The hand-mechanical is a deliberate manipulation of the codes and conventions of artistic practice.
The first and most obvious of those codes/conventions put into play by the hand-mechanical is the (limited) edition. (From here through the rest of this post, the term “edition” will be used to refer to a “limited edition,” but specification will be used when necessary.) Hand-mechanical processes can be employed to produce an artwork in multiple, but can they be used to make a proper edition?
What is a “proper” edition anyway? When a work is done in an edition (usually a print, book, or photograph, sometimes a sculpture, sometimes something else, and it’s that something else we’re interested in) the original artwork is made in multiple. There is not one original and then a number of copies, there is no single, stable source—the editioned artwork is multiple, the multitude, plenitude, the network, the rhizome, from its very beginning. The matrix that is needed to make an editioned artwork (the printing plate, the photographic negative, the mold, and yes, the digital file) is not a part of the finished piece—it is part of the process, no more and no less a “source” of the artwork than a pencil is the “source” of a drawing.
A “proper” edition
[Definition break (it’s best to proceed slowly): “proper” here means “as traditionally defined and realized.”]
A “proper” edition is almost always a limited edition. The original edition is produced once, and that’s it, no more. The matrix is theoretically destroyed (“canceling the plate”) to insure that no unauthorized copies [“copies?”] can be made. Every piece in the edition is supposed to look exactly the same. Any copies that are noticeably different from the others are excluded. The amount of variation tolerated in an edition varies from artist to artist, from piece to piece, from context to context. There is no “perfect” edition—every edition contains the very thing (variation, difference) that cancels its mode of being, that activates its mode of becoming.
We could describe the limited edition with the paradoxical term singly multiple: it is multiple, but that multiplicity is contained within a single iteration. The unlimited edition is, in theory, infinitely multiple: in order to be unlimited, the edition must be produced in multiple iterations (first printing, second printing, third printing, and so on) or be in constant production, on a machine set to run and produce forever.
[Idea: limit an edition not by number of copies, but by amount of time spent in production. The edition is x number of copies produced in y units of time. “This is an edition of three days (that happens to include 304 copies).” Should one exclude variant copies as usual, or should one include all copies, even the really messed up ones? Does the use of the time boundary require the shattering of the edition’s consistency?]
An artwork could be made in an edition that is somewhere between those two poles: doubly multiple, triply multiple, etc. But is an unlimited edition masquerading as limited to drive up value, or a limited edition designed to exceed its own limits?
Unique artworks exist in a restricted economy in its most restricted sense. Uniqueness is the ultimate scarcity.
Limited edition artworks, depending on the size of the edition and the mode(s) in which that edition is deployed in the world, can function in either a restricted economy or a general economy (an economy of excess, plenitude). “Proper” editions exist in a restricted economy. An “improper” edition might be limited but can be deployed in such a way as to disregard its own scarcity—given away or sold cheaply.
The unlimited edition is a theoretical practice—an edition is always limited, because we are finite beings in a finite world.
[As of this writing, as of this reading, here, in this soft, snowy morning in Colorado, my finite amount of time is scraping against the ragged edges of this post. It really is a mess, but we will start here, with this heap, already spilling over, and see what we can do.]