Project 2, Exercise 1: Mixed messages

Messages communicated by the writing

  • Enjoy your stay: the message of the words is inviting, but the formal (Gothic?) script seems to work against the message. Perhaps, though, this is meant to be an appeal to a sense of the traditional or old-fashioned. If that is the case the message and typeface might work together. Context and audience would play important parts in how such a message would be read.
  • DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS / THEY ARE DANGEROUS: the use of all capital letters communicates a sense of the urgency of the message, which is an important one for anyone concerned about their safety. The typeface, however, might be seen as less than serious. Why not choose a simple, sans serif typeface that communicates less ambiguously?
  • We are professionals: the typewriter script is something we no longer see very often, except perhaps in advertising or on book covers. Perhaps the use of such an "old school" typeface is meant to be ironic, to evoke a particular kind of office work, or to give the reader confidence that the writer has older (and reliable?) values.
  • LUXURY: the typeface aims to be exotic and might be successful in advertising a luxury good (perfume, perhaps?). At the same time, the type is probably a little less legible than it could be—although this could have the beneficial effect of encouraging a potential buyer to slow down and read more carefully.
  • hand made: the text in lowercase, sans serif type is very legible and gives a sense of lack of pretension. It could be an effective way of presenting a hand made product with an air of honesty. In that way, text and type would work together very well.

In each of these examples, context and audience would be important factors in judging the effectiveness of the visual communication. Any one of the examples could be effective or ineffective, depending up the use to which it is put.

Additional examples where text and typeface do not complement each other:


Additional examples where text and typeface do complement each other:


Project 1, Exercise 1: The Textual Revolution

Take a moment to think about the wider implications of this textual revolution.

1. What happens to a story when you take it from its source, make it permanent in print, and disseminate it to a wide audience?

  • there is potential for broader distribution
  • there are now roles for distributors, editors and translators in the process
  • the author loses the possibility of instant feedback and error-correction
  • there may be a need for interpretation with changes in context, time and place
  • there is loss of authorial control
  • there is potential for significant misunderstanding
  • the text may transcend its original time and place through language
  • questions around who will be the new readers, in what contexts?
  • at times, the printed word can bring a permanence to texts that should be, or were meant to be, transitory

2. Write a list of implications arising from the printing press. For example, think about who has control/authority over the text, the meaning of the text, and the relationship between the source of the text and its recipient.

  • all of the above, plus issues of cost, fees, mass production
  • potential for lack of access or censorship for some texts or for some audiences

Case study: 'A Place Beyond Belief'

A case study of A Place Beyond Belief by Glaswegian artist Nathan Coley.

• What’s your first response to this piece?

I find the contrast between the deep shades of blue in the sky and the yellow of the lighting attractive. I like that there is a range of blues in the sky and I like the silhouettes of the framework and the building behind the sign. I also like the angle of view from which this image was shot—it seems more dynamic than a straight-on shot. I don't yet have a firm understanding of the piece, though.

• What questions are you going to ask in order to make sense of the piece?

Where is the piece set? Is the text a reference to something specific? How was the piece constructed? Is it a permanent installation or temporary? Or was the image just found by the artist? (Doubt it.) Does the specific place matter or could the work have been installed anywhere? Do we know anything about the artist's intent? How does the work fit within Coley's body of work? Have any reflections on the piece been published?

• What type of work do you think this is? It could fit into several categories. How would
you define it?

I've been referring to it as an installation, largely because I'm assuming that this is not a "found" piece. It could be site-specific but that remains to be seen. It could be classed as a scultpure, depending on how integral the supporting structure is (or is it just hold the thing up?). Is the work just the text? The entire structure? Or does the building in the background play a part in the piece? If so, is the work the photograph of the installation or the installation itself? Not having any information yet on the role of the site, I'll have to define this as an outdoor installation featuring illuminated text. That's more of a description than a definition, but I'll be ready to adjust it once I have more/better information.

• What do you think the text is about?

It's difficult to land on a meaning. "A place beyond belief" could mean "a place where belief does not exist" or it could mean "an unbelievable place." The text could be referring to the specific location of the installation or it could have broader application. If it is site-specific, the text might refer to the church in the background and offer a commentary on religious belief in general or the Christian faith in particular. 

• What are your first thoughts after listening to the monologue?

My first thoughts are that this is a moving and powerful story and that Coley tells it well. For those of us with strong memories of 9/11, it is easy to remember the feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion and disbelief in the time during and following the event. It is also easy to imagine the tensions in the subway car, both on the part of the Sikh man and the others around him.

• What other information can you find on Coley’s website about this particular piece?

In addition to multiple images of the installation, the website contains details of its construction (illuminated text on scaffolding; dimensions variable), photo credits for the images, locations where it has been installed (Haunch of Venison, London; Art Gallery Kosovo, Pristina, Sept 2012; Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany, Jan 2013), the link to the video of Coley providing background on the piece and a link to a site related to the location in London (the link was broken when I tried to access it on May 7, 2016).

Where is it actually sited?

I am not sure where it is actually sited. The most recent location I can find for the piece was at the Triennial Bruges 2015

• Does this alter your response to it?

No, not at all. Coley has installed the piece in different locations around the world and has often juxtaposed it with buildings connected with religious, political or commercial activity. His message of the need to find a "place beyond faith" is probably a broad concept in his mind and can lend itself to a sort of universal social criticism in many settings.

• Have your views on this piece changed after listening to Coley speak about it? If so,

They have changed somewhat. I've come to a better understanding of the meaning of the piece and how Coley, and his hosts, have used it as a social critique that can lend itself to a number of sites. In a sense, then it both is and isn't site-specific. Given the general nature of the message, the text will also be understood in different ways over time just as it has already moved on from its initial association with the 9/11 attacks. I, like most people, want to live in a world that is free from violence and injustice and on a simple level "a place beyond faith" seems to provide an answer. I am not confident that we can all move to that place, though, as our lives and societies all depend on some form of faith, whether acknowledged or not. If Coley's interviews are anything to go by, he may enjoy just that kind of irony and ambiguity.

• Do you think contextual information is essential to gaining a greater understanding
of contemporary work? Make a note in your learning log.

I think the answer to this question has to be "yes and no." Yes, contextual information is important if we are concerned with the artist's intent: context can help get us closer to intent but it cannot guarantee that we have complete understanding (and it is always possible that the artist has not completely understood his or her own work). Yes, contextual information can be helpful for the viewer in considering a broader range of meanings than a first view might provide. But no, contextual information can never exhaust the evolving range of meanings that a piece might suggest through changes of time and place.

• Do you think it should be an essential ingredient?

I think that contextual information is an enriching and important tool, particularly for those interested in art, culture and the history of interpretation. But I'd hesitate to call it "essential"—I'd be concerned with giving the impression that we can ever arrive at the "correct" reading of any work of art. Some are better informed than others, but none should pretend to be the last word.

Research point: artists whose work incorporates text

  • Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006; sculpture, writing, graphic art, poetry)—Many of Finlay's works incorporate text and he had a fondness for inscribing words and entire poems on stone although he worked in many media. Perhaps his most famous work, Little Sparta, is the garden he created southwest of Edinburgh. Little Sparta brings together sculpture, poetry and gardening to create an environment that both fits into, and stands apart from, the local landscape. As one of Finlay's own lines asserts, "It is the case with some gardens as with societies; some things require to be fixed so that others can be placed."
  • Alec Finlay (1966-; poetry, sculpture, collage, technology, publishing)—An interesting work, The Road North, consists of poems written on a blog during a year-long trip around Scotland with a friend. It is described as a "collaborative audio and visual word-map" and is loosely inspired by a journey taken by the Japanese poet Basho. The blog entries contain photographs, snatches of conversation, reflections on places visited and poetry, along with pictures of sights along the way.
  • Doug Aitken (1968-; photography, video, sculpture, illustration, installation)—A series of creations consisting of a single word in large type that provides the outline of an image or images: examples include "Star," "Party," "Free," "Riot," "One," "Sunset." The images contained within the words sometimes work against the word ("Party" contains an image of many discarded tin cans) and sometimes appear to support it ("Sex" suggests a lush garden and fruitful nature and "Vulnerable" contains an image of a lone aircraft sitting on a tarmac apron).
  • Graham Gussin (1960-; neon, video, installation, sound)—"Someplace Sometime" is a blue neon sign that undermines the typical use of a large, bright, coloured sign: to signal something or somewhere worth noticing. Instead, the work catches the user's attention to underline no particular place or time. Is this humour, something deeper or a bit of both? Possibly a regular theme of Gussin's, given that we see it present in other of his works, such as "Untitled" and "Zone Out Plinth" where words again signify less than they promise.
  • Marine Hugonnier (1969-; film, photography, sculpture)—Series "Art for Modern Architecture" systematically replaces pictures from newspaper front pages with colourful geometric shapes. Replacing the images detracts from the stories by removing helpful visual references, but it also has the effect of relativizing the text as well: the columns and paragraphs of words now take their place as graphic elements alongside the brightly coloured blocks. It's a strange effect: if there had only been text on the page we might not miss the images but, once the image content is present only as pure colour and form, the words carrying meaning are also lessened in impact.

Many of the pieces produced by these artists are relevant to theme of "place," albeit in significantly different ways. Ian Hamilton Finlay has shaped the landscape around himself and incorporated his work directly into it. Alec Finlay's work is not so much tied to one place but involves travel, reflection and response to a series of places around Scotland. Dou Aitken's installations constitute one-word comments involving places, but it is not always clear whether the place comments on the text or the text is a comment on the place. Graham Gussin's neon sign seems to invoke place through its absence by telling the viewer that there is nothing particularly special about the location of his installation. Even Marine Hugonnier's graphic constructions with newspaper might be seen—at a stretch?—as a comment on place: how do we understand the architecture of a place or the use of space when what we think we need to create meaning is replaced by something completely different?