Spanish artist Ignacio Uriarte would no doubt find it felicitous that I’m typing this review on the day that Apple launches its touchscreen tablet computer, the iPad. Titled The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow (2009), his new film grants the typewriter a fond place in a cycle of technological expectation and innovation, redundancy and nostalgia. Yet, unlike its ‘typewriter art’ antecedents – such as Marcel Duchamp’s Traveller’s Folding Item (1916), Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test (1967) or Rodney Graham’s Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003) – the typewriter’s presence here is conjured by a vocal recitation of its operational noises alone.
Michael Winslow is the film’s star, an American comedian with a virtuoso skill for creating vocal sound effects, best known for playing the mischievous Sergeant Larvell ‘Motor Mouth’ Jones in the Police Academy movies (1984–94). For nearly 21 minutes, the camera moves gently around Winslow in a recording studio as he impersonates the noises of 32 typewriters. Inter-titles announce the dates of the respective machines’ manufacture, their brand and model number. It is an absorbing feat of mimicry. From the frantic clucking and strenuous creaking of his ‘1895 Barlock Mod. 4’, through to the ping-pong sounds of the ‘1954 Hermes Mod. Baby’, and concluding with the ‘1983 Olympia Monika Deluxe’, Winslow produces a percussive tour de force that could take its place alongside the Dada sound poetry of Raoul Hausmann or Kurt Schwitters and the cartoon exuberance of voice actor Mel Blanc. Although not apparent in the film itself, Uriarte filmed The History of the Typewriter … in the Berlin studio of the industrial noise band Einstürzende Neubauten, who pioneered the use of customized instruments and machinery in the early 1980s.
Winslow performs with precision and concentration, as if executing a particularly torturous piece of chamber music punctuated by moments of impish irreverence. His performance conjures images of a secretary trotting out a dictated letter on 1932’s cutting-edge technology (the inappropriately named Remington Noiseless Portable), or a hack bashing out copy on his newsroom Triumph. (In fact, Uriarte recorded Winslow’s imitations of vintage machines from collections in Germany and Switzerland as they were being used to type out the title of the film.) The techniques Winslow uses to achieve the ‘lost’ noises are fascinating to observe: by grasping the two microphones like twin pan pipes, gnawing them like corncobs, or grappling, swiping and variously pushing them against his teeth and lips, he produces a glorious vocabulary of fricative letter-hammering, space-bar thuds, platen-knob twisting and carriage-return shunts that seems to encompass chicken-pecking, machete-slashing, strangulation, tap-dancing and QWERTY beat-boxing.
Uriarte’s practice has frequently taken its inspiration from his former career in business administration. The Spanish artist has employed standard office supplies such as Biros, highlighters and jotters, for example, to create his monochrome series, animations and paper constructions. The ubiquitous spreadsheet tool Microsoft Excel, perhaps soon facing its own obsolescence, has been used to create a number of digital prints. Such works oscillate between bureaucratic delight, the futility of the nine-to-five grind and the serial work of Sol LeWitt – being formulaic is the point. Yet, with The History of the Typewriter ..., which tellingly culminates with the sounds of a machine from 1983, the year before the arrival of the first home computer with a graphical interface, Uriarte has created a work of new pathos, humour and complexity. As if a perverse variation of stories passed down through generations by memory and oral tradition, his high-definition footage preserves an obsolete analogue sonic universe.