Words and Pictures

When I was an undergraduate I did my first printing project using any real consideration of type. The printing involved making tickets for a performance I created called ‘Concert for a closed cinema.’ The concert comprised flute, accordion and voice lamenting the closure of an independant cinema in Dublin, in 3 movements. I based the music for the performance around the closing credits of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, because the cinema in question – The Classic in Ranelagh – had housed a long-lasting tradition of showing the RHPS every Friday night. According to devoted RHPS-goers, this cinema was also the first place in Ireland where the audience-participation aspect of the cult film really took off. So this distinctive aspect of the Cinema’s history, plus the befitting lyrics of the closing track made this music (in my head at least) the perfect material to work with.

I wanna go… Oh oh oh oh
To the late night, double feature, picture show… By R.K.O.
Wo oh oh oh;
To the late night, double feature, picture show… In the back row
Oh oh oh oh
To the late night, double feature, picture show…

I changed the lyrics and the arrangement of the tune so that it sounded like a sombre, last-post kind of affair on the flute; a tragi-comedy performance (riddled with mistakes) on the accordion, and an embarrassingly earnest kind of plea when I sang my adapted lyrics (Mp3s attached at the bottom of this post.)

The performance drew two visitors only; my tutor, (who had to mark the success of the performance) and the father of my elected impressario, Isolde. Myself, Isolde, and her guide-dog Quasi, stood on the unlit steps of the derelict cinema doing our best to be heard over the sound of cars driving past on wet tarmac and the whole event was far from spectacular. In fact I think it was possibly my worst piece of work ever in many respects. But the idea of lavishing attention on things widely considered to be worthless has remained with me as an important theme, and the printing of the tickets was my first really conscious forray into the world of type. I wanted the tickets to evoke a certain old-cinema-ish theme. Knowing absolutely nothing about how old tickets were printed, or what typefaces may have been used in the production of the Classic Cinema’s tickets, I went about finding typefaces that could be used for my tickets based on my amateurish visual awareness of the typefaces I had seen in use on old films. I searched high and low for sans-serif typefaces that would evoke old black and white films in some way and then made up a photo-silk screen and hand-printed 50 small ‘tickets’ like the one at the top of this page. I used screen-printing because I wanted to be able to make the tickets appear old, faded and slightly irregular, and I wanted the tickets to seem almost like old cinema tickets that had been mouldering in a puddle somewhere.

Thus began my love affair with self-publishing, printing and type.

Fast forward five years to now, and certain elements from the ticket-printing experience remain:

  • The desire to labour over or handmake things for the specific purpose of valuing something or someone…
  • The need to integrate the history of type in some way with what I am doing
  • The marriage of form/function through design and process

With the poster I have been working on using the letterpress, there is a conscious decision to really value the things people wrote, and to create the posters in such a way that I have to spend a lot of time absorbing and thinking about the sounds people saved during Magic Hour. The type I employed for the purpose of type-setting the poster is Univers Light, the most basic type that I could lay my paws on. I wanted to evoke the utilitarian, unfussy aesthetic of seed-packets, since the poster is based on the sounds that people ‘saved’ in seed packets at The Feedback Shed. The typeface has actually become a lot more elaborate as the project has gone on, since I ran out of Univers Light 14pt, 18pt and 22pt around the 22nd saved sound, and so needed to raid the italicised and bold letter-trays to complete the piece. I have no idea how many individual pieces of lead are sitting in the final casing, but I think it must be well over 1,000 including all the lead I’ve used to space out the words.

I cannot believe that whole newspapers used to be typeset and printed overnight using moveable type; but it is definitely believable that a lengthy training process was required to be a manual typesetter in the days when letterpress was the standard mode for printing text. In the context of having no real training and being somewhat a novice at the whole enterprise, my decision to letter press the poster was based on a desire to invest time and to develop a physical materiality to the project that would be hard to evoke using digital printing techniques. I also wanted the lines of text to be erratically spaced and arranged so that saved sounds jumped out of the page in a series of sonic impressions, rather than reading dryly as a list. The sense of an exciting and erratic catalogue of sounds experienced at Magic Hour was what I was aiming for. But until the type was inked up and impressed upon a page, I had no way of actually checking that this approach would produce the desired results.

After putting the type through the press once, myself and Ruth had to remove all the damaged and unprinting letters and replace them with usable type. The two of us bent over the press with tweezers, carefully reconstructing broken areas of text was bizarrely remeniscent of some kind of surgical procedure… reminding me again somehow of the physicality of the process.

Once all the problems with the text were corrected, I was able to print a few copies of the poster.

But as I rolled the roller back over its blotting sheet, the residual ink from each imprint began to build up into an amazing image.

The text began to take on the qualities of a word-cloud, with sonic impressions bursting randomly out of it. ‘It looks like sound’ was Ruth’s comment on the accumulating layers of ink, and there is something unexpectedly wonderful about this happy accident. It also strikes me that this is the kind of accident that can only happen when you are hand-assembling something, because it is a consequence of physical events, rather than design decisions. I have been wondering alot about the idea of thinking-through-making, and the way the blotting paper came out is a perfect example of how that happens.

I want the poster (and indeed the collection of 3 posters that is going to comprise the artist book I’m working on re: the Feedback Shed) to be useful to everyone involved, and overprinting in such an extreme way will render the text illegible, but there is a happy balance to be struck, I think, as a single over-printing, correctly spaced, will create a textual impression of sounds, without being completely impossible to read.

Reviewing these two projects I’ve done which relate a performance or art action to a printed item is very interesting, especially in relation to a book I’m reading about print and performance. There is a lot to learn and I feel ready to read more about the actual history of type. I am increasingly interested in the history and context of things, in material meanings and in references. If anyone has any good reccommendations for books I ought to read about the history of typefaces and design, I’d be keen to hear them!

In the meantime, I am off to Sussex for a week to get some headspace to write about the Fantastical Reality Radio Show. To close this post, I want to use the images I’ve made in response to the Musings Sorted Book Challenge which I read about on Colleen’s amazing blog, Rus in Urbis. What text/meaning things can you make from your bookshelves???

3 Responses to Words and Pictures

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » The Sonic Tuck Shop

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