Abecedary

Here is my complete final project for my Composition II class. Enjoy!

 

One of my significant memories of childhood is when I first attempted to write. I drew loops of varied sizes; some I added dots to, while others I crossed. They were words to me, as the sun was a simple circle with a smiley face, or a house was a large box with a triangle. Pages filled with epic tales of childhood were encoded as such, and I am sure those were my finest masterpieces. Perhaps I did not completely understand “proper writing” then, but I contend that it is not far from reality. Words are simply a series of particularly arranged lines and dots assigned to abstract ideas by the viewer – just like drawings or paintings are lines and dabs of color that resemble something meaningful in life. This reality was obvious when I was young, but age and education caused the essential link between the two to falter. This begs the question of how visual and written communications developed and what is there correlation? How does technology shape the history of writing and what is its future?

 

As stated, visual art is composed of color dabs and values to impress a scene on the viewer. Art has several purposes including, but not exclusively, recording the real world or bringing to reality the intangibles, such as emotions or ideas. The artist wishes to convey some idea with each piece they create. Along with the artist’s intent, the viewer will assign meaning to each work dependent on their life experiences. “The subjective nature of perception explains why a work of art may mean different things to people and how it is that we may return to a favorite work again and again, noticing new aspects of it each time.” (Getlein, 14) In general, education is not required to comprehend a visual work of art, just a functioning photoreceptor. The creation of art, the drive to document and understand the world around us, is an ancient primal drive. In Africa, Australia, and Southern Europe, the oldest known human drawings date back about 40,000 years. (Vajda)

 

One of these ancient signs of human creativity is the Chauvet cave, which dates from 30,000 B.C.E, in Southern France. Named after the spelunker who discovered it, Jean-Marie Chauvet, the paintings were made by ancient unknown artists by blowing yellow and red ochre pigments through a reed. The paintings depict all sorts of animals, from lions to rhinos to bears. (Getlein, 4-5) The age of these cave paintings demonstrates how hardwired the comprehension of colors and forms is in the human evolutionary development. Humans have seemingly always attempted to sort and understand our world through increasingly ingenuitive and abstract means.

 

A major abstraction humans created are words, which are stylized ideograms. This mean the word apple does not look anything like an apple. It takes basic education and socialization to read, write, and comprehend a formal language. Words can create in the mind’s eye stories, characters, landscapes, ideas, and theories, while representing the somatic version of human communication. Where did writing come from and what is there history? It actually evolved from the original human expression of drawing, as will be explained later. To talk about written communication’s history, one must look to the formats that it stored it, books. A brief explanation from William Germano:

“In the sense of having been around a long time, the book has a long story to tell, one           that might be organized around four epochal events, at least in the West. In the    beginning was the invention of writing and its appearance on various materials. The      second was the development during the first years of the Christian era of the codex– the thing with pages and a cover–first as a supplement and eventually as a replacement for the older technology of the scroll. The third was what we think of as   the Gutenberg moment, the European deployment of movable type, in the 15th            century. And the fourth is, of course, the digital revolution in the middle of which we find     ourselves today.”(Germano).

 

To further extrapolate on Germano’s synopsis, written communication has a five thousand year history, with the first two thirds of it lost to time.(Dahl, pg 7) However, some evidence remains to give a slight picture to the evolution of writing. Pictograms, a simple picture that depicts exactly what it is, were a major from of pre-writing communication. Prevalent in Ancient Sumeria (Ancient Mesopotamia), it seemed to come out of a necessity to keep track of commerce and trade, like counts of items and what was being stored in a container.(Vajda) Eventually, pictograms abstracted and simplified considerably until they formed the first writing: cuneiform. Meaning wedge writing, these symbols were created by impressing a stylus, or blunted reed, into the clay tablet. (Vajda) This is believed to develop for the sake of speed and ease, since clay is difficult to draw curved lines in. (Anceint Mesopotamia)

 

After the Sumerians developed the tablet and cuneiform, the Egyptians furthered writing technology in about 2400 B.C.E. with papyrus scrolls. These are long sheets of material made from strips of dried papyrus glued together, first side by side slightly overlapping. To reinforce this, another layer is put crosswise, moistened, and systematically pounded until it congealed into one cohesive piece. It is put in the sun to dry again and sized – treating the paper surface to change absorbency – until glossy. This creates a flexible fiber sheet which is perfect for writing.

Scribes traditionally wrote on the side with the papyrus strips running horizontally, exclusively in scroll format, and in a simple, at least compared to complex hieroglyphs, script. Called hieratic, meaning priestly, this writing form is derived from hieroglyphs. Later an even simpler writing form developed called demotic meaning “popular.”(Dahl, pg 7-9). This evolution is similar to the Sumerian transition from pictograms to cuneiform, further asserting that writing is derived from more visual forms of communication.

 

Tablets and scrolls were used until the Roman’s developed codices in the first century. A codex is how books are now understood, with paper bound together in sheets of a certain size and a cover to protect the pages. The Bible was the first major writing to be put into codex form, which solidified this format in history for over two thousand years. Since the first Roman codex, traditional book creation evolved technologically, but a book from then or now still looks like a book.

The first codices were handwritten by scribes and monks, and then eventually printed by using wood/stone carvings. Both took painstaking work, which made books rare and limited in accessibility. The printing press with moveable type revolutionized this process. China actually invented this technology in the 11th century, three centuries before Johann Gutenberg.  According to Dahl, “The fact that this method did not attain extensive use in China is due to the large number of characters used by the Chinese; an ordinary book required 4-5,000 different types.” (Dahl, p 84) The Romantic languages limited character sets worked seamlessly with the idea of interchangeable but reusable type. The printing press, along with economic factors, eased knowledge accessibility and contributed to the boom of innovation in the Renaissance. (Annenberg)

 

Now we are in the digital revolution. Quickly, the Portable Document Format, PDF, combined with computers or e-readers have become the norm for information exchange. Jeff Jarvis attests with new technology books in comparison “are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t search-able. They aren’t linkable. They have no meta data. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.” (Jarvis) All of his arguments are valid, however not a very balanced view of the total picture. The merits with new formats compared to print books are numerous, but what about the reliability and archive ability of books? As Gary Frost summarizes both sides of the argument in his essay A Retrospective of the Future of the Book,

“The print book carries with it layers of physical evidence, overt content and    bibliographic codes that persistently reveal the source and intent of its production.    Such features of self-authentication, confirmed with ease of re-readings across time   and cultures, give the material book its special role in transmission. But print books          resist indexing and have been compiled into libraries only with great effort or with the       help of on-line cataloging and finding aids.

“By contrast the screen book is self-indexing because the encoding or            production process that renders books to the screen also enables keyword search          routines. This attribute is really amazing. It is as if printing ink on paper inherently            tabulated the letters and remembered them. However, the effervescent screen books   resist authentication. Screen books, like touch screen voting, remain vulnerable and un-trusted with ease of unmonitored deletions or revisions and uncertain provenance.             And expectations are very different with screen-based research. The content is served         quickly while the reader is induced to consume quickly as well.” (Frost)

Even with the quality of it being self authenticating, which may keep print alive, many of the old processes to create a print book are being lost to new technology in that field.  So what is the future of traditional book creation? Is it doomed to antiquity with scrolls and stone tablets? I – for one – get a wistful and mystical feeling whenever I open the musty pages of an old handcrafted book. In the constant barrage of a high speed society, they are the roots that link us to our history, making the ever faster world seem a little stable and grounded. New editions may come out, but that original book will only yellow with age.

 

There are places that attempt to preserve the books heritage, while bringing new life and purpose to traditional creation process. One of these places is the University of Iowa Center of the Book. Here the history of the book is preserved, while new innovations with traditional techniques are used to create unique works of book art.

 

This could seem somewhat controversial; books are to be books. The definition of book is “A set of written, printed, or blank pages fastened along one side and encased between protective covers.” (7)  However, if one thinks of a book as a vessel for knowledge, as opposed to the traditional definition, the art book is a natural progression. Not only do they contain beautiful works of meaningful art, they are also carrying the knowledge forward of how to handcraft a book. Furthermore, the beauty of these delightful creations will quickly sway even the harshest critic.

 

They can have eccentric cover shapes, accordion pages with cut outs, no pages at all, bold to subdued colors, and really anything as long as it utilizes some book making techniques. A few practitioners flat out defy any definition this medium, citing it will the limit the possibilities of inspiration, and most struggle to put it in words. Janice Braun states it simply “I have given this a great deal of consideration and I think that any definition is problematic. I am only able to answer the question with more difficult questions: What is a book? What is art (and/or what is an artist)?” (Braun)

 

By bringing books into the art realm, information not only has been freed from books, but books are unburdened from the pack of formal information. Book artists fulfill the need to preserve obsolete technologies, such as typesetting and hand pulling paper. This preservation is important for conservation and restoration of historical documents and to fully understand how human communication technology has developed through the centuries. After touring the Center for the Book’s facilities in March 2011 and seeing all of this, I was inspired to create my own book art. (see Ill. 5 & )

 

The title of this tiny work is A Letter is worth a Thousand Pictures. Conceptually, I wanted to create an art book with written and visual elements to exemplify my youthful perceptions described in the introduction. I created an accordion style binding of an abecedary. I chose standard cardboard stencils about an inch and half square, because they look like children’s letter blocks. Also, there is the fact a stencil’s normal function is to create words, so it seemed fitting to appropriate them as a surface for each page. I illustrated on each the first few items that came to my head that began with each letter. I kept the illustrations simple and stylized, to further the idea of youthful perceptions. I mounted all of these on distressed bright pink polka dotted paper. As a child, one of my favorite dresses was made of this pattern, and a distressed version of this seemed pertinent to how I perceive my youth now through the goggles of age.

 

No one can predict the future of the written word, since – as with any human innovation – it is always changing. Even though the technology has evolved through the ages the purpose has stayed the same: to understand our world and preserve that knowledge. Whether it be cave paintings or highly sophisticated tablet computers, they all are fundamentally the same. While embracing the unknown future, we must also keep our feet grounded in the past. This is the only way we may grow as a species, otherwise the tides of time will wash us away.

Bibliography

“Ancient Mesopotamia: The invention of writing.” The Oriental Institute of the University of    Chicago. University of Chicago. 10 May, 2011.         <http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/MUS/ED/TRC/MESO/writing.html>.

“Book”. The Free Dictionary. Farlex. 2011. 10 May, 2011.           <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/book>.

Braun, Janice. “Re: Definition of the Artists Book (YES, again).” The Book Arts Web. The    Book Arts Web, 6 Aug 2010. Web. 8 Feb 2011.

Dahl, Svend. History of the book. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1958.

Frost, Gary. “A Retrospective of the Future of the Book”. Futureofthebook.com. Ed. Gary     Frost. 2000-2008. 10 May, 2011.

<http://futureofthebook.com/print-book-and-screen-book-and-the-other/>

Germano, William. “What Are Books Good For?.” Chronicle of Higher Education. B6.        Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Feb. 2011.

Getlein, Mark. Living with Art. New York:McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Jarvis, Jeff. “The book is dead. Long live the book.”. BuzzMachine. Ed. Jeff Jarvis. 19 May,             2006. 10 May, 2011.

<http://www.buzzmachine.com/2006/05/19/the-book-is-dead-long-live-the-book>.

Pike, William. “World’s Oldest Bible Hits Cyberspace.” Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. 14 July,        2009. Encyclopedia Britannica. 10 May, 2011.

“Renaissance: Printing and Thinking.” Renaissance:Printing and Thinking. Annenberg                      Foundation. 10 May, 2011. <http://www.learner.org/interactives/renaissance/printing.html>.

“The Significance of the Cave”. The Cave of Chauvet-pont-d’Arc. Republic of France Cultural             Communication. 10 May, 2011.       <http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/index.html&gt;.

Vajda, Edward. “The invention of writing.” Linguistics 201: The Invention of Writing. Edward             Vajda. Western Washington University. 10 May, 2011.             <http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test4materials/Writing2.htm>.

Wikipedia. “File:P. Oxy. XXII 2331.jpg”. Wikimedia Commons. 16 Jan, 2011. 10 May, 2011.             <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:P._Oxy._XXII_2331.jpg&gt;.

 

 

 

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