Andy Warhol and language

October 30, 2014

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.


The making of a book sculpture, by Emma Taylor

June 10, 2014

You might know Emma Taylor’s book sculptures. They are lovely creations: intricate, serene, and alive. Her work is reminiscent of the anonymous book art that began appearing in Edinburgh a few years ago, but the identity of the latter remains unknown.

[NB: I initially believed the two artists were the same, and have edited the above to clarify. Sorry about that.]

Emma Taylor - book sculpture - Shadow of the Past

Ms. Taylor has a Tumblr blog showcasing her work: From Within a Book, to which I now direct your attention. The main page has assorted photos, links, and notes, including works in progress. There’s also a selection of completed sculptures. She writes:

To me the possibility of the end of the book is a tragic one; I appreciate books as an object as much as I enjoy the stories and knowledge which they hold.

This appreciation surely grows in those exposed to her art: think how a beginning reader with their first library card would react upon seeing these miniature worlds that seem to grow out of the very pages of each book, the text embodied in a study of itself.

As a child I adored ‘make and do’, tugging and taping paper into all sorts of three-dimensional entities – all quite crude and disposable, but transporting nonetheless. Peggy Nelson, in her analysis of pop-up books, put it nicely: “we were not content with surfaces”.

Here’s a short clip showcasing Taylor’s book sculptures from 2013:

And a longer and very interesting behind-the-scenes video showing step by step how she turned a copy of John Galsworthy’s Swan Song into a ‘Swan Song’ of her own:


Incubus: a film in Esperanto with William Shatner

January 17, 2014

On a walk in Galway once I met a Polish couple poring over a map. We were going the same way, and fell into step. They were in town for an Esperanto conference, and when the man – an Esperanto playwright – learned I had an interest in languages, he eagerly gave me a crash course in its grammar as we manoeuvred the uneven paths and busy streets.

It was a fun experience, but it remains the only proper exposure I’ve had to spoken Esperanto. More recently I encountered the language again, not in the flesh but in the form of a film – I wrote a post about films of linguistic interest and the comments soon filled up with tips; Edward Banatt suggested Incubus.

Incubus 1996 film - Unleash the incubus

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The writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

September 29, 2013

*

BBC four - mechanical marvels - clockwork dreams - the writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

The short clip below is from the BBC Four documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on the history of automata, narrated by Prof. Simon Schaffer. It shows a mechanical boy known as the writer, the brainchild of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–90), a Swiss watchmaker who became renowned for this and similar works.

The writer comprises about 6000 parts and contains 40 replaceable interior cams that allow it to write – using a goose-feather quill – any text of up to 40 characters. In other words, it’s programmable. The machine has an uncanny quality charged by the movement of its eyes as they follow the composition of letters and the refilling of the quill with fresh ink (which it briefly shakes, to prevent blotting).*

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Scottish words for snow

August 27, 2013

I’ll assume readers know that the “Eskimos have X words for snow” idea is essentially a myth and a hackneyed journalistic trope. So I won’t elaborate on it here, except to note that the claim is so notorious in linguistic circles it gave rise to snowclone, a handy term for this kind of clichéd phrasal template.

It turns out, though, that there are quite a few words for snow (and, OK, ice) in Scotland.* Ian Preston sent me a recent photo he took of an art installation in the lobby of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, republished here with his permission:

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Punctuation support group

July 31, 2013

Support”, by Tom Humberstone:

Tom Humberstone - New Statesman cartoon = Punctuation support group

[click to enlarge]

I love Exclamation Mark’s happy bafflement, and the last two frames tie the strip together very nicely (though for comic timing and pathos I’d have put the ellipsis between them rather than before them).

I don’t think I have anything to say about the Jay Z hyphen non-story – but if you do, I’m all ears.

You can see more of the artist’s work at the New Statesman and on Humberstone’s own website.


St. George? Total legend.

May 31, 2013

Marcus Lodwick’s The Gallery Companion: Understanding Western Art describes Saint George as “a totally legendary saint whose existence has been in doubt since the fifth century”.

The flavours of both totally and legendary have – for me at least – shifted markedly through informal usage, interfering with the intended tone. Reading the line, I was (totally) distracted by the phrase totally legendary, even though the relative clause (“whose existence has been in doubt…”) and general context left no doubt as to its meaning.

Raphael - Saint George Fighting the Dragon

painting by Raphael

In common currency totally is like absolutely: often more a general intensifier or expression of hearty agreement than anything necessarily to do with totality or absoluteness. An example from the GloWbE corpus: “Seems totally harsh for them teachers huh?”

Legendary has been weakened by loose usage to the point where almost any degree of renown or achievement may be granted the description; similar trends with legend and its spin-off ledge(bag) – peculiarly Irish, I think – complete the inflationary effect.

The following (mildly parodic) fictional dialogue may serve to illustrate:

This bus driver is always on time – such a ledge!

Absolutely.

Remember the time she gave us chocolate?

Yeah, that was totally legendary.

Completely. Hey, is that Saint George you’re reading about?

It is.

Didn’t he, like, slay the dragon?

Yeah.

What a legend!

Totes!

I mean like existentially.

Right.


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