SZ031 — Shape Song
[ Original format: 2018, Edition of 25, 1-color screen-printed book, Cast plastic with screen print transfer, sourced envelopes, 6 x 8.5 inches, Publisher / Exhibition History: Sonnenzimmer / Hatch Show Print, Nashville, TN ]
all graphics are bound to a surface.
though often associated with
invisible waves flying through the air, is
bound to surfaces as well. After all, sound originates
from the vibrations of surfaces—think of a large gong or vo-
cal cords. These vibrating surfaces disturb the air pressure around
them, forming sound waves. These waves are only “heard” when inter-
cepted by tiny hairs—receptors—in the eardrums of humans and animals,
which send signals to the brain to form discernible “sounds.”
Music can be described as the organization of sounds.
So, does it follow that music is also the organization of surfaces?
a moving object
travels faster than the sound
waves it produces, it breaks the sound barrier,
resulting in an aural event called a sonic boom. The sound waves
produced omnidirectionally by the speeding object that can’t keep up, squishing together into a single large wave at the front of the object. This
“shock wave” produces an extremely loud
If graphics and sound both derive from surfaces, is there potential for a physical or conceptual corollary to the sonic boom in our perception of graphics? Is there a graphic shock wave? A graphic boom? Graphics travel by waves too—light waves that reflect off surfaces and eventually catch our eyes.
When light is slowed through refraction in controlled environments, nuclear technology can accelerate particles beyond this slowed light speed, creating a glowing blue light known as Cherenkov radiation. The mechanics of this phenomenon are similar in nature to a sonic boom’s.
it’s not the
waves that carry a
It’s more the cognitive
process of decrypting
its lines, shapes, and
colors through our visual
lexicon. So, what hap-
pens when the mean-
ing that a graphic car-
ries changes faster
than the fixed
or when graphics change too quickly for us to keep up?
Don’t our contemporary digital networks and graphic user interfaces already allow graphics to do such things? If a single image can be in two places at once, its fixed meaning must travel faster than the surfaces it inhabits. If you visit your grandmother in Ohio and your cousin in Istanbul on the same day, you are most likely moving at a faster speed than they are. Logical puzzles aside, this graphic phenomenon is nothing new. Since the proliferation of print and the mechanization of the human graphic impulse, we are in a constant state of multiplicity, like wearing a bib of mirrors. In fact, it’s not unheard-of for the same graphic to carry two different meanings mere millimeters apart. The Nuremberg Chronicle (Germany, 1493), one of the earliest surviving printed books merging movable type and images, is famous for using 53 woodcut cityscapes interchangeably to represent 101 different important places in the Holy Roman Empire. It used several portraits interchangeably as well. [ 1 ]
Though print technology was new, the author, publishers, artists, and printers responsible for these decisions must have intuited that the meaning of an image is interchangeable depending on context. Their execution demonstrated that the ideas of Paris and Venice could be represented by the same woodcut without confusing the viewer. In this case, the semiotic of the graphic literally shifted from Venice
in just a few pages.
Was the visual explosion that followed the birth of print around the fifteenth century a sustained anomaly akin to the sonic boom? Perhaps, like sound, graphics only “exist” once they are processed or perceived.
If two trees
fall in the woods,
landing on top of
one another perpen-
dicularly, do they make
a picture? Only when
observed can these
fallen trees suggest
to the viewer
are continuous, yet
they appear as singular
events. So, what could a
conceptual graphic boom
look or feel like?
Is it equally continuous,
only spiking when
Is this broken graphic
dissonance we experience when we sense a discrepancy between reality and our graphic landscape —between
and its representation—
[ Branch depiction, each branch represents one book of the edition that has a sculptural branch ]
knowing Paris and Venice can’t possibly be the same?
Maybe in this microre-
ality, for a sonic sec-
ond, Paris and Venice are the
same, and thus the graphic
barrier is broken. In the publication
Café Avatar, we argue that human graph-
ics are camouflage used to transmit knowl-
edge. The cosmic tension felt when Paris and
Venice are coded using the same camouflage, the
same woodcut, eventually meets a threshold in our pro-
cessor. If our graphic landscapes generate multitudes of
realities deriving from our contemporary tendency to exist in
both a corporeal realm and the extended graphic skin provided by
our interfaces and digital networks, when does the threshold break?
It could be said that the written word transformed human interaction from an orally to a visually oriented society. Spoken words conjure shared concepts for the speaker and listener. The transition to written language was a shift towards passive storage, made possible by a graphic interface-—words. This storage was an evolutionary merger of humans’ innate graphic and verbal impulses. Following the birth of print, this passive storage for knowledge increased significantly. Printing enabled the rapid multiplication of access points to this stored knowledge. Thus, knowledge, a fixed entity, literally traveled faster than ever before. Where sound waves have crests and troughs, perhaps a conceptual “graphic wave” might look like this:
Meaning Meaning Meaning
Meaning 1.0 Meaning 1.0 Meaning 2.0
Unlike sound, meaning/knowledge can change faster than material properties, and as the graphic symbol speeds forward, inhabiting several meanings, something funny happens: this conceptual wave collapses, creating a cognitive anomaly felt by anyone observing the access point.
Multiplicity was not the only addition the mechanical age brought to the graphic landscape. The aesthetics that the printing process and its related material imposed dictated how our information looked and felt. The matrices of print—carved and etched surfaces covered with ink and pressed upon paper—shaped how we conceived of the world as well as our collective knowledge. Artists learned to exploit the surface of wood, copper, and other materials. Our visual culture was forged by the limitations of the properties of these surfaces, the dexterity of the artist’s hand, and the machines that aided them.
If the mechanization of the human graphic impulse allowed us to store and access knowledge from far greater points, simultaneously connecting our stored knowledge to a form-language determined as much by machines and material as by human hands, what has the digitization of the human graphic impulse brought?
If written language shifted storage of knowledge from the human brain to the graphic interface of words, and printing gave that knowledge exponentially more access points through exactly reproducible images and text, the digitization of our graphic impulse has shifted the storage of knowledge from graphic carriers to bits, electrical charges, which can not only create graphics autonomously but learn and adapt. With each further abstraction or iteration of knowledge, do we risk corrupting meaning? Are we not living through an intense and sustained graphic shockwave?
“Cymatics,” [ 2 ] a term coined by Swiss scientist Hans Jenny, describes the study of the visual patterns that appear on the surfaces of substances when they are vibrated by sound waves. These symmetrical visual displays have been studied since the 1600s. Simply put, the invisible vibrations we experience as sound waves manifest in materials. Sound organizes these materials based on the properties of the material vibrating and the vibrations emanating from the agitated surface that creates the sound.
The way the images appear during the cymatic experience of surfaces vibrating seems to point towards an inherent cosmic geometry within the sound wave itself, yet looks are deceiving. The patterns created by vibrations derive from active and inactive areas of the resonating material surfaces and how the incoming vibrations affect them. For example, Ernst Chladni’s famous figures resulted from sand accumulating in nonvibrating portions of the resonating plate, called nodes. So, the images appearing in his cymatic experiments are less a visualization of a sound than of the interaction between two materials: the surface creating the vibration, and the surface vibrating. If sound is created by surfaces, perhaps cymatics are an example of nature’s graphic impulse: an autonomous graphic language describing these two surfaces interacting.
And if nature is talking, we should probably listen. In Café Avatar, we posit the connection between manmade graphics and those found in nature on the skins, fur, or feathers of animals, or in the coloration of plants. “Graphics are animal. Graphics are vegetable,” we state in the publication’s introduction. We argue that the natural world has utilized graphics far longer than we humans.
This train of thought led us to theorize that graphics are not just innate in living things but that an autonomous graphic impulse can be found in matter. If graphics create micro realities, perhaps this replication/duplication/reflection is the metaphorical essence of matter itself. If an electron can be in two states at once and only chooses a state once “observed,” perhaps this choice is the graphic impulse. Sure, it’s a stretch to connect our tendencies to condense human knowledge into an observable, tangible form to that of a cat who is simultaneously alive and dead.
But what about a dog?
Imagine a simple line drawing of a dog. Now bark at the imagined drawing. Does your imagined drawing bark back? Which is more like a dog: your bark or the imagined drawing? Now draw a dog, and imagine the sound of a bark. Which is more like a dog? In both cases, we would say that the physical manifestation is closer, your bark and your drawing, meaning you are a closer replica of a dog than your imagination can ever be.
[ Photograph of Sonnenzimmer’s Kitchen ]
Shape Song was authored, designed, printed, and published by Sonnenzimmer, Nick Butcher & Nadine Nakanishi on the occasion of the exhibition Shape Song at Hatch Show Print’s Haley Gallery, Nashville, TN, 2018. This text follows the ongoing inquiries of Sonnenzimmer’s Graphic Arts Future.
[ 1 ] Schedel, Hartmann, et al. Nuremberg Chronicle. Anton Koberger, 1493.
[ 2 ] Hans Jenny, Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena and Vibration (Basel: Basilius Presse, 1974).
SZ021 — Graphic Arts Future: Corporeal Knowledge
Graphic Arts Future: Corporeal Knowledge
[ Original format: 2017, 3-color screen-printed and vacuum-formed cover, multi-color Risograph, and laser printed interior, 8.5 x 11 inches, Publisher / Exhibition History: Sonnenzimmer / Facebook ]
Idea as spoken language
Everyone’s got screens now, and these screens are basically just graphics. Graphics are everywhere. Everyone’s in two, three, four, or more graphic interfaces all day long. We have a graphic tendency as human beings. In nature, there are graphics, too. Plants and animals have graphics. They camouflage themselves with their skin, feathers, or external materials. Their graphics mimic the outside world. How are our graphics, even though they are not attached to our bodies, related to this? What’s the bigger function? We think about graphics as external and “away” from us, but we are born with an urge to make graphics, to deal with them. Even if you just read a printed or handwritten page, this is a graphic interface outside your body that we use to communicate with each other. What is that stuff? Where is it going? How do graphics shape the world? Soon, so many people will be immersed in a virtual reality. We will be immersed in a total graphic interface. Someone is going to make that interface. It’s not a small thing that we are willing to give up our external world for a predesigned one. Why are we so anxious to design such a system? Why do we have this tendency to create and immerse ourselves in a fully graphically rendered world?
beyond our own skins. They are camouflaged knowledge. A warning sign is camouflaged knowledge. Knowledge from “in here” that we agree on and have to give shape “out there.” It’s bigger than just signs and labels and typefaces.
In November 2016, scientists announced that they had discovered a new organ, the mesentery. It’s something like a stomach lining. It was depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1508 but ignored for hundreds of years. It went undetected because it seems many in this field assumed everything in the body was categorized correctly. It turns out you can still discover things that are right inside you. We misunderstood it for centuries.
The same thing goes for graphics; maybe they’re not what we’ve previously thought.
We’ve always accepted the idea, in human evolution, that the use of tools is the thing that differentiates us from the animal world. But what if it’s our externalized graphics that set us apart. What if our tools were first rendered as graphics? When you see the image of Homo sapiens’ evolution from an ape, what if it wasn’t a spear he was dragging, but an avatar?
Idea as poetry
graphic impulse is animal
graphics are a skin
when we enter a new skin
do we become a new animal
Idea as prose
The impulse for graphic expression is not unique to humans. Animals and plants use graphics, too. They do so using their exteriors. Many species use their skin, feathers, scales, or fur to camouflage themselves from predators and prey or to attract prey. Their graphics help them blend in, distract, signal, or appear as something they are not. While we may not consider this “expression,” the result is the same—the arrangement of color and form for a clear goal. Our graphics function much the same way. They are also a sort of skin. We use exterior substrates as membranes to distribute information, converging color and form to communicate ideas. Our graphics are a sort of camouflaged knowledge, transferring information to onlookers through an agreed-upon set of symbols such as written language or images, applied to a surface.
Language is generally viewed as inherently separate from images. Yet written language and images are both part of the same “graphic tendency.” The impulse for creating and distributing both is the same: self-expression and social exchange. Written words are merely the graphic distillation of oral language: symbols for sounds that carry meanings or abstracted pictograms (in nonphonetic languages). Our graphic images also carry meaning, or sometimes just feelings.
Combined, these graphics are our social skin. They are an external membrane giving shape to our collective consciousness. They bind us. They are the exterior of our exteriors. They allow us to think together out here.