Is It Art, or Is It Type? What We Learn When Language is Built, Not Written
One of my favorite pieces by the artist Shannon Ebner is ASTER/SK R/SK R/SK, a work that comprises four flickering light boxes spelling out ASTER/SK over two lines. Each letter is made out of cinderblocks arranged on a gridded pegboard and photographed; the light behind them flashes in a choreographed sequence, illuminating over time the piece’s repetitious title. The modular letters look almost pixelated, reminiscent of Ebner’s “The Electric Comma,” in which a poem plays out across the kind of electronic signboard usually used for roadside construction. Except rather than composed of light, the letters in ASTER/ISK are built from concrete blocks, solid and immovable. Ebner’s photographic works tend to call attention to the limits of language by examining the ways in which it is (literally) constructed.
I came to Ebner’s work through her book The Sun as Error, a collaboration with Dexter Sinister, which can also be found on the shelves of more than a few designers I know. She’s what I would term a “designer’s artist.” As Julia Born puts it much better in an interview with the Gradient: “[Ebner] fascinates many graphic designers because she manages to capture and magically bring together typography, poetry, philosophy, politics, language, and aspects of the vernacular.” For anyone who loves the visuality of language, and perhaps particularly for those who work closely with language’s form and its constituent parts—aka typography—Ebner’s way of playing not only with the materiality of language but also with language as material offers a special kind of pleasure.
Ebner is far from the only visual artist who works in this way, who considers language not just a vehicle for conveying meaning, but as a thing in itself. Many of her contemporaries such as Adam Pendleton, Ken Lum, Nora Turato, Tsang Kin-wah, Tania Mousand, and Chloe Bass all use typography in their work—printed on canvas, painted across walls, or reflecting off mirrored signage. Others, like Fiona Banner, Tauba Auerbach, Joi T. Arcand, Samir al-Sayegh, Karl Holmqvist, Shannon Finnegan, Stefan Marx, and Martin Boyce, have created their own typography for their own use, tapping into the personalized, expressive potential of type.
Tania Mourand, MDQRPV?, 2015.
They are part of a longer legacy of artists working with text as material that includes the Dada, Futurist, Lettrist, and Concrete Poetry movements. They also follow artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Kay Rosen, Ed Ruscha, and Lawrence Weiner, and artists in the 1960s who made language a primary element in their art under labels like Fluxus, Pop art, Conceptual art, and text and image. As Robert Smithson wrote in a press release for a 1967 exhibition of language-based art (which he famously described as consisting of “Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read”) at the Dwan Gallery in New York: “Here language is built up, not written.” Art that dismantles language, isolates it from its meaning, and treats it as object has proliferated ever since.
If we’re to take Smithson literally—and let’s, at least for the sake of this transition—the idea of “building language” will be a familiar one for type designers. Type designers also think of language as something physical, as matter. They also disassemble and reassemble it, constructing an alphabet from its constituent shapes. They’re also concerned with the aesthetics and experience of language, but not just those things—most typefaces, after all, are meant to be read. For artists working with language, letterforms may be purely a form of expression, but for typographers, letterforms are also tools, giving form to words, which can then be used to convey meaning, to signify, indicate, express, and conjure up ideas. This functionality shapes the rules of typography and explains type designers’ obsession with a typeface’s stylistic components and concern for the context in which it operates. It’s also why, I suspect, artists working with type hold such an enduring fascination for designers (and also for me, a design writer). It gives us an excuse to defamiliarize ourselves with how language is made and used, and lose ourselves in the letters and the expressive possibilities of language and the many ways it can live in the world.
“A Translation from one language to another,” Lawrence Weiner, 1996.
One of the best (albeit one-sided) illustrations of how a designer might approach type differently than an artist is a 2009 essay by David Reinfurt (who used to make up one-half of Dexter Sinister) titled “Why Arial?” The essay focuses on the use of the typeface Arial in two series, Black Dada and Systems of Display, by artist Adam Pendleton, also the recipient of the titular question. First, Reinfurt takes us through both works and the ways that Pendleton connects disparate eras of art history through processes of fragmentation and re-compilation, resulting in his “layered text-image compositions.” Then he switches to type history, explaining the origins of Monotype Arial, which was commissioned by IBM in the 1980s for the sole reason that the company didn’t have access to Linotype’s widely-used Helvetica. Toward the end of the essay, Reinfurt loops back around to his original question, adding an air of type-nerd incredulity: “But then, why Arial? It’s a half-resolved typeface, a debased Helvetica at best, produced in the service of IBM and Microsoft! Come on.”
Given Reinfurt’s close reading and clear appreciation for Pendleton’s work (and their collaborations since), we can safely read the question as rhetorical, a device for exploring the subjects of the essay. But the question remains: For a project that merges text and image, and that’s so obviously seeped in art history, was the history of the typography used also considered? Is that something that would only concern a designer? Or were Pendleton’s reasons for using Arial simply different than Reinfurt’s reasons for critiquing it? (For contrast, consider designer Mindy Seu’s use of Arial for her project Cyberfeminism Index, the reasoning for which she clearly outlines in the website’s About section: it’s “one of few system fonts designed by a woman.”)
“The font also requires examination as a form in itself alongside the apparent statement/message. It becomes a subject.”
Lawrence Weiner is an artist who famously considers the context, history and associations of the typefaces he uses—and vocally disavows Reinfurt’s favored Helvetica. Weiner has said that he doesn’t use Helvetica in his works because of its association with authority, and has chosen instead to work frequently with Franklin Gothic Condensed, adapt fonts to suit his needs, or use the typeface he designed, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic. Artist Liam Gillick, on the other hand, has so often used Helvetica in his works that he’s even produced his own cut of a Helvetica variant. “Coming from a European context, I view Helvetica as less traumatic and rather more embedded in attempts to create new social democratic models in the post-war context,” he tells designer Tino Grass in Grass’s book Artistype. “Of course Lawrence is correct in relation to his own work, where the deployment of Helvetica would shift the meaning of the works toward assertion. My work interrogates systems of power and critiques the middle ground of socio-economic structuring. Therefore the font also requires examination as a form in itself alongside the apparent statement/message. It becomes a subject.”
Fiona Banner aka The Vanity Press, Every Word Unmade (Neon Alphabet), 2007.
Yet such attention to the history of typography and typographic rules isn’t necessarily the norm in Artistype, a book that comprises interviews with 14 artists who use type in their work. When asked about the importance of legibility in his typography, Martin Boyce replied, “I am not a type designer so my type does not need to conform to the functional aspects of type design. I do place rules on it, but of course I can break these rules.” Fiona Banner replied in kind to a question about following the rules of typography. “I draw, bend, or build my own. The others can take a hike.”
Both Boyce and Banner have drawn their own typefaces as part of their work. Based on an image of four abstract concrete trees designed by Jan and Joe Martel for the Paris exhibition of the decorative arts in 1925, Boyce developed a pattern on paper that looks a bit like a repeating art deco motif. He then used this unconventional grid to draw angular amateurish-looking letters, which he used to create the piece Concrete Autumn. Banner, for her part, developed a font called Font, an amalgamation of several typefaces she’s used in her text-based artworks (in her “full stop” series, for example, Banner’s enlarged punctuation marks were in a variety of commonly used typefaces like Times, Gills Sans, and New Century Schoolbook) and an example of her discursive humor. As Mark Sheerin describes it in his review of Banner’s 2016 show Buoys Boys, Font “combines an old-fashioned ecclesiastical look and feel with an au courant encounter with the computerized glitch.” Banner has also depicted letters with graphite drawings of fighter planes for her piece The Bastard Word and created a wobbly, delicate alphabet out of glass tubes for her piece, Every Word Unmade.
For Joi T. Arcand, creating her own typography was a way of making more visible a language in danger of disappearing. In her work Here on Future Earth, she employs her Cree Comic Sans in a series of photographs that show everyday scenes in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, replacing the English on shop signs and town wayfinding with Cree syllabics. As the writing system for the Cree dialect, the Cree syllabary is said to have been invented in the early 1800s by a missionary named James Evans, though there are Indigenous Cree who dispute this origin story and say Evans merely took credit for it. Today, the dialect is spoken by approximately 117,000 people across Canada, but that number diminishes with each generation. “People who have no reference point for what syllabics is assume it’s foreign because they can’t read it,” Arcand says in a 2019 interview with Chris Lee and Winona Wheeler in C Magazine. “When they can’t understand something, they get really uncomfortable…As settler people, [you should] not have everything just handed to you, without any question or without being challenged in that way—to think about the fact that something you think is foreign is actually Indigenous.”
While the photographs in Here on Future Earth are speculative, depicting an alternate reality in which Indigenous language is widely used on historically Indigenous land, some of Arcand’s other works actually create that reality in public. In Don’t Speak English, she paints syllabics on the stairs of a subway station, and for her Wayfinding series she creates neon signs in Cree (though unlike Banner’s, her glowing typeface appears steady and resolute). “[It does something] for people to see themselves and their language reflected and shining back at them,” Arcand says of the neon signage. “It instills this pride and recognition.”
“[It does something] for people to see themselves and their language reflected and shining back at them.”
Wayfinding is also the name of a show by Chloe Bass at the Studio Museum that ran through last fall. Like Arcand, Bass plays with the poetic potential of signage, placing three mirrored billboards throughout St. Nicholas Park in Harlem. Each asks a question—“How much of care is patience?” “How much of life is coping?” and “How much of love is attention?”—in matte text that disappears and reappears with changing light on the mirrored surface, the background reflecting the public space surrounding it. As these textual musings and the park map on to each other, typography acts as much a philosophical guide as it does a physical one.
Chloë Bass, How much of love is attention? (exhibition view), 2019. Photograph by Savonne Anderson.
Bass’ use of billboards calls to mind Ken Lum’s Melly Shum Hates Her Job, one of his many “photo-text works,” which he blew up in billboard form to advertise his 1990 show at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam and which became a permanent installation due to popular demand. (Citizens dismayed by its removal at the end of the exhibition called in to insist the city needed a monument to hating one’s job). Unlike Bass or Arcand’s polished letterforms, Lum often employs playful, expressive, vernacular typography in his photographic works where he uses words to “augment the experience of the photographs,” as he writes in his book Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life. “I also hope that the text creates a picture of its own, related to but distinctly different from the given picture.” In Melly Shum Hates Her Job, the word “HATES” is written in a vibrating red and yellow typeface reminiscent of exclamatory type in comic books and pop-art.
Shannon Finnegan, Do you want us here or not, 2020, Carleton University Art Gallery. Fabrication by Walter Zanetti, Anthony Dewar, Paul Durocher, and Brant Lucuik. Photo by Justin Wonnacott.
Then there are artists for whom creating their own typography is a personal act or a marker of identity. Artists like Stefan Marx and Shannon Finnegan, who employ text frequently in their work, have a trademark style that can be considered akin to handwriting. Tauba Auerbach has said that her habit of changing up the style of her handwriting based on mood or circumstance as a kid led to her interest in developing typefaces for her works, and in particular for her publishing project Diagonal Press. In 2006, Auerbach made her first font Fig, an architectural sans serif composed from a limited kit of curved and straight lines, and she’s since created dozens more, including Ribbon Calligraphic Metallic Typeface, Fossil, and Three Wire (SRS), as well as series of Type Specimen posters that she sells through the press.
“I’ve never sold fonts for use because the letters feel very personal—like visualizations of my voice.”
In her written description for the type posters, Auerbach pointed to the personal nature of type as a reason why she’s decided not to make her typefaces commercially available. “I’ve never sold fonts for use because the letters feel very personal—like visualizations of my voice. Seeing one of these typefaces used by a stranger would be akin to hearing my voice come out of someone else’s mouth.” Auerbach’s reasoning illustrates another difference in artists, who develop type for their use only, and designers, who develop typefaces that others can use. But more interesting than drawing on a divide between artists and designers, I think, is looking at the overlaps of two practices so intent on examining language’s material DNA and exploring the expressive potential of letterforms. In both design and art (and work that makes no difference between the two) the act of visualizing language, of making it seen, opens up new possibilities. “A poetics of typography operates in the space between language and the alphabet,” Paul Elliman writes in his 1998 essay “My Typographies,” “and along the invisible networks that connect writing to the world.”