Thursday, 30 July 2020

The etymological root of Art

I have used the diagram below before, but have no apologies for showing it again, because I think it is important at a time like this to stress the deep and long history of ideas. It could be that when these times are looked back on, they will be seen as significant moments in a return to a kinder more 'mythic' relationship with the world, rather than the present capitalist one that sees the planet as a resource to be mined. 

The Proto-Indo-European root of the word 'art' was the morpheme rt. It was associated with a dynamic process of universal creation. There are other derived ‘rt’ words such as right, rhetoric, worth, rite and ritual. Rt was associated with ‘creation’ and ‘of beauty’ but also moral and aesthetic correctness.  It was concerned with what was 'right'. It also referred to first or original things, so therefore it was associated with creation and what was created. What was beautiful  was also linked with repetitive order and ideas of moral and aesthetic correctness.
I'm suggesting that the prehistoric morpheme 'rt' is still resonant and useful for us to think about in relation to an ongoing search for what is 'right' and what it is that we should be doing as artists. 
The oldest word derived from 'rt' that is still in use in relation to the original meaning is 'rta' a word in Sanskrit that represents the ‘cosmic order of things’. The Sanskrit language is considered to be the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European root. The word 'rta' is from the oldest portion of the Rg Veda, which is the oldest known writing that still directly relates to the original Indo-Aryan language. 'Rta' as a concept combines both the 'cosmic order of things' as a physical order of the universe and as a moral ordering of the universe. Therefore 'Rta' is a pivot between the physical and the intellectual, between matter and spirit. It has been argued that this looking for 'rightness' is the oldest idea known to humans. 
It would seem that in western Europe we have spent an inordinate amount of time considering the elements of (a)rt that are to do with making and skill and thinking about beauty as things separate from nature but not enough time thinking about the dynamic processes that lie behind how things fit together and the possibilities of using (a)rt as part of a ritual designed to re-attune ourselves to the ever unfolding act of creation and being joined in with and embedded into nature. 
N. b. A 'morpheme' is the smallest bit of a language to make sense, a morphological unit of a language is one that cannot be further divided. 
See also:

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Drawing and wellbeing

The linking of drawing with wellbeing and mental health has become central to several local authority and government agendas over the last year or so. So much so that I worry that there is someone out there who thinks that art can in some way replace or fill gaps in the health service that are the result of years of austerity and low levels of funding. A colouring in book in no way replaces proper mental health care. However it is also good to be reminded that art can be a force for good and that a healthy cultural framework does help support wellbeing.

But what is it about drawing that helps us feel better? For myself it is a way of externalising my thoughts and dissolving myself back into the world. 

Many of us are on lockdown because of the global corona virus pandemic. It is a time when many people will face severe challenges to their mental well being, in particular because we are social animals and on being deprived of that social life we struggle with what to replace it with. Drawing can be a way of exploring the fact that a social life isn't just about how we relate to other people, it can help us form new relationships with the wider world. Every morning I go out and walk in order to take some exercise and I always take a sketchbook with me. I make at least one drawing during my time outside, and try to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes on a drawing, which means I have to slow down and concentrate. 

What I have also found useful is to have a particular interest, so that when I'm looking for a subject to draw, I have a filtering device. The other week as I walked through my local woods, I noticed some very rudimentary structures being created. They looked very unfinished and I suspected that they were mostly made by children, but as my walk is very early in the morning, I will never know who builds them, as I come and go before the builders arrive. I see these structures as signs of a desire for shelter, of a need to build things, but none of the people doing the building have the skills to make something robust. Gradually an allegorical idea begins to emerge from observational drawing. 

Unfinished structures: drawings from my sketchbook 

What is perhaps more important is the fact that I have to look carefully at how these things are constructed and in the looking I get lost, and as I get lost I forget about the current problems we all face, and stand there outside in the fresh air being in the moment, experiencing an awareness of something that isn't me and more importantly, the act of concentration on how to make a drawing lets me forget my worries. 

It is important to me that I'm drawing something that is part of the ecology of the woods and that it is a sort of interface between humans and trees. Nobody is destroying anything and the living trees are used by people to lean various lengths of found branches against them, which means that no one is trying to cut them down. I can imagine both a future and a past where these simple structures would be developed much further and would become dwelling places, the important issue being that the structures are built in sympathy with the trees rather than replacing them. As I begin these trains of thought, I'm of course linking myself back into society, thinking something that connects all humans back into the natural world.

The Zulu or Nguni Bantu word 'ubuntu' means, 'humanity' but it can also be understood as 'I am because we are', it is a word that reminds us of a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all, not just people, but everything. Trees, rocks, dogs, plastic straws, electric light bulbs, the wind, soil and Bob Dylan. 

When people use drawing to find their way out of difficult places, they will often find themselves using imagery that is a metamorphosis between the human body, nature and the world that humans have constructed. It's as if the mind searches for ways to dissolve us back into the environment from which we emerged, a way of healing that recognises our need to be entangled into the fabric of everything. 

This drawing of a head and a church set in a garden by Bobby Baker, fuses together internal imaginary thoughts with memories of real experiences, seamlessly conjoining differences of scale, material and concept. In the drawing below, the waters beneath the head/bridge crossing a brain/lake, flow out into a body/garden, all enmeshed together; memories, dreams and experiences of the world, all finding a place that fits into a coherent idea of something that transcends logic and the different categories that words tend to place the world into. 

From: Bobby Baker's 'visual diary' of her road to recovery from depression.

When the artist Bobby Baker was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, followed by a breast cancer diagnosis, she set out to visualise her experiences by making drawings that gave form to her private catharsis. Baker because she is a professional artist, could like Leonora Carrington another artist that chronicled her own mental breakdown, observe herself at the same time as she was suffering from both these physical and mental issues. The activity of externalising the experiences she went through, though a process of making imagery, seemed to be a vital part of her recovery process. 

Leonora Carrington

In Carrington's case she was a Surrealist and accepted the fact that the subconscious mind was as important to an artist as the world of logic and order. For Carrington as well as Baker confronting their own mental conditions, was also a result of the particular self awareness that artists develop as they try to fine tune their own sensibilities to the world. If artists can help themselves through this process, perhaps they can help others who are not artists to externalise their inner feelings too. 

Shamans also develop often hidden or unconscious links between people the landscape, plants and animals, believing that the wellbeing of someone is dependent on how well an individual is in some sort of empathetic union with their environment. The shaman's job being to re-establish contact with whatever has become disconnected. It was Joseph Beuys that introduced me to the aspect of an artist's role that could be seen as shaman-like and although I only met him a couple of times, his ideas stuck. 

I have over the past year been talking to people about their illnesses and trying to visualise or 'externalise' some of the images that people have about things that are often hidden or difficult to talk about. They have in effect become disconnected with their own bodies. In order to help the process of re-connection I decided to design a set of 52 cards that could be used as an opening gambit for conversations. After trialling and making a few changes I have now been commissioned by the University of Leeds Cultural Institute to have a quantity of packs of these cards printed, so that they can go out to various community groups and be used as part of the Beyond Measure: Research and Evidence in Culture and Health project. This way of working avoids the gallery and in effect makes the pack of cards a travelling exhibition that can be carried around in someone's pocket. 

In the process of drawing and designing the cards I was reminded of how important colour is to feelings of wellbeing and therefore I concentrated on producing the cards as rich colourful images that would initially stimulate thoughts about feeling rather than about any sort of scientific analysis of any medical problem. The cards are designed to begin a conversation and trigger stories and have no healing properties in themselves. However there is an overlap between them and some of the work I have been doing making votives for people who have wanted me to help them externalise and in effect 'banish' a pain or a problem. 

Images of cards and the pack used to contain them

In the case of walking and drawing these are activities that promote wellbeing by directly engaging with the external world and in the cases of Bobby Baker and Leonora Carrington drawing is seen as an activity that directly engages with the internal world of the mind, but that also leads to wellbeing. In the case of the cards, the images of body parts that are set out alongside images of viruses, bacteria or wounds, are drawn images that have been through a process of 'design' to ensure that they all belong to the same family of forms. The cards can be engaged with in a similar way as you would a tarot card game, so there is a different type of physical engagement as you have to initially play with them, rather than contemplate them. All of these approaches are however centred on drawing, drawing that gradually, in the case of the cards, becomes simplified as images are turned into 'icons' or 'symbols'. 


Drawing as an approach to communication using image making is a vital tool for human wellbeing and by going 'beyond' the verbal it can help develop an understanding of things in ways that are more 'holistic' and attuned to the body as a whole rather than just the mind. 

See also:

To be absorbed in drawing

Drawing and mindfulness

Notes taken in response to Richard De Marco's Leeds talk on Joseph Beuys



Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Drawing and the Twelve Principles of Permaculture

Agnes Denes*

The 2020 15th edition of the Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale was devised it stated in the press release, as 'an ecosystem at the intersection of biological, economic and cosmogonic landscapes'. It was to be, it suggested, a biennale that would bear witness to the shifting relationships between human beings, other living species, the mineral kingdom, technological artefacts and the stories that unite them and I would have been fascinated as to which artists were selected to illustrate such a powerful theme. It was of course postponed until 2022 because of the outbreak of corona virus.  The title of the biennale, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, was taken from a Raymond Carver poem but the principles that were underpinning all the rhetoric were I would suggest, those of permaculture. David Holmgren in association with Bill Mollison, developed the twelve design principles of Permaculture and I have used them before as design principles when working with contextual studies for the university's design program but I have as yet to propose them as also valid principles for fine art practice, which I am doing now.  Working with the principles of permaculture can be a vital response to the problems facing us all right now, and they have the advantage of being principles that can be used by anyone using the smallest plot of available earth. However as principles they can be applied to other activities including drawing and the making of art, I have decided therefore this time to present the principles as if they were a manifesto for fine art practice. 

The Twelve Principles of Permaculture 

1. Observe and Interact

Being observant and responding to what we see is really important in moving towards a more ethical and sustainable way of life. We can learn from nature, and from other people, observing how others have moved to a greener and more ethical approach, and working with the world around us to succeed in our goals.

As an artist making observations and responding to what has been seen is central to the way work is developed. The more we look the more we can learn, but perhaps we can focus more on the nature of systems of interaction, be these about people, people and things, people and other animals, things and animals, things and things, i.e. trying to open our vision out to include non human others, so that we can move ourselves away from always being the centre of everything. 

2. Catch and Store Energy

Energy is abundant on our planet. Learning how to catch and store that energy – in plants, with renewable energy infrastructure, or in other ways, is key to living a sustainable way of life. Growing your own food at home is a great way to catch and store energy from our sun. Passive solar design also offers opportunities for architects, engineers and designers to make further use of this abundant energy source.

As well as exploring the possibility of projects that can directly respond to the storage of energy, such as creative planting and growing, you may also want to think about how art making can itself be seen as an energy store. Can an artist operate like a battery? Can rechargeable artwork be produced? 

3. Obtain a Yield

Taking the three core ethics of permaculture into account, we can work with nature to get all the things we need. Obtaining a yield can be as simple as using organic gardening techniques to provide food for our families – but it can also be about obtaining a non-tangible yield: happiness, health… or mental well-being. Living a sustainable lifestyle that sticks to permaculture principles can allow us to obtain all sorts of more intangible yields as well as the obvious tangible ones.

When making a drawing you are often involved directly with a non-tangible yield. Practicing the close observation of nature can lead to mental well-being. Some of the processes of art making can be seen as mindful exercises and these coupled with more sustainable approaches to art making, can become embedded into a lifelong approach to working with as opposed to working against nature. 

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback

Understanding where we’ve succeeded and where we’ve gone wrong is vitally important to creating real and lasting change. For example, by analysing and evaluating all the things that we bring into our homes, we can make better purchasing decisions moving forwards: reducing, reusing, recycling and regulating our worst consumerist tendencies.

A regular critique of what we do is already central to most art practices, and by linking that critique to one that includes an awareness of how our work impacts on sustainability, we can gradually build more robust tools with which to analyse our various working practices. 

5. Use and Value Renewables

By using the power of the sun, the wind, or the water, we can power our homes, grow our food, and regenerate our environments. Rather than relying on finite and polluting fossil fuels, we should make full use of renewable sources of energy: for example, switching to a green energy supplier – or even generating our own power with solar panels or other renewable infrastructure at home – is something many of us can do to move to a more sustainable way of life.

Can these ideas be used in the making of artworks? It may be that we need to make certain choices that change what we might do. Do we include some of these issues in any proposals for future artworks? Where does the use of renewables within art practice begin? 

6. Produce No Waste

Moving towards a zero waste lifestyle means looking at all the trash we chuck out and trying to eliminate it. We can do this by reducing the amount we buy, by buying wisely, by reusing or recycling where possible, by composting, and by working with ethical companies who look at waste throughout the entire life-cycle of their products.

We can reconsider what we make our artwork from. Are there possibilities for recycling when making work, how can the idea of recycling be embedded into the conceptual development of an artwork? Does an artist need to make anything? Do we need to move away from making objects and work towards the freeing of art from a material framework? 

7. Design from Patterns to Details

Whether designing a new vegetable garden, or an entire new sustainable way of life, we have to look at the big picture before we get bogged down in the little things. Thinking holistically, about all areas of our lives, can help us move forwards in a positive direction.

By being aware of the bigger picture we can develop a much more robust framework within which to work. Many artists historically have developed manifestos for practice, permaculture principles could be the pattern for the development of these. Are there other ecologically sound frameworks that could be used as models for art practice? 

8. Integrate Don’t Segregate

Plants work well in diverse systems – the same is true of people too. Planting polycultures (guilds of plants which work together) is just one example of how this principle works in the real world. And as well as applying this in the garden, we can also apply it to communities, groups or organisations. Sustainability is something we achieve together – through collaboration and co-operation – it’s not something we do alone.

To think about how your art practice needs to be integrated into and with others. How does your work effect others, are there opportunities to engage others with your practice? How do you work in collaboration with other people, other animals, other things? Who could you cooperate with? 

9. Use Small, Slow Solutions

Every journey begins with a single step. Whenever we try to do too much too soon, it’s easy to become overwhelmed – and though big changes can bring big benefits, they bring bigger risks too. Making small, incremental changes is the best way to move towards sustainable change. For example – don’t start a farm, try a small windowsill garden. Don’t overhaul your entire shopping philosophy – change things one ethical purchase at a time.

All artworks begin with a small kernel of an idea. That scrap of paper with a sketched out concept might be as powerful as a huge sculpture. Begin small and gradually grow your ideas in conjunction with sustainable thinking. Work slowly, savour the process of the gradual growth of a concept as it moves from one stage to another. 

10. Use and Value Diversity

Just as ecosystems work best when filled with a greater variety of different plants and animals, so human society functions best when an variety of different people are represented. In your garden, home and your life in general, it’s a good idea to promote and value diversity in all its forms.

Diversity is vital to how you will communicate your ideas. Who's culture are you celebrating? Who's aesthetics are you working with? Does your work communicate beyond your subgroup preoccupation? Who are you talking to and how do you value others? 

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Sustainability is about making use of all the resources that we have at our disposal. Whether we’re talking about land use, work places, homes or society in general, making use of all we have involves valuing fringes and fringe elements. This might be as simple as using a neglected corner of your outside space to grow more food, or something more abstract, like thinking outside the box.

Artists have traditionally been able to operate within and around the edges of society. Can this position be fostered and strengthened so that you are actively working to bring ideas from the edge of society into its centre? 

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Finally, change is an inevitable part of life. It’s important to remember that permaculture isn’t just about now, but about the future. We design for change, understanding that things will alter over time. The changing seasons, changing attitudes, our changing climate… how we respond to these changes will shape sustainable progress in the years to come. These principles are a starting point for an understanding of permaculture, and can begin to give us an idea of how we can translate thought to action, and transition to a more ethical – and truly sustainable – way of life.

Make art for the future, not to sustain the past. Too many of our approaches to art making are rooted in models that are now outmoded. We don't need to make art for museums, we need to make it to survive. 


Agnes Denes has been at times associated with 'ecovention' a term that was supposed to represent a new art paradigm that would focus on teaching how art could help society by getting directly involved in the world. Ecovention artists stated that they would take responsibility for extending various environmental principles and practices out into various communities. The exhibition 'Weather Report' brought to public awareness a range of artists working on sustainable ecological issues, if you are looking to explore work of this sort looking at the artists that were exhibited is a useful beginning: Kim Abeles, Lillian Ball, Subhankar Banerjee, Iain Baxter&, Bobbe Besold, Cape Farewell, Mary Ellen Carroll (Precipice Alliance), CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation), Brian Collier, Xavier Cortada, Gayle Crites, Agnes Denes, Steven Deo, Rebecca DiDomenico, Future Farmers (Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine), Bill Gilbert, Isabella Gonzales, Green Fabrication (via Rick Sommerfeld, University of Colorado, College of Architecture and Planning), Newton Harrison & Helen Mayer Harrison, Judit Hersko, Lynne Hull, Pierre Huyghe, Basia Irland, Patricia Johanson, Chris Jordan, Marguerite Kahrl, Janet Koenig & Greg Sholette, Eve Andrée Laramée, Learning Site (Cecilia Wendt and Rikke Luther), Ellen Levy, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Patrick Marold, Natasha Mayers, Jane McMahan, Mary Miss, Joan Myers, Beverly Naidus, Chrissie Orr, Melanie Walker & George Peters, Andrea Polli, Marjetica Potrc, Aviva Rahmani, Rapid Response, Buster Simpson, Kristine Smock, Joel Sternfeld, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Ruth Wallen, Sherry Wiggins, The Yes Men, and Shai Zakai. 


See also:


Patternings, ties and knots

Object orientated ontology and drawing

Drawing plants

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Drawing as writing: Ali Smith and the drawing eye

Alison Carlier performing an audio drawing

A few years ago the Jerwood Drawing Prize was won by a verbal description. In 2014 Alison Carlier's sound piece 'Adjectives, lines and marks' described at the time as an 'open-ended audio drawing', a 75 seconds long spoken description of an object, was chosen as being a worthy winner, because as the artist put it, "It exists in your head, rather than in a made or finished way. This open-endedness puts it in a similar place to some drawing conventions." The text's source was a reference book on Roman excavations in south London held by the Museum of London. The extract that Carlier had had recorded was her reading aloud a section describing a "hard, red, brown" Roman pot found in the London borough of Southwark. The exhibition was toured to Leeds and I was able to listen to the work and make my own mind up as to its value. 
I listened to it several times. It was an interesting idea, but one I felt had little poetry in it, more a concept about the relationship between the languages of art forms than a new observation about the world. The fact that a description in words of something can be seen as a type of drawing, is fascinating and opens out the territory between the two disciplines as fertile soil within which to plant ideas and when Carlier reads her work aloud, it becomes part of the expanded field of drawing which now includes performance.
I was reminded of this recently because I have just been reading Ali Smith's 'How to be Both', another work from 2014. 
Smith is someone as a writer I have referred to before, her book on writing 'Artful' had helped me think through how someone could mix different languages together and yet still maintain an overall ‘voice’. 
The extract below from pages 203 to 205 of Ali Smith's 'How to be Both' is one I would propose myself as a drawing as written text, indeed, if read out loud it is an even better drawing. The Ali Smith text has for myself a poetical core that transforms the descriptive text into something much more memorable than Carlier's. As an educator, I am on the one hand trying to maintain a position that keeps the door open for the widest range of approaches to the making of drawings, but on the other hand I am proposing that whichever approach is taken, that there are always some works that will be more resonant than others and as the maker and/or audience of these works, you will need something to measure one thing against another. Therefore try and think about Smith's text as a ruler against which to measure other text pieces. 

Extract from Ali Smith's 'How to be Both'

A boy has just watched a horse pee so much urine that a small pool has formed, as he gazes in fascination at this pool something falls into it creating a small ring like disturbance.

Ali Smith describes the following scene thus:


The thing that fell caused a circle to happen, a ring to appear in the piss: the ring widened and widened until it got to the edges and vanished.

It was a small black ball like the head of an infidel: it had a single wing, a hard and feathery-looking thing stuck straight out of it.

The ring that it made in the pool when it fell, though, was gone.

Where’d it go?

I shouted the words, but she was trampling cloth in the big half barrel: she was making the cloth turn white with the soap, she was singing, didn’t hear me, my mother.

I called again.

Where’d it go?

Still she didn’t hear me: I picked up a stone: I aimed at the side of the barrel, I missed, hit a chicken in its sidefeathers instead: the chicken made a chicken noise, jumped and nearly flew: it ran about in a dance that made me laugh, it panicked all the geese and the ducks and the other chickens: but my mother has seen the stone hit the chicken and she leapt out of the barrel and ran towards me with her hand in the air cause she was a despiser of cruel things.

I wasn’t I said. I didn’t. I was calling you. But you were preoccupied so I threw it to get your attention. I didn’t mean to hit the chicken. The chicken got in the way.

She dropped her hand to her side.

Where did you learn that word? She said.

Which word I said?

Preoccupied, she said. Attention.

From you, I said.

Oh, she said.

She stood in the dust with her wet feet: her ankles were beaded with light.

Where’d it go? I said.

Where’d what go? she said.

The ring, I said.

What ring? She said.

She got straight down and looked in the pool: she saw the winged thing.

That’s not a ring, she said. That’s a seed.

I told her what happened: she laughed.

Oh she said. That sort of ring. I thought you meant a ring for a finger, like a wedding ring or a gold ring.

My eyes filled with tears and she saw.

Why are you crying? She said. Don’t cry. Your sort of ring is much better than those.

It went, I said. It’s gone.

Ah, she said. Is that why you are crying? But it hasn’t gone at all. And that’s why it’s better than gold. It hasn’t gone, it’s just that we can’t see it any more. In fact, it’s still going, still growing. It’ll never stop going, or growing wider and wider, the ring you saw. You were lucky to see it at all. Cause when it got to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you? No? But it did, you’re inside it now. I am too. We both are. And the yard. And the brickpiles. And the sandpiles. And the firing shed. And the houses. And the horses, and your father, your uncle, and your brothers, and the workmen, and the street. And the other houses. And the walls, and the gardens and houses, the churches, the palace tower, the top of the cathedral, the river, the fields behind us, the fields way over there, see? See how far your eye can go. See the tower and the houses in the distance? It’s passing through them and nothing and nobody will feel a thing but there it is doing it nonetheless. And imagine it circling the fields and the farms we can’t see from here. And the towns beyond those fields and farms all the way down to the sea. And across the sea. The ring you saw in the water’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go on beyond that too. Nothing can stop it.

Smith's writing can be seen in the mind as an image. As an image it can belong to the same idea category as a certain sort of drawing. This relationship between drawing and text is something that continues to fascinate, and I have just been informed that the Trinity Buoy Wharf selection panel for this year's drawing prize has provisionally accepted an e mail exchange by Charlie Eden and myself as a drawing. This exchange is presented as a series of three printouts of e mails of an ongoing conversation about drawing.  These printouts are what have been selected to go into the second stage of the competition, to be looked at by the judges as actual rather than virtual images. I would argue that because it is a conceptual idea rather than an image based piece, the fact that it has passed the first stage of the selection process means it was successful, whether or not it then makes it to the final exhibition. As to how good the piece is, I go back to the Ali Smith extract. If it makes it through to the exhibition, read both and decide which is the most memorable. 
See also:

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Asemic writing

Writing today is nearly always done via a keyboard, in fact the ability to have skills in cursive writing is no longer a requirement of the United States' school system. Cursive writing is in effect for many young people asemic. 

Asemic writing is a form of writing that sits between expressive mark making and language invention. The word asemic means "having no semantic content", or "without the smallest unit of meaning", therefore it is writing without words. What is interesting to me about this definition is the tight association between the concept of words and meaning. In effect, this definition suggests that if a language has no words it has no meaning. 

Roland Barthes used the word 'asemic' initially to describe a typographical error, whereby a new word came into being that had as yet no meaning. Such as 'meaming', a word that must occasionally come into being if only because 'n' and 'm' are next to each other on a QWERTY keyboard. Derrida on the other hand used the word 'asemic' to refer to what a typographer would sometimes call 'furniture'. Furniture was initially a term for pieces of wood that were lower than the height of the face of the type. They blocked out empty spaces and were gradually replaced by type metal as the type faces themselves became cast rather than cut from wood. Many years ago I used to have to introduce typography to foundation students wanting to study graphics, we used a metal frame, a 'chase', within which we would spend hours setting out words letter at a time and creating white spaces by locking in 'furniture'. The key issue was how different spacing would effect meaning. Would the text be ranged left or right or should it be centred? How much space was needed between lines? Could certain letters be made to be further apart? (kerning). All of these decisions have now been transferred to users of word processing software on computers, but the memory of their physical nature still remains in the way you can still format type on screen. Derrida's point was that all those decisions about a word's surrounding space had meaning, but the meaning was not residing in the words as such, but how the words were arranged. Because he wasn't a typographer he didn't point out the fact that there was a whole profession that understood this and had a refined understanding of how space, organisation and layout of texts effected meaning. 
Graphology or the science of reading handwriting has also existed for many years and it has been accepted within that profession that changes in mark quality and direction in the construction of hand drawn letter forms creates meaning of some kind. The graphologist Eugen Peter Schwiedland invented a graphometer, so that angle of mark could be more precisely measured and linked to personality type. 

Signs of signs was something that I was at one time interested in because of what has been called in theoretical circles, the 'semiotic turn', whereby the focus on meaning was very much to do with how various languages worked. The dialogues set off around this type of understanding were very much to do with an analysis of the relationship between signs and their referents and the difference between signs, symbols and icons. By producing a range of these and each time using a different material, I felt that I was highlighting the importance of a material language that was also shaping its own meaning alongside that of human communication systems. 

Asemic signs

The images of signs above were designed to be 'failures'. There is no way that structurally the Y shaped supports could hold up the signs, the signs for grass make as much sense as the signs for text, and like the signs for shadows as signs of three dimensionality, all are in effect lies or falsehoods, the only language speaking a truth being the materials used in the making of these images.  

Asemic writing has also been defined as a hybrid art form that fuses text and image into a unity, thus setting them both free to an audience's arbitrary subjective interpretations. If I accept this definition, I think it sort of lets me as an artist abdicate my responsibility. Of course to some extent every communication with another individual is open to subjective interpretation, but we usually try to overcome this by working hard to clarify our message. Paradoxically, looking back on this work now I see it as being overly theoretical, a too straight acting out of an idea, therefore in effect illustrating a point, rather than discovering something new. The idea was in effect too clear in my own mind. It is the difference between 'living in the moment' of a work and working to a plan. I could have written out what I was going to do and it would have been enough.


Asemic writing doesn't signify anything but itself. This can be thought of like a form of ghost writing, a text aspiring to become a ‘presence’ or thing in its own right, rather than a form that carries significations of other things. Ghosts are often in fiction aspiring to the reality that living life forms have, and if we are not careful they might supplant the living.

Any inscription that is still legible, but perhaps only faintly, is like a ruin of its former self, a phantom presence. This ruin can however be a powerful form in its own right and signify a silenced voice.  Its past form can overcome its present one, especially if its erasure wasn’t just a consequence of normal wear and tear, but was the result of a deliberate attempt to remove it. This can often be the case with graffiti, especially if it is politicised comment or a sign of struggle.

Erased or cleaned off graffiti can also be thought of therefore as a type of palimpsest. One text is removed to make way for another, but in a future time, the first text may re-emerge and become more important than the text that replaced it.


Patrick Ford has highlighted for me how these issues relate to the political graffiti that has appeared all over the city of Hong Kong and of how inexperienced government appointed cleaners after doing their work, left recognisable 'ghosts' of the slogans used.  The erased text being still clearly legible to locals residents, even though the offending words or characters had been cleaned away.

As the cleaners would use solvents to try and remove the messages, the ink or paint used was partly dissolved, thus creating a delicate wash effect not too dissimilar to traditional Chinese ink painting. In effect the process of cleaning was developing an aesthetic 'look'. Patrick also sent me a link to the artist Serene Hui Sze-Lok, who has written about this issue in an Amsterdam Alternative article, and who points to that fact that these drawn marks now bear witness to the writing and un-writing, of the city’s memoir. 


Cleaned off Hong Kong graffiti

The word "palimpsest" means to be scraped clean and ready to be used again. In medieval times Vellum was so expensive that old texts were often scraped off, so that new ones could replace them; therefore the original palimpsests were made as a matter of economy. However the removing of a text can also become a political act, even if it was not seen to be so at the time. Sana’s palimpsest, one of the oldest Koranic manuscripts in existence, has been carbon dated, and its new date indicates that the under-text or ‘scriptio inferior’ could have been written 15 years before the death of the prophet Muhammad. However it differs from the standard Koranic text as completed in about A.D. 650, under the direction of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, the third leader of the Muslim community. Muslims believe that the Koran they read today is the text that was standardised under Uthman, and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad. A variant reading could be seen as a threat to the authenticity of a sacred document, therefore the ghost of an earlier text, when it emerges, could be thought of as a threat to religion.

However we can also regard the idea of the palimpsest as a metaphor.  Thomas de Quincey describes our brain as ‘a natural and mighty palimpsest’, he points to ‘layers of ideas, images and feelings, each one as it arrives burying ‘all that went before’. Once thought forgotten ideas and feelings are as de Quincey says, ‘not dead but sleeping’.  More recently the term ‘palimpsest’ as we have already seen has become a metaphor for describing the city, both its physical form as well as our collective memories and experiences of it. The concept of the palimpsest is a way of thinking about the transformation of a city, new structures existing alongside old ones, as well as new life stories being written upon existing ones. Hong Kong is no different to any other city, however its present situation is more urgent, and we can see change happening in real time as the Chinese government tries to force Hong Kong to become integrated fully into the Chinese state. 

See also:

More thoughts on drawing time More thoughts on graphology and a graphometer
Wits Breath Edion A photographic memorial to the street texts of Chapeltown