Remarks from The New School, 28 June 2012

This talk was given at the Tishman Auditorium, The New School as part of the event “Project Projects Project Projector,” sponsored by AIGA/NY. As a prompt, Adam, Prem and I were asked to speak about how our passions informed our practice. My comments about “computational poetics” (for lack of a better phrase!) follow below.

I want to start with this familiar image of Google auto-complete. It’s interesting how the web is a kind of machine for generating and organizing text — you put text in, you get more text out. And there are algorithms that structure the text output, so when you make a search, you expect something specific to happen as a result.

Here’s a website we made last year for an exhibition at Harvard that takes its name from Dante’s famous epic poem — it has a different kind of search bar.

You input text, but the field doesn’t behave as you’d expect — rather than searching the site, it searches the entire web. And rather than behaving consistently, its behavior changes, cycling through a series of searches from Google Images…

…to Wikipedia…

…to an Italian translation of your search phrase.

This isn’t anything new — machines have always changed the behavior of text, and the creation of a new tool often alters the usage of an existing one.

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Expansion by alphabet

Above, top: The Hamilton Digital Watch, the world’s first digital watch, released in 1970. Above, bottom: Emmett Williams, “IBM,” 1973.


One of the most important things I’ve ever read about typography is Paul Elliman’s essay “My Typographies.” Here’s the sparkling gem of it that I’m so fond of quoting to my students:

Writing gives the impression of things. Conversely, things can give the impression of writing.

Beautifully put. In the essay that follows, Elliman dances among several examples of things that give the impression of writing, each of which is connected powerfully to our own origins and the rhythms of life on this planet. He reads the types of clouds in the sky, looks at constellations and signals sent to outer space through the Arecibo Message, unpacks the passing of Uruk tokens, scans the Talmud, finds our flickering digital beginnings in ASCII text and LED watches, then turns to alphabetic codes, GPS messages, and more. Perhaps his most intuitive example, though, is the alphabet of DNA, on which he quotes genetics professor Steve Jones:

It has a vocabulary (the genes themselves), a grammar (the way in which the inherited information is arranged), and a literature (the thousands of instructions needed to make a human being). The language is based on the DNA molecule, the famous double helix; the icon of the 20th century. It has a simple alphabet, not 26 letters, but just four, the four different DNA bases, A, C, G, and T for short.

And now, via Kottke, we learn of Christian Bök, who will encrypt a poem on a particularly resilient bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans. As Wired describes Bök’s process, part of the appeal of doing this (apart from seeing if it Can Be Done) seems to be about constraint:

Bök will have to choose his ciphers carefully, as his poem chemically ordains the sequence of amino acids that the bacteria will create in response. There are 8 trillion possible combinations, but depressingly few of them yield useful two-way vocabularies.

In many ways, Bök’s project reminds me of Emmett Williams’s work — Sweethearts, of course, but also his lesser-known IBM poem, which uses a technique called “expansion by alphabet,” a process I intend to write more about in the future. However, for the time being, let me just say that no sooner had I found a computational method for collecting Williams Words then I found out that Williams himself had been experimenting with computational verse using this form. Williams is always one step ahead — beautiful. More on the IBM poem here and here.

Newschool Supermarket

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Above, top to bottom: Peter Murray’s poster adapted packaging used for generic milk cartons. Michelle Viau created a color-coding system for an event calendar based on the dual-ring lids of Ciao Bella gelato.


Go to the supermarket and take extensive visual notes on the typography you find there. Purchase any items you might require for further visual research. Sketch, sketch more, and then use your findings to design a poster for an upcoming event at the New School drawn from the University’s public event listings. The poster should list dates, times, prices, and all relevant event information. It should be sized A2 and posted somewhere on campus before class begins next week. Document your poster’s release.

This assignment is from the class Typographic Research. It was inspired by a similar assignment from Paul Elliman involving this scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Tout va bien. For more, check out this poster by Manuel Miranda.

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Great patterns for sale by Karel Martens, Paul Elliman, Ryan Gander, and others at The Pattern Foundry (via Reference Library).

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One of my favorite alphabets around is Paul Elliman’s "The People’s Alphabet": part typography, part photography, part performance, part happening. My friend Prem Krishnamurthy posed behind Kafka’s mask for the lovely letter K.