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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Graffiti Aesthetics 4: The Space of Writing

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/27/07 at 10:58 AM

The artists who work in this particular tradition call themselves writers. The rationale is obvious enough as the tradition is grounded in the practice of getting one’s nickname up on the wall in the form of tags, throw-ups, and pieces. Piecing is the most complex of these practices and often involves creating the illusion of three-dimensionality through two devices. Drop shadows create the illusion that the letters are suspended or floating over a surface and their shadows are projected on to that surface; the use of drop shadows, of course, implies a light source. The other device is to treat the letters as though they have thickness and to show this by rendering their edges in depth; this presupposes some specific projection of the letters onto the picture plane.

And thus we arrive at my subject, that of the pictorial space implied by graffs. Have graff writers made any discoveries about pictorial space? I don’t have an answer for it. But I can tell you why I believe it’s an important question to ask and why I believe that graff writers may already have discovered something new, or are likely to do so in the future.

Consider the tradition of Western representational art from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century. All of those paintings and drawings and prints are inscribed within the projection of 3D Euclidian geometry onto the pictorial plane. The discovery and deployment of that projection is fundamental to Western art. It opened up a whole new world.

And when that world started to seem old and stuffy, artists moved beyond it, not by painting new subject matter - though there was some of that - but by proposing new conceptions of pictorial space. The cubists weren’t happy with the Euclidian projection and, in effect, tried to treat the picture plane as though it were a 3D space, or was it that they tried to project a 4D space onto the plane? Whatever. Kandinsky used the 2D image plane to depict a two and a half-dimensional pictorial space (the notion is from the visual perception work of the late David Marr) filled with lines and surfaces in motion, but no solid objects. Jackson Pollack painted motion in fractal space while Mark Rothko gave us colored luminosity in spaces of undefined dimensionality.

Geometrical terms and metaphors, however, are not the only way to think about pictorial space. We must also need to think about how the mind inhabits the space, about how the body, brain, and mind construct that space. We see through the eyes and the visual areas of the brain, but I’m quite sure that we understand through the motor system and balance system as well. Wildstyle graffs are rich in visual motion. We don’t simply see them with our eyes, we feel them with out hands and move about them with our bodies. We do this with all images, but do graffs ask us to move through space in new ways? That’s the question, and I’m sure that, at some level, the answer will be stated in neural times, not only for graffs, but for all the visual arts.

The physical scale of graffs is important, and almost impossible to convey in photographs. Graffs often extend six, eight, or more feet off the ground. A piece may easily be ten feet wide or more, a production (several coordinated pieces on the same surface) can span 10, 15, or 20 yards. They are painted with large motions of the arms and trunk, as Jackson Pollack painted his abstractions. You observe graffs by walking to and from them, back and forth from one side to another. When your primary contact with a graff is through a photo, all this body motion must be compressed into mere eye movements.

Yet that limitation might not be fatal to a viewer with imagination. Some years ago I interviewed a graphic artist named Irving Geis; he’d spent the last decades of his career creating images of complex biological molecules. He told me that, in order to visualize the structure, he would imagine himself walking around inside the molecule. If Irving Geis can project his entire body into a molecule, then I suspect that we can project our bodies into images of graffs and thereby walk around in them.

Then there is the discipline of the name. Whatever the chosen name, the writer is stuck with it. Piecing is a game requiring skill and originality. The writer is challenged to invent new ways of writing the same name, new forms to impose on the name as a gestalt, and on the individual letters as components in the gestalt. Writers have worked with the forms in 2D and 3D, and with various ways to treat the surfaces of the letter forms. They have worked figurative materials into their pieces as well, from cartoon figures through hyper-realistic figures, landscapes, and cityscapes.

What seems important to me is that, while graffs are created on 2D surfaces, the fundamental conception of the pictorial world is not itself spatial. For names are not spatial, though letter forms are. When the graff writer creates drop shadows he does not thereby convert the pictorial world into a 3D space. Rather he places a 3D space in that world as one object, a special kind of object that dictates how other objects are rendered. That object may dominate the world, but it is not the only object in that world. It is precisely because the graff pictorial world is not spatially conceived that it has been able to work so effectively with letter forms and name forms in two and three dimensions. The dimensionality is inserted into the world as a pictorial device, but everything is anchored in the name, which is not itself spatial.

The name is ultimately an abstract object, a place-holder and pointer in a social network - cf. my previous essay on Stylistic Identity. Its expressions must inevitably take on the spatial characteristics of the medium of expression. To use a well-worn terminology, the name’s signified is not inherently spatial, but its signifier is. When the name is expressed in speech, the signifier is extended in time; when expressed in writing, the signifier is extended in 2D space. We must not confuse the spatial extension of the physical graff with the non-dimensional name that it represents.

In the case of representational art within the realistic traditions of the West, there is a specific relationship between the 2D forms of the physical image and the 3D space that is projected onto and represented on the surface. Graffs, as we have seen, are quite different. It is the name that is represented and, by implication, that social network of graff writers that is implied in every graff.

Let us consider a very different graphic tradition, that of the Walbiri, an aboriginal people in central Australia, suggested to me by Randall White, an archeologist who is an expert on cave paintings. The standard discussion is Nancy D. Munn’s Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (1973).

The Walbiri use graphic patterns in the course of recounting dreams and telling stories. The graphic elements themselves are relatively simple - lines, curves, circles, and ovals in various combinations and arrangements. Circles and curves can indicate people, or animals, or places, or geographic features, depending on context. And lines can indicate paths or motion. While these diagrams often get considerably more complex, to a first approximation they resemble the diagrams used to spell out plays in football. Those football diagrams indicate players and paths of motion. Points, lines and vectors.

I was particularly struck by Munn’s account of “The Sand Story” (chapter 3, pp. 58-88). These are told by women and about culturally significant figures as they go about their daily activities. What we need to think about is the way the story-teller will use diagrams in the process of telling the story. She starts by smoothing out an area of the sand (hence the designation “sand stories”). As she tells the story she draws appropriate diagrams, with appropriate signs for the actors, geographic features, and movements. As the space becomes filled she’ll wipe it clean and keep on going.

The imagery is so schematic that if you didn’t know the conventions, you couldn’t tell what was going on. The diagrams do not illustrate the stories in any standard sense of that term. The action of making the diagrams seems to be as important as the diagrams themselves. The telling of a story is a verbal, visual, motor event, all woven together into a single unified set of actions. The diagrams are simply evanescent visual traces of the story-telling process. Their 2D form follows from how they are made and bears no strict geometric relationship to the story world.

That’s how graffs function. They are 2D forms because they are inscribed on planar surfaces. As appropriate, they may employ standard conventions for projecting 3D objects onto a plane; but that projection should be considered a local property of the object or objects that use it, not a property of entire pictorial space. That pictorial space, the space conjured up by the 2D marks, has no specified dimensionality. In particular, it is neither in rebellion against the projective conventions of Western realism, nor an affirmation of any of the various rejections of and replacements for those conventions - impressionist, cubist, surreal, abstract, and so forth. The traditions of graffs are indifferent to all that and, because of that indifference, writers likewise free to employ any and all of those conventions as they so desire. All of them may comfortably be employed if and when needed. But none are required. Only the name is required.

What I am arguing, then, is that graff writers have re-created the most primitive and undifferentiated form of image-making in the context of post-industrial civilization. In so doing they have evaded and sidestepped the aesthetic controversies that bedevil and stymie the contemporary gallery and museum scene. Graffs are working in a fundamentally different cultural zone.


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