Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ligature Project: A Manifesto

So, what is it with all those ampersands, anyway? Why do I go barreling down old state highways, driving erratically, and then snapping photos with a rather distressed secondhand camera, photos which may or may not be in focus?

What the hell is a ligature, anyway? {the briefest of history lessons}

To begin at the beginning: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and all those monks were nothing if not industrious -- and sneaky little scribes who would insert faces of colleagues into the heads of demons, leave out important lines and then add them in the margins, and create shortcuts so that words took up less room per inch, allowing more text to be bullied onto a page, therefore fewer days spent preparing vellum and binding up the pages and all that processing stuff.

Printers liked the more-characters-per-inch idea, and kept at it, and expanded upon it. And the language in use at that time? Latin, of course. The Athen√¶um is an example, as is the Encyclop√¶dia. And the ampersand, defined by the dictionary as “a corruption of the phrase "and per se and", meaning "and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and” developed from squishing together the e and the t of et; this can still be seen in the italic variations of the form. For further information along these lines, wikipedia is as good a source as any.
on the ampersand | on ligatures

Each typographer has reveled in the opportunity to let his (almost always his) fancy free with the italic ampersand of his pet font – this is where the personality of the designer can be seen in all its unfiltered glory. Graphic designers got into the show, and started using ampersands not because space was at a premium, but just because they were nifty design elements: the same way clip-art has functioned, for better or for worse. Artists and book snobs like ampersands, too, the former for the design relationship and the latter for the “I know Latin” element, and here we are, in a day where the incorporation of an ampersand into a corporate logo is rather more likely than not.

None of this explains why I like the ampersand, and as the collector and curator of the Ligature Project, as the driver of the erratic car that zips and zooms through dodgy neighborhoods and down old state highways, as the corporate sponsor that pays for the petrol and the sandwiches and the internet connection --and what is it with all those ampersands, anyway?

First, let it be duly noted that no less a source of divine word from on high than the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) has just admitted a ligature into its permanent design collection: the rather humble “@”. You know it, I know it, we all use it, in invoices, in correspondence, and there it is. Suddenly elevated to the hallowed halls of the design establishment. Yes, this is one of the best museum stories this year. Maybe it’s been a slow year, but I’m thrilled for ligatures to be getting their due, not just in popular culture but in the realm of the meaningful. So if it’s good enough for MoMA; if it’s experienced a revival in book and magazine publications and commercial applications; by golly, it’s good enough for me.
The NYTimes on MoMA and @

But what does collecting ampersands do?

Start with what it reveals of the urban landscape, the palimpsest of all that has come before. Typographical trends ebb and flow with time; the growth of businesses, their upkeep and their product and their market, reflect the who-is-doing-what-where aspects of a community as gentrification sets in, or as developers bull-doze old markets for new strip-malls. This collection has intentionally avoided acquiring behemoth chain examples, under the expectation that everyone sees Bed Bath & Beyond and Barnes & Noble wherever their eye chances to land. The one exception has been a grocery store chain that can’t seem to make up its mind which ampersand belongs in its logo, and currently has four variations, at least, active in the same market zones.

When was a town built? When was a shopping district expanded? When did a store move in? What does that store sell? Who are the intended clientele? All of this is revealed in the typography of the ampersand, hand painted or steel forged, elegant and quiet or loud and raucous and demanding attention. What endures over time, what lasts even after the business closes, how does the memory of place continue to grow even as the physical anchors themselves become obsolete? Hints to these stories of growth, decay, and renewal are present not only in the architecture of a place, but in the details.

Collecting ampersands completely changes the way that the landscape exists: rather than taking the interstate and driving (the posted speed limit, of course), listening to NPR, and watching traffic and the clouds; instead, the state highway, always an attractive alternative, becomes a necessary alternative. (I’ve taken a few photographs on the interstate. (1) They’re boring. (2) It’s really unsafe at those speeds.) So trundle on over to the state highway, where the posted speed limit is a manageable 50, then act like a Sunday farmer out for a drive, and putter along at 35. Maybe 40, tops. Those V-8 monsters will happily pass on the left, shaking their heads but not offended, leaving the collector free to suddenly swerve into the shoulder or a gravel pit to catch – aha! – a token. I was here. Zap.

The drive slows down, the road trip slows down, and all of the details that make driving such a necessary outlet of modern experience come into focus: the stores, farmhouses, hand-lettered eggs-for-sale signs no longer blur into the fabric of “next to the road,” but suddenly jump out, screaming for notice. How many of the gorgeous buildings that I’ve taken mediocre photographs of would have otherwise merely been ten seconds, tops, of my attention? Suddenly, the impromptu abandoned storefront art exhibit is actually seen – and actually documented, rather than partially remembered as a half-glanced memory of something cool somewhere on some drive.

But with the expectation of slowing down, swerving, and stopping, the two-dimensional buildings pop-out into active real glory, and I see them. Really see them. The bridge that I’ve always meant to photograph? Hey, the camera’s on, sitting in the cup holder; there isn’t any traffic of note; NOW, damn it, NOW. The silhouette of the favorite tree on the way to the interstate? Finally captured. The sunset on the way to the parking lot? Here it is. What a beautiful day.

I’ve always loved the meandering of the drive-to-lunch two-hours-away; and now it has a justification, a purpose, and a project. My own earliest family memories involve endless drives back and forth along the Eisenhower Interstate System, god rest his soul, and in those memories the landscape slowly changes, the landmarks of childhood almost-there’s and look-at-that’s becoming the victims of age, neglect, arson, gentrification, development. Not only was there the theme park with a paper-mache version of the Matterhorn; there were geodesic domes and 1960s teepees and billboards.
The Texas Matterhorn

Oh! The billboards. Ray Bradbury hated them. Urban designers hate them. Suburban developments hate them. But they are such a window into the world of the consumer; and indeed, I can still remember being grade-school-aged and redesigning the billboards: changing the colors, the layouts, the images, the fonts – except I didn’t know the word font, in my mind it was “shaped letters.” And in my mind, I was cruel, heartless, and thorough in my editing. The eighties in semi-rural Texas were nothing if not a bonanza of bad typography and design, and I loved it.
Bradbury on Billboards

So here I am, swerving through country lanes, down dingy side streets, and actually seeing the place where I live, have lived for some time, for the first time. And again, again, and again. With a renewed sense of purpose, I’m stalking the places I’ve been and the places I’ve always intended to go. One sign or one shop will remind me of another sign or another shop, and suddenly there is a secondary collection; two months ago, I had no idea that pizza shops were often also sellers of submarine sandwiches. Two weeks ago I didn’t know that subs were also referred to as grinders in this area. One week ago I hadn’t realized that Pepsi really had the market share of small shops and cafes in the region (since gone out of business). One month ago I had no idea that the ampersand may or may not be used in languages other than English (and Latin, of course). My eyes have been taken off of the endless examination of the printed page, and focused upon an examination of the printed landscape – and it’s quite a ride.

what, you want more? Go find the New Yorker.

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