A Thousand Words

I am taking this as a target, though I am unwilling to die in a ditch (or even receive a paper cut in a gully) for such an essentially arbitrary goal.  The title was in fact chosen because of its historical use in the valuation of a picture – the picture being so valued (and indeed, the words) are left maddeningly unspecific.  Would a Rembrandt be valued using the same 1000 words as my own childish daubings (representing the last time I daubed)?  Have either words or pictures been affected by inflation since this phrase was coined?  Does the language of the words matter?  Certainly some languages seem more compact when it comes to word-count than others…

You may wonder why I should have started a post with these odd musings on the exchange rate between words and pictures – then again, if you are a regular visitor to my digital lair, you may have become resigned to such matters.  The reason comes down to a talk/discussion I attended yesterday as part of the SO: To Speak Festival.  This event was rather cryptically titled How can one be free in the 21st Century? and so I was fully expecting to learn how to use language to stay below the radar of the internet giants seeking to monetise our every action (and inaction).  This was very much not what happened and my afternoon was vastly enriched as a result.

The talk involved two artists Walter van Rijn and Jane Birkin – taking us through their practise which, in very crude terms, explores some of the interstices between language and image.  With Jane we started with her day job at the image archives of Southampton and Winchester universities; with Walter we began with a font he had created as part of the efflorescence of art which characterises Hull’s year as City of Culture.  Unpromising seeds, perhaps, but seeds nonetheless which grew in unexpected ways to create a spreading canopy of intriguing ideas over the next couple of hours.

We were a small audience, only just outnumbering the artists but I think this helped to shape the way the afternoon developed with no barriers to the interplay of ideas between artists and audience.  The artists took the lead, but everyone took part and though I suspect the rest of the audience were far more knowledgeable in the fields of art and poetry, I was never left feeling out of my depth.

I am going to attempt to provide a flavour of the conceptual art created around words and images, while making a futile attempt to avoid parallels with the use of dance to describe architecture (or, indeed, vice versa).

We started with the Being Human font: just like a normal font but embedded in the capital letters were words – in the first instance, each letter contained a key quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  So, everything you write using the font will have human rights built into it – but they are only visible at very large font sizes.  This embedded text could, we theorised, have further text embedded within it and so on all the way down.   This had led Walter to further experimentation with words embedded within words and using the text-to-speech functionality on a modern laptop to render this as speech.  In the extreme, a single word gained (perhaps) random additional letters or phonemes from a limited set of linked words to make patterns of “words” impossible for a human to read, but the computer would still attempt it in a very consistent manner.  This created an extraordinary speech-based artwork with hints of the looping of Steve Reich and the minimalism of Philip Glass.  We also experimented with different computer voices reading the text-art: I thoroughly recommend Xander who will read all words as though they were written in Dutch!


Moving closer to images, Walter had taken a visual artwork which had been created to represent and support a story from the Australian aboriginal oral tradition.  This was then described as text, where the descriptive text was the same size and shape as the original image with each element of description in the same location as the same element of the image.  This was fascinating as text and the patterns contained therein, but was then converted back to speech: returning to a story.  Further, the soundtrack contained two different tellings of the new “story” overlaid on top of each other recalling the multiplicity of retellings that would occur in the original oral tradition.  It was like a weird meditation on the whole idea of translation and representation of an image through words.

Jane’s day job is reducing images to words to enable their discovery from an archive.  It was really interesting thinking about how you describe an image: what to include or exclude.

Her first artwork took an existing artwork where three images and associated descriptions, embellished by broader discussions, derived from viewing the images.  This text was slowly reduced to a flat description of the images, with sections of undescriptive text slowly fading away one-by-one.  This sounds boring, but was oddly compelling: it reminded me of some ideas from slow TV.

In a second work, she had taken a series of images from the web, each tagged with the same piece of metadata: in this case “island”.  For each image (which we never saw), its flat description appeared, as though being typed word-by-word.  Description is often thought to be the antithesis of narrative, but somehow the gradual appearance created a narrative related to each image.  Somehow, there were even plot-twists in the descriptions.  Further, being storytelling animals, none of us could resist creating a narrative linking the (effectively) unrelated descriptions. I am explaining this so badly, but it was amazing and I think has the seeds of a whole new literature of the fourth dimension.

This has been an interesting (if largely failed) experiment: at best a faded palimpsest of a wonderful afternoon.  Language, or at least my facility therewith, has proven insufficient.


5 thoughts on “A Thousand Words

  1. matathew says:

    Thanks for continuing to produce these WordPress blog posts for dinosaurs like me who try to steer well clear of Facebook. By my calculations, your word count is 1002. I was a little shocked by the verbal beating up that the writer wrought on himself at the end of the piece.
    Anyway, my question is whether the image link is intended to be in text form. If so, I get the joke in its context. If this was not your intention, may we see it please?

    • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

      WordPress assured me there were precisely 1000 words – just goes to show one should be suspicious of anything one reads on a screen! The image link was supposed to be an image, but I feel is almost better in its current failed form…

  2. vvvr says:

    Nothing wrong with 1000 words… Thanks for the quite accurate description of our talk Stuart, I am glad you enjoyed it. I really hoped our experiment to explore the outer edges of texts would work out, and specially letting the laptop perform ‘live’. At least the laptop wasn’t lost for words. It likes repetitions. It likes repetitions. It likes repetitions.

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s