BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 01 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 152

Taken for Wonders

How Paul Elliman responds to the spaces, objects, words and sounds that surround him

BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 01 JAN 13

Paul Elliman leans against a curved wall of St Paul’s Cathedral, illuminated by a shaft of light. He’s in the dome’s whispering gallery, and in the photo it looks like he’s listening to the building, trying to hear its secrets. In a way, he is. Elliman is a listener, a sifter of signs from buildings and subways, the streets and the underground, trying to uncover the words we give to the world and what those languages say about us.

At New York’s Museum of Modern Art last summer, as part of the show ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’, you could hear the hiss of a two-way radio – like those carried by police or, in this case, museum guards – over which a man’s voice announced the names of fictional places (A List of Imaginary Places and a Voice to Call Them Out, 2012). Static crackles and code words like ‘10–4, loud and clear’ gave the names a chilling feel. Next, a guard with a Jamaican lilt called out various islands and seas before concluding: ‘That is wonderful, 10–4.’ Then came Melanie Monios, who voices the museum’s pa announcements and who, filling each syllable with personality, surely has a calling narrating audio-books. It was the first voice I heard, however, with its air of criminality, that stuck with me through the feedback. In Elliman’s hands (or sounds), the disembodied voice becomes a surreal audio signage, an object in itself that shapes our perception of place. 

Learning language from a wall (January 27, 2012), photograph, 2012. All images courtesy the artist

A few years ago, Elliman led walking tours of sirens in Manhattan as if he were a birder, decoding the different siren calls, from short whoop-whoops to the long, full-throated cry, referred to in emergency medical services terminology as ‘the whale’. Elliman is almost a naturalist in his approach only, instead of nature, he explores the built environment. In it, he finds languages, typography, alphabets everywhere, from the Manhattan sirens to the shipping forecast, in which the weather conditions around the British Isles are announced on BBC radio. In a 1997 article for the design magazine Eye, Elliman examined how the forecast works like coded X and Y coordinates, graphing conditions across a specific map of territories, translating both into a language of weather readable to ships. It should come as no surprise on hearing his sound works that he asked the Met Office if they’d let him read the weather on the radio as a ‘talking typographer’.

Titled Learning Language from a Wall (2012), the photograph of Elliman at St Paul’s accompanies a sound piece on the whispering gallery read by Emma Clarke, who voices announcements on the London Underground – from station stops to ‘Mind the gap’. In breathy asides, she tells the history of the dome and the voice and architecture. Elliman describes the work as a radio documentary, but in it he uncovers his lifelong obsession with how sound and technology are linked, from St John receiving the Book of Revelation in a cave to the London Underground today, through Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of radio to acoustic mirrors, the concrete devices lining Britain’s shores which were built as proto-radars during World War I.

Elliman often gets mistaken for a designer. In fact, he frequently gets labelled ‘that self-taught maverick design guy’ – a phrase that drives him nuts. Although he now teaches on the design programmes at Yale University and Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, Elliman got his first position as a graphic designer on the London listings magazine City Limits in 1985 by borrowing a friend’s portfolio, having earlier pursued then abandoned courses in art foundation and sociology. Elliman was passionate about the idea of a magazine as a collective activity; City Limits was run by a socialist cooperative, and he liked its approach to London. In 1986, he went on to become art director of the nascent music magazine The Wire. In a moment of so much Neville Brody fandom, with countless designers copying his eclectic and deconstructed style, Elliman pioneered a minimal look using the Garamond typeface and a tight grid. But then he virtually disappeared, having only worked as a designer (and part-time at that) for three years. His interest in typography and its power has never abated, however. 

My Typographies (1) and (2), 1994, photograms, each 36 × 28 cm

In the show at MoMA, in the same room where the disembodied museum guards incanted fictional places, vitrines were filled with all manner of junk: cardboard packing materials, wire hoop earrings, key rings, Allen keys and broken scissor handles organized as a taxonomy of rubbish. The display suggested Elliman’s approach as a quasi-naturalist, but these elements weren’t meant as trash but as type. This was his ‘Found Fount’ – using the original British spelling for ‘font’ to play on both the collection’s ‘found’ nature as well as its being a ‘fount’ of knowledge and wellspring of meaning. The typeface works by creating letterforms from detritus. The process is Borgesian; no form can be used more than once, and each shape has a dual purpose representing two kinds of signs: the original object and the new letterforms it suggests.

Elliman began the ‘Found Fount’ project in the late 1980s, and his typeface lays out the slippage between meaning and intention, between language and the form it embodies. The work also underscores how typography is meant to be neutral, fixing something along a grid to create order. He’s talked about typography as an industrialized process. It’s ‘a language of production’, he said in a recent interview with designer Michael Rock for the forthcoming book Multiple Signatures, ‘that begins in Gutenberg’s moment as a means of producing language. But this is an assembly line that’s run for about 500 years so far, from there to the supermarket at the end of my road.’ 

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Elliman and his former student Shannon Ebner were the inspirations for ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’, and curator Laura Hoptman likens the way he breaks language to poetry. ‘He’s cutting away the dangerous, metaphoric characteristics of language,’ she says, ‘that allow it to be attached to received meanings. Words cut loose from the burden of description or commentary – language that exists as reality rather than at its service – are poetry. His ‘‘Found Fount’’ and collections of aural signage are fundamentally poetic.’ The ‘Found Fount’ project shows how typography is always an act of translation where a space, even a small one, exists between words and meanings. Seeing the original and its new use – the scissors as ‘P’, say, or flower pins (‘asters’, he calls them) as asterisks – exposes the gaps, and just how approximate words are. 

His endless approximalphabet turns the idea of standardization into a kind of joke. As new kinds of rubbish are created, new technologies made and turned into trash, new letterforms are suggested. It’s almost like a durational piece with no end in sight. Elliman has recently moved on to sock hangers, those bits of black plastic that hold hosiery together in stores and have, as he puts it, ‘kind of a gynecological look’. His remaking rubbish reminds me of graffiti in the 1970s and early ’80s, where the baroque tags on subway cars ripped apart language by taking the very letters themselves and reappropriating them. The forms often seemed inscrutable and underscored questions of just who owns not simply language but letters. 

I also keep thinking of the 12th-century nun and mystic St Hildegard of Bingen, who Elliman name-checks occasionally. She invented her own language and an alphabet to go along with it. The very idea seems radical – living outside language and how it tries to fix meaning – though Elliman would be the first to say escape is impossible. He’s written, too, about the inescapability of typography. ‘Even if we could imagine a world without words, it would be held together by a kind of typography. Standardized sets in size, colour and material: sheets of metal, shades of green, sources of energy, processed wood, bricks, paper, bread, shoes, cars, ice-cream. The structures and formats of an irrepressibly modern world, configured around unit-shifting patterns of production, display and consumption.’ 

Found Fount, 1989–ongoing, installation view as part of ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’, MoMA, New York, 2012. Photograph © 2012 MoMA, New York

In his own writing, he can slide easily from references to Farinelli to 50 Cent and often cites the Romantic poet John Clare as an inspiration. Indeed, there’s something of the Romantic in Elliman, only here nature is denatured while still being revered as much as it was by the Romantics. For his work Ariel Enters Invisible (2012), shown in the exhibition ‘Now Here is also Nowhere’ at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, he made a sound installation of wind manufactured for movies. And, just as birds imitate us and our technology – from crows copying human voices to songbirds mimicking mobile phones – Elliman himself has whistled the composer Olivier Messiaen’s piano piece based on a thrush song from Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (Small Sketches of Birds, 1985). He investigates the world around him with an avid curiosity, a process he describes as phenology. Rather than studying the seasons and plants and climate, he’s a scrupulous student of the built environment and how it shapes us. 

When he was 17, Elliman moved to Detroit with his father, who was an engineer in the car industry. They stayed at the Seville Motel, named after the Cadillac Seville, overlooking the six-lane highway, 12 Mile (part of the same road system made famous by Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile). Elliman just wanted to be back in the uk with his friends. Instead, he found himself in Detroit, witnessing the city in its dying days. He was into music, yet his father told him not to go into the city. It was 1979, a decade after the riots had ripped apart Detroit and the height of the gas crisis that killed off the us car industry, plus a moment filled with his own teenage longing and restlessness. Unwittingly, he was there on the cusp of two worlds, one ending and the other beginning. His father soon moved to Silicon Valley to work for the likes of Apple. There, Elliman Sr. was bringing his skills from the car industry to computing, specifying OEM parts (Original Equipment from Manufacturer). These are components sourced as cheaply as possible but used in, say, a Ford car or an Apple computer without revealing the original source. That process of how things are made to fit, their origins are erased and technology is deployed still fascinates the younger Elliman. 

Found Fount, 1989–ongoing, installation view as part of ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’, MoMA, New York, 2012. Photograph © 2012 MoMA, New York

That period in his life stuck with him in a kind of Proustian way or, maybe, more like Walter Benjamin, who in setting out the Passagen-Werk (Arcades Project, 1927–40) drew deeply on his childhood memories. Also, like Benjamin, Elliman has a keen interest in the colonization of public space and how it’s shaped and given meaning. He searches for this in terms of language and how the human voice has been mediated first through typography and now as a recorded object, ever-present in the world around us. He’s collected the voices that make announcements on public transportation and, listening to his piece at moma, you could hear how sound shapes an experience and place.

Despite the warnings not to go into Detroit city centre, Elliman would occasionally venture there to go to record stores. There he bought the album Invasion of the Booty Snatchers by Parlet, a trio spun-off from the P-Funk band Parliament-Funkadelic, and not generally thought to be particularly good (it can be categorized somewhere between disco and the birth of Detroit techno via Motown’s mechanization of music). Yet, Elliman loves the record immodestly (and disproportionate to its reviews) with the passion of youth, augmented perhaps by the excitement induced by the forbidden act involved in buying it. His feelings about it remind me of the way Benjamin wrote about a salt advertisement he saw as a child, describing it decades later as a masterpiece. Now Elliman has made a cover of one of the songs, which is both funny and haunting (No One to Drive the Car, 2011). The female voices of gps devices by Garmin, TomTom and Magellan – all created with oem technology made by the same original supplier Cepstral – sing a mechanized chant of longing and need. Meanwhile, for his piece Sirens Taken for Wonders (2009), which included the walking tours of New York sirens, he recorded kids re-enacting – voicing – sirens in Detroit and New York. In an era in which the city’s police are under fire for their ‘stop and frisk’ policy targeting people in the projects, and inner-city kids have a complex relationship with cops, taking on the machine isn’t just a matter of copying it because it sounds cool – but an appropriation that resonates with large issues of policing and power.

In Detroit, too, Elliman’s roles as poet, naturalist and scavenger of lost places continue to come together in an evolving piece he’s been working on with local filmmaker Nicole Macdonald. The two broke into the abandoned Belle Isle Zoo, shuttered since it had become too expensive to run. This place that once housed wild exotic animals has subsequently returned to wilderness, providing sanctuary for everything from foxes (living in the lions’ den) to possums and raccoons, as well as all number of birds: blue jays, indigo buntings, goldfinches, red wing blackbirds and more. The former zoo has returned to an Edenic state – there’s something Darwinian about it. An installation at Casco in Utrecht, Teach Me to Disappear (2010), collated some of the footage and included a subwoofer – of the kind more typically seen (or heard) pounding out basslines from cars – playing the bird calls, while next to it a screen transcribed the birds’ phonetic sounds as if bird and city had united, and the calls made by both cars and birds turned into one thumping music, each speaking a language marking space and territory and home, but also shaping the other.

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In ‘(Playlist) The Songs of the Sirens’ (2012), an essay on music and Detroit, Elliman wrote: ‘The powerful low frequency sine wave of the bass [a subwoofer produces] sets off car alarms all the way along a single street, allowing the driver to note the un-alarmed vehicles for future reference, i.e. later the same night. Well, it appeals to my sense of urban phenology, just as an interest in the coexistence of cars and music is an attempt to make sense of how we live, not an attempt to extol the merits of the car.’

The installation makes it clear how much Elliman appreciates nature. He admits, embarrassedly, to being a bird watcher, and part of what I love in his work is this enthusiasm for the world around him – from music to birds, language to trash – giving his work a warmth and sense of humour as he whistles a thrush’s song or puts a red wing blackbird’s cry through a subwoofer. These he combines with a kind of archeology of the present or recent past, as if to find some truth about ourselves, not like it will save us. You get a sense that he’s an Althusserian and believes there’s nothing outside of language and ideology, but still what an investigation it is! Peterson Field Guides meet a Walt Whitman-ish celebration of city space and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s command in his essay ‘Nature’ (1836) to be entirely open to the world: ‘Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all.’ The ecstasy in the title ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’ reflects the way Elliman breaks language like the mystic St Hilda but also how he turns his search into an ecstatic practice, the transcendence of the naturalist or the Romantic poet or Henry David Thoreau. ‘Yeah,’ Elliman says when I bring up Emerson and Thoreau, ‘only I’m not in a remote log cabin in the woods. I’m out there in the wilderness in my street in Bethnal Green.’ 

Paul Elliman is an artist based in London, UK. In 2012, his work was included in ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA. It is currently on show in ‘Now Here is also Nowhere (Part 1)’, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, USA, and ‘Deep Cuts’, the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.