Concrete poetry begins by being aware of graphic space as structural agent
Noigandres group: from Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry (1958)
I have been trying to develop (in articles) the idea of design (graphic and industrial) as language….for me, the poet is a language designer
Décio Pignatari (1966)
Design is both a small and big word. It can be exact and highly generic. When it comes to intersections between design and poetry, the complexities are many and various.
To explore this topic a bit further, I’ve decided to rummage into recent cultural history and to bring together for exhibition fascinating examples of these fields coalescing and connecting, in direct and indirect ways. The international concrete poetry movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought this trajectory to a height. Sometimes designers and poets worked together, sometimes they combined in the same person. Designers sometimes helped fashion changes in the material nature of the poem. This was an environmental crosspollination and evident in other fields – something was in the air: a changing approach to shape and form, a decomposition or distillation of language, a serialising or programmatic tendency, a desire to work outside the boundaries. Typographical adaptions and adaptions of poetic language often happened in parallel. Exploration of graphic space was at a premium and lines literally went everywhere, at random or out to points of light.
Language was in-formation and no-one was quite sure of its limits. The alphabet was destabilised and liberated from the sentence: subject to a raw purification. In many parts of the world, exponents of concrete poetry (and their predecessors in lettrism and other movements) took form apart, breaking down words into letters and letters into fragments as well as into codes and signs. Many were obsessed with decomposition, with dematerialising language and exploring the properties of graphic space. Others focussed on highlighting the materiality of the text and on the space occupied by single words – such as apple or pear – making these into images and exposing their graphic form. When computer art was beginning, it appeared for the first time within concrete poetry contexts. Some concrete poets made works they called semiotic poems, including keys and codes. Literature was having a typoetical revolution. Though it was hardly recognised.
This exhibition sets out some of the convergent lines of influence which shaped these developments and opens the gate towards a fuller understanding. It presents works and associated texts by leading figures which speak directly and need little interpretation.
Hopefully the interplay between plasticity and materiality of words, letters and lines holds some appeal for disenchanted post-digital minds. You are invited to cross the threshold and go back into the garden.
Bronac Ferran, September 2016
About the curator
The exhibition has been curated by Bronac Ferran who is a writer and curator based in London. In autumn 2016 she begins doctoral research in the English and Humanities Department at Birkbeck, University of London on the work of Hansjörg Mayer in the context of concrete poetry, typography and design developments in the 1950s and 1960s. She is also writing a book about edition hansjörg mayer which will be published by Walther König Books in early 2017. Bronac co-presents the Making Conversations series on Resonance 104fm with Professor Andrew Prescott.
The poster and visual identity for this exhibition has been created by Professor Will Hill at Cambridge School of Art, with thanks also to Hansjörg Mayer who guided the final version of the beautiful poster.design-and-the-concrete-poemposter
In 2015 Ferran curated a token of concrete affection in collaboration with Stephen Bann with works and correspondence from his personal collection, which took place at the Brazilian Embassy in London. This exhibition which primarily related to connections in the 1960s and 1970s between Bann and the Noigandres poets in Brazil was originally shown at the Centre of Latin American Studies, at the University of Cambridge.
Also in Cambridge in 2012 she curated an exhibition called Poetry, Language, Code and in early 2015, she co-curated an exhibition called Graphic Constellations: Visual Poetry and the Properties of Space with Professor Will Hill, who is also a graphic designer.
The second exhibition in Cambridge paved the way to this new show in Glasgow. More information about Graphic Constellations can be found here
More about the 2015 exhibition
Graphic Constellations: Visual Poetry & the Properties of Space was devised by co-curators Bronac Ferran and Will Hill to mark the 50th anniversary of the First International Exhibition of Concrete, Kinetic & Phonic Poetry organised in Cambridge in late 1964. Three of the artists featured in that exhibition – Frank Malina, Hansjorg Mayer and Edward Wright – were again featured ih the 2015 exhibition.
Graphic Constellations focussed in on the interrelationship between graphic design, typography, concrete poetry and ideas of the kinetic, or movement within works particularly as it was manifest during the period from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, a period of emergence of many aspects of today’s multimedia trends. The exhibition brings back to the surface the now buried interface between the concrete and the kinetic, traced and illuminated in the writings of commentators such as dsh (Dom Sylvester Houedard) and explores how graphic design played a key role in transforming notions of the poetic from static and contained forms of expression to open permutations of process and visual experiment. Collaborations took place in the mid-1960s, between leading poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Furnival with graphic design students such as Ann Stevenson (now Ann Noel) through integrated projects in sites like Bath Academy of Art (where Furnival, Jasia Reichardt, dsh and Hansjorg Mayer were all teachers).
Arlington, Brighton and other poetry festivals of the mid-1960s formed significant contexts for interaction, experimentation and display of visual and kinetic poetry. Catalogues from these events act as material histories referencing a period pre-Moon Landing, when disciplinary languages were crossing over and mutually invigorating, and networks of artists and designers coinsected in localities for temporary manifestations of emergent artforms not yet tainted by the absolute lure of the digital. Revelling in a pre-digital adventure in typography and design and poetry in motion, this exhibition shows how artists/designers/poets were pushing the limits of language – from the Fire-Drawings series, Letrafilm Collages and Material Alphabet of Liliane Lijn to the unsurpassed perfection of Hansjorg Mayer’s autonomous typographies and alphabets shown here beside works of his former student and then collaborator, Ann Noel, including her fine versions of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Acrobats. We are delighted to be showing Spring II, a luminodyne kinetic work made in Paris in 1959 by Frank J. Malina, similar to his Oui et Non work shown in Cambridge in November 1964 and with the help of archival material loaned by the Malina family we reveal new insights into the social and professional relations that connected Malina, a US born space scientist who became a prefiguring media artist, to leading figures in the avant-garde art world of 1960s Britain. The situation of Cambridge as a generator and reflector of trends nationally and internationally, with the remarkable work in writing, design and curation by Stephen Bann, Reg Gadney, Philip Steadman and Mike Weaver who together organised the 1964 show (later christened Kinkon by dsh) is conveyed within this exhibition with particular attention given to Philip Steadman whose graphic design manifest in Form and IMAGE magazines and other works deserves enhanced recognition. We are honoured to be presenting rarely seen work by artist and designer Edward Wright, whose poem-folds/design collaborations with Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Furnival and others embody the spirit of concrete-graphic-kinetic which the exhibition seeks to explore. Wright was an inspirational teacher of many students and friend of many collaborators during his time at Cambridge University Department of Architecture, RCA and Chelsea School of Art, who made Cambridge his final home and resting place. The curators of Graphic Constellations wished to thank Anglia Ruskin University and Arts Council England Grants for the Arts for their generous support of this exhibition as well as all those who have kindly loaned work for the duration of the show.