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Conditioning: Typography and Moving Image

Opening sequences, title cards, interludes, subtitles, end credits: typography in cinema and television is quickly evidenced and it is never neutral. To consider some key precedents one need only think of Maurice Binder’s stylish and fluid transitions between abstract graphic, typeface, and gun barrel at the beginning of James Bond film Dr No (1962), the […]

Opening sequences, title cards, interludes, subtitles, end credits: typography in cinema and television is quickly evidenced and it is never neutral. To consider some key precedents one need only think of Maurice Binder’s stylish and fluid transitions between abstract graphic, typeface, and gun barrel at the beginning of James Bond film Dr No (1962), the clean unobtrusive lines of Walter Murch’s design for Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller The Conversation (1974), Richard Greenberg’s Futura distortions and adaptations for Ridley Scott’s Alien, or – more recently – the unorthodox use of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow typeface for FX’s television show American Horror Story.

Alien, 1979

Alien, 1979. Dir. Ridley Scott

Indicative of his commitment to the visual form, meanwhile, director Satyajit Ray famously insisted on designing all the accompanying material for his films, including the poster and title sequences, and developing his own typefaces, both architectural (replicable) and calligraphic (non-replicable).

But the most prominent pioneers of cinema typography is Saul Bass, the New York graphic designer influenced by Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. Bass’s title sequences for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, as well as his extensive work with Alfred Hitchcock on Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, were key in expanding the representation of on-screen language from mere typeface communication to cinematic narrative.

“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set a mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way,” Bass said during an interview with Film Quarterly’s Pamela Haskin. “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”

While my initial examples specify typefaces and title sequences rather than indicate the discipline of typography as a whole, Bass’s strategy of “conditioning” is nonetheless a particularly useful way to think about how typography is deployed and interrogated in artists’ moving image.

Typography can generally be described as encompassing the rational, structural and spatial coordination of written language. It takes a modular approach to words, where those words are not simply demonstrations of language but also its artifacts. The static nature of typography thus presents a complex relationship with the moving image: a space where sign and meaning intersect with sound and image. “Conditioning,” then, is concerned with the effects of such intersection on its viewers.

Typography’s pragmatic investment in navigating through the moving image – either through indicating spatial awareness, temporal movement, or narrative progress – makes the discipline a key factor in considering how artists approach written language in film and video. And yet despite the many reasons to relate typography to the practice of moving image, I am surprised at the relative lack of discussion into what is undoubtedly a highly codependent relationship between the two.

ert Nelson, Bleu Shut, 1971

Robert Nelson, Bleu Shut, 1971

This is not to say that artists are disinterested in the subject of typography. Artist Robert Nelson’s highly self-conscious use of language, both written and spoken, features in his playful Bleu Shut (1971), a film that engages directly with such conditioning. Punctuating the film, Nelson’s capitalized Helvetica lists, made up of received phrases and nonsense variations, seek to question and comically undermine the use of the visual language as a space for narrative logic, clarity of communication, and a platform for external authority. Indeed, as it unfolds over 33 minutes, the awkwardness of language becomes the primary subject of Bleu Shut.

Innovative and experimental at heart, Nelson’s strategies of destabilizing language can also be evidenced in the work of British artist John Smith, in particular Smith’s short 16mm film Associations (1975), his composite of excessive image-word puns; the text-only 16mm films of Peter Rose, most notably Secondary Currents (1982); and the more recent videos of artist Laure Prouvost, especially It, Heat, Hit (2010), a work that presents the highly antagonistic relationship between image, text and narrative – a visual dismembering of cinema’s intertitle.

Kinetic text (originally achieved via the Rotoscope, and now the mainstay of Adobe LiveType with AfterEffects) is also a key tool in the practices of German film and television auteur Alexander Kluge, who uses scrolling text under talking-head interviews to transmit basic biographical information as well as his own personal observations of his speakers; and to Elizabeth Price’s anonymous ribbons of text that communicate the narratives of an unidentified and often ambivalent cultural commentator throughout her work, including The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012) and Sunlight (2013). While the subject for these aforementioned artists can broadly be described as the structural logic of language and its cultural effects, it is worth noting that they nonetheless excavate typography’s attributes of symbolic logic, conscious appearance and style, as well as its inherent relationship to interpretation.

To extrude this relationship further, theories of typography may offer different approaches to artists’ moving image works that don’t necessarily display written language, yet still evoke a typographical concern for syntax, space, and structure. Here, I am thinking again of the artist Peter Rose, though a different, earlier work, Analogies: studies in the movement of time (1977).

This 16mm film begins with a recording of a simple movement: the cameraman descending a staircase (a Duchampian nod, perhaps). Rose’s original image is then split into a simultaneous network of diachronic images, each occupying a different time-delay. The effect is one of revealing gesture, consequence and abstraction. With striking to resemblance to the lyrical, glissando experiments of the German artist Peter Roehr (1944-1968), Analogies exhibits a language of movement that is structural and spatial – it is a sequence that must be “read.” Although typographer Anthony Froshaug (1920–84) wrote “Typography is a Grid” ten years prior to Analogies, his essay anachronistically provides an indirect but productive interpretation to Rose’s work. Froshaug writes:

Follow the poets: they play the ‘normal’ language (as much as fools or advertising agents, they base their shocks and base their basic meanings on the norm, quite often by departing from it, but always allusive to it)… To find the text, to stipulate the ways in which it gets manipulated, to cohere all the mutually-destructive (as they may, at first, seem) requirements into a still center of quiet meaning: this needs a knowledge and a recognition of typography. Admit constraints: then, having admitted, fill with discovery.

Froshaug’s pragmatic approach – demanding that one find and accept the constraints of the material, as well as identify the concerns of the reader in order to engage the creative process – highlights Analogies’ structural limits, semiotic concerns, and control over the image.

Meanwhile, in his remarkable 1996 essay “Outside the Whale,” typographer Peter Burnhill (1922–2007) describes the state of typography after 1945 as largely owing to three factors: firstly, a reaction to the horrors of the Second World War, and the need for transparency going forward; secondly, the technology of decoding acquired and developed through the war; and thirdly, the publishing and dissemination of Noam Chomsky’s Syntatic Structures, a landmark linguistics study which famously declared that the human disposition to produce original sentences is a biologically determined state. Burnhill’s tripartheid analysis is useful when reflecting upon experimental works such as Mothlight (1963), Stan Brakhage’s 16mm film of clear tape that contains fragments of moth wings, leaves of grass, and flower petals. Although Mothlight is experienced as the flickering of light when projected, viewed with Burnhill in mind, it emerges as an encoding process that structures natural ecology into abstraction, where the projection apparatus produces the cognition of movement. Mothlight transmutes artifact into effect.

As Froshaug and Burnhill’s writing demonstrates, typography and the articulation of its history (either in print, or public exhibition) have continued to develop with sensitivity and critical shrewdness inside its wider discipline of design theory. And while typography proves to be a fecund tool and subject within artists moving image, its uses and implications have been largely overlooked in contemporary moving image theory. A new conditioning seems especially timely.