A quick round of applause for text in art, in protest and on walls. A. W. Wilde offers a lyrical praise of the humble word, in light of FACT’s Type Motion exhibition.
Don’t grow up: it’s a trap. As soon as you can read they’ve got you by the balls and there’s not much you can do about it. From that first day at little school in long socks you’ve been unwittingly cursed, coerced into understanding rules, dissuaded from dive bombing into swimming pools, exposed to the elucidating wants that hide behind brand strap-lines, and then crushed by the realisation that you didn’t-read-the-fucking-smallprint. Words are weapons. Words aren’t actions. Words can be twisted.
When introduced to the first alphabet on a clear blue summer’s day in the 5th Century BC, Plato was instantly distrustful. With one white bushy eyebrow arched, he looked towards his pupil, Aristotle, and exclaimed for all of Athens to hear: “This shit smells real fishy to me. I oughta tear those Phoenicians a new asshole for inventing it”. Unfazed, Aristotle returned his gaze and replied, “Word is born”.
Or so the story goes. And words are, of course, at least partly responsible for every great novel you’ve ever read and every song lyric you can’t get out of your head. Words animate what language depicts and can themselves be animated — all in the good name of art. Now showing at FACT is an exhibition entitled TYPE MOTION, a celebration of the creative possibilities of text in a digital galaxy far, far beyond print. The basis for this artistic vocabulary is nothing new: since the caves of Lascaux over 17,300 years ago we’ve been using text and image as a mode of artistic expression. The printing press furthered this in 1439 and the conceptual art of the 1960s subverted it by dragging language into the field of painting.
Type Motion is a multimedia affair; films, title sequences, pop videos and interactive screens all offer ample validation for text as an individual art form. Suspended from the ceiling in the downstairs gallery space are six screens on which films run continuously, each with their own soundtrack. The room is otherwise unlit and its walls are mirrored, the floor polished to an obsidian kinda blackness. In this most optimal setting the images reflect where they please, surrounding the viewer with a ton of moving text from the likes of Saul Bass, Marcel Duchamp and John Baldessari. It feels like walking into (and not onto) the set of Blade Runner: an engulfing disorientation of the most futuristic persuasion. Yet this feeling of being adrift didn’t last — and that’s because I’ve spent most of my life in cities, all of it as part of Generation X. In the modern metropolis we become desensitised to text for the sole reason that we’re bombarded by it: on buses, by fly-posters and from the many backlit pulpits of Viacom and Clear Channel. Yet for someone of my parents’ generation, I can imagine this sensory assault is similar to being pushed out of a moving car in 1950s Bootle only to land on the pavement in Tokyo 2020. Times don’t stop changingin the late nineteenth century, folk from the outskirts of Paris would travel into the centre, arriving at Place Saint-Medard just to look at the new phenomenon of billboards. The same is true of Piccadilly Circus to post-Blitzkrieg greater Londoners.
But what’s on show in this exhibition is art; it’s just very closely related to its commercial cousin. The delineation between the two has been expertly handled by the curators in this exhibition, even if its line was already blurred by those that dug its popular roots: text art royalty Ed Rushca worked as graphic designer at an advertising agency and Andy Warhol was first a commercial illustrator. In this most seriffed of worlds, profession and creative inclination are two sides of the same canvas.
Upstairs, Type Motion invites you to get interactive on works specially commissioned for the exhibition. Hovering above a virtual cityscape, you navigate your flight via movement sensors and land on buildings that launch videos of iconic moments of text in motion. There is also the largest touch-screen device I’ve seen that doesn’t come with Jamie Carragher attached. It houses a diamond mine of information for the typographically minded: an archive of such breadth and depth it’d exhaust you before you exhaust it. My highlight of the exhibition is shown on the cinema screen up here: a structuralist film from 1970 by Hollis Frampton entitled Zorns Lemma. The film uses all the components of film: image, sound, narrative, but applies to them a mathematically devised structure (its title relates to the work of Max Zorn, a German algebraist) so the film appears to be entirely abstract. It’s not. It’s a beguiling, unravelling Ezra Pound poem of street signs, alphabets, couples and meat being minced.
And Type Motion is a wonderfully curious thing; with its multitude of screens within screens it turns FACT into a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls. It’s an exhibition of an art form too new to have a retrospective, yet proving simultaneously that the simulation of newness is often the artist’s BBF. Does the exhibition prove that digital is the all-pervasive future? No. And neither should it. To say that digital is the death knell is to un-friend our future and to negate the influence of the many artists that paved the way to it. The commonality with the artist featured in Type Motion and their analogue forbearers is the creation of visual languages. A visual language is much more than just a style, although it is not itself unstylish. This next lot have meaning and style by the truckload:
JENNY HOLTZER “borrows freely from mass culture to explore some of the more pressing issues of our time”. Her medium is text. Perhaps best known for her LED signs, her work takes many forms but, be they T-shirts or sandstone benches, the weight of what she’s saying is unquestionable.
ED RUSHCA and Los Angeles are umbilically linked and many working in this field of art owe him a debt. An interrogation of language from an exceptional painter. Oof.
BOB & ROBERTA SMITH is the work of one man who favours a swift and direct communication with the viewer and paints onto discarded wood and cardboard, the flotsam and jetsam of Deptford’s streets. His work is a warm cuddle from democracy itself.
THE GUILFORD 4 ARE INNOCENT was the first bit of political graffiti I can remember seeing. As a 1970s child, it was everywhere in the aftermath of the hooky conviction of four supposed IRA terrorists. When each of their sentences were overturned sixteen years later the graffiti returned, this time shouting: GUILFORD 4 – POLICE 0. This is the simplistic epitome of text at its most potent and reflexive: once you see it, you can’t help but read it and want to understand the meaning behind it. And it is in protest that text becomes nakedly polemic and unashamedly powerful. The artwork of the Guerrilla Girls tackling sexism does for feminism what the posters of Emory Douglas and the Black Panthers did for racism. That is: force recognition of prejudice by spelling out exactly how much state-sanctioned, power-crazed bullshit exists in the world.
The Paris riots of Mai ‘68 are a prime example of the role image, text and sloganeering can play in arming democracy and effecting change. The posters of the Atelier Populaire plastered Paris and were described as “weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it”. The riots and resulting ideology are credited by some as imbuing the French political class with a new brace of ethics. And such was its resonance in the popular culture that followed, describing its fetishistic attributes as a soundclash between acid house and the Miners’ Strike doesn’t sound remotely odd.
The ’83-4 Miners’ Strike mobilised a mixture of text and image that nodded to the rich artistic history of trade union and working-class banners that pre-dates the Jarrow Crusade. The art of the marching banner is celebrated in John Gorman’s definitive book Banner Bright – in which the work of sign-writers and coach-painters is given its rightful elevation. Needless to say, this type of work wasn’t quick to produce and so posters, postcards and badges became an excellent medium for making solidarity visible in the day-to-day struggle against Thatcher’s clan.
So, how do we conclude where the role of text resides in the arts this very second? Does digital artistry prove that the writing’s on the wall for writing on the wall? Does it fuck. It does, however, highlight the fact that the combination of images and text is now the most frequent kind of reading we do in a www-world. It’s a nightmare for novelists because it shortens the attention span. Because we can’t concentrate, we read the same line in a book countless times. The same line in a book countless times. Same line. Countless times. And because we can’t concentrate, we read the same line in a book countless times. Ahh, Buzzfeed.
A.W. Wilde’s latest publication is a collection of short stories titled A Large Can Of Whoopass, which can be purchased from awwilde.co.uk