Last summer in Vancouver I attended a screening of the cult documentary Helvetica – a biography of the classic sans serif font designed in 1957. All 950 seats of the Ridge Theatre were filled, and I haven’t felt as much energy in an audience since attending the 1993 taping of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in Sony Studios in New York. Had it been possible to buy pennants and banners in the lobby, the air would have been filled with such graphic bursts as Italics! Or MEDIUM! or Light!, and I’d have been holding one, too. Mine would have read: Helvetica Neue (T1) 75 Bold. The font is a rock star.
Directed by Gary Hustwit, the film richly rewarded an audience comprised almost entirely of designers, artists and architects. Afterwards, during a Q&A session, I asked a question that revealed that roughly eighty per cent of the audience used Macs, not PCs, and those who held up their hands as PC users received mild boos. It was a tough crowd. This Mac dominance hardly came as a surprise to me. Last spring my New York publicist asked me who my reading audience was and I blurted out, ‘Mac users.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because Macs are used by visual thinkers.’
No, he didn’t see, because one is either a visual thinker or one is not. He was not. I’m beginning to think that being a visual thinker is like being right-handed or red-haired; it was all decided the moment the sperm hit the egg. And just to be clear, being a visual thinker isn’t a preference like country and western music or a fondness for pugs. One has no choice in the matter. People who study the science of this stuff say that roughly one person in five thinks visually, which perhaps explains the four-to-one ratio of PC users to Mac users in the everyday world. My question here is, of course, if you don’t see the world visually, then how exactly are you seeing it?
I came to realize this fundamental perceptual difference in humanity rather late in the day, perhaps a decade after I began writing novels. Before writing novels I worked as a visual artist and designer, and I naively and romantically assumed that writing precluded the making of visual art. Wrong. To illustrate the result of this assumption, let me provide a generic reconstruction of an interview with me in, say, 1999, just before I figured things out:
Interviewer: So, I read your book and, uh, you’re a visual thinker, aren’t you?
Me: Uh… yes.
Interviewer: (pained silence).
Me: (pained silence).
Interviewer: Yes, your work is so (insert loaded sigh here) visual.
Me (in my head): What is it with this person?
Me (out loud): Well, isn’t everybody a visual thinker? We all have eyes and we all see. How can people not be visual thinkers?
Interviewer: (another sigh).
And there’s the gist of it. I tried for a decade to be a part of the book universe, and the harder I tried, the more I encountered that same feeling that might have been experienced, say, by a black musician walking into a Baltimore country club circa 1955, sitting down at a table and expecting to be served. This is not a very good fit, is it?
And so, around 2000, I began to rethink my relationship with words. I looked back on the origins of my relationship with text to the first time I ever remember getting an almost erotic charge from words. This would have been from reproductions of Pop art in elementary school encyclopedias: Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! Or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. They were words, but they were something else, too. It was those words that landed me in art school in 1980, where I received my next dose of words that made me warm and tingly: the work of US artist Jenny Holzer. Holzer came to prominence in New York in the late 1970s. She generated truisms wherein she went through the great classics and reduced them down to sentences or fragments of sentences, a body of work referred to as Truisms. For example, Machiavelli’s The Prince boils down to abuse of power comes as no surprise. These truisms were then collected together in extensive lists and wheat-pasted on to the hoarding boards surrounding SoHo construction sites. These lists were in turn ripped from the walls by classmates doing the art-student pilgrimage to New York and shown to me back in Vancouver. When I saw these ripped papers with their columns of hundreds of truisms, my brain popped like a popcorn kernel. Words were not simply what they connoted: they were art objects and art supplies in themselves.
There is a eureka moment that most visual artists have at some point early on in their career and, once the moment has happened, they take their first steps across the great divide between visual art and literary art, two camps to whom words mean totally different things.
Once sensitized to text as an art object, the visual artist must, in a way, learn his or her own language all over again from scratch. One looks at the shape of words and the texture of the paper they rest on. One looks not just at the book, but at its cover. Visual culture is a very free and permissive place; high culture, low culture, pop culture, all source material is permitted if it’s a part of your world.
Literary students, however, don’t relearn their language from a visual and material standpoint. They are, if anything, actively encouraged to consider the process infra dig, and are certainly never allowed to fetishize the physical, typographical form of a word. In France there exists the convention of standardized unemotional text-only book covers – basically, a Salinger-like belief that a book (excuse me, a text) ought to speak for itself and not be compromised by such vulgarities as cover art, non-standardized fonts or author photos. Words exist only inasmuch as they denote something individually and collectively, but that is all they are. They’re merely little freight containers of meaning, devoid of any importance on their own. To see words as art on their own is heresy.
This inflexibility makes sense to a non-visual thinker, but to visual thinkers such dogma is depressing and sad, like forcing ballerinas to wear suits of armour.
Here’s a personal anecdote. Someone recently asked me what the most beautiful word I know is. I thought about it and the answer came quickly: my father used to have a floatplane with those call letters on the tailfin, ZRF – Zulu Romeo Foxtrot. The way these words look on paper is gorgeous; the images they conjure are fleeting, rich, colourful and unexpected. To savour the look of Zulu Romeo Foxtrot on a page is almost the sound of one hand clapping. The letterforms mean something beyond themselves, but the meaning is not empirical – and it’s pretty hard for me to imagine discussing this at a literary festival. Doug, there’s no verb.
Here’s another question I was recently asked: when I see words in my mind, what font are they in? The answer: Helvetica. What font do you think in? It’s a strange question, but you know what I’m getting at: how do you see actual words in your head as you think? Or do you see words at all? Is it a voice in your head? Do you see subtitles?
I think that an inevitable and necessary step for written culture over the next few decades is going to be the introduction of a détente between the visual and literary worlds – at the very least, an agreement to agree that they’re not mutually exclusive and that each feeds the other.The notion that literary experimentation ended with the publication of Finnegans Wake doesn’t leave much hope or inspiration for citizens on a digital planet a century later. Acknowledging the present and contemplating the future doesn’t mean discarding the past, and to be interested in print’s visual dimension isn’t the same as being anti-literary. People in the art world do a spit-take when they hear that James Joyce is called modern. The literary world has the aura of a vast museum filled with floral watercolours and alpine landscapes, a space where pickled sharks will never be contemplated or allowed. Ten-year-olds now discuss fonts, leading and flush-righting paragraphs. Words are built of RGB pixels projected directly on to the retina for hours a day. Machines automatically translate spoken words into Japanese. Medium and message are melting into each other unlike ever before. Zulu Romeo Foxtrot.
Artwork © John Cooper