Ideas

Brainiac

This is your alphabet, on technology

“Heterosis”

Brian Banton

“Heterosis”

Earlier this month I wrote about how digital design tools are allowing skyscrapers to take on more complex and creative forms. This Thursday a new exhibition called Stereotype opens at the BSA Space that applies the same theme to a different topic: typography.

“What we’re doing in this exhibition is looking at the reaction to typography deep in the digital age,” says Judith Hoos Fox, cocurator of the exhibition. Stereotype includes work from a variety of artists who either use technology to invent whole new typefaces, or create throwback works that self-consciously reject the intangible, pixelated quality of digital production.

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One especially techy piece in the exhibition comes from Ji Lee, the head of creative strategy at Facebook. He’s created a stylized alphabet by rotating each letter 360 degrees, tracking the outline that its shape traces through the air, and then 3-D printing out the solid form that emerges. (The result looks like a series of complicated donuts.) Another is by Thomas Mason, a chemist at UCLA, who’s concocted a tiny alphabet — in typesetting terms, it’s 1/300th of a point — and can only be viewed through an optical microscope. The minuscule letters are ostensibly good for labeling cells in a laboratory setting, but their vanishing size mimics the way type has receded from the corporeal world into the digital plane.

On the other end of the spectrum, Stereotype features letters made from people, paper, and yarn. “What we’re seeing is an interesting way that [these artists] are stepping forward by stepping backward,” Fox says. She cites Australian artist Domenique Falla, who’s created a crafty alphabet in which the “L” is made from lace, the “B” is beaded, and so forth. There’s also the British designer Dan Tobin-Smith, who’s devised performative ways of engineering an alphabet, like arraying people on a rocky landscape so that they form the letter “H” viewed from above.

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Unlike skyscrapers, which have an undeniable brick-and-mortar reality alongside their digital existence, letters are intrinsically representative. Is an “F” twirled around on the computer and printed out of plastic any different than an “F” scratched into the dirt? In both cases, context matters. While our first efforts in typography may have been about trying to confine the immediate physical world to words, our latest adventures, on display at the BSA, seem more about trying to figure out what we’ve lost.

Stereotype: New directions in typography runs at BSA Space, 290 Congress St., from Nov. 13 through May 25, 2015.

Domenique Falla

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a tiny alphabet created by Thomas Mason could only be viewed through an electron microscope.

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