Just a Touch Away
Corinna Ripps Schaming

What is it about the obsolete technology of the typewriter that continues to capture the contemporary imagination? The exhibition Courier presents eleven visual artists who have created works that are rooted in the physical, communicative, or iconic properties of the typewriter or in the act of typing itself, and who explore the ideas surrounding text- and language-based art from an expanded perspective, moving beyond words into the realm of touch and sound.

Several artists present work that references the typewriter as a touchstone to history; others explore the properties of a specific typewriter. The IBM Selectric and the IBM Wheelwriter are the principal mark-making tools for two of the artists, while another makes drawings on a reconfigured typewriter with an extended carriage and invented alphabet. For some, the physical act of typing serves to chart the passage of time; for others, typing affords the opportunity to record thoughts, embed memories, or send messages. Two artists revive the distinct mechanical sounds of the typewriter in short films that underscore the complex relationship between man and machine in the last century, while another presents a computer project activated by typing on a keyboard reprogrammed with the artist’s own “language of icons.”

While the word “courier” may, for some viewers, conjure up images of the Courier font, for others it might suggest a messenger who brings important news from one source to another, or a diplomat, or perhaps a spy...at the very least, a knowing guide who assists the uninitiated tourist. Thus the typewriter, once the principal tool by which to record a vortex of historical events, is now a messenger bearing news of cultural change; the typewriter’s road to obsolescence is shared by both machines and humans alike. The artists of Courier ask: how much are we willing to hold onto the past as a way of navigating the future, and how much of the past are we willing to let go or suppress because it impedes progress? Conversely, the knowledge of obsolescence, which is never very far away in Courier, allows the enormity of history to be reduced to an intimate act of typing, one letter at a time. One needs only to glance at any teenager––cell phone in hand, thumbs feverishly tapping away––to realize that the physical act of typing has become a 24/7 activity, perhaps more vital now than ever, and that typing as a means to stay in touch with each other and with the world can take place anytime, anywhere.

Probably the most surprising thing about Courier is the flexibility of form afforded these visual artists by typewriting technology. They tease out new forms from an obsolete machine, and at the same time explore the possibility of creating even newer forms within the fixed parameters of the typewriter keyboard. Type takes the form of an infinitely malleable material, revealing that something so simple can convey complex and resonant results. Though many of the works use text-based elements that give visual form to written thoughts and ideas, words are not meant to be read in the traditional sense; the page becomes the artwork, the thing itself, and the medium truly becomes the message, as Marshall McLuhan said.

The drawn form, for example, allows both artist and viewer to see beyond the limitations of conventional drawing through use of repetition and transformation; the layering and accumulation of words, punctuation, and text create a more expansive meaning. Language is broken down into its various components, and the twenty-six letters of the alphabet become drawing elements. Arrays of letters are chosen for ink density or curvilinear shape, which in turn can determine larger shape, physical orientation to space, and placement on the page. Thus language is perceived by the eye as well as by the mind, a free-form synesthesia generated by the deliberate exploitation of the typewriter’s mechanical technology to achieve an effect that is literally greater than the sum of its parts.  

The auditory aspects of the typewriter––an embedded memory that does not often surface in our computer-silent world––are used by a few of the Courier artists as repetitive musical elements or as nostalgic reminders of a time when both sound and sight allowed us to mark our place in life, as well as on the page. And the typewriter as vehicle for an extended epistolary form allows some of the artists to obsessively explore the letter––another outmoded means of communication––as both personal and universal expression by giving visual form to recollections and often deeply intimate “stories” that perhaps could not be presented in any other way. Type itself becomes a visual landscape, whether individual or collective.

By conflating message and medium, Courier explores how an old-fashioned technology continues to fashion and transform both expression and meaning. For each of the artists in Courier,the typewriter and/or the act of typing remain a vital conduit by which thoughts and ideas are translated into new visual forms. From emblematic homage to pointed social critique, these works demonstrate that, despite its obsolete status, the typewriter remains a potent carrier of untapped ideas.