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noreply@blogger.com (Mitchell Whitelaw)

At CODE2012 I presented a paper on "programmable matter" and the proto-computational work of Ralf Baecker and Martin Howse - part of a long-running project on digital materiality. My sources included interviews with the artists, which I will be publishing here. Ralf Baecker's 2009 The Conversation is a complex physical network, woven from solenoids - electro-mechanical "bits" or binary switches. It was one of the works that started me thinking about this notion of the proto-computational - where artists seem to be stripping digital computing down to its raw materials, only to rebuild it as something weirder. Irrational Computing (2012) - which crafts a "computer" more like a modular synth made from crystals and wires - takes this approach further. Here Baecker begins by responding to this notion of proto-computing.

MW: In your work, especially Irrational Computing, we seem to see some of the primal, material elements of digital computing. But this "proto" computing is also quite unfamiliar - it is chaotic, complex and emergent, we can't control or "program" it, and it is hard to identify familiar elements such as memory vs processor. So it seems that your work is not only deconstructing computing - revealing its components - but also reconstructing it in a strange new form. Would you agree?

RB: It took me a long time to adopt the term "proto-computing". I don't mean proto in a historical or chronological sense; it is more about its state of development. I imagine a device that refers to the raw material dimension of our everyday digital machinery. Something that suddenly appears due to the interaction of matter. What I had in mind was for instance the natural nuclear fission reactor in Oklo, Gabon that was discovered in 1972. A conglomerate of minerals in a rock formation formed the conditions for a functioning nuclear reactor, all by chance. 

Computation is a cultural and not a natural phenomenon; it includes several hundred years of knowledge and cultural technics, these days all compressed into a microscopic form (the CPU). In the 18th century the mechanical tradition of automata and symbolic/mathematical thinking merged into the first calculating and astronomical devices. Also the combinatoric/hermeneutic tradition (e.g. Athanasius Kircher and Ramon Llull) is very influential to me. These automatons/concepts were philosophical and epistemological. They were dialogic devices that let us think further, much against our current utilitarian use of technology. Generative utopia.


Schematic of Irrational Computing courtesy of the artist - click for PDF

MW: Your work stages a fusion of sound, light and material. In Irrational Computing for example we both see and hear the activity of the crystals in the SiC module. Similarly in The Conversation, the solenoids act as both mechanical / symbolic components and sound generators. So there is a strong sense of the unity of the audible and the visual - their shared material origins. (This is unlike conventional audiovisual media for example where the relation between sound and image is highly constructed). It seems that there is a sense of a kind of material continuum or spectrum here, binding electricity, light, sound, and matter together?

RB: My first contact with art or media art came through net art, software art and generative art. I was totally fascinated by it. I started programming generative systems for installations and audiovisual performances. I like a lot of the early screen based computer graphics/animation stuff. The pure reduction to wireframes, simple geometric shapes. I had the feeling that in this case concept and representation almost touch each other. But I got lost working with universial machines (Turing machines). With Rechnender Raum I started to do some kind of subjective reappropriation of the digital. So I started to build my very own non-universal devices. Rechnender Raum could also be read as a kinetic interpretation of a cellular automaton algorithm. Even if the Turing machine is a theoretical machine it feels very plastic to me. It a metaphorical machine that shows the conceptual relation of space and time. Computers are basically transposers between space and time, even without seeing the actual outcome of a simulation. I like to expose the hidden structures. They are more appealing to me than the image on the screen.

MW: There is a theme of complex but insular networks in your work. In The Conversation this is very clear - a network of internal relationships, seeking a dynamic equilibrium. Similarly in Irrational Computing, modules like the phase locked loop have this insular complexity. Can you discuss this a little bit? This tendency reminds me of notions of self-referentiality, for example in the writing of Hofstadter, where recursion and self-reference are both logical paradoxes (as in Godel's theorem) and key attributes of consciousness. Your introverted networks have a strong generative character - where complex dynamics emerge from a tightly constrained set of elements and relationships.

RB: Sure, I'm fascinated by this kind of emergent processes, and how they appear on different scales. But I find it always difficult to use the attribute consciousness. I think these kind of chaotic attractors have a beauty on their own. Regardless how closed these systems look, they are always influenced by its environment. The perfect example for me is the flame of a candle. A very dynamic complex process communicating with its environment, that generates the dynamics.

MW: You describe The Conversation as "pataphysical", and mention the "mystic" and "magic" aspects of Irrational Computing. Can you say some more about this a aspect of your work? Is there a sort of romantic or poetic idea here, about what is beyond the rational, or is this about a more systematic alternative to how we understand the world?

RB: Yes, it refers to an other kind of thinking. A thinking that is anti "cause and reaction". A thinking of hidden relations, connections and uncertainty. I like Claude Lévi-Strauss' term "The Savage Mind".

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VICE Loves Magnum: An Interview with Christopher Anderson

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War, Steve McCurry’sAfghan Girl or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers in the agency, which, given they’re the greatest photo agency in the world, means that becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.

First up is Christopher Anderson, who became a Magnum nominee in 2005 and was a full member by 2010. His early work on Haitian immigrants’ illegal journey to America—during which he and they sank in the Caribbean Sea in a handmade wooden boat named Believe in God—won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal. And last year, we produced an episode of Picture Perfect about him.

His subsequent book projects include Son, a series of photos capturing his wife and young child as his own father grew ill with cancer, and Capitolio, which documents unrest in Caracas during the time of Chavez.

I had a chat with him about how he sees himself and how that’s changed over his career.


Joe Biden descends from Air Force Two in Virginia, shot for New York Magazine.

VICE: You’ve vocally distanced yourself from photojournalism in the past. Why is that?
Christopher Anderson: 
There are photojournalists in Magnum, but I don’t see it as a photojournalist agency. It’s more founded in documentary photography. If I were to use a term for myself, I feel I’d fit more closely in the bracket of documentary photography than photojournalism. The term photojournalist tends to be loaded with meaning: specifically that one reports the news. I don’t see that as my function. Even when I was photographing things that were news topics, like conflicts, my function was not that of a news reporter, my function was to comment on what I saw happen that day and to offer a subjective point of view. In my role, I was commenting on what was happening, but also trying to communicate what it felt like to be there when it was happening.

So you wanted to capture images that were more emotional and personal?
Exactly. But I would go further and say that I not just wanted to do that, that is in fact what I did do. I had no pretence of objectivity. I was photographing, giving my opinion, and I wanted you to know that I was giving my opinion.

Did your unconventional approach make it initially more difficult to sell your photos, or was it beneficial from the start?
Well, I don’t think I was going ‘round articulating that to editors, saying, “No, I won’t work for you unless you understand that what I do is subjective.” With the agency I was with before, it didn’t make a difference, as I was already sort of working for “journalistic magazines,” and I worked a lot for the New York Times Magazine. The kind of stories that I would do, even ones from conflict zones, would be longer and more in depth in their approach to what was happening there, trying to put what was happening in a more human, intimate context rather than the headlines of the day. But to be honest, the marketable advantage never crossed my mind at the time. I was just intent on trying to do what I did in the way I wanted to with as much integrity as possible.

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We Chatted with the Dirty Girls, 17 Years Later

Earlier this week, a video called “Dirty Girls” went viral on YouTube—and not for the reasons you’d expect, given the title. The documentary video, originally shot in 1996 by filmmaker (and then high school senior) Michael Lucid, was released in 2000 and chronicles a group of outcasts, refered to by their tormentors as the “Dirty Girls,” who pride themselves on riot grrrl ethos, being different, and just not giving a fuck. The video focuses on the two leaders of the Dirty Girls, sisters Amber and Harper, who speak clearly and eloquently (as eloquently as an eighth grader can be expected to) about their convictions, while girls in sunglasses and jean jackets talk smack about them behind their backs. Not only is the documentary a perfect time capsule for people who went to high school in the 90s, it also perfectly captures two strong, independent young people speaking their minds and doing their own thing. 

When I first watched “Dirty Girls,” I loved it. I sent it around to everyone in the VICE offices, and they loved it, too. We all decided that we really needed to track down the original Dirty Girls and see what they were up to today. It turned to be not that difficult a task. Harper lives in New York City and was gracious enough to visit our offices, where I chatted with her and her sister, Amber, who joined us via Skype.

VICE: When is the first time that you guys saw the video?
Harper: Pretty much right after it was made when we were still in high school. Around 2000, he did a screening of it at a gay and lesbian film festival in LA. He had taken it down from an hour to 20 minutes, so that was the first time we saw this short, really well-put-together documentary. We haven’t seen it since then… so 12,13 years or so.

How did you find out that it was taking off online like it has?
Harper: A close friend of mine had it forwarded from somebody from high school. Someone forwarded it me and said, “I’m blown away. Oh my god, I love you girls. You’re such strong little ones. So confident. I’m so impressed.” And at that point, there were 2000 views. That was the first day. And then it just went from there, and more and more people contacted us.

Amber: I only really just watched it again fully yesterday. I felt like I remembered it really well 13 years ago. I had a certain amount of emotions about it at that time and was sure that I would feel the same now. But when I watched it yesterday, it was totally different. It’s amazing to me, because I think it’s a reflection on us and where we’re from. I’m the same person who watched it 12 years ago, and I’m also so different in how I’ve developed and what I think now. It was a completely different perspective. It was the miracle of life. I love it. It’s fascinating.

How do you feel when you watch the video now? Are you proud? Embarrassed?
Harper: I’m excited about it. I think it’s great. I remember in the moment feeling like we were given a voice that we didn’t have without that video being shown to the rest of the school. So I felt proud of the commentary then, and I do now too. I’m also just so blown away by the positive reactions from everybody. Just looking at the YouTube comments where everyone is so inspired, impressed by us. That just makes me feel so happy. I think back then we were dedicated to giving people voices that maybe didn’t have them. And I think both of us would agree that neither of us have any hard feelings toward any of those people, the older students making comments about it.

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Photo: Nadege Meriau

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At first glance Nadege Meriau‘s photographs appear to be microscopic images, at second glance, apocalyptic landscapes. But in reality they are assembled out of food: fruits, vegetables, bones, meat and more.

The lighting is haunting and carefully constructed with a muted color palette. When studying her images, one starts forming an exit strategy. There is a paradox in them, between pain and pleasure.

Meriau is a Tunisian-born artist who is currently based in London. She received her masters from the Royal College of Art in 2011 and has exhibited her photographs in Europe since 2005. Most recently she was nominated for the Discovery Prize at Les Rencontres d’Arles. In her interview with Raw File below, Meriau discusses her process, intentions and negotiating art versus commercial work.

Wired: Would you say that science is an influence on your work? If so, could you explain how?

Meriau: Yes, the natural sciences, especially biology, are a strong influence. One of the main starting points for this project was my reading of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. I am also very interested in biomimicry, especially when it comes to architecture.

Wired: Do you consider your images to be abstract or do you want your audience to immediately understand what you are building? Could you explain the importance of working with food?

Meriau: I want to disorientate the viewer, at least initially, so hopefully the images are not immediately understandable. I’m drawn to edible materials because of their complex textures and colors but also because they are alive and unpredictable as they change with time and temperature.

The transformative, alchemical aspect of growing and cooking food is interesting to me, perhaps because it is akin to the creative process. I also like the idea of exploring everyday edible objects such as a piece of bread or a potato.

Wired: I see that you shoot commercial photography as well as fine art and that you are represented by Wyatt Clarke and Jones. How do you feel about making your work for strictly commercial purposes?

Meriau: I don’t see myself as a commercial photographer but more as an artist who takes on commissions and works collaboratively with art directors, designers and picture editors.

Wyatt Clarke and Jones are known for representing people who didn’t set out to be commercial photographers. They have an understanding of fine art and documentary photography, which makes it possible for me and other photographers to work with them.

I see my art and commercial practices as separate yet entwined: One is research based and the driving force behind everything I do, the other is more indexical and about working collaboratively on a brief. I enjoy both and I see them as feeding of one another as if part of an ecosystem.

Wired: In many of the structures from your current work, the viewer has a sense they are trapped inside these caves. Is this your intention in terms of narrative?

Meriau: My intention is to envelop or draw the viewer into these spaces, not to trap him/her. If you look carefully there is always an exit point, a chance to escape.

Wired: To me your structures seem to represent dwellings, are they a comment on the nature of “Home”?

Meriau: I’m interested in the duality of the concepts of food and home and how both can be seen as safe, nurturing, life-giving or unsafe, destructive and poisonous.

Wired: Who are your artistic influences?

Meriau: Jules Verne, Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog, Marx Ernst, Salvador Dali, Theodore Gericault, Caspar Friedrich, William Turner, Alex Hartley, Louise Bourgeois, Anya Gallacio, Sarah Lucas … to name a few!

Wired: What is next for you? Will it involve food?

Meriau: Food is vast territory that I’m only beginning to explore. Ideas for future projects involve a mushroom-based installation and a collaboration with a beekeeper and his bees.

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Stéphane Elbaz is graphic and type designer working in New York and Paris. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo, recently published by Typofonderie. He is the first typeface designer from outside the foundry to be published by Typofonderie.

How do you define yourself?

I am a designer. I intend to solve problems with aesthetic solutions, but at the same time develop a personal expression. It’s this gap that I find interesting.

My taste for letters appeared really early in my life, during my teenage years. At that time it wasn’t properly an interest in type, but certainly a taste for letters as plastic shapes. Going to the Arts Décoratifs school in Paris led me to discover classic typography. How could one not to be nostalgic when contemplating those school years? It’s very important for me because of how much I learned during these years. Classes with Rudi Meyer and Jean François Porchez gave me the context and the latitude to look at the subject with a more experimental way of thinking.

It was during the type design courses lead by Jean François Porchez that I was involved in the creation of the Caffeine and Cooker Black typefaces. This was clearly an important starting point for me; I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to involve myself in rigorous typographic projects without this first step. Thus letters for me became the dominant element of my graphic design. Type design is a discipline that requires a taste for abstraction plus a systematic mind — two things that fit well with my professional mindset.

You do both web design and type design, which is pretty rare. How does this affect how you work?

Concerning my web design skills, it’s a question I should ask of my colleagues. I don’t know if working with headlines devoid of kerning, or the inability to set a nicely ragged left paragraph is more difficult for me to live with than it is for others. I do, however, have good reasons to be optimistic. Things are evolving more quickly and always improving. The future will bring with it more and more screens and resolutions, and it is important that the typographic quality on these devices improves accordingly.

I think what has occurred on the Internet for some years is a perfect illustration of the importance of typography in graphic design. The capacity to use a large font palette, in comparison to the three or four standards that were used for dynamic texts, changes everything, and permits designers to express different identities.

Beyond the technical constraints of various screens, I don’t think there is any fundamental difference between the content presented on a screen or on paper — in much the same way as I don’t think that twitter or text messages radically changes our language. After all, it’s the graphic designer that has to choose the typefaces appropriate to the subject, and deal with technical constraints with a broader focus than just the screen or the piece of paper.

Why did you leave France to live and work in New York? From there, what can you say about type design in the United States and in France?

I like the charm of tiny cities. Seriously though, the United States is a big country and therefore has a great diversity of expression. There is certainly a tone in American graphic design that is quite different; the references are not exactly the same as in France. It seems, for instance, that the idea of tradition and the images associated with it are not the same in Paris and New York. The shapes and the imaginative world of tradition are an important foundation upon which type designers work, thus there are going to be differences in the type aesthetic.

What is the genesis of your typeface, Geneo?

Geneo was a personal project that I began without thinking of a context or a specific use. I was attracted to slab serifs and began drawing a really thin weight, a little like a typewriter character, but with some kind of Renaissance spirit. I think that I was trying to find an anachronistic mix that actually worked. I was also fond of the brush-made flourish shapes of the Art Nouveau period, and I was particularly inspired by them. All of these elements combined could feel a bit heavy, but my idea was to make a contemporary character where the shapes had to be synthetic while at the same time retaining some flesh, some of the organic.

Geneo won the TDC prize back in 2009, and today it is distributed by Typofonderie, although it’s not exactly the same typeface. Its original identity remains intact, but it had to evolve to conform with the foundry’s standards. This meant a lot of work, but I benefitted from the guidance and exceptional eye of Jean François Porchez. We worked together on both the design of each particular glyph’s details as well as the weight scale of the entire family. Time was also spent designing dingbats and alternative glyphs.

I believe that this new typeface family permits a great diversity of uses. The lighter weights used in headlines can convey both a delicatessen or a piece of literature. The intermediate weights can be used to set body text in an academic journal or in the logo of a new social network. We imagine the heavier weights being used on posters or in editorial design. The family as a whole can also be used in works needing a complex typographic hierarchy. Also, I think that in the context of a rational and minimal text layout, Geneo can add a connotative dimension, a level of contrast. For me, an even more exciting prospect is to see my typeface appear in ways that I couldn’t have envisaged. It’s from other graphic designers’ creations that I am waiting to see new and interesting interpretations.

Can you share something about the new typefaces you are working on?

I have a few things in progress, which I think is often the case with type designers; having several typeface ideas in the back of their minds. What determines if a typeface will one day be completed and released or not is the relevancy of its shapes and its identity. Some others will never be finished because they are shaky in their concept or just not original. I currently have a sans-serif project that I would like to finish. Unfortunately, it’s a category that already appears saturated and therefore is particularly challenging, but nonetheless stimulating.

Interview by Jérémy Landes-Nones.

Graphic and type designer Stephane Elbaz holds degrees in Visual Communication (2003) and Interactive Research (2004) from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo (published by Typofonderie). He works in New York and Paris.



Sponsored by H&FJ.

An Interview with Stéphane Elbaz

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Wondering - by Bruce LaBruce

As promised (or threatened), for my column this week, to follow up on last week’s discussionof the scary potential new school of serial killer, I present an interview with Toronto-based artist Nina Arsenault, who about a decade ago dated Luka Magnotta, the Canadian psycho du jour that many people seem to be fixated on–some in the most disturbingly inappropriate, fanatical way. It should be noted that at this point Magnotta has been accused of one horrifying murder and has entered a plea of not guilty. There is also some conjecture that he may have committed other murders, but it has not been substantiated. This interview is based on speculation about his psychology and motivations if he is indeed guilty of these crimes, which the evidence seems overwhelmingly to indicate.

Nina is a transgendered performance artist whose work posits herself as a kind of living sculpture, having transformed herself, through a variety of surgical procedures, from a biological male into an idealized version of her own ultimate female form. Her one-woman play, The Silicone Diaries, is a riveting, emotionally honest autobiographical monologue about her life and art that documents this transformation. A book about her work, TRANS(per)FORMING Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, also features some of my photographs of her. (The above photo is from a series we did together—a visceral, expressionistic response to a bad breast job she once had which necessitated the traumatic removal of one of her silicon implants.)

What interests me with regard to Magnotta is the number of parallels between Nina’s productive, creative journey and his destructive, malignant path: the narcissism (Nina is one of the few people I know whose narcissism is entirely justified), the plastic surgery, the sex trade work, the transgendered issues, etc. But where one of them ended up becoming an empathetic, positive artist, the other became a psycho killer (allegedly). What gives?

VICE: Nina, you received over two hundred interview requests to talk about your former relationship with Luka Magnotta, but you turned them all down except for a few. How did journalists find out about it, and why did you decide to speak to the ones you spoke to?
Nina Arsenault: I was asked to comment on him because some journalists found TV footage of Magnotta when he was a contestant in a male modeling contest in Toronto–a reality TV show called Cover Guy on Out TV –and I was one of the judges. It was strange because this reality show happened well after I dated him, and he’d had so much plastic surgery since then that he had to come up and tell me who he was. He’d altered his cheeks, which is something that can radically change your appearance. The journalists at CTV and CBC both asked me to look at the footage right before interviewing me on camera to see if I remembered anything about him, so it was a bit disconcerting because it was only when I watched it that I discovered that this guy in the news had been my ex-lover! After that, I turned down interviews because I wasn’t interested in having low-level, salacious conversations about a human tragedy. I said yes to a few interviews, like Dr. Drew on CNN and the Today Show because they seemed to be reputable, and I was interested in offering a social commentary that was more analytical. I think I have something to offer in this way.

Narcissism obviously played a part in Magnotta’s demented psychology, and it’s a subject that also applies to your work and life. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on narcissism and how it needn’t necessarily be a psychopathological impulse?
I think it’s important to differentiate between narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. To my understanding, having NDP means not being able to have empathy for others and to habitually manipulate others for your own gratification. People with this disorder lack an emotional understanding of the feelings of other people, that others have needs and an existence that continues after you leave the room.

Then I think there is a narcissism that is not necessarily pathological, but probably more and more prevalent in society, which is the tendency to understand our own lives and the lives of others based strictly on the value of our visual image. Our lives become like the movies we are watching or the video games that we are playing, having a certain emotional detachment. Cinema, video games, and social networking have taught us that we can imagine ourselves as an avatar of our being, as a (glamorous) moving image. This can be good or bad, depending on how you use it.

You and Magnotta have both altered your appearance through plastic surgery. How do you think this relates to narcissism?
Multiple cosmetic procedures allow you to sculpt a new image of yourself into your very own body. As an artist who uses video images, online media, and plastic surgery,

I wanted to explore this phenomenon.  I’ve used autobiographical material from my life, and I’ve never tried to deny my narcissism. Instead I’ve tried to investigate my tendency to understand myself as an image, wanting to be a pure image, and the impossible desire to have no thoughts or feelings, to be just an object in some sense.  I needed to get into this part of my psychological landscape, not to escape or deny it, and to search again for an authentic self.  Because I am an artist, I do this by expressing it publicly, by making work.

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Last night we hosted a presentation and discussion at Frontline Club in London between Tom Stoddart, Peter Dench, and Aidan Sullivan.  Here is the full video (yes, it’s 90 minutes long, but worth it!).

Dench: I grew up where books mattered.  As a photographer, the holy grail for me was, in 1990, a book and an exhibition.

Stoddart: It still is, even more so, because you’re not going to get 20 pages in the Sunday Times Magazine…photographers have to find different ways of getting their work in front of people…the number one thing is to be in the industry and find ways of getting your work out there that people want to see, no matter how you do it.

Dench: I call it “diversify or die.”

There’s a nice write-up about the event posted on the Frontline Club blog.

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EVE Online! Since the servers first rumbled to life nine years ago the deeply political, single-shard MMO has been a source of endless fascination for RPS, on a par with helicopters. How do they stay in the air?

But what’s happening in EVE? Last we heard, some of its most famous chaps were grumbling or rioting, followed by something that continues to feel like a controlled peace. We needed an update, and so it was that CCP sent over a crate containing Senior Producer Jon Lander, Lead Game Designer Kristoffer Touborg and Community Developer Sveinn Kjarval. Together, we would get to the truth.
(more…)

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 High velocity bullets operate in this area
Is it unfashionable to be cynical about free-to-play these days?* I’m a bit of a stick in the mud when it comes to this stuff. I don’t like the idea that game design, balance and content are all elements of a game that can and should be fiddled with depending on how many little chunks of money a player throws at the developer. I also think that the some examples of microtransactions are at best poor value, and at worst deeply exploitative. I’m open minded though. Especially open minded when the free-to-play game in question has got very shiny graphics, and lets you shoot robots. I sat down with Crytek’s Michael Krach & Michael Khaimzon at GDC to find out more about their upcoming Microtransaction based game, Warface, and it seems as though they saw me coming. (more…)

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Based near Burford, Oxfordshire, Fergus Wessel is a letter cutter producing fine memorials that can be seen throughout the UK, including St Paul’s Cathedral. Naomi Chapple interviews him in his workshop on his love of lettering and, in particular, the relevance of good typography in his work.

Why did you decide to become a letter cutter?

My introduction to the elegance of letters and typography began at the Whittington Press in Gloucestershire where my mother worked as a typesetter and wood-engraver. An early love of stone carving and an interest in lettering led me to the Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge, where I trained as an apprentice.

Since 2003 I’ve had my own workshop where I have so enjoyed meeting people, working with them, and understanding their needs. My work tends to be quite traditional and my conviction is that finely carved lettering and pleasing spacing are fundamental; simplicity is the key.

Why a particular interest in good typography?

An inscription on paper or stone can be a beautiful thing to look at, a work of art. It is not the content which interests me most, but the shape and rhythm of the lettering. An inscription must be pleasing and well balanced to the eye. This requires an in-depth knowledge of sound typographic principles.

Rhythm in riven slate.

Your lettering is entirely hand-cut. Is typography more relevant and important in hand-carved lettering than in sandblasted lettering?

Unfortunately, it does have more relevance in hand-carved lettering, though it shouldn’t. There is no reason why sandblasted lettering can’t be well spaced and laid out. Sadly, however, there is a general lack of care and love with machine-cut lettering. Those who produce hand-carved lettering tend to take more time and give their work more love and attention. It’s not the technique that’s the problem, but the layout. This is more important than the way a letter is cut; for example, finely carved lettering with poor spacing and layout will still look awful.

Left: Carving robust letters in relatively soft Portland stone. Right: This slate was carved by an apprentice as an exercise in good rhythm & spacing.

Do the principles of good typography on paper translate well to, say, headstones? How do you adapt a typeface for use in stone?

In order to achieve a good design on stone, the lettering needs to be adapted to the type of stone. For example, if one is carving in slate, there is little difference in the lettering one might use on paper. However, in limestone the letter needs to be chunkier and more deeply cut, as we rely on the shadow of the v-cut and not colour to see the letters.

What are the limitations of lettering in stone?

When cut by hand, lettering in stone has few limitations, unlike sandblasted lettering, which is restricted by the technology that produces it (although this is improving all the time). In many ways, with lettering in stone there is more flexibility than in type, where one is restricted by the piece of type. Again it depends on the material; a coarse and open limestone only really lends itself to big, bold lettering. Slate, on the other hand, is very fine to cut and one has complete control over the material — one’s chisel being like an extension of the hand.

Left: The beauty of slate is that it permits such fine carving. Right: An experiment using a type designed for paper on slate.

How do you achieve good letter spacing? Do you use a ruler?

By eye, I never use a ruler! With a ruler one is limited to set measurements and sometimes a letter needs to be moved “by a nothing.” I judge good letter-spacing by visualizing an equal volume between letters. This skill is achieved by having the patience to start drawing out an inscription all over again if it doesn’t look perfect. We call this “killing one’s darlings” and it takes a lot of self discipline.

Are there any typefaces you particularly like using in stone?

I don’t really use typefaces in their pure form; they are mainly designed for paper, so, as a letter cutter, one has to adapt them or design one’s own based loosely on a typeface. For example, one of my favorites is the lowercase alphabet from Caslon; but I would only ever adapt this to slate, as the forms are quite delicate. While the letterform is carved by hand, each will be slightly different and will always be an interpretation of the type.

Do you have a favorite letter, and why?

It would probably be the “S”. I like the challenge involved in getting the balance between the top and bottom spaces just right. They should look the same to the eye, but if you ever turn an “S” upside-down you’ll see that it looks completely top heavy. The bottom space must always be larger than the top to give the illusion of balance.

Do you give yourself much artistic license when laying out an inscription in stone?

Yes, of course; but this stage is incredibly disciplined, and it is a design issue, not one of free expression. It is not only about individual letter spacing but also about the interlinear spacing and the inscription as a whole. When marking out the lines on stone, I don’t use a ruler but a ticker. Again, this is because the distances involved are so precise that a ruler is simply not accurate enough.

Gilding an opening plaque in Welsh Slate.

What do you think of Eric Gill & his lettering? Has this tradition has been lost to modern-day letter cutters?

Eric Gill is my hero! His lettering, in my opinion, remains unsurpassed, partly because of its honesty. We are all striving for perfection, but there really is no such thing of course. If we try to control it and attempt to be too artistic, we are in danger of losing that honesty. One has to let the letters flow a little.

There are certainly strict rules of good layout and lettering, but rules are there to be broken. But in order to bend the rules, one has to know them in the first place, and attain that initial discipline. This requires years of experience and practice; it is something that evolves and it is during this evolution that you develop your own individual style and form.

Carving readable, chunky letters in Cotswold stone.

Do you consider lettering more challenging than relief carving or sculpture?

It is very different; there is no margin for error. If lettering is slightly wrong, the eye is immediately drawn to the problem. Poor spacing can break up a whole inscription; in fact, good letter spacing is more important than the individual letters themselves. There is a big difference between lettering that has been drawn out on stone and lettering that has been carved. If you draw out an inscription and then adhere rigidly to the lines, the spacing cannot be expected to be perfect. In order to achieve good letter spacing I always work on a block of four to five letters at a time. If, when carving some letters, I see the spacing is not perfect, I adjust the width of the letters by a fraction; but this takes practice to see.

Which factors are most important when lettering in stone?

Patience above all! Balance, good layout, unity, and timelessness. I don’t like to follow fashions in lettering, as they don’t endure. Often, I believe, the simplest headstones are the best.

You can learn more about Fergus & his work at Fergus Wessel’s Stone Workshop.

Interviewer: Naomi Chapple is a literacy expert and educationalist who runs a charity helping children in Nigeria. She is also a freelance writer and phonics teacher.



Sponsored by H&FJ.

Letters & Stone

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