The Body of the Artisan

Pamela H Smith’s The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution is a dense and interesting history of the influence of art and craft on the formation of science, or “new philosophy” in the early seventeenth century, that I can’t begin to unpack just yet. But I am interested in questions that are surfacing about natural knowledge, the focus of the scientific revolution, on the basis of observation and depiction. I’m not sure how (or if) questions of seeing help me get footing in the text, but I couldn’t get the work of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida and James Elkins in The Object Stares Back out of the back of my mind. I can make a loose connection their work to create a language/way to talk about images and art beyond aesthetic qualities to the work of theorizing from drawings/paintings – a way of communicating knowledge orally (or in alpha. text). But the connection I find more interesting what knowledge is and isn’t able to move from nature, or from embodied practice, as a representation (a re-presentation). I feel like in posing this thought it seems like I’m trying to get a some philosophical real world beyond, but it’s really a matter of curiosity in how this knowledge (embodied or tacit) traveled because of graphic depiction (and what couldn’t). And in terms of engaging with nature, sight (reasonably so) is the sense that is appealed to/through; while it highlighted to the eyes, I wonder what was left unseen.

“Well, what is it like?” (In the Laboratory with Agassiz): It reminds me of a short account I read in a tech comm class before, In the Laboratory with Agassiz on Learning to See. A student enters Agassiz’s lab wanting to learn zoology , to which Agassiz responds with leaving the student alone with a fish to analyze. He asks the student what he sees in the fish but is dissatisfied with the student’s observations of the fish’s appearance. After days of looking at the fish, the student describes it as “symmetrical sides with paired organs” which pleases Agassiz as a connection between facts and general law – not just observations in isolation as facts. While this is distributed throughout Smith, I thought these related:

“The pursuit of natural knowledge became active and began to involve the body; that is, one had to observe, record, and engage bodily with nature” (18).


“Images came to be known as witnesses to facts. Images that increasingly invoked claims of factuality reinforced the techniques of observation and eyewitness as modes of inquiring knowledge” (150).

as disciplined observation and engagement to construct knowledge in objects and physical, observable phenomena. This enaction is what made scientific inquiry and the construction of knowledge possible. Making allowed people to make themselves, or the material of their culture; “Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism” (James Elkins The Object Stares Back). These depictions seem of a small scale though, or perhaps singular – how did this knowledge circulate? (particularly when its origins were in craft and art that was embodied knowledge unto singular persons that moved through apprenticeship). What is the relationship between the body of the artisan and the body of scientific knowledge?

Screen Printing: Screen Status

After my last failed print with drawing fluid, I was hesitant to print again. With a meager budget, I was worried I destroyed my screen. To reiterate (condensed version): the screen filler in my last design would not wash out of my screen. I did not have any Speedball screen cleaner, and was trying to use household cleaners I did have that I read about on discussion boards – Greased Lightning, Mr. Clean, and dishwasher detergent. None of these cleaners seemed to have any impact, so returning to the boards, I read about some printers suggestion to use a power washer. Not owning a power washer in my city apartment (I don’t even have a hose), I took my screen to the touchless car wash late on a Sunday night (part of the reason I couldn’t purchase Speedball cleaner – the art store nor the craft store were open). Too many quarters later, my screen still wasn’t clean. While the power washer took off some of the screen filler, much remained. I had to wait a few days before I had money to purchase more Speedball cleaner; meanwhile the screen sat with the filler still in the mesh. Cleaning with the Speedball cleaner helped, but a ghost of the print remained. Since then I have been trying to find an answer for why the filler wouldn’t come out because I am following the written instructions. I suspect however that being able to talk to someone who has screen printed might provide me with what Richard Sennett calls “expressive instructions” – the tacit, embodied knowledge that language has a difficult time representing. I wonder, without a source of expressive instruction if:

  • Perhaps I have the wrong type of bristles in my brush (too hard? too soft?)
  • The temperature or pressure or amount of water I use to wash my screen isn’t the most effective
  • The pressure that I apply to scrub the screen isn’t right
  • The amount of time I let the screen cleaner sit isn’t long enough
  • The amount of time the screen filler stays on the screen is too long
  • The amount of cleaner I use is enough
  • The amount of screen filler I use is too much

And so on.

Where can I turn for expressive instruction? I’ve thought about approaching a faculty member from the studio arts program, but I don’t know what’s stopping me (those disciplinary boundaries?). This is probably a path that I should brave and venture. At a recent community event, I learned of a non-profit organization opening up called SALT Makerspace, a studio(s) space to share tools, collaborate, and learn from a community of craft. They’re just opening, but I have seen the skeleton of a screen printing workshop they’ll offer. But the workshops and using the space cost money per month that I don’t have. What I do feel like I have access to, even though I can’t direct my interaction with it specifically to me, is the web. I’ve read forums, watched YouTube videos, and looked at accounts of people’s processes. Either cleaning the screens isn’t addressed, it’s addressed with the instructions that come on the Speedball cleaner bottle, or it does show the process but it is for light emulsion printing, which I’m not doing. It doesn’t seem like I should be having problems, but I am. Moreso, I believe I have trashed the mesh of my screen. While I don’t know the effect that it will have on my prints, the mesh is stretched and warped in places. My next print will be simple until I am confident enough that future prints will not be too impacted by the screen distortion.