VIRTUAL(LY) TYPOGRAPHY - TOWARDS A NOTION OF POETICS

13 November 2006
Matthias Hillner
Matthias Hillner


This image sequence shows a lenticular print created by the author. The use of a three-dimensional font called 'Cubico Stencil', which in itself is a registered design, allows the print to change its appearance depending on the viewing angle. The piece, which measures 122 by 80 cm, was inspired by twentieth century visual and concrete poetry. It is hoped to raise questions about how contemporary technologies can be deployed to introduce a temporal aspect to poetic works.

text: 'je regarde les nuages qui se passent, se depassent, et se deplacent'
(translation:'i watch the clouds passing by, changing shape, and overtake')




Reflections on the Internet: "No, not the victory of progress, or of liberty! Not the victory of ideas or grand designs! But the victory of sheer possibilities! Victory of instant information over the lethargy of matter! The triumph of impatience! It has become real. A complete exchange of knowledge. Everyone can negotiate everything with everyone at any given time. It just takes a moment, a blink of the eye, a breath, and the sparkling text appears." [1]

To imagine poetry to emerge from a technology, that produces texts so much faster than the human mind may grasp their meaning, seems difficult. Poetry, by comparison to other kinds of literature, tends to be rather difficult to read. Poems are usually texts of complex meaning, sometimes multi-layered symbolic devices, and more or less carefully crafted rhythmic compositions. The true message of a poem mostly resides hidden between the lines. Thus the poem can be read again and again, and slowly unveiled in its significance.

At the turn of the 19th century poetry was given a new, quite peculiar level of meaning. Visual poetry communicated through its layout, which emphasised or undermined the meaning of the text. An image-like quality, a visual rhythm, had been attached to the content of the text. Strangely by increasing the complexity of their communicative function, poems appeared accessible at a glance. The mostly basic shapes seem to give away their essential meaning faster than the texts which the shapes are made of. But even though the image function guides the reader into the verbal contents, the dialectical tension that emerges between image and text is likely to lead to a state of confusion. In Spencer's 'Liberated Page' Stephan Themerson reports of an incident, where an actress, who had been asked to read Apollinaire s visual poem "Il pleut" aloud, burst out into tears, when finding herself incapable of translating the written words back into spoken language. Only after transcribing the work by Apollinaire back into a linear text arrangement, could it be read fluently [2]. Where the image competes with the textual content for the reader's attention, visual poetry enables the author to determine the perception of his texts in most unusual ways. Whilst the visual poem appears somewhat easily accessible, its potentially complex image-text relationship engages and captivates the reader. It keeps his mind well and truly occupied. Inspired by visual poetry other art forms such as futurist collages emerged. Rather than simply undermining the process of reading, futurism pushed the boundaries of typographic expression further towards the concept of an image during the early 20th century. But instead of decelerating the communication process, words virtually jumped at the viewer promoting the notion of speed as a cultural heritage brought about through industrialisation. Such visual bombardment much reflected the spirit of the time. Once economies had recovered from the First World War, industries eagerly tried to encourage consumerism, and advertory information lead to a relentless competition for attention. Already in the 1920's Fernand Leger expressed himself critically about the commercialism, 'which makes it necessary to organize the street like a theatre' [3]. The commercialisation lead to posters becoming the means of a battle for attention. However, where art remained detached from commercial constraints, the idea of quiet contemplation survived. Following the Second World War concrete poetry came to live in the heritage of visual poetry, and raised further questions about the way literal meaning is constructed through the conventions of writing. Equally inspired by visual poetry semantic typography would establish itself as a communicative device in the context of modernist graphic design. This form of typographic expression had a particularly strong influence on the design of logotypes, which became increasingly important as overstimulated consumers found less and less time for deciphering company names.

If photography translates as "drawing with light", then typography could be seen as a way of "drawing with letters" (or "of letters"), and thus be quite literally related to visual poetry. However, typography is more commonly translated as "the art of print". Shortly after the introduction of digital technologies in the 1980's, this "art of print" got caught up in quite a turmoil. Heated discussions about the relationship between form and function split the design community into modernists and post-modernists. What remained unresolved, however, was the fact that debating typography in relation to digital systems meant discussing a contradiction in terms. How can something be printed, or pressed onto a computer screen? This may sound slightly simplistic an argument, and such a terminological misconception may in fact be considered as insignificant from a pragmatic point of view. But it highlights how little we understand the implications of the technologies we are using.

Etymologically typography can also be translated as "writing about striking or beating," or as "a description of the mark of having been beaten or struck". In the context of digital communication we might therefore want to attribute a new meaning to the word typography. In the world of hypertext type is no longer being printed or pressed onto paper. Its force is redirected. It strikes the reader quite directly, and it does so through the immediacy with which it appears on screen. As Paul Virilio explains, where the critical distance is removed, it is no longer the physicality of things, but their speed, that is so threatening, and potentially damaging [4]. No longer carefully crafted, typography nowadays is the text that strikes us when being thrown straight into our faces with the velocity of the immediate impact.

This is why poetic expression that aims at the gradual uncovering of meanings requires a different mode of transmission than generally used within the world of hypertext. Unsurprisingly Teemu Ikonen lays his emphasis on aspects of transition, when discussing "Moving text in avant-garde poetry" [5]. After presenting us a brief genealogy of poetry involving temporalised typography, Ikonen introduces us to the genre's more contemporary specimen. Personally I was surprised to find David Small's installation "Streams of Consciousness" listed (Tom White, by the way, has been denied the mentioning despite his involvement). To include a piece of work, that seems devoid of any meaningful content, into an analysis of poetry, is puzzling. The fact that "Streams of Consciousness" was later renamed as "An Interactive Poetic Garden" [6] may indicate the ambitions behind the project. Unfortunately the discussion surrounding the project did not really provide any insight as to what makes a piece of art or design poetic, and what doesn't. Its new title only suggested that in respect of new emerging technologies, the definition of poetry may need to be widened. Indeed, the way a text is presented nowadays seems equally important as its content for being classified as a poem, or, at least, as being poetic. But should the medium really be the message? Are we not losing poetry as a form of art by watering down its definition? In my respect for poetry and its creators, I find the differentiation between poetry and poetics very important. Speaking of poetry in relation to virtual typography, or even in relation to typography in general, must be considered as pretentious. However, the notion of a poetic quality of text presentation should suffice to build an argument in this respect. But what exactly is poetic?

The title "Streams of Consciousness" derives from the ambition of the creators (David Small and Tom White, both MIT) roots in their intention "to evoke the fluid contents of consciousness" [7]. This ambition behind the computational approach to simulate the flow of water with moving text elements, in my view, hints at the dilemma relating to current discussions about typography. The arguments focus on technology on the one hand, and on consciousness on the other. The unconscious, or pre-conscious, remains neglected. Small's and White's installation offers the viewer an interface to control the "Streams of Consciousness". But isn't it precisely the unpredictability that makes a natural flow of water so intriguing, if not to say 'poetic'? Isn't it the fact that we do not fully understand the growth of a tree that makes it appear beautiful? We can only sense, or guess, that there may be an underlying logic to its shape and form. I suspect it is this moment of speculation that triggers our fascination and sustains our attention, be it in relation to nature, or to poetry. So how about typography?

The MIT has produced other quite remarkable concepts for textual communication. Before embarking on "Streams of Consciousness" David Small had been involved in the creation of so-called "information landscapes" [8]. Here the reader virtually moves through passages of texts, which are placed within a digitally constructed three-dimensional environment. As opposed to the previously mentioned example of Small's work here the text is fundamentally static. It is the reader, who is in motion. The text moves only virtually in relation to the reader, as there is no other point of reference. But again, the paper introducing information landscapes only discusses technical and cognitive issues in relation to the content navigation. With the focus of attention on the sensory rather than the sensuous perception of texts, can we really expect a new poetic quality to emerge on our computer screens? Should we not focus on what lies beyond the empirical data?

Suguru Ishizaki, too, disregards the possible benefits of serendipity, when focusing on "dynamic information" [9] in the context of interactive user interfaces. In his book "Improvisational Design" Ishizaki describes how dynamic information systems may "continuously adapt to the dynamic changes in information content and the information recipient's intention" [10]. Alongside contextual changes it is here the intention of the user that determines the information content, not the other way round. Where the reader s intention determines the information, there remains no room for the unpredictable. Surprises are, as it seems, not on the agenda of new media designers.

What appears particularly peculiar is the fact, that the more immediately the text information is being updated, the less dynamic (i.e. less moving) its visual appearance will be. Where changes happen instantly rather than over a period of time, no movement can unfold. The word dynamic in Ishizaki's "dynamic typography" consequently relates to the text content only, not to the form and shape of the message. For this reason it is necessary to differentiate between dynamic typography as a responsive text information system, and kinetic typography, the temporality of which is user independent. What is more important though, is the fact that dynamic typography organises information in accordance with the user intentions. The gradual and active uncovering of meaning, as we experience it, when reading poetry, is unnecessary, if not to say impossible, in the context of dynamic typography.

Thus I dare to claim, it is not poetics that drives technological developments these days. Right now it is not the dignity of slow-paced motion that dictates our future. It is not affectivity that matters to the modern (or post-modern) world; it is all down to time efficiency. Technologies have always been aimed at accelerating production and communication processes. Consequently people's conceptual understanding of time and their expectation towards temporal processes have changed. Jessica Helfand argues: "Real Time implies no waiting but in the real world don't we occasionally wait for things?" [11]. It seems to me, as if we are waiting less and less. As "delay is the enemy of progress," [12] time is being increasingly compressed. But where speed dictates the process, meaning gets lost. "Infomania erodes our capacity for significance. With a mind-set fixed on information, our attention span shortens", writes Michael Heim [13]. But it is not only the pace of reading that has changed. No less important is the fact that reading has become a discontinuous activity. Hypertext, as Heim explains, "fosters a literacy that is prompted by jumps of intuition and association" [14]. The Internet allows us to instantly switch from one piece of information to another. Thus the media allow us nowadays to obtain information from the most remote places on earth at 'real-time.' Confronted with the vast amount of information, which is being made available to us, we are left with the impression that we are supposed to know everything. But where we are elaborating on information broadly, we lack the time to go into the depth of subject matters. Helfand's question may therefore be rephrased as: Should we not occasionally have to wait for things?

On February 26, 2004 the Guardian newspaper wrote: "A universal fluidtime system would not remove all waiting time, but it would reduce the stress that waiting produces" [15]. As much as stress used to derive from doing a lot within a short period of time, it now primarily seems to evolve around waiting in other words from doing nothing. Not only the reading process, life in general is becoming increasingly complex in the post-industrial era. And whilst I am reflecting on cultural changes in digital communication, I am reminded of the fact that I am sitting on a foreign computer, in a foreign country, where I have just downloaded the first few paragraphs, which I quickly drafted and uploaded online before leaving Britain yesterday. After returning tomorrow I will be using my own computer for the corrections I will have scribbled during the return flight to London. The following day during my lunch break I will supposedly overwork what I have written on yet another computer. Where and when does my mind fit into all this? I am struggling to find the grammar to describe this discontinuous process of writing whilst I am still writing. Where passages of texts are constantly travelling through the Internet to be reassembled at the other end, our traditional notion of time fails to prevail. Always present, always accessible, digital technologies do not allow us to rest anymore. Eventually my paper will emerge, like an image from a puzzle. It will have been written in fragments. Nevertheless it will have been written 'fluidly', without wasting any time, written during those small gaps between working, traveling, eating and sleeping. Always online, always busy, we are always productive.

Reading, too, is a productive process. It produces thoughts, knowledge, opinions. The lack of waiting time combined with the constant omni-presence of information urges us to acquire information often faster than we can possibly digest it. Critical reflection requires a moment of rest, a moment of silence. To provide room for such pausing moments, I consider being the main challenge in the context of virtual typography. When being confronted with this slightly peculiar term most people automatically think of new media systems, and virtual realities. Despite the fact that there is quite a lot of scope for implementing virtual typography within digital technologies, my personal understanding of virtual typography is rather different. Having moved away from the technology-driven way of thinking, I consider virtual typography to be what is virtually, or almost typographical, information that is aspiring to become typography. This shift in position moves the focus of attention away from the production of typography, and prioritises its perception.

Where text is seen as emerging over a period of time, we experience a transition taking place from an abstract image or pattern to concrete piece of text information. The typographic debate mentioned earlier has always been focusing on variable levels of legibility. What matters more in relation to virtual typography is not the readability of a piece of text, but its recognisability as such. During the transition between image and text, there is a moment of maximum ambiguity. When confronting people with my own typographic work, it seemed mostly this very moment which people considered to be particularly intriguing. This initial lack of recognisability, I thought, should discourage the reader. Given the sufficient indication of an emerging content, however, people appear to seek meaningful information. Structural decoding of visual information involves a process, which in the field of Gestalt psychology is known as 'grouping' [16]. When individual elements are interpreted as connected constellations, meaning is attributed to the abstract shapes on a speculative basis. Iterative motion supports the grouping process and the indication of a typographic pattern, while the subsequently unfolding legibility can be timed in order to slow down the reader's perception. Whether such pausing moments really lead to moments of reflection, or whether the suspension of the reader s time awareness comes along with a suspension of text intelligibility, is difficult to judge. But even in the latter case, I believe to see some kind of virtue, a poetic quality, in virtual typography.

According to Elliott Jaques people's natural conception of time has been subverted, maybe better to say commodified, by the scientific notion of measurable time [17]. Whereas Bergson discusses this extensity of time (measurable) in opposition to time intensity (not measurable) [18], Jaques applies a more moderate approach. Rather than rejecting time as a model of succession, Jaques unites the two different time aspects in a two-dimensional concept. As a result people's sense of time is constantly fluctuating between two different concepts of time: 1. The concept of fragmented time, which leads to the sense of succession, and 2. The sense of a continuous field of time, which operates within the second dimension. Consequently according to Jaques intensity and extensity of time are not disjointed phenomena. They are connected in a dialectic relationship. Such a model could indeed help explaining, why people's awareness of time varies, when waiting at a bus stop, when experiencing pain or pleasure, or when watching virtual typography unfold.

Only by relying on a new concept of time can one argue against the mind-blowing efficiency with which information is being transmitted these days. What we need are new values, which we can attribute to the perception of information. The pleasure felt, when reading poetry is not only impossible to measure, it is also subjective. As it exceeds our analytical understanding of objective time, we lack the means for measuring such a phenomenon. If we could, however, accept a two-dimensional model of time [9], then we could at least describe the visual ambiguity relating to virtual typography as a para-communicative function.

Nelson Goodman blamed a commonly accepted dichotomy between emotive and cognitive perception for preventing us from realising that "emotions function cognitively" [20]. He did so decades before we would be provided with scientific evidence for his claim that perception is subject to people's emotive intentionality. According to Ralph D. Ellis the timing of brain reactions indicates that emotions are not subject to an instinctive response mechanism. Instead they are triggered through reflective processes. Rather than producing feelings in accordance to the perceived surrounding, the surrounding is perceived according to the way we feel. "Seeing is conditioned by expectations." [21] Therefore our attention is directed through our emotional state of mind. "Paintings, rather than causing us to see or feel in certain ways, only provide us with an opportunity to do so" [22]. Ellis further claims that seeing is conditioned by our expectations, and to execute a Gestalt shift is to purposefully change the pattern of our expectations. [23] The arising question is, if virtual typography, as an exploration of the borderline between image and text, could enable us to recondition the perception of text on screen, so that readers may appreciate communicative delays. This may in fact be what Teemu Ikonen sensed, when referring to a "traversal function" in relation to textual motion in avant-garde poetry [24]. But such a "function of feeling" [25], not only remains underrated, it seems utterly ignored.

To enable typography to develop further, to escape the hopeless formal-aesthetic argumentation surrounding contemporary typography, a new understanding of a poetic quality needs to be established with a specific focus on time perception. Walter Benjamin discussed his idea of an "aura" surrounding a piece of art, and referred to the loss of such an aura as a result from the re-production or multiplication of the art object. Benjamin described this aura by referring to a mountain chain on the horizon, that appears untouchable to the distant viewer [26]. Today, I think, it is no longer the lack of a spatial distance that destroys the appreciation for a piece of art. It is the lack of a temporal distance that is being lost. With the burden of waiting time, the pleasure of anticipation has been removed as well.


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Sources:
1. Bernd Graff, "In the no man s land of signs" in "High Quality" Vol. 39, pp. 40-47 (1997).

2. Stefan Themerson, "Ideogrammes lyriques", in Herbert Spencer (Ed.), "The Liberated Page", Lund Humphreys Publishers Ltd (1987)

3. Jan Tschichold, Ruari McLean (Translator), "The New Typography", University of California Press (1995)

4. Paul Virilio, "Speed and Politics, an essay on dromology" , Semiotext(e) (1986)

5. Teemu Ikonen, "Moving text in avant-garde poetry. Towards a poetics of textual motion" in "dichtung-digital.de", Newsletter 4/2003/5.Jg.Nr.30, ed. by Markku Esklinen (2003), http://www.dichtung-digital.com/2003/4-ikonen.htm

6. David Small, Tom White, "An Interactive Poetic Garden", http://acg.media.mit.edu/projects/stream/ (1998)

7. ibid

8. David Small, "Navigating large bodies of text", IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 35, NOS 3&4 (1996)

9. Suguru Ishizaki, "Improvisational Design: Continuous Responsive Communication", The MIT Press (2003).

10. ibid

11. Jessica Helfand, "Screen, Essays on Graphic Design", Princeton Architectural Press (2001).

12. Jon Wozencroft, "Point and Line to Plane... " in "Disinformation", "Fuse" Vol. 3, FSI GmbH (1992).

13. Michael Heim, "The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality", Oxford University Press (1993).

14. ibid.

15. Jack Schofield, "Clocking off" in "The Guardian", Thursday February 26, (2004).

16. Richard L. Gregory, "Eye and Brain, The Psychology of Seeing", Oxford University Press (1998).

17. Elliott Jaques, "The Form of Time" Crane, Russak & Company Inc. / Heinemann Educational Books (1982).

18. Henri Bergson, "Time and Free Will, An essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness", translated by F / L. Pogson, Dover Publications (2001).

19. Elliott Jaques, "The Form of Time" Crane, Russak & Company Inc. / Heinemann Educational Books (1982).

20. Nelson Goodman, "Languages of Art, An approach to a theory of symbols", Oxford University Press (1969).

21. Ralph D. Ellis, "The Dance Form of the Eyes: What cognitive science can learn from art" in "Journal of Consciousness Studies, controversies in science & the humanities, Volume 6 (1999): June/July", Imprint Academic (1999).

22. ibid.

23. ibid.

24. Teemu Ikonen, "Moving text in avant-garde poetry. Towards a poetics of textual motion" in "dichtung-digital.de", Newsletter 4/2003/5.Jg.Nr.30, ed. by Markku Esklinen (2003), http://www.dichtung-digital.com/2003/4-ikonen.htm

25. Nelson Goodman, "Languages of Art, An approach to a theory of symbols", Oxford University Press (1969).

26. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in "Illuminations", Fontana (1973)




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About the article
This week's feature was originally commissioned by Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol. 19, issue 05. It is reprinted with permission.