1996: Dimensional Typographic Poetry

 “Dimensional Typography: Case Studies on The Shape of Letters” is a great title I would have loved to have thought of it; it’s also a great book written and conceived by J. Abbott Miller in 1996. I am endebted to the ever-resourceful Jason Lewis for loaning it to me from his library.

“Dimensional Typography: Case Studies on The Shape of Letters” is a classic: succinct, beautiful and revelatory. The opening essay is only 8 pages (online) but manages to cohesively develop a taxonomy of dimensional type. The remainder of the book is devoted to Case Studies: pictures of experimental 3D fonts with concise descriptive blurbs.

Abbot’s definition of dimensional typography invites me (as a digital poet) to offer a definition of dimensional poetry as an extension of dimensional typography. The extension may seem a bit lame and predictable at first glance but bear with me, building from Abbott’s foundation toward poetry offers a complete perspective on the role or relation of digital poet to tradition and media. If typography is the physical substrate (the body or ecosystem) of literature, then poetry is interpretable as the phenomenological essence or process of literature, a way of getting at the raw truth in awareness. So dimensional poetry can be understood as the exploration of dimensional typography’s EMOTIVE AND SEMANTIC PRESENCE. Typography, in this schema, is a subset of the poetry. In other words, typography is an element of the physical context; while poetry expands beyond pure context to include content.

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Abbott opens modestly by situating 3D typography within a long history:

“From early carved inscriptions to neon signs, numerous experiments in the history of typography and signage have interpreted letters as physical, spatial entities. By now the spectacle of the dancing, decorated, and three-dimensional letterform is common in both print and electronic media… Dimensional typography can be understood as an investigation of the SCULPTURAL AND THREE-DIMENSIONAL FORMS of individual letters.” (p. 1-2)

Abbot continues on page 2:

“This line of inquiry assumes that the ability to think of letterforms as having spatial and temporal dimensions brings with it new obligations and opportunities to augment the visual and editorial power of letters.” (p. 2)

Similarly, thinking of poetry as an emotive and semantic vehicle (even if thinking this way is a very traditional perspective) brings with it new obligations and opportunities to augment the transformative and revelatory power of words.

Let’s continue this game of echoing and extending Abbot who writes:

“…presumably, concern for the SPATIAL aspect of navigation and SCULPTURAL aspect of individual forms will converge in a new approach to typography that fuses these two spheres of interests.” (p. 2)

Presumably concern for the NARRATIVE aspect of engagement and the EMOTIONAL aspect of form and presentation will converge in a new approach to poetry that opens to include video, sound and 3D typography as tools for expression.

As Abbot points out,

“Designers accustomed to dealing with a flat pictorial paradigm of paint are now dealing with the architectural ergonomic and cinematic paradigms of immersive media.” (p. 3)

To echo again, poets accustomed to print and type as a flat page-based language-space paradigm are now dealing with the interactive,  aesthetic and 3D  paradigms of streaming media. In other words, digital-poets are now designers and programmers.

Abbot then details the fundamental architectural motions involved in dimensional typography, as he develops, (what he self-deprecatingly refers to as) an

“expanding, imprecise system of classification that now further challenges the nomenclature of typography” (p. 7)

The operations in Abbot’s catalog are EXTRUSION (the pushing forward of space thru space, as in woodcuts, and the 20th Century Fox logo), ROTATION (rare since it obscure the legibility), TUBING (fonts such as Franfurter, Neon, Electric, and actual neon shop lettering) SHADOWING (from 19thC. woodcuts through Bauhaus designers — Joost Schmidt– interested in fonts relation to photographic shadows and the Umbra font (1932) constructed entirely of shadows), SEWING (“stitching, threading and lacing…In paintings, from the Renaissance onward…”(p. 5) and in fonts such as Snell Roundhouse), MOLECULAR (“Letters built from smaller small-scale units to form a larger whole”(p. 5) as Zuana Licko’s Oakland font), MODULAR (letters “built from a discrete vocabulary of interchangable parts”(p. 6) as in Fregio Mecano font from 1920s), and BLOATING (“bulbous, organic, corpulent, inflated and biomorphic … letterforms that exhibit mutable, ductile qualities.” (p. 7) as in the cartoon Pop kitsch fonts of 1960s and the soft letter sculptures of Claes Oldenburg).

The rest of Abbot’s beautiful little book (so tactile and precise, translucent rough-cut pages interspersed with heavy paper visuals) is devoted to case-studies of these operations applied to existing fonts: 3D prototype models that

“build on existing typefaces by historic figures like Ambroise Didot as well contemporaries who have become our unwitting collaborators.” (p. 8)

The result is an ontological recalibration as fonts become friendly fat, thin, fierce, form-full and expressive, and seemingly alive or actual. They migrate from symbolic glyphs glued to flat-space into vibrating reality, shadowed weight endows them with proximity. The traditional argument for a transparent font (Beatrice Ward’s The Crystal Goblet 1932) is replaced by concerns that are both filmic and painterly. Perspective, proportion, composition, formal balance and ratio enter into reading. The semantic act, the basic meaning of the word or sound of a letter, then gets carried along into unfamiliar modules in the brain; an expanded semantics emerges, a semantics carried along by the texture and behavior of the skin of text rather than the coherence of a sentence or phrase. I am intrigued by this lateral motion of dimensional typography because at the same time as it provokes and offers visual reflections on questions of ontology, it questions the notion of disciplinary boundaries and evokes considerations of synaesthesia which leads to neurology and sometimes these inquiries surreptitiously creep back toward phenomenological questions about how meaning emerges. So in essence what is experienced is like the amorphous rhizomatic blob on the cover of Abbot’s Dimensional Typography.

Below are some stills from an online experimental film-typographic-poetic-experimental play-art-research-work I am making (in process as of January 2009) dealing with 3D type. It is called MUD.

Is is painting?
Is it sculpture?
Is it film?
Is it a poem?

At what point does the poem stop and the painting begin? At what threshold does the legibility of the letter disappear, and the abstract immanent art-form emerge? Can the two speices of aesthetic appreciation co-exist? Maybe the arts are merging, maybe art-works will traverse or fuse or co-activate discrete modules in our brain as easily as crowds of clouds slip unnoticed over international borders. Human abstractions do not necessarily constrain actuality; as wall screens and ubiquitous networks inundate humans with advertising, perhaps the act of reading will slowly become synonymous with a cinematic gaze; paragraphs and verses will flock. Probably the cognitive speed limit of human attention will always mean that quiet static serene page-like representations of language remain in the repertoire of literature, even as screen-based sculptural typography will assume a larger neurological market-share.

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The decade that has passed since Abbot’s work has seen exponentially increasing ease-of-use in 3D modeling software. Combined with compositing, it is now possible for an independent (like myself) to manufacture semi-credible environments for letters that are mutable and malleable in ways analogous to wet clay; the 3D modeling software’s name nods toward this affinity, it’s called Mudbox. A quick glance at the toolset in Mudbox suggests an extension to Abbot’s taxonomy of typography,  an extension into animation where the taxonomy evolves as the tools change: smear, sculpt, stamp, knife, fill, bulge…The list is growing as algorithms for the tactile manipulation of spatial pixels emerges. New capacities constitute new modes of expression; new modes of expression permit new concepts; new concepts feed into capacities. Recursion occurs, the intangibility of poetic meaning is echoed in the intangibility of the virtual.

Even more, if the words themselves are pixel-clay animated in real-space, composited onto video footage, then words become beings. They have depth, they move, they cast shadows, they collide, they can be ripped apart and die or be sculpted. Sculptures have often thought of the medium they use as being alive. Now with 3D software, humanity is approaching a place where numerous questions about what constitutes sculpting life will be debated; garage scientists will redefine what constitutes genetic research. While artists, and specifically digital poets such as myself, bear the responsibility of advocating on behalf of forms and language itself. Advocating for the inclusion of language itself into the continuum of life is not necessarily as naive as it may at first appear. These glyphs and motes of meaning that we trade amongst each other contain the rudiments of a metabolism called emotional syntax.

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