BY Michael Horsham in Frieze | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Dot Gain

The meaning of the dot

BY Michael Horsham in Frieze | 06 JUN 98

I can't remember when I stopped watching Eastenders. I only know that I did. The reasons for deserting what had become something of a ritual for a couple of evenings a week were complex. The show hadn't become worse. If anything, it was in the process of becoming a more concentrated version of itself. Story-lines were tight and compelling. The characters, if not completely believable, were sufficiently strong to induce support or hissing fits depending on their perceived capacity for good or evil. It was pantomime, but good pantomime. Sympathetically, or maybe just pathetically, I cared what happened next. But, if I can't remember when I stopped watching, I can remember why: it was Dot.

Dot Cotton, with her infernal, internally rhyming name had long begun to take the pleasure out of my viewing. It wasn't just the appearance - the haggard face and the cigarette held aloft, the receding gums and the long teeth - it was her role. Even though I had dreamed of having sex with Dot (surely a turning point), it was her functional omnipresense that began to put me off the show. Dot was a Greek chorus: he commented on the action all the time. Preceding her pronouncements with the absurd 'Well, yers, you know me, I'm not one to gossip, but...', she would repeatedly go on to assassinate the character of one of her neighbours.

It was comic at first, of course it was, but this endless reptition of Dot as a device for moralising or mediation grew wearisome. The grotesqueness of her appearance coupled with her role as a mediatrix who never actually produced anything by way of plot or development was ultimately alienating. She just reproduced the action and the act of reproduction held an implicit criticism of what had occured. There was little in the way of good or originality within her: a secondary character with a secondary function. She was no Hilda Ogden.

Now, I'm told, she is back in the show (I hadn't realised she'd been away) and I can only surmise that Eastenders will continue to churn out its depressing mixture of low drama and government-inspired, 'issue-based' stories, all featuring single parents, illiteracy, AIDS awareness etc., all without swear words and all tinged with the all-knowing, utterly fake functionality of Dot's two dimensional character.

The issues here are of dimensionality and of filtering, an idea of truth, or authenticity and an idea of the real. To illustrate a little further: around 1966, Rover cars launched their replacement for the highly regarded P5 model. The P5 was a ministerial barge that doubled as a gangster wagon: James Fox's chemically unbalanced character in Performance was driven about in one. The model is generally regarded by afficonados as the last real Rover. Its replacement, the altogether more modern and aerodynamic P6, is the car I drive today. If the P5 gained its reputation from its walnut and leather upholstery, the P6 dropped the lavish interior, relying instead on the excellence and reliability of its mechanics.

Unwilling to break completely with the traditions of the marque, however, the designers at Rover eschewed real wood in favour of a suggestion of the same. The result was the inclusion of some very nasty 'wood veneers', printed with a halftone colour image of rosewood grain. Look closely at the door trim or the dashboard and the whole thing is comprised of different coloured dots. The effect is kitsch and the P6 is consequently, at the moment at least, a very cool car - but then I would say that.

The car's appeal lies partly in the fact that it comes from a tradition not of craftmanship and coachbuilding as its predecessors did, but of modern reproduction. It is very 70s in the self-reflexive reliance on technology for its identity. It is curious to think that the P5s, and the P4s before them, enjoyed a modicum of uniqueness delivered by the minute inconsistencies and qualities of grain and colour inherent in the woods that were used in their construction, while the Rover P6 was one of the first British cars to be serially replicated both decoratively and mechanically, because the organic nature of the decoration was mechanically derived. On the Rover's dash and panelling, the wood is made up of a dot screen. Culturally and technologically, the grain had become the dot.

The same goes, when reproduced, for photography. The grain of photographic emulsion and the grain of photographic papers, or indeed any medium that has been made photosensitive, is the element that adds, to some degree, the grain of authenticity - even the grain of truth - to the image as manufactured object. Reproduce a photograph using a dot screen and print it in a newspaper and the act of publishing makes the image a matter of documentary reproduction rather than one of individual authorship.

The dot - the unitary, mechanistically derived element of the whole image - is therefore a signifier of the process of mass mediation. See a dot, the theory goes, and see the sign of reproduction, not authorship. In the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close and John Baldessari, the dot marks the work as modern, as the product of a filtered or mediated aesthetic that is not so far away from a Formica coffee table or my dashboard.

We know that Lichtenstein's Benday-style dots, long the underpinning of cheap reproductive technology, position his paintings as self-conciously robust reproductions of reproductions. Close works at the other end of the spectrum: the laborious accretion of colour and tone in the manufacture of those seemingly 'photo-real' heads of the 70s was achieved using a whole raft of traditional artists' materials, including airbrush, pastels, and oils. In much of Close's work the dot is there as evidence of a modern pointilliste modus operandi: it's all technique, albeit mind-numbingly repetitious. Here the presence of the artist, not the machine, is the filter that turns the act of reproduction into what has been identified as a relationship between 'units and unity, the parts and the whole'. The point is this: either way, within the world of painting and made marks, the element that distinguishes a work as filtered and distanced, as in Eastenders, is the presence of the dot.

It's our ability to break the close tonal range of the grain of the world into the specifics of unit and unity - so highlighting the relationship of the parts to the whole - which makes the presence of the dot in the culture of reproduction worthy of note. And at the heart of the issue is the transference of the qualities of tone and grain to those of typology and unit. In printing, it's a mechanistically simple process. Dot screening works by dividing any image or complex tonal field into a field of typological units: the dots. These units are then given colour and tonal values, but the dominant values are always the conditions and qualities of the dots. Until recently one of the printer's greatest enemies to quality was the occurrence of 'dot gain', where ink leeches into paper and smudges the dots, so altering the supposedly stable typology and lending the image tonal values that were outside the printer's controllable parameters. That is, the quality of the dots would change by accident and you would get a tonally rich, but shitty image. Now newer techniques such as stochastic screening recognise the ludicrous inflexibility of the traditional dot and instead use a more complex interwoven geometry. Perhaps the dot has run its course as a visible component of reproductive technology.

So wherever the dot is identifiable as evidence of filtering; wherever the dot-as-type replaces the grain-as-tone; wherever the dot is simply the identifiable mark of reproduction technology, the result is arguably placed at a remove from the authentic, or the real experience. Quite where this takes us in terms of value is difficult to determine. Unless used as a pure form, and not a way of approximating complex tonal qualities, the dot is doomed to the cultural netherworld of cheese-repro. I would argue that the experience of my car is not diminished because the wood effects are cheesy. At the moment this has its own currency, but just how long that lasts is anyone's guess...