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Excel and Artbooks: the daily drawings of Danielle Aubert at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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16 Months Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel is a new book out from artist Danielle Aubert. As the preface details:

The 65 drawings in this book were selected from drawings made in Microsoft Excel between March 2005 and June 2006[…]. Each drawing took between 20 minutes and an hour to complete and was made in its own Excel spreadsheet with 8.5×11″ page dimensions. The drawings here are output from the upper-left corner of that day’s spreadsheet.

Aubert’s book is the latest culmination of a long project, including a booklet 58 Days Worth of Drawing Excercises, an online version of the booklet “As Rendered For Web,” and an animated video culled from the online version. The online editions garnered attention last April in MAKE Magazine and Gizmodo, and later garnered a brief plug in Wired with a typically playful lead: “It’s about time someone realized it’s hip to be square” - a simple but telling joke, about which more later.

Previous work

Aubert’s portfolio of online work is varied, including a print, mixed media, and a catalog of screen work, however her Microsoft Excel series fits into a longer history of iterative projects (both software and material). Track Record, her Yale MFA Thesis book, tracked and visualized the artist’s working habits over two years, including extensive use of document tracking data and notes/comments. Other, different kinds of compilations include Notes on Rosalind Krauss’s “Notes on the Index: Part 1″, a collection of class notes with the text they annotate effaced, and 100 Dollar Exchange, a collection of objects totalling 100 dollars which were bartered to maintain their net value.

Digital art aficionados may be unfamiliar with Painting/Noun, a collaboration art book with the language poet Tan Lin (currently teaching at New Jersey City University) which was adapted into a Flash poem. The book is available from Printed Matter. In the Flash edition, clouds of words, sentences, and fragments, are all consumed and replaced (either in time or with a mouse touch) by flashes of brightly colored blocks and harpsichord tones. The site comments that “the text is the same as in the printed version of Painting/Noun. It’s kind of accidentally interactive, but I think it’s best to let it run itself” - but the “accidental interactivity” is addictive and almost impossible to leave alone. Like the Flash poem, Aubert’s Excel book attests to some of the fascinating disjunctions between its digital and print selves.

16 Months: the book

16 Months Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel is a hardbound glossy art book, and on opening it the images are arresting in both their richness and their variety. Some are geometries of the picture plane, some are explosions of texture and detail, and some are iconic and representations of hearts, rainbows, and city skylines that have a childlike quality. This wide variety and the extreme regularity of the spreadsheet meet in the continuity of Aubert’s process: often neighboring images are differential and iterative, with a single Excel canvas being slowly reworked over a number of days in layer upon layer of changes. A central tension throughout the series is between digital image and digital text, and the functional status of each grid cell both as an ordering unit of images and as a digital text receptacle. Small clusters and clouds of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks appear, swell to dominate and even eliminate color and line, then grow beyond the bounds of the cell and are reduced themselves to lines again, before dropping away.

Aubert’s provocative work is well supported by the book design, which replaces page numbers with drawing dates and presents an ubiquitous spreadsheet grid that structures absolutely every page, extending from the frontmatter all the way to the two short essays that provide a coda, and even to the covers. The result is beautifully inescapable, a kind of charmingly oppressive feeling of the art overflowing its bounds - or perhaps occuring in a boundless matrix. According to publisher’s note, Aubert’s drawings “invite us to think about work, about production, about leisure, about what we consider our own, in spaces that we inevitably share.”

The first of these essays, “Small Art, Excel, and Danielle” by Oleg Aronson, responds to this invitation in its own structured space, a kind of Wittgensteinian wander through nine items in an ordered list: “3. We are eyewitnesses to a new break in the history of art. […] 4. How does this happen? […] 5. Small art is a radical interruption of work[…].” Aronson argues that small art such as Aubert’s “steals time from capital” and “shows us where and to what extent all of us are poor and unfree today, and what joy may be derived even from this poverty and unfreedom.” This stolen-joy formulation recalls for me the standing point of the corporate knowledge worker described in Alan Liu’s “The Laws of Cool” (”we work here, but we are cool”), and perhaps this is not a surprising art aesthetic to arise out of the tension between a daily playfulness and the controlling structure of Excel itself, which is perhaps *the* iconic software package of corporate capital.

In the second short essay, Tan Lin also sees Aubert’s drawings “playing with notions of the routinization involved with a typical use of the program, and by implication, with the 9-5 workplace that brackets it.” Lin asks whether the work is drawing or writing, and finds in the art practice and products a history of device, database, IDE, and code… indeed, the presence of the software itself, to such an extent that “Aubert’s project suggests a new venue for production: the software as ready-made.” For Lin, the “temporal, biological, and morphological dimensions” of Aubert’s work can be understood as a temporal quotidian art practice (Aronson’s “small art”), the biological “underlying genetic materials” of the programming language Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and the morphologically encapsulating structure of Excel itself. Lin’s essay is not a code studies critique, as it stops just short of discussing exactly how VBA actually functions in the iterative transformation from instance to instance, but it moves strongly towards code studies, which is to say that its outlook is media archeology and it is software studies in critiquing the operations of the individual Excel cell.

My critical instinct is that the problem of understanding Aubert’s work is the problem of understanding how the sociology of the subject-at-the-interface (Liu’s knowledge worker or Aronson’s small artist) connects to the archeological fact of the code - Lin’s biological programming languages and morphological software, but also Kittler’s software, Bogost and Montfort’s platform, Kirschenbaum’s hardware, and perhaps even Marino (and myself) on code. The larger question, of course, is whether these critical approaches can go beyond elucidating production, and contribute meaningfully to humanities and arts discourses about what Aubert’s spreadsheets mean, and why they make us feel the way they do.

Next time, WRT interviews artist Danielle Aubert.

1 Response to “Excel and Artbooks: the daily drawings of Danielle Aubert”

  1. 1 John

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    Wow, and I thought I had mastered Excel! Who knew there were folks taking to a hole new place. I may have to pickup Aubert’s book.

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