An Investigation into the design of A Seer Reader.
Designed by Zack Group, the UK based designers state to replicate the format of ‘mass produced pulp-fiction paperbacks from the 70’s-90’s,’ with A Seer Reader. Although the font type does connate typical 70’s typography with its sweeping thickness and curvy motion, I don’t see much other resemblance regarding this inspiration concerning the cover design. For me it looks more similar to Suhrkamp, a publishers of literary books such as James Joyce Briefe in 1966.
By its cover design A Seer Reader doesn’t scream to me from the shelf. Typically I am drawn to colours like warm peaches and azures. I love the aesthetic appeal of organic or handmade papers, and illustration or photographs are likely to intrigue me the most. However, I can see the appeal A Seer Reader has for some. It has an assertive, bold cover design; using both a powerful red, white and black, the colour contrast is stark. A shallow indent delicately engraving ‘A Seer Reader, in the cover indicates the importance of the books title over the authors name. The font layout is central, it creates a simple clear statement of the books title and authors name; with enough space for each heading to breathe from the other. The ‘A’ leads the triangular shape of the title which follows, creating a highly graphically designed cover. And the book can fit in my handspan.
What intrigued me to investigate A Seer Reader further arose up on the pages inside the book. Initially appearing as poetry with each page layer out as a series of verses, the discourse inside includes a contents and the bulk of the text divided between two short 3 and 15 word essays. The pages are adorned with dancing, playful, printed pen style drawings. There are tiny squiggles, illustrations, and symbols referencing or resembling punctuation. The doodles appear only in the main text; they are specifically connected to the content, individually eluding each poem with visual imagery. Whether or not they are classified as the content, for me they have a clear design. I’m curious to see why the doodles are designed in this way with relation to the text. Therefore I will investigate how the illustrations connect to the wider context the book exists within, and try to discover the purpose for their design throughout the book.
The doodles’ relevance to the artists exhibition A Seer Reader was published for.
A Seer Reader is written by Ed Atkins, who is an artist working predominantly within video and language. The book was published for his solo exhibition at Serpentine Gallery in 2014, where his visual art is inspired by his poetry. He explains ‘the videos are a kind of poetry of their own,’ and ‘they’re very interested in previously literary-theoretical concerns about seeing and reading, interpretation of metaphor, figuration and literality. CGI is pretty much concerned with literalizing stuff, rendering literal what was once only possible as metaphor.’ The exhibition consisting of sound works, text instillation and images revolves around his multi screen video instillation named Ribbons, where Atkins attempts to emphasise questions concerning the relationship between real life and virtual concepts, objects and environments. Using CGI and animation he creates a surrogate character resembling his own physical appearance in a haunting online replication of a life. Atkins intends to ‘re embody’ himself as a possibility of what we may become in an paradoxical way of spreading a message that we need to focus on developing a more powerful mortal life. Through his high tech HD animation he ironically uses his medium to do exactly the opposite by creating a virtual world. The character developed by Atkins is a young white man, wearing a bald head and an action man body adorned with tattoos, he has a habit for drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. His appearance and his humanly habits reflect someone stereotypically disapproved of in todays society. Aitken’s concern for the world we exist within is evident in the design of the tattoos covering his surrogate Dave. Desperate phrases like ‘love please’ and ‘bankrupt’ are scrawled onto his skin to illustrate his story of conflict. They physically explain a demonstration of the feelings Dave would have as a human, but as a virtual delegate is empty from in his being. On his skin they stand outside the human nervous system, indicating a detachment from the animations human intimacy with himself. Identical copies of the illustrations in A Seer Reader also appear in the same style as tattoo’s scrawled on Dave’s skin. Its evident considering the importance of what the drawings suggest in his video work, that the way they are designed in A Seer Reader will also have a special significance to Atkins work.
The style / font the doodles are written in.
The doodles are printed on the paper replicating a scrawly handwriting in a biro or sometimes a bold marker. The independent, physical and primally instinctive movement of writing with a pen in ones hand, is raw and natural in a stream of the consolidation of intellectual, as well as silly, and many other kinds of human thoughts which flow from the authors head, translated to shared language on paper. Considering his work, I imagine Atkins considers the knowledge that writing by hand is a disappearing practice, with the new developments in our virtual technology, a question worth discussing, or an issue to be aware of. In his video work, he’s maybe using the medium of handwriting as a symbol of an intellectual human being of today.
By using handwriting the design of the doodles appears uniquely personal; autobiographical. Maybe Atkins uses his own style of taking notes to project his personal concerns onto his surrogate; he plays with his ego, flipping himself into a virtual identity blanketed by his naked, surplus and mortal emotions in his video. In A Seer Reader the intimacy created between the reader and Atkins by his use of highly personal handwriting, implies the doodles are like thoughts in a diary, emotions belonging to the artist. We can understand his raw, conflicting, feelings towards our existence in the future he insights.
Handwriting is also used by Atkins to create emotion, in the style of handwriting the words are written in. For example on page 92 of A Seer Reader, Atkins poem stabs at capitalism and using a current slang, (another characteristic typical to a human of our time,) he makes a metaphor for our choking industries; ‘butthole’. He illustrates with a pencil sketch of a butthole, labelled with more slang; ‘hey’. He adopts a loose, scrawly joined up handwriting to do so. It feels fluid, creating a casual, relaxed visual effect which allows the readers feel comfortable to laugh, as he playfully mocks the sincerity behind his poetry. I believe the choice in design regarding capital letters, larger size and the sharp points determining the end of letters, on page 103 in the handwriting ‘DONT DIE,’ is also a feature of the handwriting design which is used to play with emotions. These aesthetic features of the text suggest an irrational state of urgent, human panic. Capital letters scream the frustration of impossible our questions regarding mortal existence.
I would like to compare the disparity created as a result of the choice of handwriting as the font for the doodles, with the font type used for the poetry. The bulk of the text is written in a serif font type, commonly used in literature its appropriate for clear messages to allow focus on the content of text. The font type may be used to help develop the trust of the modern target audience, which is important if they are to value Atkins’ poems as high literature. Maybe by choosing a serif font which was developed digitally Atkins purposely shows what the digital world has already done to the way we interpret our information, to raise larger questions regarding our future and technology. There appears a confident, official level of professionalism created by digitally produced font, totally un-emotionless and un-personal; in this respect the choice for a serif font can also be related to Atkins virtual surrogate replica of a human. Both the poetry and the skin of Dave is tormented and illustrated with real handwriting scribbles. Atkins contrasts these handwriting doodles representing desperately irrational, mortal human emotions and questions, with the pinky rendered skin of the emotionless CGI animation and the poetry he derived his character from. The choice for handwriting poses a conflict between some of the characteristic, fundamental elements of humans in the mortal world and the human’s of our virtual future which will be a product of our current society; as Atkins clearly discusses in his poetry.
The arrangement of the doodles on the page.
The design regarding the placement of the illustrations on each page and they’re relationship with the text arrangement is also of interest to me. The doodles are very specifically positioned, creating a new design and rendering a unique layout on each page. The notes are cheerful, their haphazardness and impermanence in position creates a youthful energy of its own. Many harass the text, dangling from the words, interrupting them like a vandalised high school text book decorated by an excited teenage rule-breaker. Upon flicking through the book I think Atkins creates a chaotic feel with the arrangement of the doodles. Maybe he does this as an attempt to question the power which our mortal life (represented by the emotive tattoos / doodles he writes by hand,) has, over the possibility of a virtual future. Chaos raises concern to me, and suggests Atkins might be trying to raise awareness of his issues with the future and society today, through fear.
On some pages it appears the design regarding the placement of doodles serves purely for illustrational purposes. On page 86 a smiley mouth and a big floppy tongue curve and grin around the word ‘mouth.’ The positioning of the doodle presents a clear visual anecdote of the text, as its placed directly next to the words, the reader sees them together creating imagery. The poem on page 94 begins with ‘down the line.’ Directly beneath at the end of the poem and the lowest point on the page is an illustration of 9 arrows pointing downwards. Again this provides a clear illustration of the text, but it also illustrates itself and the symbol is close to the bottom of the page, it feels they are going down as well as ‘being’ ‘down’. I’m curious to understand if there is a relationship between the way the doodles are used in harmony with the poetry, for illustrational purposes and the concepts which lie behind Atkins exhibition at Serpentine. Despite the chaos of the doodles, and the lively energy they carry as they appear randomly in different places for each poem, they do help the reader take their imagination further in their illustrative quality. If the handwriting doodles refer to mortal life, and the poetry represents the possibilities of the virtual future to come, then Atkins could be showing the bond between the illustrations of his thoughts, and his poetry, as one where mortal life still has power to change the effect of the virtual world or what is to be of the future, as the illustrations aid the text.
The discourse of the poem (involving the positioning of illustrations within the main body of the text in the poem,) may be designed in this way to give stage directions to the reader. It creates a similar discourse structure within the poem to that of a script. On page 46 Atkins places the handwriting scribble ‘nausea,’ in a new verse, in line with the direction the poem would be read in. Atkins allows these direct assertions of feelings to stand for lines within theirselves. They appear significant and with a different font they contrast to the rest of the poem, they work as powerful instructions. With their own space they order the reader to feel something. They also give relief to the poetry; a breath between verses to give time for the reader to reflect, to feel, before continuing to read. When looking at page 99 a short, six line poem is centred to the left of the page, so the text lays closest the core of the book. A poem which torments human’s obsession with eschatology, with disregard and humour. A slap-stick illustration of a hand, labelled ‘swallow,’ underneath, sits directly in line with the verses on the opposite side of the page. Aligned with the poem on a vertical axis, its clear the text and illustration are to be read one after the other; they have a connection although they are separated because they imply a direction. The illustration is cut right to the edge of the paper, giving the impression there is something to reveal on the next page. Its likely that after reading this grave poem, which makes dark humour about the possibilities of our future, the space allows the text and the reader to breathe. I think Atkins wants the reader to digest the words of this poem, look to the right and ‘move on,’ indicated by the encouraging instruction of a pointing finger to turn the page. In this case the positioning of the doodles may be used as a order to feel an emotion like a stage direction, or to initiate a direction.
Some doodles are intimately relating to words in the poems. On page 57 a bold marker is used to underline the final verse in the poem, this draws attention to it and marks the line with importance. On page 30, the two opening words, which start verses following each other, are connected with a squiggle. When joined they spell the phrase ‘the something.’ Making a new verse within the poem. This statement also exists on the page now without relation to its context in the poem without the joining squiggle. This draws emphasis to the phrase and creates layers within the poetry.
In some cases the handwriting squiggles are a part of the poem, in that they contribute letters in a different style to the rest of the poetry in its serif font. On pages 155 and 67 the poem begins using letters O and R in the handwriting style, to begin the first words of following verses. The size of the squiggly letters is obese to the rest of the text, they help to compose a bold and grand opening word. This is a common design in a lot of literature, Atkins makes a reference to it in his own style in an impish attempt to add intellectual value to his poetry through his page design.
The imagery used in the doodles.
The last investigation I can make into the design of the small illustrations in A Seer Reader is to consider why Atkins chose to use this specific imagery. Many of the symbols he uses look similar to punctuation, commas, full stops, brackets. His choice to use marks in A Seer Reader and for the tattoos in his video, which are similar to punctuation, gives a further clue that not only the handwriting is being used as a symbol of our mortal life today, but that here he also enforces his choice to use the stereotype of a white, British male as his surrogate future being. There are other reoccurring themes within his imagery, including hands, eyes, penis’ and delicately sketched vaginas. All parts of the human body. Atkins decision to design his illustrations using this imagery, again, references mortal life and current society which he discusses along with his thoughts about the future in his poetry.
By investigating Ed Atkins process as an artist, focussing primarily on his exhibition at Serpentine Gallery 2014, I have come to various conclusions about why the doodles which intrigued me into investigating the design of A Seer Reader, are designed in the way they are. The handwriting style the doodles are written in connotes natural human thought patterns, unstable emotions and questions the author presents. Handwriting also serves as a symbol for language and writing in which could represent the typical medium used and developed throughout our human age. It therefore creates a tension with the computer generated font type used for the poetry, which might suggest the virtual future which Atkins discusses, as a running theme to his work. The doodles appear in totally different positions throughout the book, on each page. I therefore discovered various different reasons for the design of their arrangement. They can be placed intimately within contact of the poems, to draw attention to specific words or phrases, or to illustrate an idea directly which shows how human knowledge can still be useful for bettering the future. They can be placed in a location on the page which will give a direction to read in or indicate that one should stop reading to feel something. The placement of the doodles when they create letters which integrate directly with the poem, connate high literature as Atkins desires his writings to be read with sincerity as he discusses deep issues surrounding our society and regarding the future. Finally the chaotic feel created by the different placement of doodles on each page questions the power of what the handwriting stands for; the mortal world and its conflict with the virtual world of the future. To end my investigation I discovered that the imagery Atkins uses in the design of his doodles references English punctuation, and the human body. Again it links directly with his exhibition and his proposal of questions regarding our existence in the society we live in today, and its relation with our future.
A seer reader /Rietveld library catalogue no : atk 2