Chalking and talking
A Recent History of Writing & DrawingBy Jürg Lehni and Alex Rich
Curated by Emily King
Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London,
9 July – 31 August 2008
I’m in a gallery room at London’s ICA, sitting on a piece of Martino Gamper’s furniture, watching a large piece of machinery called Viktor clank into action. There’s something quite moving about watching Viktor go through the motions needed to chalk letters on a giant blackboard: the whir of pulleys and ropes, the tap-tap of chalk on board, the struggle to form readable characters. The audience members wait quietly while Viktor completes his task: writing out all the letters of a big wordsearch puzzle. We are witnessing the fascinating, if somewhat baffling performance in a series of Thursday night events in which guest speakers ‘interact’ with Viktor.
The human half of the first double act is designer Paul Elliman. He plays a handful of recordings: sounds from the New York transit; a Madrid subway announcement; and an essay recited by Emma Clarke, best known as the voice of London Transport), David Womack’s article about Lehni’s groundbreaking Scriptographer, a scripting plugin for Adobe Illustrator. (Rich suggested chalk for Viktor’s ‘hand’ in order to lose the loaded associations of spraycans.)
he other two writing systems on display at the ICA are by both Rich and Lehni: Dots On Demand is a program that turns short phrases into a poster made with an x / y cutter. A phrase such as ‘it’s about time’ or ‘too many cooks’ is scaled and turned into a dot typeface similar to the lettering for the cover of the Duchamp / Hamilton Green Book (see Eye no. 38 vol. 10).
News On Demand uses a hand-held head from a dot-matrix printer to make short headlines: hold down the button on the printer ‘gun’ and it sprays a series of characters at a piece of paper. A graceful, writing-like, left-to-right movement produces a legible print-out of internet news headlines; a circular movement makes appropriately shaped text, and so on.
The remaining work, Lehni’s Flood Fill, is a kind of ambient TV art, based on a Commodore 64 algorithm that Lehni discovered as a child. It’s a delicate, virtual counterpart to the ultra-physical technology of the rest of the show.
Yet it would be unfair to underestimate the depth of thinking and programming behind ‘A Recent History of Writing & Drawing’. Lehni’s struggles with his devices – the very difficulties involved in bridging the gap between the virtual and the actual, are part of the show’s low-key drama. More Igor than Frankenstein’s monster, Viktor’s halting, lumbering scrawl puts a new dimension of time – of physical delay and fragility – into the squeaky clean world of computer processing, and transforms the lines and letters of its masters into a new and appealing form of graphic expression.