Embedded Messages

An excellent trip last week, to the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Neighbouring but entirely separate entities, with contrasting taxonomies. Apparently, originally, there was an intent to demonstrate a social Darwinism in the Pitt Rivers, by juxtaposing objects of common function from 'primitive' and 'advanced' cultures. The net effect is opposite, with beautiful examples of the symbiosis of available materials and requisite making. I always return to the cabinets containing object–systems for writing and counting.

These West African Oroko and other symbolic systems, communicate personal insults, calls to battle, requests for foodstuffs, news of death, bids for friendship. The number and orientation of cowrie shells denotes an array of meanings, as described here. The intrinsic character of a cowrie is human and therefore connotes a human situation. Where they face away from one another they really are facing away. Elsewhere, knotted string gives the intuitive property of distance and space to travel.

I reflected afterwards (in the light of messages and matter) on another trip, back in September and in Berlin. The Museum of Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind is the original site, where around thirty blind and deaf Jews were employed—and therefore shielded from internment—by Weidt to make brushes and brooms in the early 1940s. Under constant threat, they hid within concealed spaces in the workshop and Weidt obtained false identities (as above, for Marianne Bernstein) and bribed Gestapo officials; any means to stave off the inevitable.

The museum has humility, weighted only by the original nature of the spaces and the stories of individuals who, in the majority were killed and the exceptions who survived. This is the recto and verso of a postcard, thrown from an Auschwitz–bound transportation train by Alice Licht and addressed to Otto Weidt in the remote hope of it finding him, which it did. Somebody picked it up and sent it on.

Alice parents were killed in Auschwitz. She was later transported to Groß–Rosen. Weidt managed to make contact and organised a safe hiding place in Berlin, to which she fled during an evacuation in 1945. She emerged few weeks later, surviving the war and then emigrating to the US. She died in 1987.

This poem, Zurück–Glück (Return–Happiness), written after her escape in April 1945.

Beyond the stories, the walls within the hidden spaces.

Walter Benjamin: "To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger".

A certain resonance in straightforward effects and documentation, telling a human tale. Perhaps the gap to think. The frankness of a factual item. Christian Boltanski has referenced and used as a raw material, the emotional impact of piles of clothes belonging to those deported, discovered in the Nazis' storage warehouses. The specificity of belongings, indicating an individual's life, over the anonymity of a naked body. This piece, Inventaire des Objets Ayant Appartenu a une Femme de Bois-Colombes (1974), from a series of five (I think) bookworks which fully documented the belongings of a woman living in a suburb of Paris.

At no stage do we see an image, a likeness of the woman. Only her taste in books. Which tells a greater truth?

Back to the Pitt Rivers and some more from the Writing & Counting cabinet.

This beautiful correlation of one available material with the form to which it refers and encodes, a reindeer herder's register of his herd's ear notches, cut into birch bark.

Nearby, a cabinet displaying scrimshaw and other notchmaking, markmaking in bone. An object behaving as a page.


Make Do Type, New York Times, Day Save Time

The New York Times commissioned a typesetting of six poems to "mark the end of daylight saving time". It has been a really enjoyable project; an excuse to develop variants of Make Do Type and building on a notion of how attributes might develop within the rationale, which is to make do with a limiting grid, a monospace set width, a single line weight and, inevitably, a typographic outsider's patched knowledge.

Also to test balance imagery and type. My fascination is the way that type, when drawn from the same hand, can take the onus away from imagery and allow it to be sometimes something other than figurative.

The two variants here, a condensed (created to fit this poem's setting into the column width and maintain a consistent x-height with the rest) and a slab serif. This one does pull on established solutions for optical balance in a monospace 'i', for example. So I looked a lot and gained greater appreciation of Courier and the favourite Prestige Elite. Wanted to see how familiar or not Make Do would become when taking on board some of these features.

And then keeping stray awkwardness in some characters, like the double-height 'g'.

These examples are taken from a great Walker Design Blog piece here by Ryan G. Nelson, on Typographica's 1962 piece on typewriter typefaces.

I'm looking quite a lot at visual explanations (also for a Camberwell teaching project) and wanted the header to read as something almost ornamental, arriving out of dense information related to November and December 2010 Northern Hemisphere moon cycles, onset weather bleakness, land and sea strata. Maybe a cross too, between the influences of Wiener Werkstätte (via) and Susan Kare (very nice article here on the process behind the original Macintosh system software).

The inter-poem patterns were simply referring to time passing, incremental permutation, reversals. Apparently each of the poets sent their pieces mechanically typewritten. All the more reason to set all of this into an inflexible matrix. The type and imagery were all designed to the NYT's 0.2 inch gutter width, which then became a modular grid. Concrete poetry was the first moment early on (as in, Art Foundation Course early on) where I could get hold of some essence of typography as a thing in itself.

Discovered Dom Sylvester Houédard's work in an old ICA catalogue. A Benedictine priest and concrete poet, he corresponded with Herbert Spencer and Typographica through the 1960s. For me the work stands out because it seems less locked into its time of making; aerated in a way that destabilises the Olivetti characteristic or puts the tension between mechanical and improvised composition in an odder place.

He said: "Words: hard and lovely as diamonds demand to be seen, freed in space; words are wild, sentences tame them. Every word an abstract painting, read quickly in a phrase words get lost: in concrete, eye sees words as objects that release sound/thought echoes in a reader. Concrete poems just ARE: have no outside reference; they are objects like toys and tools, jewel–like concrete things-in-them-selves".

I also like Ernst Jandl, much for other reasons, in the purity and acceptance of the letterness of letters.