NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

Member of International Council of Design ico-D

English | فارسی

Neshan 46/47

Face To Face - II

Literature, Performance And Design; Face To Face With Warren Lehrer

Steven Heller

Warren Lehrer, a Queens, New York, based designer, writer and artist, is a pioneer of design authorship and type as literature. He started his studio EarSay originally in 1983 as a small press then in again 1999. With his wife, the performance artist Judith Sloan, Lehrer used the name again for their non-profit artist-based organization. EarSay is a made-up conjunction that connotes going out into the world with an open ear collecting stories and voices, then channeling those voices and stories through their creative process with the result being books and performances. EarSay also references synaesthesia. Although it sounds like a disease, synaesthesia is really a natural union of two or more senses that can result in seeing voices, hearing colors, tasting words, feeling the texture of numbers, and more. In recent years he has used EarSay as a production studio for books and performances based on his books. Here he talks about his intensive work in and evolution of design literature.

This interview is about design and literature/literature as design. How do you describe your practice as author/designer or designer/author?
Good question. I think I switched from saying designer/author to author/designer around 1995 when the writer in me started taking precedence over the designer side. Both aspects remain inextricably linked, but at around that time I came to realize that some of my biggest fans, people who collected all my books, hadn’t necessarily read them all, cover to cover. My earlier work is rather dense and requires the reader to make a fair amount of choices as to where to go next on a page. As I started to care more about the stories I was writing and the subjects and people I was representing, I had to reassess what was most important to me. And more than anything these days I write. So, writer/designer. 

Type and typography is your language or at least your medium for telling stories. You’ve “experimented” with form, but how has content been altered by your typographic concoctions?
Since I was a kid handwriting letters home to my parents from summer camp, my words spiraled, stuttered and careened across pages. It’s as much a poetic impulse as a visual one. In my earlier books (1980-1995), I always broke lines significantly (like in verse) to indicate a pause in the thought or in the utterance of speech. When you don’t use periods or even commas, you’re much less constrained by sentences being the primary linguistic unit. I was interested in nuggets of thought, the shape of thought, which sometimes included sentences, but there were a lot of fragments in there too, particles, interwoven matter. In my book I Mean You Know (1983), I was as interested in thoughts and utterances as I was the synaptic gaps between thoughts that bridge our sometimes imperfect search for meaning (i mean) and a desire to connect with others (you know). 
More recently, my illuminated novel A Life In Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley (2013) contains 101 books within it, all “written by” my (fictional) protagonist who is in prison looking back on his life and career. For that book, I came up with all Mobley’s book titles, designed all the covers. There was a constant back and forth between designing and writing. The book covers gave me ideas about the book excerpts (which read like short stories), which helped me understand more about the confessional memoir part of the novel. The charts I kept on my character’s development, motivations, professional and personal chronology kept changing. Everything affected everything until the written and visual picture of this man, his life and books, fully revealed itself to me. Content, typography, totally interconnected.

You obviously have been inspired by the words in freedom of the Italian futurists, the Russian constructivists and the Dadaist deconstructions of words and sentences. How have these emerged in your early and later works?
I love F.T. Marinetti’s Words in Freedom and typographic manifestos, and teach them in my Design Issues class at SUNY Purchase. (Despite his being a fascist, glorifier of war, and chauvinist.) Marinetti’s creative writings really exemplify everything he was espousing about non-linear syntax, writing multiple voices on a page, approaching the reading experience as a form of performance, using mathematical and musical elements. And you have to give a lot of credit to Stéphane Mallarmé who came before the Futurists and Dadaists. His essay The Book, Spiritual Instrument and his epic symbolist poem Un Coup De Des—both written and published at the end of the 19th century—really blew open the sacrosanct column of text. In the West, the lineage goes back to the ancient pattern poets and forward from Mallarmé to Apollinaire, Tzara, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings to Kenneth Patchen, the Letterists, Fluxus artists, Concrete poets from all over the world. It’s a rich tradition. But I have to admit, I was pretty ignorant of my predecessors and contemporaries when I started playing around with these things on my own in college and even in graduate school. Smoking pot and being enamored by New York City and Venice Beach characters probably had more influence on me than Design and Visual Literature history. (There was no Design History to speak of in the 1970s and there still is no Vis Lit History taught just about anywhere.) Even by 1984, when I came out with my French Fries book/play, co-written with Dennis J Bernstein, I wasn’t aware of Ilya Zdanevich’s 1923 typographic performance play Lidantyu Faram or even Massin’s 1965 visual treatment of Ionesco’s absurdist play The Bald Soprano. And there was very little theory taught in grad programs back then. What I was looking at in the early ‘80s were contemporary graphic music scores by composers and performance artists like John Cage, Alison Knowles, Cornelius Cardew. 
French Fries may be your iconic work, but it was a beginning, not an end. What prompted this play to be written, designed and illustrated in the manner it has? And what further advances did it lead to?
My friend Dennis Bernstein and I were in the West 3rd Street McDonald’s in NYC on a winter night. Looking around we saw a homeless man eating French fries left behind on a table. There was a young couple sipping thick shakes, a mother with her kids, someone with a skateboard, the din of cash registers, fryolators, conversation. We realized it was living theater in there and talked about writing a play set in an American fast food joint. Pretty quickly we came up with French Fries as the title, and immediately I pictured the cover of the book like a box of McDonald’s French fries. 
We ended up writing a slice of a life play that takes place on a day when an elderly woman customer dies or is killed at a Dream Queen burger joint. Each of the seven characters, a mix of customers and workers, give very different testimony as to how Gertie Greenbaum ended up dead in a pool of blood and ketchup. There is also much talk about food, politics (at the height of the Cold War), love, loss, and twisted aspiration. 
My previous books also doubled as performance scores but were black and white and almost entirely typographic. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I was able to print French Fries in three colors. This allowed me to not only cast each character into their own typeface but also their own color. I added images and icons to the mix, evoking the repetitive churning out of so many burgers, fries, shakes, alternating with projected images of the character’s internal mindscapes. While my previous books were kind of elegant in an avant-garde way and luxuriated in lots of off-white space/silences, French Fries was a dense celebration of American commercial garishness mixed with what I called at the time “psycho-acoustic translations” of talk and speech. 

You began your work before the advent of digital typography. The digital created means for a new generation to create anarchic or free-form, unfettered literature. What would you say differentiates your work from the, well, Cranbrook deconstructivists, as they’ve been called?
I started out as a painter and printmaker. The first words that crept into my paintings and drawings were made by hand. My first book was a one-of-a-kind hand-lettered alphabet book called Type Dreams. Then I got my first rubber stamp alphabet and also worked some typewriters pretty hard, changing the color of ribbon, double and triple hitting the keys for words that needed more emphasis, changing the angle of the paper. When I went to Yale for grad school, I barreled into the barely-used letterpress shop and started printing books that mashed-up two songs in multiple configurations. I learned how to use a phototypesetter, pre-WYSIWYG. All the type changes (size, face, spacing) had to be coded. The next step was pasting up “mechanicals” which for me meant Exacto-knifing lines of the type so they flowed along arcs or diagonals. Sometimes I cut between every letter bending words into waves. Denser pages required multiple overlays. For French Fries, I only had enough money to print three colors, but with the help of my friend Phil Zimmermann, a master of color separation, I was able to mix the colors with tints and screens and multiple exposures. The densest page spread in French Fries, at the climax of a political argument, had over 100 exposures on each of the three plates. So, yeah, my work came into its own in a pre-digital era.
It irks me when I read about how the Macintosh computer liberated designers from the grid and allowed for layers and thinking in all kinds of non-linear and expressive ways. That’s not true. What it did was make things a good deal easier. And then, honestly, I liked a lot of what came out of the “digital revolution” in the 90s graphic design. I was very excited to see the work that was coming of Cranbrook in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and from Emigre Magazine, and Cal Arts and other MFA programs that embraced typographic voice, handwork, and took inspiration from literature, philosophy, and a kind of unruly investigation into meaning. I felt less alone in a graphic design ocean that had been defined largely by commerce and adhered to hand-me-down modernist aesthetics. 

You use type to distinguish mood, emotion, and expression. You’ve done a series of typographic profiles, you’ve created an entire character, Bleu Mobley, out of type and text. Can you describe this part of your evolutionary process?
Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet speaks of text typography as an invisible medium. We all know that the approach can be very functional. We read texts that way all the time. But to me, and others like me, it’s a very limited approach. I wouldn’t want to go to a concert where the instrumentalists weren’t permitted to draw from the full emotive and expressive potential of their instruments. I’d say the same of an actor. Yes, in one sense, we want an actor to disappear so they can embody the character they are portraying, but to do that they need to dig into their deepest reservoirs of emotion, memory, empathy, and utilize any number of techniques within their craft. 
As a writer and designer, I don’t see my job as using typography to act out the text. I see the designer side of me making typographic and design choices that engage readers with the rhythms, starts and stops, syncopations and diagrammatic tracings of a character’s thoughts and stories, as well as their shouts, whispers, and stammers. That’s how I approached the visual/typographic aspect of my Portrait Series books (1995), based on very real eccentric individuals who straddle the wobbly line between brilliance and madness. Each book in the series was proportional in size to the human figure with a photo of the real person on the front cover, and a photo of them from the back on the back cover, and inside the guts—first personal monologues, thought trees, dialogues with god—based on years of hanging out with each person. For the first time, in those books, I actually used columns of text. Still, epiphanies, parenthetical asides, and last gasps of life pierce the crystal goblets of text.
In 2003, my wife Judith Sloan and I produced Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America, a documentary project about new immigrants and refugees from all over the world who live in our home borough, Queens, NY, the most ethnically diverse locality in the United States. I designed the book to a.) evoke the experience of being on the streets of such a multicultural community, b.) reflect cultural and geographical overlays, and most importantly, c.) create the experience of coming face to face with each person via their photographic portrait surrounded by their story in their own words and objects and images they carried with them from home to home. In addition to the book, Judith and I produced radio documentaries, an original soundtrack of music and voices, a traveling exhibition that included a mobile storybooth and a typographic animation I made called Globalization: Preventing the Sameness of the World based on the words of Eugene Hütz, leader of the gypsy punk cabaret band Gogol Bordello. I’ve continued making animations in subsequent projects.
After representing living, breathing individuals in the Portrait Series, then 79 people in Crossing the BLVD, I felt a strong need to work on a project that had more room for invention and could get at the truth in a deeper way by exploring the interior dimensions of a fictional character. So I invented my Bleu Mobley character. In addition to crafting his story, I ended up fleshing out his entire creative output over 50 years, forming an unusual portrait of a well-intentioned, obsessively inventive, if ethically challenged, visionary. In addition to the memoir (as whispered into a micro-cassette recorder over the course of one sleepless night from the darkness of Mobley’s prison cell), the 101 book covers, first edition catalog descriptions, excerpts of 34 of the books, there are also “reproductions” of letters, articles, reviews, and other biographical artifacts. I also made animations, trailers for some of the books within the books, and short films of book excerpts that are posted online and become part of performance/readings and a Bleu Mobley retrospective exhibition. There’s a lot of humor in this project but it also is a serious look at one man’s use of books as a means of understanding himself, the people around him, and a half-century of American/global events.

Even using the old printing technologies designers and artists have challenged literary conventions. How have the new digital programs altered the text, type, and image now?
Now that books are liberated from having to be the most convenient vehicle for transporting texts, they are being re-imagined in many interesting ways by writers and artists of all kinds, as well as by publishers and readers. As I mentioned, I’m very interested in having students explore hybrid platforms that bridge the physical and virtual, analog and digital, local and global, soft and hard to place. In my own work, I’ve been using animation as an extension of book-based projects, which can also include audio works, websites, interactive kiosks, and performance. I’m currently working on the first app edition of the literary/art magazine Carrier Pigeon. One of the goals for the app is to take advantage of the medium, using motion graphics, sound, interactivity, incorporating aspects of game design. My own piece for the issue is an interior monologue of a person struggling to recover language and control over her life after suffering a stroke. I’m working on situating the reader inside the protagonist’s head, searching for words, dealing with the gap between interior and exterior experience and different time frames (before, after, and during the stroke). My approach to the design goes back and forth between the performance of a text through animation and giving the reader opportunities to read quietly, at their own pace. Watching a movie and reading are very different experiences, but I think there are ways to toggle between and integrate the two modalities. After all the decades of CD Roms, DVDs, online interactive fiction, computational poetry, and now book apps, we still seem to only be scratching the surface of what electric literature can be. Up to now, the cost of programming and production of book apps has mostly been feasible for the children’s book market and well-funded encyclopedia-like projects. In terms of exploring this realm as an art and literary medium, the people I’m following the most are writer/artist/programmers like Amaranth Borsuk (Between Page and Screen, Abra: A Living Text) and Samantha Gorman (Pry Novella, The Under Presents Series).  
As exciting as this territory is for me, I also worry a bit about diminishing attention spans, and the future of deep, contemplative, long-form reading. I wouldn’t want every book to also have to be a movie. Or every surface or patch of text touched, to have a pop-up, haptic hyperfunction. 

You have a new book of poetry on its way out into the world. What distinguishes this from the other work?
Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a (large) collection of (short) visual poems, written by poet/investigative journalist Dennis J Bernstein, typographic visualizations by me. It’s really the first book of mine that I didn’t either write or co-write. I just adore the gutsiness and raw emotion of Dennis’ poems and love working with them. The other thing that distinguishes this work from past projects is how distilled it is. I tend to be a maximalist. All of Dennis’ poems in this book are very short, have a stripped-bare precision to them, the result of endless pruning and wordcraft. The visualizations are the result of a similar process, starting wide—drawing on themes, allusions, double meanings, conflicts, rhythmic cadences, the underlying intent of each poem. After numerous iterations, it was usually only one or two things that ultimately gave shape to the final visual setting. The best of these visual poems help create an experience for the reader, of witnessing a father with Alzheimer’s, surviving open-heart surgery, watching a swarm of insects inspect a discarded piece of candy. The interior of the book is just black and white. I used one typeface for all the poems, only casting other typefaces as secondary voices or vernacular reference. The animations I’m making of select poems are also black and white, short and poignant. One of the goals is to use social media to try and reach beyond poetry lovers and design fanatics, to people who don’t even think they like poetry, let alone visual poetry but are nonetheless hungry for something delightful and reflective of the world they inhabit.  

And finally, there is also a performative side to your literary work, making you as much of an actor/playwright as a designer. How do all these ultimately coexist?
I have an Ear, Nose & Throat theory. It’s not really a theory because the existence of ENT doctors makes it a fact—that our senses are interconnected. We’re all born with synesthesia. Education forces us, as we get older, to separate everything into subjects and specializations. Maybe I was absent that day when they showed everyone these cubbyholes with very clear labels on them. For two summers, during my college years, I directed children’s theater. During the school year, I majored in art and on the side I wrote short stories, poetry, and music criticism for the school newspaper. Instead of making one thing or another a hobby, the writing, image-making and performing melded into one ball of wax, and it’s been that way with me for nearly forty years.

Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of SVA NYC's MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program. He is the author of over 170 books on design and popular culture and a columnist for the New York Times Book Review and Atlantic magazine online. He is the author of The Daily Heller and the recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian Institution National Design Awards.


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