Monday, October 12, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 40.1 (Johanna Drucker)


The Visible Word
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Drucker, Johanna
The Visible Word:
Experimental Typography
and Modern Art
1909-1923


Purchased for the same class mentioned in the previous entry. Another incredibly useful study of the materiality of the letters of the alphabet, this time within the context of early Modernism. I recall at the time I read this that most of the people studying in Buffalo were interested primarily in the materiality of the signifier rather than, say, the materiality of the printed letters on the page. Many of the students who would later make Buffalo a hotbed of typographic activity -- Kyle Schlesinger and Michael Cross and several others -- had not yet arrived.

It would be interesting to chart the progress of the discussion of the materiality of language in Buffalo from, say, 1995-to the present. When I arrived in 1997 the discussion was largely theoretical and grounded in a notion of the signifier as the battleground for materiality. L=A=N=G=U=G=E writing and its attendant practices and theories tended to dominate much of the discussion and so the whole notion of materiality had more to do with how meaning could be made more opaque as a means to decouple current practices of signification from capitalist commodification. Even the discussion of visual practices seemed to have as their aim a form of signification that was semantic at its core.

As people like Kyle and Michael arrived, the discussion changed to focus less on the signifier and more on the building blocks of the signifier and the signified, that is, the alphabet and the multifarious strategies for working with language as a visual medium. What had existed as a more theoretical discussion began to take on a more practical cast manifested in the printing of books, broadsides, chapbooks, postcards, etc. using hand presses and other older technologies. A whole range of letterpress printing practices grew up in Buffalo during the latter half of that period that continues to this day in the work of people like Andrew Rippeon and Richard Owens.

(As I write this I suddenly feel a little nostalgia for the more theoretical discussions of these questions, which these days seemed to have been subsumed in the real world practice of making stuff with type. Given a choice, I would always choose making over theorizing, but then I guess good theorizing can be considered a form of making, and vice-versa, couldn't it?)

Outside the university, there has always been an interest in these things, especially among people like Rich Kegler, founder of P22 Type Foundry, as well as the Western New York Book Arts Center. Just Buffalo Literary Center, where I work, just moved some of its operations into the WNYBAC and so much of what we do is beginning to entwine itself with typographic practice past and present. And a crucial local figure in all of this is Hal Leader, owner of Printing Prep and Leader All Surface Printing. Hal kept a working Vandercook press going in his building under the name of The Paradise Press for years, making the shop available to people like Rich and later Kyle to hone their fine printing skills.

Read an excerpt from The Visible Word here.

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