Notes on my Drawings

TT Journal, ISSUE 4, 12th September 2022

By Lev Manovich

Introduction by Tereza Stehlikova

I became intrigued when I heard that Lev Manovich, known as a leading theorist of digital culture, as well as an artist working with latest digital technologies, has returned to drawing, after a 30 year pause. What is it about drawing, a gesture of a hand guided by a human mind, an encounter between a pen and a paper, that is still relevant today, to an artist and scholar devoted to media theory and exploring AI to generate artwork?

In this contribution Manovich shares some of his early drawings with us, as well as some of his thoughts about these. I find these drawings striking, intriguing. They give me insights into Lev’s unique vision as much as his writing does. These scenes, or strange environments, drawn in intricate detail, seem an extension of an inner state. Here the organic and the industrial co-exist, creating an atmosphere that is eery, uncanny – despite depicting houses – distinctly unhomely. The rules of physics do not apply here, we are on a stage where houses are facades only, a front behind which there is nothing. And solid ground is only a thin sheet that becomes bent and twisted. Beneath it, another kind of order is revealed, an incomprehensible tangle of stalk like pipes and roots, clockwork mechanics and cable…

Here we are in the liminal realm between the unconscious and conscious states. This inner world escapes a rational explanation, it doesn’t speak in words, but in a unique visual language alone. And of course, it is also full of symbols of its time: The Soviet Union in the 1970s.

The last two drawings are from 2022. While there is a definite sense of coherence between these and the earlier works, they also feel more abstract. They depict an alien landscape, with no recognisable features. In the absence of anything concrete to grasp, my sense of scale dissolves. I find myself drawn into a world of somebody else’s imagination, all the more compelling because the medium of drawing speaks so directly to me. (TS, September 2022)

Notes on my Drawings

Created between 1981 and 1985.
Media: technical pen on paper, color pencils on paper, etchings.
Visual references: Russia in the 1970s.

Lev Manovich

1. Thinking about the terms we have for the art “media.” Drawings? Graphic Arts? «Works on paper»? The last is particularly problematic.) What about “line arts”? Or “point arts”?

I can’t stop thinking about “media theory” – although it would be really nice to stop for a while. Just to draw.…but revisiting my early graphic artworks or looking at 17th century Dutch for ideas and techniques (how were they able to achieve such amazing precision of line, such subtle tones, such variety in drawing trees, clouds, anything?) I may start writing about…what to call this?

Theory of artistic expression? Mark making? Creating visual structures? Or simply “media theory”?But the media aspect is not important here. Making such drawings I did not think of “transmitting” messages or “recording” information.

Maybe we can call this “line arts.” But is it really about single lines? (Shading techniques such as cross-hatching are certainly as important. In more detailed realistic drawings or etchings, shading alone can define shapes, and contour our lines may be not necessary. But in many Picasso drawings, for example, a single and often uninterrupted line is the main hero.)

Why was I labelled “media theorist”? Media never interested me. I started my art training at 12, drawing or painting practically every day. By the time I reached 18, I became obsessed – not with making paintings themselves but with understanding how they work. What makes one painting more interesting and satisfying than another? And on a more basic level: how to describe an image, its structure, and the world it brings forward?

I am still preoccupied with this question, decades later. I looked for appropriate tools first in psychology of art and semiotics, then in cognitive science, and later in computer vision, AI, data science, and data visualization. Certainly these and other fields give us many tools and methods. But they don’t provide full solutions to the mystery of an image. Or rather, the mystery of our cultural and aesthetic perception of images.

Therefore, after learning just how difficult this all is, I am returning to drawing as an activity. I am happy to draw again using pens and paper, after a 30 year break. Satisfied with knowing that repeated line making can bring out a new small world every time. Perhaps this is enough.

You may notice that my early drawings often show a “closed world.” Sometimes it’s only a back wall and other times it’s three walls and in other drawings the sky acts as such an enclosing surface, a ceiling closing the space. We can think of these drawings as stage designs for an imaginary play.

But a play – a narrative, story, with actors, their motivations and their actions – did not interest me. What I was interested in was only stage design, constructing a world with its particular atmosphere, structure and objects. In short: Scenography. So this is why you usually don’t see human figures in my drawings – only space and objects.

A stage design may have only a small number of objects. A world reduced to its vocabulary. You see this strategy in some of the drawings.

Another interpretation: we live in the world which for us is real, but it is only a performance inside an enclosed theatre stage. This idea comes from my experience of growing up in Russia (Moscow) during the late communist era. At the age of 10 I realized that most people around me only pretend that they believe propaganda and official stories – and it’s all a giant surreal performance. They play their assigned roles but they know it’s not real.

But at the same time, there is no other outside world. Their whole lives are spent inside this performance space. There is no redemption, escape, normal life – or even some small rehearsal area. You get born in a late communist society and learn its rituals already as a child.

However, notice that sometimes the enclosures such as curtains or low hanging sky or building walls are not fixed perfectly. With time, the seams in the corners became loose. Various pols and nails were added to prop them up. The simulation is gradually decaying and maybe a few people managed to escape. But we don’t know for sure. A roll of toilet paper is attached to the wall of one such space. The objects typical for a construction site (there was one next to our apartment building in Moscow) got frozen and partly submerged, becoming part of the utopia which turned into its opposite. From the signs we can see, this was going on for at least 800 years, and construction will never be finished.

All these drawings were made right after I left Russia in 1981, and not before. Taking any artwork from Russia when immigrating required a permission of a special art commission, and I learned that such drawings would not be allowed. They did not show “Soviet reality” in the correct way. So I could only make them after we left Russia as immigrants, in 1981. As soon as we left the country, they started pouring out of me, and this continued for some years. I made the last one in 1992. But now, after 30 years of working only with digital media, I went back to this point where I stopped. What will come out from my line making now? I don’t quite know, and this is why it is exciting.

Note by the editor: Below are two recent drawings by Lev Manovich, from June/July 2022

You can also read more from Lev Manovich in Tangible Territory journal (issue n.4):