Words take shape on the printed page
Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology Edited by Barrie Tullett Laurence King Publishing, 176pp, $39.95 Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 3, No 2: #Concrete Australian Poetry, 90pp, $25 Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies By Jessica L. Wilkinson Vagabond Press, 122pp, $25 HAVE used a series of Macs that have run out of processing power, run out of upgrades, blown their power supplies, or just refused to turn on any more,” writes Barrie Tullett, graphic designer and lecturer at Edinburgh’s Lincoln School of Art & Design, in Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology. “My 1934 Underwood, however, always starts first time.” Featuring 180 illustrations of works by more than 90 artists and poets, Tullett’s paean to the artistic potential of the typewriter wears its analog aesthetic well and truly on its sleeve.
For more than a century following the invention of the Remington Standard in 1874, the manual typewriter enjoyed near-mythical status for the writer, whose life it revolutionised. “Take a writer away from his typewriter,” quipped poet Charles Bukowski, “and all you have left is the sickness which started him typing in the beginning.” That was in 1986.
This book charts a lesser-known affliction. While 20th-century scribes were sweating blood on to their platens with Hemingwayesque application, a small yet dedicated band of ‘‘typewriter artists’’ were pushing the boundaries of what was possible with the machine.
The result is a remarkable body of work, brimming with wit and ingenuity, that blurs the boundaries between word and image and foregrounds the question of art’s relation to technology. The sheer variety of material handsomely reproduced here is a testament to the seemingly limitless capacity for innovation by artists working with this uniquely limited medium.
Examples range from concrete poems such as Scottish poet Edwin Morgan’s classic Unscrambling the Waves at Goonhilly (1968) to abstract designs informed by the Bauhaus and de Stijl movements of the interwar years, from figurative ‘‘type-drawings’’ that “appropriate the vernacular of needlepoint” to monumental multi-panelled works such as Canadian Steve McCaffrey’s Carnival (1965-75).
That half of it has been produced this century reveals the analog medium’s continued appeal for digital natives. A life committed to producing original art with “the most regimented of mediums” evidently requires a certain degree of obsessiveness. Take for instance eccentric Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houedard, widely considered the chief exponent of the art form.
A British Army intelligence officer during World War II, Houedard (or ‘‘dsh’’ to initiates) found he occasionally lacked sufficient material for his requisite 16-page reports, so began filling the space with creative flourishes of the typewriter. For much of the second half of the century he refined his technique, tapping away long into the night on his cherished Olivetti Lettera 22, much to the chagrin of his fellow monks in Prinknash Abbey, Gloucestershire. The vast series of typewritten abstractions (dubbed ‘‘typestracts’’ by Morgan) he left at the time of his death in 1992 are considered unparalleled for their mastery of the medium.
Tullett’s anthology updates the classic in its field, Typewriter Art (1975), edited by Australian expatriate Alan Riddell, a relatively underappreciated figure in Australian poetic history. A Townsville-born journalist turned poet and curator who sought cultural nourishment in swinging London in the 1960s, Riddell became a key player in the international concrete and visual poetry movements before his sudden death in 1977 at 50. As Andrew Belsey remarks in one of six interviews with contemporary artists included here, Riddell “must be credited with separating and identifying typewriter art as a subcategory of concrete poetry”; when asked if he ever felt part of a community of typewriter artists, Belsey poignantly ponders: “There might have been one if Alan Riddell had lived.”
Inspired by last year’s exhibition co-curated Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 3, No 2: #Concrete, Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology, by the Heide Museum of Modern Art and University of Queensland Art Museum, Born to Concrete, the latest issue of the Australian Poetry Journal highlights Australian contributions to international developments in concrete and visual poetry of the past 50 years.
One of the enduring strengths of the journal under the stewardship of poet and editor Bronwyn Lea has been its thematically focused criticism. Articles by three of Australia’s foremost contemporary practitioners in the field, Pi O, Alex Selenitsch and Richard Tipping, continue this trend.
Pi O feistily contends that another expat, Jas H. Duke (not Barry Humphries), lays claim to being ‘‘Australia’s only dadaist poet of any note’’. Selenitsch gives Riddell his due by describing him as “our missing precursor”, while also noting contributions by Michael Callaghan, Mike Parr and Pete Spence.
Tipping, arguably Australia’s most important visual and installation poet, opens the window on to his creative process, “looping from typograph to installation and back” in three related pieces, Earth Heart, Hear the Art and Hearth. Tipping’s debt to Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay is evident throughout; his numerous commissioned installation pieces have appeared in Melbourne, London, New York and, memorably, on the shores of Lake Macquarie, in a large-scale work that he claims is clearly visible on Google Earth. (It is. I checked.)
The journal’s selection of contemporary work is diverse and energetic, and its clean and professional layout, another hallmark, is no