To-be-seen texts and books as art works, typographic spatial installations, dynamic text banners, luminous neon texts and letter projections as spatial interventions – the typographic exploration of text as material and medium is extant in contemporary fine arts. For more than twenty years Detlef Hartung und Georg Trenz are contributing to the artistic assessment of typography. In their spatial projections they reconnoiter the relationship of text to image to space to light to sense. Found sites in their architectural, sociocultural and historic dimension have been inspirational gateways for their projection works.
Hartung and Trenz maintain a preference for unsystematic reading and writing in search of new options for seeing and thinking. With their own insistence, they ask about the How, the Where and the Why of language and lettering. Their works report on their ongoing process of rediscovering the world through spatial investigation of signs and characters. Oscillating between analyzing and associating they develop text material as a graphical tissue, project it onto (urban) landscapes and review the performance of colors, shapes and links which occur. They hide and show, light and illuminate, highlight and backlight and thus they examine and explore the ties between perception, imaging and imagination.
For each work they use a specific site and decide on corresponding text material. They transfer it into a graphical texture and overwrite the found as-is state with their projection. Sometimes they use metaphorical terms of the context of perception like „Lichten“ (en: getting brighter, 2004), „Blick halten“ (en: keep an eye, 2007) or „Übersehen“ (en: overlooking, Panorama, 2007) or of the physical qualities of light such as „Lichtwandlung“ (en: converting light, 2014) or of the arts like „Spielraum“ (en: wiggle space, 2013). In international projects they often work with the local languages like German and Polish („Ach“, Gdansk 2009), Arabic, English and Hebrew („Light“, Jerusalem 2013) or Arabic, English and Chinese („Light“, Adelaide 2015). On occasion they use text material or fragments like for „Im_Puls“ (en: impulse, 2014) from the Old Testament or from philosophers like Plato, Jean-Paul Sartre and Katharina Fritsch for „Blindtext“ (en: fill text, 2004). Through the curated texts they offer an insight into their way of thinking and their leitmotifs of acting.
Part of their artistic research is the “discovery” of spatial and architectural contexts. In the projection, the text dissects the space and it’s interior. It gets fragmented in the interplay of projection and reflection and at the same time it is reformatted in the 3d sphere by dint of the visual allowance of the projection. Therefore the works of Hartung and Trenz are always projection, installation and intervention. They respond to the status quo which interconnects topographical specifics, architectural revisions, traces of use and associated aspects through experience and their relevance within other contexts. They explore the system of tracks in search of aesthetic material that corresponds to their artistic practice. They analyze ratios of lines and shapes that turn into marks and references, explore their imaging and iconic qualities and treat it as signage of the space. These findings act as starting points for the conceptual work and as anchor points in the realized work. They are the link of the everyday situation into the art work. For the beholders it results in the impression that they somehow know where they are and at the same time they are in a sphere that is only partly decipherable. This moment of reduced functionality contributes significantly to the option that in the experience of artistic intervention insight can be generated.
Hartung and Trenz’ texts are not narrative but a mapping material which gets filled in the interchange of light and space, of matter and clearance, of absorption and reflection. They become co-agents and expose a space to the play of light and shadow, project white and black planes and squares. The type face wanders through the space, breaks down and gets reformatted. The characters become hypertexts, i.e. they form a network of image, space, text and file units with mutual references, in which the beholders can move on their own turns. Developing a work includes the turning point when the conceptual aspects step back and the aesthetical happening takes over resulting in performative interferences.
Their textures play with the whole typographic spectrum – there is no more reading or viewing requirements while the grammar of the text is transferred into a visual system. Recalling that the term “character” is rooted in Indo-European word “die” that translates as “shine, shimmer or shine” and entrenched in the Old High German for “character, image, miracle” the radiant textures can be also red as a reflection on the architectural, sociocultural and historical dimension of the relationship of language, writing and expression. For more than 5000 years humans record and code using characters to store and to transfer information. The development of writing and its means as a media from the roll of the book to the internet is very closely linked to the history of human culture. Since the 15th century printing, copying or transmission techniques produce a growing bundle of knowledge and the ongoing process of digitalization is subject to new media, storage options and communication forms that shape life and work. In their artistic issues Hartung and Trenz treat graphic characters as architecture of text and look into the interplay with built architecture.
Writing as a graphic expression of language is a way of selecting of what to show and what to hide. The typesetter and typographer Kurt Weidemann describes the starting point of the design process of a font: “Visualization of language in all its diversity of expression is the basic character set of the alphabet, tied to the laws of seeing and understanding and the habits of reading.” And Adrian Frutiger explains: “The work of a type designer resembles the work of a tailor; to clothe the perpetual human form” . Frutiger is one of the great type designers and typographers of the 20th century and designed over 170 fonts, many of which are standard by now and shape our reading habits. In the 1950s, he developed his method to work with scissors and to cut out shapes from black paper and combine them as letters and signs. This is “according to his own confession … a heritage of his home Interlaken. It gave him his best tool at hand, to transfer his unerring sense for inner and outer form, for rhythm, contrast, tension and regularities into graphical forms which are more than alphanumeric characters.” , explains the type designer and typographer Eric Spiekermann.
Since 1998 Hartung and Trenz almost always work with the “Univers” designed by Adrian Frutiger. “Swiss thoroughness meets French elegance and British precision” – was applied in 1957 to the font by the Parisian printing plant where Frutiger worked. The “Univers” was from the beginning a system of complementary fats and widths, which formed a family with over 20 sections. “This incredible project for which tens of thousands of steel stamps – for each character in each font size – had to be engraved, was conceived and started by a type designer from the Bernese Oberland, who, not even 30 years old, with his first employer in Paris, had achieved a free hand for this enormous task.”, wrote Eric Spiekermann for the 85th birthday of Frutiger in 2008. “I know of no other type designer who combines so much creative sense with a systemic approach. Frutiger fonts are always planned but never look like that. He has developed number models for line thickness ratios and width proportions, but never a priori by equation or interpolation, but always by his unerring feel for the right means.” From Audi to General Electric, from Erco to Ebay, from Lufthansa to Swiss Air, from the German Life Saving Society to UNICEF – the “Univers” has accompanied numerous companies. In 1972, it was the typeface of the Summer Olympics and the counterpart to the developed by Otl Aicher pictograms. Until 2007 Apple has used the “Univers” for the labeling of their keyboards. Since the introduction of digital topographic maps 2010 in Germany, all labels in all official German maps are set in the font family “Univers”.
To date, the “Univers” is one of the well-developed font families. In their graphic quality and ubiquity, it is also a document of time and predestined for the work of Hartung and Trenz. Jenny Holzer, who started with text projections around the same time as Hartung and Trenz, and Barbara Kruger, who at the end of the 1990s began to implement her typographic work via projection, pursued a similar strategy in the choice of a font. Both artists used the “Futura“. Raul Renner, influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus, developed the “Futura” and published the font sample sheet 1927 in Frankfurt. The shapes of the letters are derived from triangles, squares and circles and line thicknesses were very even. The “Futura” was a further development of the “Erbar-Serif” by Jakob Erbar. She became one of the most popular typefaces of the 20th century and was used in documentation and administration, naming and advertising, as well as in film and television. For the same reason as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, the graphical quality and usage history qualified the font for the artistic use by Hartung and Trenz, but they decided to work with the “Univers”.
When Adrian Frutiger presented the font for the first time a font family was developed, which took into account structural and aesthetic principles and prevailed in metal typesetting, in photo and computer typesetting through to the work with digital text and image processing in desktop publishing. This was not yet clear when Hartung and Trenz started to work with it but it shows their design expertise. In 1991, Barbara Kruger had stated in an interview: “On a formal visual level, I’d say about 85 percent of my work as an artist has been informed by my job as a graphic designer. … My job afterwards as an artist, in many ways was to make that sort of device meaningful.”
That the “Univers” chosen by Hartung and Trenz is also suitable for projection is not surprising knowing that Adrian Frutiger thought of light while designing it: “When I set the pen on a white sheet, then I don’t add black, but I take light off the white sheet. (…) So I understood that the most important part of a type face are the gaps.” , he describes his approach. Used in projection this conceptual aspect reappears and mingles with the artistic intentions of Hartung and Trenz. They invert the design principle and show “black” as “light”, and then use the font as a filter and as a prop to behold and to deepen their understanding of the visible world.
In this abstraction process signs and non-signs become equivalent imaging components: “Typographical value is each particle of the material, hence: letter, word, text part, number, punctuation, line, logo, illustration, space and the overall space.” , in the words of artist and typographer Kurt Schwitters. The term” typography” derived from the Greek words “typos” for “impression, image, shape, impact” and “graphein” for “writing, painting, scratch”. It denotes the principles of the developments of characters and writing and refers to the design of characters as well as of text. From the art of printing to publication design, from letters cast and various methods for typographical font reproduction to the overall design of printed works today typography comprises both theoretical and practical disciplines as well as different culture theoretical and design thinking perspectives, including the principles of the history of writing, the classification of fonts and their culture-historical mapping, the study of perception and reading habits as well as the principles of the aesthetic, artistic and functional design of characters and fonts and their applications in print work, virtual media and in three-dimensional space.
For typography the period from 1890 to 1930 was significant, notes for Susanne Wehde, as “a historically unprecedented accumulation of typographic innovations in technological, formal and functional point of view.” The Dadaists deepened the typographical development, especially regarding to the use of abstract characters as imaging elements but also referring to the design of characters. The Dadaistic play with chance and nonsense was directed to counter inherited social structures and their destructive potential as seen with their eyes it manifested in the war. Among the most significant examples were the collages of Max Ernst and the to-be-said poems of Celine Arnauld, Hugo Ball, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Tristan Tzara and Kurt Schwitters. Regarding literature Stéphane Mallarmé and Arno Holz were among the pioneers and developed new typographic options and thereby they gained influence among authors as well as among visual artists. “L’Action restreinte” was the title of an essay of 1897 by Stéphane Mallarmé who addressed the gap and the tension between thought and representation. From then on in his poems he freed the typographic design from the content of the text and aligned it closer with the way of reading an image. “Thence the ways to read a poem are potentially infinite.” , writes Petra Metz in her elaboration of the resonances of Stéphane Mallarmé in the work of Marcel Broodthaers. Ever since typographical concepts along with those of icons, sign systems and text as a medium of contents became part of artistic inquiries until present days.
In the 1920s the artist and architect El Lissitzky was fascinated by Kurt Schwitters thinking and working approaches and designed “Prouns” in which typographic elements were used as building blocks for abstract compositions and characters. In works such as the “Prounen Raum”, which El Lissitzky realized 1923 for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition, he developed a three-dimensional and poly-perspective implementation of these ideas. Also the works by Hartung and Trenz can be read as such “projects for the claims of the new.” The Dadaist ideas of El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters and friends were preceded by developments in literature and visual arts referring to the book as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (en: synthesis of arts in one artwork). During the 19th century, the book grew into a framework to link the arts – fine art, literature, music – up to its use as an art object itself, the “Artist’s Book”. It was an abstraction process that led from the readable book to the autonomous plastic.
Among the significant positions in contemporary arts are the to-be-seen fonts and to-be-said texts, to-be-seen texts and motion-picture texts by Ferdinand Kriwet who published them since the 1960s and displayed them as installations at the Venice Biennale 1969 or at Documenta 1977 and 1983. As part of the retrospective in 2011 he described his work: “Just as thoughts overlap, the various (text) motifs which are representative of the thoughts, intersect.” He analyzed writing as a medium in the context of media-technological changes, in photography, film, television and the Internet among others. His texts, especially the text discs and to-be-read arcs (“rock’n roll for the eyes”), are considered to be milestones of concrete poetry. What Ferdinand Kriwet elaborated in print, partly on transparent materials, concerns Hartung and Trenz as well in their projection works but their type setting takes place in the three-dimensional space. They use text like a fabric to dress rooms which results is a visual maze in which the found space and the projected text engender an interplay that changes depending on the viewing angle.
In 2001 Mischa Kuball realized an installation in which the terms “Space-Speed-Speech” are projected onto rotating mirror balls. The interplay of projected and reflected text fragments overwrites the space and dissolves it into a non-coherent visual context. The pun turns into a framework for a visual and physical experience which reflects on the way a set of characters links to a meaning. For Hartung and Trenz it is always one of the most exciting moments when they start to discover how the selected space and the prepared text tissue correspond. Positions of the projectors and their distances, light intensity and luminance, absorption and reflection behavior, walk ways and viewing points turn out to be technical as well as artistic questions. Leitmotif for the artistic process is the adaption of text and image values as well as the synchronization of the appearance of the text, of the quality of the projected tissue and of the newly emerging visual settings. The readability of the text recedes behind its plastic and graphic qualities, which relates it to optical poetry as well as to Op-Art.
By reviewing the interferences between the selected text and its typeface, the chosen space and its signage, the imaging qualities and the sparking of connotations Hartung and Trenz affiliate their findings in projection-based art works. With their typographic interventions they look into an idea of fine arts that splices sensory experience, aesthetical reflection and conceptual approaches. Their works amend linear reading and invite to unintentional viewing, itinerant beholding and associative deciphering. Staging it as a collective event they stimulate the responsiveness of the beholders and enjoy the diversity of experiences.