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Explosion with rabbit

One of the many differences between digital drawing and traditional drawing is that you have to name the work you make on the computer. You have to name all of it! And I’m not sure that this is the trivial difference that it might at first seem. Whether it’s “untitled 56” or “my dog (red final)” or “doodle6_largecoloured” or “explosion with rabbit_(rubbish4a)”, it all has to have a name and this simple fact probably does more to change the way we think about the work than any of the other more obvious differences that exist between the media.

In fact, it might be the thing that most elegantly differentiates digital art from traditional. Because, if you don’t name it you can’t save it, and if you can’t save it, it will cease to exist, and, if it doesn’t exist you can’t show it to anybody, and if no one else sees it, one of the most important ingredients in the work, it’s relationship with the viewer, ends before it has begun! And, for all practical purposes you will have done nothing and may as well not have bothered… (regardless of whatever else you may have learnt from the process of making).

So, on the computer, until you ‘name and save’, the thing you’re doing has only a very fragile existence. But, strangely enough, once named, the digital artwork passes quickly from the non-existent to the (arguably) too-existent, extinguishing in the process some of the possibilities and opportunities that existed in its nameless state (It’s primitive I know, but the idea that naming something kills it, has always made sense to me).

Compare this to traditional ways of making work. The process here is the exact opposite. Having once started on some work you have to choose to name it, and you may well choose not to. More than that, you have to make an effort if you want to destroy it; scrunch it up, take a hammer to it, burn it or blame it on someone else. However you do it, the work is there until you make it not there.

The reversal in the process is significant, not only because it highlights the obvious fact that digital artwork has no physical autonomy, but, that when working digitally we have to make explicit, at a very early stage, something about our intention for the work and our relationship to it. It’s like getting married during your first date, and the consequences are significant! Because the act of naming work is a declaration of intent that confers status and meaning, and, however subtly, it probably changes the way we think about things. More importantly, it probably affects the way we can interact with the work from then on, and it will do so regardless of motives at the moment of naming.

I mean, most names, whether for traditional artworks or digital, are conceived as convenient identifiers that have no special significance and might easily change if a better one comes to mind. The difference is that with digital art we have no choice; the name has to happen quickly and should be frequently confirmed. In no other part of life is it sensible to commit so soon and so often!

The analogy is frivolous but the point is that the requirement to name things is no small matter and probably impacts very heavily on the nature of the things we produce, as well as the way we produce them.

On a more practical note, it’s never a good idea to include the word ‘final’ in any name, for the obvious reason that it never is. Revisions are always probable and in order to maintain clear heredity as versions accumulate, you will be obliged to enter the un-chartered and thickly fogged land of ‘names that lie beyond final’. It is full of strange and fantastical constructions, each of which stridently proclaims its own finality. If you get there you’ll get completely lost and may languish there with your colleagues for days. Don’t do it!