Writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate. Speech comes out of our mouths, our hands, our eyes in something like a liquid form and then evaporates at once … writing is language displaced from the mode of immediate gesture or speech to the mode of the memento—something like the seashells and the driftwood and the footprints on the beach … And what is language? Language is what speaks us as well as what we speak.[1]

Mr. Edison’s Ear makes use of text as an image of sound. I have manipulated found type, or text in the video in order to do work on the subject of deafness. I wanted to illustrate deafness through the space that surrounds the written word. I wanted, as the poet and typographer Robert Bringhurst puts it, “to produce a state of reading/being in the viewer:”[2]

There are always exceptions, always excuses for stunts and surprises. But perhaps we can agree that, as a rule, typography should perform these services for the reader:
Invite the reader into the text;
Reveal the tenor and meaning of the text;
Clarify the structure and order of the text;
Link the text with other existing elements;
Induce a state of energetic repose, which is the ideal condition for reading

These typographic images in my video are supposed to feel like Edison’s thoughts.

I took excerpts from Edison’s diaries, edited them, and tried to distill them into poetic fragments. Edison’s writing is both lengthy and comical. The excerpts are greatly reduced from their original length, in part because the experience of reading a page is different from reading on screen, and also because I wanted to extract the essence of the story being told.Writing is the solid form of language,” and written words are also oral, aural and representational of thoughts. In the video (and on any written surface) they function as images and at the level of the individual image. We always read type as images and patterns as our eyes traverse any page in a seemingly instantaneous process. In Mr. Edison’s Ear, I wanted this process revealed and for the emphasis to be thoughts read overtop of silence.

I also wanted within the animated sequences to draw attention to the visual beauty of the single word, and even the single letter. Thus it seemed important to remain true to the transcription established by the original typesetting of the book containing Edison’s diary excerpts. The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison was typeset in Baskerville[3], a typeface designed by John Baskerville in 1750, an inventor in his own right, who established the shape of the book page (and in particular the academic book page) in the 18th century. This standard remained in place for over a hundred years.

The structure, syntax and size of the diary excerpts’ typography varies in the video. Some visual evocations reproduce complete sentences, in some instances only a phrase is recorded, at other times a lone word. These fragments, (I’m going to refer to all of them as fragments), are set within a grid delineated by the TV safe frame lines. As the text dissolves in and out, the text activates the white field. I think of this as the space of deafness. White is usually defined as absence. Here it is presence. The typographer Carl Dair theorizes the field in this way:

Let us start with the reading process. The page, which you are now scanning, is a white sheet of paper with a multitude of black characters on it. For you to see it, there must first of all be light; the light must fall on the paper and be reflected back to the eye from the white portions and be absorbed by the dark. When we read, what we really see then is not the printed type, but the paper itself. The type has only a negative value; we are aware of it only because it represents an area of the sheet from which no light is reflected; we do not really “see” it. [4]

This quotation relates to technologies of inscription, in particular to photography—written light.


1. Robert Bringhurst, The Solid Form of Language
2. Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style
3. Simon Loxley, Type: the Secret History of Letters, New York: IB Taurus and Co. Ltd., 2004. Interestingly, the typeface the Diary was set in would have been a copy of Baskerville’s face, given the date of the book’s publication and the history of metal type is as litigious and ensconced in patent battle as the history of other technologies of inscription.
4. Carl Dair, Design with Type, pp. 91-92.