Our article writer Olivia Church shares her thoughts on Robert Jackson’s project ‘Eye Can Draw’.
Our ability and skill in performing tasks with our hands is a fundamental part in the way in which we can handle and control tools and materials to create artwork. Print maker and researcher Robert Jackson realised how the loss of movement can dramatically affect an artist’s opportunities to improve their practice when faced with physically debilitating illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. His project ‘Eye Can Draw’, launched in 2012, gave AUB students a glimpse in to how an artist’s drawing and printing abilities can be enhanced by eye-tracking technology. What began as a personal undertaking carried out on evenings and weekends became the foundations for an invention that would reform the way in which artists adapt their practice.
Originally from Dundee, he completed his BA Hons Printmaking degree at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. It wasn’t until he enrolled on his MA Fine Art course in Scotland that a true interest in the theme of interaction developed. He was curious about blurring traditional and modern printing techniques with and he went on to take part in wider as personal research projects. After around six months of trailing his eye-tracking technology, he gained funding from Creative Scotland and he initiated his project at Dundee Contemporary Arts where artists with a physical disability could explore new ways of working through Jackson’s self-built low cost technology. Standing at the front with the frame of an unflattering pair of H&M sunglasses, he demonstrated to students that despite the complexity of the technology, it in fact helps artists to create simple but abstract drawings that, when translated into printed matter, create something new and innovative.
Robert Jackson has worked with two visual artists who have MS, Dawson Murray and Jackie Smith. In a statement on Creative Scotland’s website, Dawson Murray says that the technology means that he is in control of the shape that he is trying to describe, if he is asking a helper to tear a piece of paper they are not doing it by telepathy, so he now, using the eye-tracker, has no real excuse if they are not correct . Jackie, on the other hand, says that working with the eye tracker has completely altered the way that she works. The directness and simplicity of the drawings has encouraged her to think in a very lucid, unequivocal way – making images whose power stems from their clarity and openness.
Robert considers himself to be more of a ‘facilitator’ for their practice rather than deserving of a signature on their work despite current debates on credibility. The technology has developed to the point where he can introduce artists to consider artwork being produced on a much larger scale and even producing artwork in 3D. In the lecture, he also stated that it was being considered whether two eyes could be involved in the making process instead of one as well as having group drawing sessions. A commercial eye-tracker would come at a significantly higher cost but Robert Jackson’s version has nonetheless provided AUB students an example of how an artist’s limits can be redefined through technology-led drawing and print-making.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this lecture as the subject seemed more science-based than art. In fact, Robert’s work proves that they two can work together and makes the seemingly impossible, possible. It shows that technology contributes massively how we make art and developments will continue to feed into the expansion of our practice across all disciplines.
I spoke to Robert Jackson at the end of the lecture to hear his thoughts on some areas of his project:
What has been the most fulfilling part of your project?
For me, it was seeing Dawson being able to draw directly on the screen. I am also grateful for the help and encouragement that I received from DCA and I also achieved this with the funding from Creative Scotland.
Why do you think drawing is such an important means of expression or is something that people feel compelled to do?
We draw from such an early age, it’s ingrained in you. When you draw when you are small, your pen wanders across the page. Dawson and Jackie were confined to a strict regime of drawing but the technology has freed up their abilities to draw.
Where there any major difficulties that hindered opportunities for the project to develop?
A major difficulty was getting files to be recognised and translating the files for further use, those were the only two things I can think of.
Was there anything that surprised you as a result of your research or because of the people you encountered?
Well, everything surprised me! I wasn’t really thinking it would work so yes, there were lots of surprises when it did.
What are your hopes for the project and the future of technology aiding artists who face physically-debilitating illnesses?
I hope that this is enough to make it more open access and the technology can be for anyone and it won’t be project restricted.
Words and Illustrations by Olivia Church