14 June 2018

Answers

Brody Neuenschwander

Questions

Natasha Mozz

My first ques­tion is about Mo­scow. You’ve been here for a week. How do you like it? Is it what you ex­pec­ted to see?

I’d for­got­ten how big the city was — it must be by far the largest city in Europe and so much his­tor­ic­al ar­chi­tec­ture sur­vived. It’s in­ter­est­ing to see that the Bolshoi alone is twice the size of sim­il­ar theatres in oth­er European cit­ies. It’s quite an easy city to walk around. I feel like I’m in an­oth­er European city — it has ob­vi­ously trans­formed it­self in­to a friendly, typ­ic­ally West­ern European lux­ury con­sumer city. Back in the 70s, there was noth­ing here: no shops and in the res­taur­ants there was only one thing to eat, so the trans­form­a­tion is really stun­ning. I don’t know if that is re­flec­ted in oth­er parts of the coun­try, but cer­tainly the cap­it­al city seems to be do­ing very well.

It’s also the 4th day of the Cal­li­graph­ic Line work­shop held at the Serebro Nabora con­fer­en­ce. How is it go­ing? What can you say about your stu­dents?

The stu­dents are really quite sur­pris­ing be­cause they taught me a lot about the situ­ation in Rus­si­an cal­li­graphy. I had no idea that it is such a cul­tur­al move­ment, that there are so many cal­li­graph­ers, both pro­fes­sion­al and hob­by­ist, and that there are dif­fer­ent schools and everything. That there are hun­dreds and it seems even thou­sands of people across the coun­try do­ing cal­li­graphy. I thought we have a lot of cal­li­graph­ers in Bel­gi­um, but it seems there are even more here. And the level is high. I had ex­pec­ted that, be­cause my ex­per­i­en­ces in oth­er East­ern European coun­tries are that the people have a very strong graph­ic sense. If you think about the poster tra­di­tion in Po­land or the won­der­ful tra­di­tion here — fu­tur­ism and con­struct­iv­ism and all. So, it’s not a sur­prise that a graph­ic un­der­stand­ing is here, but I didn’t know that there were that many people in­volved in cal­li­graphy.

So are they good more in tra­di­tion­al tech­nique or in the way of think­ing?

I get the sense that they are very good in the tra­di­tion­al as­pect of it and seems — that was a sur­prise to me to learn that the basis is the cop­per­plate pen or the flex­ible nib, the poin­ted nib, be­cause as they ex­plain at the time that the script forms were car­ried through by Peter in 1720, something like that, that was the tool that was be­ing used and so Rus­si­an cal­li­graphy was strongly in­flu­en­ced by that. They also talk about that be­ing a short tra­di­tion, be­cause they say that it ba­sic­ally was a new start in 1720, and that means that a lot of the tra­di­tions from be­fore that were lost, re­placed by new ideas.

They seem to be able to ex­press them­selves on pa­per very well, if I give them emo­tion­al ex­er­cises in or­der to ex­press emo­tions with writ­ing or cer­tain graph­ic con­cepts with writ­ing, they seem to be able to do that quite eas­ily, cer­tainly put­ting emo­tions on pa­per came very easy. So there was a real sense of the po­etry of the pro­cess. And I’m still rather curi­ous and puzzled a little bit, why they think they need me to teach them something about mod­ern cal­li­graphy. There’s a sense that I can teach them more ex­press­ive ways of us­ing the pen, but I think of course that main thing is to teach them ways of look­ing at the whole pro­cess of writ­ing as text art. So the step away from cal­li­graphy as a craft pro­cess based in his­tory to something based in a thought pro­cess like what mod­ern artists en­gage in — con­cep­tu­ally based, re­search based, a form of per­son­al ex­pres­sion or ana­lys­is in the art of the con­di­tions of life in our times.

The Pil­low Book — is it the pro­ject that gets all the at­ten­tion, and nobody cares about
any­thing else?

Yes, I’m the guy that did The Pil­low Book. With­in the cal­li­graphy world, that in­terest is un­der­stand­able, be­cause it’s un­usu­al to write on a body and they want to know what it is like to make a good com­pos­i­tion, how it feels and what is it like to write on Vivi­an Wu. But it’s really an­noy­ing for me that my ef­forts to enter the art world were al­ways been — well, not blocked — but I’m just cat­egor­ised as That per­son and so they don’t look so much at the oth­er work that I’ve done, and ac­tu­ally the oth­er work is bet­ter. The Pil­low Book cal­li­graph­ic­ally and graph­ic­ally speak­ing has its prob­lems, you know I had a body that I had to do in about hour or two with no pre­par­a­tion, and then when it was fin­ished I thought “Aah, I could have done it bet­ter this way, I could have done it bet­ter that way”.

“The Pil­low Book”, a film by Peter Green­away with cal­li­graphy on the act­ors and act­resses by Brody Neuenschwander, 1996.

Plenty of times in the film that was the case, but there was nev­er a chance to do any­thing again — you couldn’t have a second take or any­thing. The body was painted and they go off to the set, so the learn­ing curve was very steep and my abil­ity to do my best work was very lim­ited by the con­di­tions. The whole body needed to be covered in just three hours when in fact if I wanted to do it really well, it would take me eight hours or something like that. So I look back at it and I think, “Well, it was an in­ter­est­ing pro­cess and I learned a lot, but it’s not my best work in many cases”. I learned a lot in the film that I used in later works of art, cer­tainly, and those are more in­ter­est­ing. If I could just get the art people to look at them in­stead of only The Pil­low Book.

Work­ing on a movie pro­ject — what is the dif­fer­en­ce? What is in­ter­est­ing or com­plic­ated?

It’s all of those things. It’s in­ter­est­ing be­cause on the set there are lots of really fant­ast­ic people. Green­away’s people are the best people: they know everything about light­ing, everything about makeup and everything about set design. Since they’re Dutch, they know how to do it with a very low budget — they work mir­acles on the small budgets they have. You simply learn a lot about that. The second thing about The Pil­low Book was that when everything was ready, the set was done, the light­ing was ready, the cam­era was in po­s­i­tion and it was time to bring on the act­ors, if you just looked at what was in front of you, it was so beau­ti­ful. I said to Green­away some­times, “You know, we don’t need to film this, let’s just stand here and look at it”. So it was not just vir­tu­al beauty for the sake of the cam­era, there was real beauty. You could con­sider them artist­ic in­stall­a­tions. 

I liked talk­ing to Peter about what he in­ten­ded to do be­cause that opened up so many pos­sib­il­it­ies for me in cal­li­graphy that I would ex­plore in the years after that. There was also ac­tu­ally ex­cite­ment from the same thing that’s a dis­ad­vant­age — that you have no time. You lit­er­ally run from one idea to the next idea and the next one. You have to solve the prob­lem im­me­di­ately, so it be­comes a kind of on­go­ing pro­cess on high speed. I went to the hotel room at the end of the day ex­hausted, but no mat­ter what, I had to think and sit down to sketch the body for the next morn­ing.

What was the pro­cess of pre­par­a­tion?

Well, I had a kind of a form, a ba­sic body front and back, and I had texts that Green­away him­self had writ­ten that were trans­lated in­to Ja­pan­ese by some­body, and there was a wo­man who did all the Ja­pan­ese work. So I looked at the text and would say “Left arm this, right arm this, back this, lower back this, legs this”, and I had a trans­la­tion so I knew what it meant. Then I had my Ja­pan­ese cal­li­graph­er, Yuki, that I art-dir­ec­ted. I had to sit down with her and say “Ok, where is the lo­gic­al break in the text,” she’d say, “Here” and I’d say, “Oh, so that’s twelve char­ac­ters”. We drew a grid of twelve on the arm, put six and six or something like that. So I knew ex­actly where that text was go­ing to go, and the next day when we got there and the act­or came, I would take a white pen­cil, draw the twelve squares and then Yuki would come to put the cal­li­graphy there. I would grid the whole body and I would think in my plan­ning about graph­ic con­trast, so I would want some large and small ele­ments, some fine cal­li­graphy and some very bold — ty­po­graph­ic con­trast: bold, semibold and light. 

That’s very West­ern, ac­tu­ally. 

Yeah, I took an en­tirely West­ern ty­po­graph­ic ap­proach to the graph­ics of the bod­ies and then I used the grid for Ja­pan­ese cal­li­graphy to place a block here and a block there, al­ways leav­ing place for the red seals which Green­away really liked, and then the gold title. The titles were real gold on the body.

Most of the areas you work in, the way I see it, are con­nec­ted to mo­tion — video per­form­ances, in­stall­a­tions, movies — and you have to think about things like dy­nam­ics and the speed you write with. When you are film­ing the writ­ing pro­cess, it’s not only about the end res­ult. So did you think about, for ex­ample, how fast should you move the pen be­cause of cer­tain dy­nam­ics in the movie?

There are two sides to that ques­tion for me. One is the pen for the cam­era and its mo­tion — in oth­er words, the pen as an act­or. That was easy for me to un­der­stand. On earli­er Green­away pro­jects, we dis­covered that the best thing was to have a mon­it­or in front of me. Then I watched the mon­it­or and not my ac­tu­al pen. So that I could see the im­age the pen is mak­ing, be­cause we had very tight fo­cus, and if I moved even three mil­li­meters too far, the pen would go off the edge, which is ter­rible. So there was a mon­it­or in front of me and I learned very quickly to look at that im­age and see it as a graph­ic whole. In oth­er words, it was quite nat­ur­al for me to look at that and re­act to the de­vel­op­ing im­age in mo­tion.

I don’t think I have the mind of a film­maker, but when I look at the text in mo­tion — that I do un­der­stand. So that’s sort of half the pro­cess, and the oth­er half — con­sid­er­ing the en­tire film — I don’t think I really have that kind of mind. I mean, Green­away thinks in film, he can do that. Well… ac­tu­ally he doesn’t. He thinks in series of tableau, you know, one set im­age after an­oth­er. That’s paint­ing after paint­ing ac­tu­ally. Tarkovsky thinks in terms of the whole thing and the whole move­ment of the thing. Cal­li­graphy is much more lim­ited pro­cess of kin­et­ic part. But with­in the bounce of cal­li­graphy that kind of kin­et­ic art I un­der­stand and I think I can work with. I would say it’s al­most bet­ter cal­li­graphy for a film cam­era than just on pa­per.

So when you write to get something on pa­per as a res­ult you don’t have to be faster or slower in pro­cess, but for the cam­era you do?

Yeah, for the cam­era you do, you ab­so­lutely do. Be­cause it’s the speed and ac­tu­ally the sound. If you make sound re­cord­ing you can use that like a voice of an act­or. And then you can use the quant­ity of ink, lots of ink to make a huge puddle which catches the light or when the pen is dry­ing out and the trace is be­gin­ning to die, it gives the sense of des­per­a­tion, you know. So you can use ab­so­lutely everything that a pen can do for the cam­era as an act­or can do for the cam­era.

Video is part of a col­lab­or­a­tion between European and Middle East­ern artists. Based on the poem Hegire by Goethe, read by an Ir­a­ni­an refugee in Ger­many. Cal­li­graphy by Brody Neuenschwander. Ed­ited by Ig­or De Baecke, 2011.

I wanted to talk about the re­la­tion­ship between design and cal­li­graphy. Cal­li­graphy usu­ally be­longs to art, not design (if we mean design as a form fol­lows func­tion” thing). Where does your work lie between these two worlds?

Well, if that’s design, I’m not a de­sign­er at all. One of the prob­lems in my life was that I was al­ways in some strange middle zone, but the pro­jects I did that usu­ally in­ter­es­ted me were ones where I could really use my fas­cin­a­tion for art his­tory and my, let’s say, un­der­stand­ing of the longer line of European cul­tur­al his­tory to de­vel­op things in the pro­ject. I don’t know if that makes them art. I’m think­ing of something like what I did for a cathed­ral in Bel­gi­um, a per­man­ent video in­stall­a­tion at the top of the tower. You climb 500 steps to get to the top of this tower and there’s a video in­stall­a­tion with mu­sic. The whole con­text of be­ing at the top of the tower, the top of the church, the bell tower, the bells, the way that time was kept in the Middle Ages — the way they di­vided up time re­flec­ted the move­ment of the spheres, the uni­ver­sal har­mony, there was God. You know, I can go on and on and on about the his­tor­ic­al and artist­ic and re­li­gious as­so­ci­ations that in­spire me to cre­ate an in­stall­a­tion. To be hon­est, I don’t think about the pub­lic very much.

Some­times it seems like in the art of cal­li­graphy cre­at­ing something that is just beau­ti­ful, not think­ing much about a concept or idea, is a very nor­mal thing. But that’s def­in­itely not what you’re about.

Most cal­li­graph­ers make the mis­take of as­sum­ing that tech­nic­ally well-made let­ters are there­fore beau­ti­ful. And that that’s enough. If the O has per­fect curves, it’s beau­ti­ful. But, you know, cal­li­graphy is a me­di­um, it’s not an end in it­self — it has to serve a pur­pose. You use it like a paint­er uses col­or or a film­maker uses an act­or or any­thing else to achieve some kind of ex­pres­sion of something. There’s no one kind of shape that’s bet­ter than an­oth­er kind of shape. They’re all pos­sible. Cal­li­graph­ers tend to shy away from things that at first glance are not well-made be­cause they think, “Well, it’s not beau­ti­ful”, where­as pre­cisely that could be the most beau­ti­ful, be­cause it car­ries all sorts of hu­man levels of mean­ing. That’s a really gen­er­al prob­lem that cal­li­graph­ers have. I think they’re mostly rather up­tight con­trol-freak­ish types of people who of­ten want to work more freely. Then when you try to fig­ure out what that means to them, it doesn’t in­clude the free­dom to ex­press the full range of hu­man emo­tions in their work, in­clud­ing the neg­at­ive emo­tions — the emo­tions of con­fu­sion, of fear or doubt or in­sec­ur­ity or any of the grey or dark sides that make up a full life. So yeah, the let­ter­forms are just something that you de­vel­op to ex­press whatever it is that comes out of the pro­cess of re­search and artist­ic de­vel­op­ment.

Do you re­mem­ber if this al­ways your thing or was there a mo­ment when you changed?

Oh yeah, I’ve changed com­pletely. You know, deni­al is an im­port­ant psy­cho­lo­gic­al pro­cess and when I was grow­ing up I re­mem­ber say­ing so many times that an artist like Jack­son Pol­lock was just hor­rif­ic (and even Cy Twombly). I have changed, it was a pro­cess cov­er­ing two or three years of my life. I can re­mem­ber start­ing to see what it was about Cy Twombly that first fas­cin­ated me in a neg­at­ive way and then star­ted to fas­cin­ate me in a pos­it­ive way. Cer­tainly Green­away helped to push that along, ab­so­lutely, and also I have to say that just get­ting to know the cal­li­graphy world and — I’m sorry to say this, it sounds ar­rog­ant — look­ing at what they were do­ing, they were nev­er go­ing to take this any­where. I loved cal­li­graphy and I thought it was a ter­rible thing that if these people are in charge, it will die. By look­ing at the prob­lem, I star­ted to real­ize that I had to open up to oth­er ideas and then the pro­cess star­ted. I was 30 years old by that time — pretty late, I thought. Any­way, at least it happened.

Sound and light in­stall­a­tion by Peter Green­away, cal­li­graphy by Brody Neuenschwander. Piazza Mag­giore, Bo­logna, 2000.

How do you start work­ing on a pro­ject? When you choose a style, do you think about what you want to say or what kind of emo­tion you want to get as a res­ult be­fore choos­ing spe­cif­ic shapes?

Well, there are dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. If it’s a work on pa­per, I’ve de­ve­loped a kind of pro­cess by which I delay the start of the pro­ject and slide in­to it gradu­ally. I stretch a large piece of pa­per and col­lage rice pa­per on top of it, so that takes a little time — I don’t have to do any writ­ing or draw­ing yet. Then the white­wash goes on and it has to dry, then it has to be sanded, so, you know, it’s three days be­fore I’m ready to ac­tu­ally make the first mark. Next, I go to an­oth­er form of deni­al by us­ing these met­al stamps, which I use to fill the back­ground by ac­tu­ally ham­mer­ing the let­ters in­to the white­wash. I’ve learned to stamp the first word that comes in­to my mind and I don’t worry about where I’m go­ing, be­cause by the time the first word is there, the second word ar­rives, and then a sen­tence, and I can keep go­ing — stamp­ing the let­ters al­lows an enorm­ous free­dom of com­pos­i­tion.

I can do much more ex­per­i­ment­a­tion that way than with a pen. It’s just in the nature of the pro­cess — the lan­guage comes nat­ur­ally. I know that this is go­ing to be back­ground text, so it’s not a prob­lem if there are spelling er­rors or a bad word — I just scratch it out or whatever. It gives a pro­cess by which cer­tain con­cepts, ideas and a kind of po­etry — con­crete po­etry — start to hap­pen on the sur­face. I really en­joy that, and then I have to re­act to this back­ground text with the rest of the com­pos­i­tion and more words, however they’re writ­ten or drawn. I find that the most dif­fi­cult part. Partly as a mat­ter of visu­al bal­ance, partly be­cause I really do want there to be a ten­sion in the read­ing so that you don’t read too much or too little.

When you work on pro­jects where his­tor­ic­al cal­li­graphy is needed, do you do any re­search or is everything in your head?

Oh yeah, it’s in my head.

Do you change things or keep their tra­di­tion­al forms?

Well, it de­pends on the pro­ject. If it’s like the things I did for the Pader­born Mu­seum in Ger­many, then yes — they asked for a very cor­rect script from about the year 1000 and that’s what they got. Just watch­ing the pen do that with a mi­crolens is really won­der­ful to see. You see every fibre of the parch­ment, you see every move­ment of the quill — it’s gor­geous, so that speaks for it­self. Us­ing a purely his­tor­ic­al script is fine. If I’m do­ing, let’s see, the things I did for… something like a doc­u­ment­ary series on Henry VIII, most of that is really his­tor­ic­ally very cor­rect, but some are more dra­mat­ic. To get the cam­era in­ter­es­ted in what I’m do­ing. We took it much fur­ther than pure his­tory.

Brody Neuenschwander’s cal­li­graphy for the BBC tele­vi­sion series “Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyr­ant”, dir­ec­ted by Dav­id Sing­ton, Dox Pro­duc­tions, 2009.

There are two types of graph­ics in your work — text as text and text as an im­age. Do you feel that switch” in the pro­cess: when you think text and when you think im­ages?

There was all that talk for all these years with Green­away: text as text and text as an im­age — are they sep­ar­ate, can they be the same, can you look and read at the same time. I per­son­ally con­cluded that they can­not be — at least in the Lat­in al­pha­bet we read or we look, and cer­tainly with dif­fer­ent parts of the brain.

But when cre­at­ing cal­li­graphy can you think in both ways?

I al­ways write text and I al­ways write let­ters. I’m aware of the words I’m writ­ing and I’m al­ways very con­scious of the legib­il­ity level, how much I want. There is a cer­tain sense of the re­cep­tion of the word — what will an­oth­er per­son per­ceive here. But it’s also about what I will per­ceive. If I’m work­ing on something and I feel I’m read­ing too much, then I’ll get rid of some level of legib­il­ity. If I feel the bal­ance is wrong between read­ing and see­ing, then I will al­ter it — I will add legible or re­move legible ele­ments.

So it’s about con­trolling legib­il­ity and il­legib­il­ity to make it more im­age, less text” or more text, less im­age”?

Yeah, un­til I’m happy with the bal­ance. It’s about how much you let a per­son in­to your soul. A work of cal­li­graphy for me, to speak very hon­es­tly, is my pro­cess of de­cid­ing how much of me I’d like the world to see. Some­times it’s in the text but it’s also al­ways in the im­age be­cause that nev­er lies. Im­age is the truth. You could see how much has been hid­den, how much is hon­est, how much is alive, how much is a mask, how much is genu­ine — the im­age will tell you that. And the words would only some­times tell you that, I think words are trick­i­er and less trust­worthy than the im­ages. If you know how to look.

Is the pro­cess more in­tu­it­ive or ra­tion­al?

Well, I al­ways thought I was a very ra­tion­al per­son, but in re­cent years I learned that I’m just totally emo­tion­al. I have great ra­tion­al ca­pa­cit­ies and I al­ways thought that was what was lead­ing the pro­cess, but it wasn’t. The point is that yes, of course, you use your powers of reas­on, and that’s very im­port­ant for di­gest­ing, pro­cess­ing, and or­der­ing in­form­a­tion, but the real thing that makes the de­cisions is your in­tu­ition and your emo­tion. In an artist­ic pro­ject, that’s the only thing that counts. But if you don’t have the reas­on­ing powers to bring the in­form­a­tion to­geth­er, that’s no good. You need to be able to do that. If you try to do that emo­tion­ally, it would be sloppy.

There’s a thing which I call pro­fes­sion­al in­tu­ition — when you have many years of ex­per­i­en­ce and you don’t know why you make cer­tain de­cisions, be­cause all that know­ledge you have is in your sub­con­scious, you just can’t keep it on the sur­face.

Yeah, you don’t know ra­tion­ally, but you know. In bio­logy, they talk about “real” and “no­tion­al” con­sents. “No­tion­al” means you un­der­stand the idea and say “Yes, I agree with that” but “real” means that it goes right down. That doesn’t hap­pen early, you have to learn it over the years.

You’ve told me about Pro­fess­or Hans-Joachim Bur­gert whose writ­ings were very im­port­ant for you… Can you tell more about that?

Hans-Joachim Bur­gert was a pro­fess­or of Gestal­tung — form­al ana­lys­is — at some uni­versity in Ber­lin and at some point he got very in­ter­es­ted in writ­ing, cal­li­graphy, the forms of let­ters, and he ap­plied Gestal­ten to the ana­lys­is of shapes. I had real prob­lems as a cal­li­graphy stu­dent be­cause I star­ted get­ting in­ter­es­ted in Ar­ab­ic cal­li­graphy, Chinese cal­li­graphy and I just thought it was fab­ulous. My teach­er would say, “Why do you think it’s fab­ulous?” and I couldn’t ex­plain, I just knew I liked it. Then all of a sud­den this Ger­man man ap­peared and gave a work­shop, which I took and so did a lot of a pro­fes­sion­al cal­li­graph­ers. I was still a young, be­gin­ning cal­li­graph­er, and all the big names I was sup­posed to re­spect, but didn’t, took the work­shop, and he was teach­ing people to look at and make let­ters as forms, not as the known shapes of a re­ceived al­pha­bet. All this pro­fes­sion­al group was com­pletely up­set by what he was say­ing. They just couldn’t deal with it. The few people in the class who were in­ex­per­i­en­ced had a great time. So this was in­ter­est­ing. Then he asked me to trans­late, be­cause I was the only one who spoke Ger­man in the class, so I trans­lated for him dur­ing the week and then at the end of the week he asked me to trans­late his book as well.

So that gave me the chance to really look at the ideas up close. I sud­denly real­ised that here was an ana­lyt­ic­al lan­guage that could be used for Ar­ab­ic or Chinese or Hindi or Lat­in or Greek or Cyril­lic. And that was simply fant­ast­ic. He was the one who…. ba­sic­ally, he gives scores to dif­fer­ent kinds of writ­ing, say­ing this would get 10 out of 10, that would get 7 out of 10, mean­ing that the Tra­jan in­scrip­tion fails. It gets no marks at all. It’s so bad in gestalt — be­cause there’s no form­al con­trast, it’s all sil­ver text. He looks at some things by prim­it­ive people and they get very high scores, be­cause you have thick ele­ments and small ele­ments, tense pas­sages and open pas­sages, ho­ri­zont­als and ver­tic­als — real graph­ic lan­guage. If you can get in­to that, you get in­to the idea of let­ter­forms, texts and groups of let­ter­forms be­ing graph­ic com­pos­i­tions.

He was not in­ter­es­ted in emo­tion­al ex­pres­sion at all. He was en­tirely in­ter­es­ted in wheth­er the forms to­geth­er rep­res­en­ted a graph­ic­ally in­ter­est­ing, tense graph­ic lan­guage. Ima­gine a mu­sic­al com­pos­i­tion with cer­tain themes that de­vel­op and re­peat in vari­ation, and then turns things down for the con­clu­sion. With­in the com­pos­i­tion there are cer­tain par­tic­u­lar things that come back in vari­ation. Well, writ­ing for him has to do that. There has to be enough vari­ation to have graph­ic ten­sion between one ele­ment and an­oth­er. He says that the West­ern ty­po­graph­ic tra­di­tion has noth­ing, which gives it high func­tion­al­ity and low graph­ic value. Be­cause in a page of sil­ver text not one let­ter sticks out — it’s all an even, sil­ver glow, which he thinks gives, again, high func­tion­al­ity, but it’s noth­ing to look at. Just read it. If you think of, let’s say, an Ar­ab­ic text, the func­tion­al­ity could be quite high, but if there’s really a lot of cal­li­graphy go­ing on, the func­tion­al­ity is lower and the im­age value, the graph­ic value is high­er. So he ana­lyses these things, which was in­cred­ible and eye-open­ing for me.

It changed everything. I star­ted do­ing cal­li­graph­ic ex­er­cises, every kind of ex­per­i­ment with let­ters I could think of, which I put in the post and sent to him in Ber­lin. All he ac­tu­ally did was send it right back with no com­ments at all ex­cept “Keep go­ing”, and that was enough. That brought me the idea that if the graph­ic val­ues in Ar­ab­ic or Chinese are stronger than in the Lat­in al­pha­bet, maybe I can learn something from that, maybe I can im­port that. Not in the sense that I’d make fake Is­lam­ic Lat­in cal­li­graphy or any­thing kitsch like that, but cer­tain graph­ic strategies could be use­ful — in Ar­ab­ic, ob­vi­ously ho­ri­zont­al ex­ten­sion would be the main one.

Or, for ex­ample, if you can find any­thing like an x-height in Ar­ab­ic ty­po­graphy
— let’s say you take the ba­sic circle that makes the n or the f, which is usu­ally three to five pen-width height, and let’s say you put that next to the tallest let­ter, which could be twelve or fif­teen height. So you have five to twelve or five to fif­teen — that’s a ra­tio of one to three or even more. If you look at the same ra­tio in Lat­in script, x-height to as­cend­er height is ba­sic­ally one to one. That’s not very dra­mat­ic. So I learned that when as­cend­ing the height of the h or the l, let’s go to one to one, two to one, three to one, five to one — let’s have a big­ger dif­fer­en­ce between the tall things and the small things.

Then you have the oth­er is­sues of spa­cing. If he says that sil­ver spa­cing is graph­ic­ally un­in­ter­est­ing, that’s be­cause it means all the spaces were even. Well let’s make them un­even, to an ex­treme, and put a lot of things really close to­geth­er and some things fur­ther apart. This is just a dis­as­ter to a ty­po­graph­er, but to a cal­li­graph­er it’s mu­sic. It’s what works. So I came to the con­clu­sion that, ba­sic­ally, users of the Lat­in al­pha­bet have been ty­po­graph­ers since Ro­man times, not cal­li­graph­ers. So we don’t really have West­ern cal­li­graphy. We have to in­vent it.

Even be­fore we had ty­po­graphy, we were ty­po­graph­ers, be­cause we had reg­u­lar spa­cing and reg­u­lar shapes. That’s why Guten­berg could do it — be­cause it was already ty­po­graphy, and that’s why the Ar­abs couldn’t do it. I mean, that’s the reas­on that mod­ern print­ing star­ted in Ger­many, be­cause the let­ters were so reg­u­lar­ised in Goth­ic script that he could put them on met­al.

So, in Ar­ab­ic there is the idea of many more ex­tremes in the dif­fer­en­ce between x-height and as­cend­ers, the ho­ri­zont­al elong­a­tion of forms and ir­reg­u­lar dens­ity — more let­ters here, few­er let­ters there. As for Chinese cal­li­graphy, the main thing that we can learn from is the dens­ity is­sue. Some char­ac­ters have three strokes, some char­ac­ters have twenty strokes, some char­ac­ters have forty strokes. All in the same space. That means that in Chinese cal­li­graphy it’s un­avoid­able that some areas are light and oth­er areas are dark. You can not have “sil­ver text” in Chinese, it’s im­pos­sible be­cause of the num­ber of strokes oc­cupy­ing the space. I treat it as a vir­tue. Plus the fact that in Chinese cal­li­graph­ic tra­di­tion, the brush was con­sidered a very sens­it­ive in­stru­ment that re­cords emo­tion. That’s nev­er been the case for Lat­in cal­li­graphy, or Ar­ab­ic, ac­tu­ally. It’s not an emo­tion­al pro­cess. The hard pen was nev­er seen as an emo­tion­al in­stru­ment, the brush was.

And it’s all about Qi.

Ex­actly, it’s all about a Qi… So yeah, they had a brush, they had pa­per. And they also had this sense, be­cause of the brush. When they were ex­amin­ing the of­fi­cials — you know that in Em­per­or China you had to go and take the ex­am­in­a­tion to be­come an ad­min­is­trat­or — the main sub­ject was cal­li­graphy be­cause first of all he has to be able to write a re­port in good writ­ing. The second is — we can read his char­ac­ter from his writ­ing, we’ll know if he’s good of­fi­cial or not if he is hon­est, for ex­ample. Graph­o­logy in oth­er words. Chinese in­ven­ted graph­o­logy more than 1000 years ago.

But still, not be­ing nat­ive makes it hard to feel that text-cul­ture bridge.

Yeah, there’s no ques­tion about that… What I feel and what I know from hav­ing stud­ied the Ar­ab­ic and Per­si­an scripts is that they are cer­tainly highly de­ve­loped for writ­ing po­etry. There’s no ques­tion that the Per­si­ans are ob­sessed with po­etry — they’re the most po­et­ic people — and they have this won­der­ful des­cend­ing di­ag­on­al script nasta’liq that they use for po­etry all the time. This script doesn’t sit like sol­diers on the line, it really does float like leaves in the wind or something. The cal­li­graphy of Chinese po­etry, and Ja­pan­ese po­etry even more so, has been de­ve­loped for the light­ness of their po­etry — you can eas­ily see that.

In Europe, cal­li­graph­ers were nev­er the edu­cated classes. They were la­bor­ing classes — they wrote what the boss told them to write. Art cal­li­graphy was nev­er de­ve­loped by the “liter­ati” — the po­ets, the im­per­i­al ad­min­is­trat­ors — it was de­ve­loped by the work­ers who re­cor­ded in­form­a­tion for books. Ja­pan­ese cal­li­graphy was de­ve­loped be­cause of the po­etry by the people who were writ­ing the poems. We can’t ima­gine such a thing. I don’t know who de­ve­loped the nasta’liq script, wheth­er it was the po­ets them­selves, but the re­sponse to the po­etry is cer­tainly easy to see. I need to look in­to that, I don’t know. But in the East it’s clear — it was the up­per classes with an artist­ic lan­guage. The up­per classes in Europe nev­er cre­ated art.

Can you tell us about the pro­cess of cre­at­ing the Rijks­book? Did you have any sketches from Mar­cel Wanders or did you have ab­so­lute free­dom to do whatever you wanted?

Mar­cel Wanders did not par­ti­cip­ate in the pro­ject at all. He brought in people who were book de­sign­ers to do the pro­ject for him. They would send me and Massimo (Massimo Pol­lelo) the di­git­al lay­out sketches they wanted, which were simply in­com­pet­ent, just aw­ful. It was some ty­po­graphy that they would draw some curls on or paste some curls on from something else. The sketches did not cor­res­pond to any­thing that you really do, they were ugly, or very of­ten the sketch didn’t take in­to ac­count how long the text ac­tu­ally was. They would go on­line and find a piece of cal­li­graphy, but maybe that piece had four words and they would give you twenty words. It doesn’t work. You have to un­der­stand the quant­ity of text you have — this is what de­term­ines the lay­out — and they just threw it on there. At the be­gin­ning, we tried to fol­low this, but we real­ized pretty quickly that it wasn’t go­ing to work, and Massimo and I just did what we thought was right. We didn’t fol­low the sketches at all and then they were happy any­way… They knew noth­ing about cal­li­graphy. I can­not be­lieve that so much money was spent on a pro­ject by people who did not know what they were do­ing. If de­sign­ers are com­mis­sioned for cal­li­graphy, they should know something about it, or the oth­er thing you do is hire a con­sult­ant. You know, they didn’t come to me and say, “Brody, would you like to man­age the cal­li­graphy on the pro­ject?” That would have been a good thing.

After all the hand­writ­ten work was done, what else did you do to get the fi­nal ver­sion? How much re­touch­ing did you do?
Lots. For any­thing for print, I made a de­cision when I bought my wa­com tab­let where I draw on the screen (it’s not a little wa­com that people know where you look on the oth­er screen). I real­ized that for print there’s no point in play­ing around the idea of hon­esty in the sense that there would be no re­touch­ing. It’s print­ing, so it’s already not the ori­gin­al. So I de­cided to not to lim­it my di­git­al ma­nip­u­la­tions in any way. It’s more ef­fi­cient, I can do it bet­ter and faster that way, and with much bet­ter res­ults. So for the Rijks­book, for ex­ample, I would take the text…

… It was black and white, right?

… Well, grey and white. I al­ways use grey­ish ink that is easi­er to col­or in Pho­toshop than black and white — you’d just get a sol­id col­or. I would go to my desk, play around with dif­fer­ent tools un­til I found which tool gave the right kind of let­ter­ing feel, and then I would write the text, mis­takes and all. If there was a spelling mis­take or ugly let­ter, I would just con­tin­ue on and maybe in the mar­gin write an­oth­er o or an­oth­er h that was bet­ter or a com­pletely dif­fer­ent word. All the flour­ishes and everything was usu­ally sep­ar­ate, and then I would go back to the com­puter, scan­ning it all in high res­ol­u­tion, and start to piece it to­geth­er in Pho­toshop. So I would say it was usu­ally a ques­tion of one hour by hand, four hours in Pho­toshop.

It sounds al­most re­volu­tion­ary for tra­di­tion­al cal­li­graphy.

Let’s say the gen­er­al pub­lic will look at the cal­li­graphy in the book and they will simply find it to be won­der­ful cal­li­graphy, very beau­ti­ful let­ters. The cal­li­graph­ers will look and they will also say that, but then they will think, “Wow, he’s really good if he can do this”, you know, and then you tell them that it was all re­touched, and they say, “Oh no”. Well, okay, I’m not in­ter­es­ted in those is­sues. It’s not a work of art to me, it’s a work of craft and I can craft it best with two pro­cesses to­geth­er, ana­log, and di­git­al. Be­sides, to tell the truth, the budget was not that great, so I needed to do it in the fast­est way pos­sible. I had to do a page per day. There was a pro­duc­tion sched­ule.

You’re an Amer­ic­an liv­ing in Europe. Do you feel dif­fer­en­ce between Europe and the States in the cal­li­graphy world?

Lots of dif­fer­en­ces. Amer­ica is just the land of kitsch. When I do the work­shop De­vel­op­ing Mean­ing, in which we do journ­al­ing with text art in­clud­ing cal­li­graphy, we can avoid the kitsch. I can teach them to work from the concept and not just do cute things. It’s a demo­graph­ic is­sue — these are wo­men over 40 and over 50, so kitsch is their, you know, nat­ur­al bio­sphere. Europeans are more strict about these things and have a bet­ter taste. The bet­ter cal­li­graph­ers in Europe have cre­ated a mod­ern lan­guage of cal­li­graphy. Not the Brit­ish, by the way. I mean con­tin­ent­al Europe — that’s where the bet­ter cal­li­graph­ers are.

Do you have to prac­tice a lot or is it like a bi­cycle?

Like a bi­cycle, yeah… Well, I should prac­tice, but I wouldn’t know what to prac­tice be­cause I do so many dif­fer­ent things. When the Rijks­book came, I was pleas­antly sur­prised that I could still do form­al writ­ing. I made, for ex­ample, two books that could be one book or could be four — there’s just a lot of pages with a lot of very strong col­or and very strong marks. I don’t know what the theme would be if it’s go­ing to be books, but I keep try­ing to find a style of let­ter that aes­thet­ic­ally fits in the book and that is cor­rect for now. I’m really not get­ting there yet — I mean, I’ve tried everything, so I do sit down and prac­tice, I write, I try dif­fer­ent styles and more styles, I put them in the book and it still doesn’t work. I think at this point I’m go­ing to have to stop and change the rules of the game. If it’s not work­ing, something else has to hap­pen — maybe there’s no text at all, maybe there’s something else, I don’t know what. So that’s not prac­tice, that’s sort of a long peri­od of try­ing to fig­ure something out.

Tell me about artist’s books.

I didn’t do books over the years, and then I did this Book of Er­rors, which was a very in­tense ex­per­i­en­ce. And then I thought, maybe I’ll do some more books, but you know when you look at artist’s books of­ten they kind of dis­ap­point me. Well, I think I need some time to fig­ure out the para­met­ers of an artists book.

It’s kin­et­ic, it relates to your body in a dif­fer­ent way than a paint­ing or a sculp­ture, and it brings cer­tain ex­pect­a­tions such as read­ing or whatever, and it brings cer­tain ideas of text/im­age re­la­tion­ship too. So to move in­to that me­di­um, it’s a com­plex me­di­um, and I have to be sat­is­fied with whatever I could do to re­ju­ven­ate the text/im­age re­la­tion­ship in the kin­et­ics of the book. I don’t par­tic­u­larly feel the need to re­think how this page turns and all these ex­per­i­ments with forms people do, I’m not in­ter­es­ted in it. Turn the pages. Cause there’s enough to worry about. So I think I would be much more in­ter­es­ted in… as you turn the page what hap­pens. How do you use that pro­cess? And in­cor­por­at­ing pho­to­graphy, that’s the main thing I’m think­ing about right now. If you hold the book, on the one hand, you’re hold­ing a flat ob­ject, it’s open, you know it’s only so thick and un­der­neath there is your hand or your lap, so you know it’s not a win­dow. Like a paint­ing might be a win­dow. But we still have books with pho­to­graphy in them, the page which is clearly thin is still a win­dow. So there’s ter­rible con­tra­dic­tion — fas­cin­at­ing con­tra­dic­tion — of flat and depth. And if you have, if you were to com­bine a pho­to­graphy and painted marks which are clearly flat, then you can have in­tense con­tra­dic­tion. It seems to me that that would be the most in­ter­est­ing area to go.

What is your fa­vor­ite in­stru­ment?

My fa­vor­ite in­stru­ment is my brain [laugh­ing]. But I’ll tell you that re­cently, I wanted to make some pages for the Book of Er­rors. I have a table in my stu­dio, so I un­rolled pa­per over the whole sev­en meters. If you want to paint 7 meters with white gesso, it dries, so you have to put a lot of mois­ture on. I was all white and the white was all in dif­fer­ent tex­tures, be­cause I’m spread­ing it out in dif­fer­ent ways. I star­ted to write on it with a brush and ink in black and white and then I thought, “Throw this brush away”. I star­ted with my hands and be­fore long I was on top of the table swim­ming in it. I don’t know what came over me, but when it was all over, I was totally covered with ink and ready to cry, like something over­whelmed me. That was ac­tu­ally a really beau­ti­ful page.

How do you think, is it pos­sible to make something beau­ti­ful without be­ing in­volved emo­tion­ally?

If you’re not in­volved emo­tion­ally, nobody else will be either, I think. It would be like a crys­tal. I think I was in­ter­es­ted in that earli­er in my life, but not any­more. Life’s too short. You know, like Raphael — it’s just beau­ti­ful, way too beau­ti­ful. Michelan­gelo hated him too, by the way. They met each oth­er many times in the Vat­ic­an. He was a pretty boy, pop­u­lar with every­body, but of course, Michelan­gelo is mil­li­on times bet­ter than Raphael.

Interview
Calligraphy 
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