards a Vast Reservoir of Comets… 2008 installation at the Jack Olson Gallery at Northern Illinois University

The Small Magnetism: Interrogating the Nature of Collection

Paul Catanese
Faculty in Interdisciplinary Arts, Columbia College Chicago

My recent work embodies dual forms that utilize printmaking and projection, each of which is realized as image and installation. Often residing within the same space, these forms attempt to reveal an impossible topology, though their reflection upon one another is imperfect. An investigation of the nature of how collection functions within my studio practice has influenced the form of my artwork, resulting in several bodies of work that are conceptually interconnected.

The incorporation of printmaking within my art practice directly emerged from a series of experiments inspired by my time at the Kala Art Institute during a fellowship residency in 2004. At that time, I was creating digital Cornell boxes – repurposing the Gameboy Advance as a site of creative inquiry; engaged in the process of creating black and white animations via custom programming and tool building. Kala has a robust set of printmaking capabilities that coexist with their electronic media center, though at the time I had no traditional printmaking experience. I began to learn more about etching and letterpress, instigated by proximity, I became intrigued by the technical and conceptual resonances that exist between controlling individual pixels via programming and the inherently binary nature of lead type. Though not identical, curious similarities in vocabulary such as the matrix / matrices and their subsequent relationship to image in both printmaking and programming further attracted me. Even the mental and physical requirements for the artist working with movable type appeared to resemble aspects of my own studio process.

Simultaneously, my observations regarding how the objects I collect migrate from lost to found and then ferment into elements within my work created privileges for hand sketching as a primary tool of reflection, especially because it can more easily occur during fieldwork. In relation to my studio practice, fieldwork can occur at any moment, though because it often requires walking off-trail and following ones nose rather than the road, there are advantages to using sketching before, during and afterwards. When I collect, I don’t often begin knowing exactly what objects I am looking for, but I am drawn to imagining that I am supposed to collect them. Somewhere between serendipity and sympathetic magic, I describe this moment as one in which the objects resonate and request collection. However, while this is a concise explanation, I also recognize that this definition is at best, an imprecise working model. But that model allows me to move forward with studio practice because I want to know more about that resonation and as such, it forms a trailhead for inquiry in my work. Within my studio practice, I refer to this resonation as the small magnetism to remind myself that the forces I am interested in understanding emerge from personal space.

That is not to say that the collection process is entirely based on chance or coincidence reframed. I may find objects that instigate or inform what additional items I should be looking for. I employ a flexible and expansive definition for object that focuses heavily on samples from the natural world alongside the tools of collection though those are not precise boundaries. An unordered list might include: antique blueprints, medical specimens, anatomical models, pins, recordings of phone calls, museum jars, dowsing rods, newspaper clippings, photographs, books on mining, non-precious geological samples, assorted sands, dust, water from various locations, bark, fungi, fish hooks, thread, tools for astronomical measurement, carapace, teeth, horn, microscope slides, mirror, insects, cheesecloth, whiskers, audio and adhesive tapes, lead sinkers, eyes, globes, bearings, compasses, fruit, words, chalk, twigs, scales, trout flies, quills, nets, bottles, seismograms, grain, etc. Once these arrive at the studio, I may set them down, place them in boxes, organize, scan, photograph or even label them. I may break them, but not usually. I will often leave them for a period of time so that they might transform from a previous existence into an element within the greater collection – a type of fermentation. At this point, the objects are potent and are ready to be used in concrete, mediated and abstract forms.

Fig 2

Collection occurs within and outside of the machine: drawing sketches, finding objects, creating images, forming words and sounds, oscillating between placing these fragments in a loose mess like a stack of papers strewn across a desk and a more taxonomic structure based on formal qualities of line, shape, volume, material, patina, symbol or elementary composition. By shuffling, organizing, disassembling and mending these collections, patterns emerge that spurn experiments with patterns of their own. Not every experiment is successful or of immediate use, others serve their purpose by helping me to hone a particular idea or thought leading to renewed inspiration to collect. For example, if I collected a bone, the object can be the bone, an image of the bone or the name of the bone or the sound of the bone or the relationship between the bone and other objects within my collection or even relationships between relationships. It is from this iterative experimentation in the studio that a topology of interrelationships arises and though the final form of my work may not contain or maintain a specific object, it is directly connected to this process. Certain elements such as trout flies and eyes hold special importance because of the metaphors that they provide that frame this topology; respectively they have come to represent the unpredictability of the collection process as a whole and an interior model of the personal cosmos projected outward upon the world.

As my increased use of sketching began to coincide with my interest in printmaking and because I find programming to be at home in my studio alongside traditional avenues of expression, I began to experiment with developing a hybrid process combining custom drawing software, industrial machine control and traditional printmaking techniques. The Digital Relief Process is the result of these experiments.

The Digital Relief Process provides a round-trip path from the tangible through the intangible; drawing and sketching gestures made by hand are recorded, amplified, translated and finally are re-performed during the carving of printing blocks within plastics, hardwoods and metals by way of computerized numerically controlled (CNC) milling machinery. Commonly, designers and engineers will utilize computer-aided drafting programs to interface with CNC Machinery. The end result is incredibly precise, mechanical and industrial. However, the visual grammar and syntax of the drawings that I want to achieve is more immediate and organic: I want to be able to sketch with the same speed that I would with pen and paper as though taking field notes. I recognized that the conflict of organic line and industrial control would require the hand to be a direct source of input.

Fig. 3

To enable this process, I developed a suite of custom drawing software tools that provide a linkage between the Wacom drawing tablet and CNC mills. Luckily, almost all CNC mills can be controlled by a common set of instructions known as GCODE, which is written as a text document. It is common for machinists to write GCODE control documents by hand, even for complex parts. For the drawings that I was planning, some intermediary was required and the glue between all of these individual components are the suite of custom drawing software tools that I have built. To create the drawing software, I decided to use the Processing programming language as I have been working with it for several years and have found that beyond being a great teaching tool, it offers precisely the degree of flexibility and extensibility required for tool building as well as a host of resources from an active development community. This freely available programming language offers a software prototyping and development environment that keeps with the spirit of organic experimentation; even within Processing itself, its files are referred to as sketches.

Fig.4 Celestial Workshops 004. 2007 Digital Relief Process Print on Magnani Incisioni Paper, 27.5x39.5”

After an initial period of many months of testing and development with my own equipment, a summer residency at the Prairie Center of the Arts in 2007 provided full access to master machinists and industrial-scale equipment. The assistance and expertise of the individuals at the Prairie Center helped me make significant improvements to the drawing software and overall approach. It was during this time that Master Etcher and Printer Oscar J. Gillespie, through the Cradle Oak Press at Bradley University, provided many insights on how the CNC process could be better tailored for relief printmaking and he also offered his expertise in printing the blocks that were carved during my time in residence. I am very grateful for all the help I received as the Digital Relief Process transformed dramatically over the summer months of 2007, becoming a robust, scalable and thoroughly tested method of creating images that I continue to use. The resulting prints created during my residency at the Prairie Center in 2007 are the first four images from the Celestial Workshops series to be completed. Several more relief blocks from this series are in the process of being carved and a second series of prints has already been completed.

Fig.5 Celestial Workshops 004(detail). 2007 Digital Relief Process Print on Magnani Incisioni Paper

The custom drawing software allows me to focus on image making because I can work through multiple iterations of a sketch in rapid succession and allow gestures to evolve fluidly. I can react to these evolutionary cycles by hand through isolating, deforming, exaggerating and recombining alongside programmatic methods that act on the interface of the drawing software or directly on the captured data. Though there are many options for control, in this case, I have found that the procedural avenues regarding data manipulation have a tendency to eliminate line qualities that I find desirable, such as stroke irregularities and errant marks. Because of this, I have focused on closely analyzing my pencil sketches in order to tailor the drawing tool specifically for creating images that emulate the qualities from my sketches that I want to achieve when carving relief blocks. A continual process of streamlining the capabilities of the drawing software has enabled maturation into a suite of customizable and reusable code objects that can be recombined within future experiments.

Fig.6 Forgotten Constellations. 2008 installation at the 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia

As I develop new experiments, new directions for image making emerge that expand upon what I have learned conceptually, aesthetically and technically. I am interested in expanding the notion of flexibility in the location for Digital Relief Process sketching beyond my studio. Specifically, I am exploring methods to create drawing software that eliminates the tethering of the computer during the sketching process while remaining digital through the use of pen computing technologies. These technologies essentially enable drawing on paper with ink while simultaneously recording location and stroke information digitally that will allow me to more rapidly evolve images while providing the ability to record sketches for carving from an expanded range of locations. The implications for studio fieldwork and collection are considerable. I believe that this will ultimately allow me to resituate drawing as process and performance directly within the context of fieldwork. Additionally, I want to allow the drawing process to be more directly influenced by the parallel body of work that utilizes illumination and projection within the space of installation as a method of examining the objects of my collection. New avenues for modularity and interchangeability of components within the suite of drawing tools will allow me to explore video input as a time based method of collapsing the ephemeral space of the installation into the concrete space of the print.


Paul Catanese is a hybrid media artist and a full-time faculty member in the Department of Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia College Chicago. His artwork has been exhibited widely including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, SFMOMA Artist's Gallery, Villette-Numerique and Stuttgart Filmwinter among others. Paul is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including commissions for the creation of new artwork from as well as