A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ARTIST ABECEDARIUM
by Lynne Sachs
Co-director Abecedarium: NYC
Anthropologists, filmmakers, linguists, musicians, painters, poets, writers — all share a fascination with the 26 letters of the alphabet. An abecedarium is traditionally an educational book for children containing words beginning with each letter, but for centuries it has also been a resource for creative work by artists in almost every media. This history of the abecedarium will look at a selection of artists whose intentions are both to celebrate and disrupt this most basic and widespread system of verbal communication.
Linguistic philosopher Johanna Drucker points to the obvious: words come and go while letters remain strikingly constant. Her Alphabetic Labyrinth: the Letters in History and Imagination is a fascinating place to begin exploring the role that these iconic characters have played in the theater of world history and culture. Drucker’s interest in the typography of the Roman alphabet is expansive, allowing her reader to witness the alphabet’s omnipotence as well as its eccentricity. Rather than a dry archeology of language, Drucker leads us into “the realm of imagination and philosophical speculation.” Through her erudition and curiosity, we see each letter as a communicative symbol, a picture, and a discrete aesthetic experience.
According to Drucker, both this alphabet and the Chinese character system began as early as 1700 B.C.E. Remarkable as it may seem, the Arabic, Bengali, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Tibetan languages all stem from one point of origin in the Sinai, the birthplace of both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. Eventually, the Indo-European languages would grow out of this rich environment, creating the 24-30 letter alphabets comprising the Balkan, Germanic, Indian, Indonesian, Romance and Slavic languages we know today. The non-alphabetic Chinese characters provided the written forms for the rest of the world. With this rudimentary knowledge of the evolution of letters as signifiers and signs, we can start looking at artists who have played with, challenged, punctured, praised and deconstructed words — those lofty yet prosaic creations that come from the permutations and combinations of the alphabet.
THE FUTURIST EXPERIMENT IN EUROPE
The Italian Futurists were notorious for their desire to rip apart every cultural institution in European society. Coming of age in Italy just before the outbreak of World War I, the Futurist movement’s fearless leader Filippo Marinetti brazenly experimented with all forms of typography by putting “words-in-liberty”, on the page and the wall. Their new alphabet epitomized a radical “stati d’animo” (state of mind) in which text was turned upside down, flipped, and graphically transformed. The Futurists even went so far in their desire to shake up the status quo that they wrote a Futurist Cookbook where they invented an edible alphabet that would bake, boil and burn the Italian culinary system like it had never been cooked before.
Just a few hundred miles to the east, the Russian Futurists were doing equally innovative things with the alphabet. Poet Aleski Kruchenykh and artist Velimir Khlebnikov collaborated on the creation of a new, experimental language they called Zaum. Equally committed to the articulation of the horrific and the non-verbal, this Cyrillic version of a futurist alphabet embraced baby talk, onomatopoeia, and insanity. Zaum assigned a characteristic to each sound: the letter A embodied a statement of denial; B was collision or magnification. Some letters took on the qualities of certain colors. No one, not even its inventors, claimed to understand the language of Zaum.
AMERICAN WORD PLAY
With a nod to the original purpose of an abecedarium, Gertrude Stein threw herself into writing an episodic A to Z poem for children in 1940. She aspired to creating a “book I would have liked as a child.” Seventeen years later, her dear friend Alice B. Toklas assisted her in the publication of To Do: Alphabets and Birthdays, a delightful romp through a series of eccentric characters that probably appeals to a open-minded adults more so than an earnest child. In true Stein form, the language is playful and rhythmic – pushing words and their meanings into new galaxies of sense and non-sense. By the time we reach Z, this is where we are:
“Oh dear oh Zero. Zero they said and they felt well fed. Oh hero dear oh Zero….And why is Zero a hero. Because if there was no Zero there would not be ten of them there would only be one….” Gertrude Stein
Equally resistant to the notion of empowering a man-made thing – be it a word, a song or a canvas — with the ability to express an actual emotion, painter Jasper Johns hurled a quiet epitaph at the grandiose vision of Abstract Expressionism with his 1956 painting “Alphabet”. Johns’ large, golden beeswax-and-oil canvas full of letters was the harbinger of an artistic movement glorifying “things that are not looked at.” Over six feet high and six feet wide, this homage to willful banality brought attention to the 26 letters as they had never experienced before.
Like conventional musical notation, the alphabet simultaneously limits and explodes the possibilities for verbal expression. In 1982, experimental composer and philosopher of time and rhythm, John Cage wrote “An Alphabet”, a radio play with characters based on Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce and Eric Satie. The piece creates an imaginary encounter between the narrator and sixteen creative personalities who represent “an alphabet by means of which we spell our lives.” The dialogue between the characters relies on Cage’s infamous chance operations as well as his ingenious mesostic poetry. A mesostic word emerges from a vertical phrase intersecting lines of horizontal text. In contrast to alphabet acrostics where the beginning of successive words follows from A to Z, mesostics emerge from letters found in the middle of a line.
At the same time as Cage was embracing his conceptual alphabet, essayist Susan Sontag was writing her own alphabet on modern dance. Her contemplative yet erudite “Lexicon for Available Light” (1983) looks at contemporary dance through a series of short thought-pieces moving from Beauty to Choreography to Diagonal to Openings to Politeness to Space to Volition to Yearning to Zeno’s Territory. Intertwining a love of both classical and modern choreography, Sontag contemplates the almost typographic postures of a contemporary dancer.
AVANT GARDE FILM MEETS AVANT GARDE ALPHABET
In 1970, American avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton completed his opus on the alphabet and named it “Zorns Lemma”. For six years, Frampton crisscrossed New York City – from Coney Island to the Lower East Side to the far reaches of City Island — carrying a 16mm film camera and looking for words from A to Z. His documentation of signs is an exhilarating history of 1970s New York. This astounding experimental film presents us with a recurring structure that transports the way we look at skyscrapers, subway stops, barbershops, diners and newsstands. With each loop through the letters, purely photographic images begin to replace signs, as a rhythmic kaleidoscopic of activity propels the viewer through the city.
Twenty years later, another New York experimental filmmaker decided to structure a far more autobiographical film around the alphabet, this time in reverse. Su Friedrich’s “Sink or Swim” is an astonishingly intimate yet elleptical portrait of the filmmaker and her relationship with her father. Through this collage oddysey, Friedrich visits all 26 letters, including Zygote (sci-fi footage of the egg and the sperm), Virginity (a fantacy about harems), Temptation (sleek women bodybuilders), Quicksand (abstracted imagery for a terrifying movie) and Ghosts (brooding images of a confrontational letter to her father). Reaching the very core of a young woman’s burgeoning identity, the film has been enormously influential in the realm of both the personal essay film and the experimental film. Friedrich’s inclusion of a girl singing the alphabet song brings to the fore her interest in this linguistic system – in all its glory and rigidity.
THE ABECEDARIAN POEM
New York poet and Abecedarium:NYC artist, Erik Schurink helps us move from a study of the alphabet as visual image to the alphabet poem, what he calls “a succession of letters and a big idea .” The beauty of the abecedarian poem, writes Schurink, is that the poet can apply its format to underscore the vastness of the subject he writes about, or to celebrate the completeness within his subject, however small. Its poetic form is guided by order—alphabetical order — its idea is based on the a to z of things. In his 1983 “ABC,” former poet laureate Robert Pinsky skillfully breaks out of the linear restrained structure of the alphabet, inspiring the reader to do just that with his or her own life—to go beyond the expected while embracing a given structure, even when restrictive.
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Sweet time unafflicted,
— Robert Pinsky
Equaling X to an idea described by two words, Pinsky leaves language—ever so briefly—through math, to revisit words, highlighting the distance between their individual and joined meanings. Bibles and biologists start where he leaves off. Do Pinsky’s contemporary “ABC”, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “An ABC” acrostic poem, and Psalm 119 (one of the earliest well-known abecedarian poems) sit around the same table? Alphabet poems of various scales, from three distinctly different continents and eras—can they meet? If not, there is solace in knowing that all of us are abecedarians—beginners in any field of learning. Are we comfortable not knowing? Would we embrace learning to give body to sweet time?
In our search for the 26 words which comprise Abecedarium:NYC, we discovered that some words found in a 1968 Webster’s dictionary had essentially disappeared in 2008. By giving 16 artists the opportunity to reflect on the fluid nature of language, Abecedarium:NYC encouraged them to ponder single words — be they familiar or esoteric — in the context of a city of buildings, neighborhoods, and even people whose relevance shifts with the winds of the day. Why is a word so vital to one person and irrelevant to another? How do the changes in words reflect the changes in our society? Over the course of two years of production, Abecedarium:NYC has become a multi-media collaboration reflecting these questions in the context of a sound-image exploration of New York City.
In an age in which definitions are utilitarian, spelling is automatic, derivations are incidental, and lack of common usage means abridgement and eventual death, we can only wonder what the life span for a word like WELKIN might be. Look up to the sky and ask yourself “Is there a word for that sweeping, opening above me?” The fast-disappearing, almost archaic “welkin”, is indeed your answer. Visit this word or GEORGIC, or TYPHLOLOGY, or XENOGENISIS and experience one artist’s interpretation of its meaning. With Abecedarum:NYC, you can ponder not only this suite of 26 expansive, yet little known, words, but also look at a hidden New York City where tall buildings can easily shadow a treasure below.
For more examples of intriguing artist abecedaria, please visit Abecedarium:NYC on http://del.icio.us/Abecedarium.NYC where you can see a wide range of work including an abecedarium of Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts, a folk music abecedarium, an Auschwitz abecedarium, a “Three Stooges” abecedarium and so much more.
“ABC” poem by Robert Pinsky
“A Lexicon of Available Light” in Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag
Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein, copyright Alice B. Toklas, 1957.
The Alphabetic Labyrinth: the Letters in History and Imagination by Johanna Drucker
Chaucer’s ABC Poem
Fred Camper’s Review of Su Friedrich’s “Sink or Swim” (1990)
The Italian Futurist Book
A New Alphabet Iconographic Language and Textual Embodiment
By Jeanie Dean
Shallow Water Dictionary by John R. Stilgoe
“Thoughts on The Futurist Cookbook, by F.T. Marinetti”
by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
Zaum: A Russian Futurist Alphabet
“Zorn’s Lemma” by Hollis Frampton (1970)