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Grafitti and the Grapheme
by Gareth Lewis| London, UK
Monday, 23 August 2010
tags: art & design, consumer culture, culture, emergence, europe, making sense, socioeconomics
Amble through Shoreditch or down Old Street in east London and you’d be hard-pressed not to run into one of Ben ‘EINE’ Flynn’s colourfully decorated shop-shutters. Since 2006 Flynn has been spray-painting solitary, emboldened, harlequin capitals across the rippling steel frontage of any jewellers or hardware store that will grant him permission. Middlesex Street now exhibits the entire (English) alphabet in one long back-to-back shop-front circuit. As the day’s trade winds to a close, the place starts to take on the surreally genial atmosphere of a primary school classroom. Somewhere along the line, the monadic alphabetic character has re-emerged as a significant cultural signifier.
The 2007 paperback edition of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections features a striking piece of cover art. The silhouetted hull of a cruise ship prowls towards us. A powderblue sunset sinks low in the background. You can perceive a lone figure standing at the deck’s edge. He could be admiring the view. He could well be about to jump. Title, author and statutory critical praise are printed in vivid whites and reds inside an oily black bubble of smoke gushing from the ship’s chimney. Even by industry standards (which are generally high), it’s a tight piece of production.
Why, then, have the publishers of the 2010 edition (released in anticipation of Franzen’s new novel Freedom) done away with it altogether? What we get instead bears a conspicuous resemblance to one of EINE’s east London shutter works. A huge purple ‘C’ all but blots out the smoky white backdrop. A thumbnail image on the back cover suggests Freedom is set to reproduce this. We see a block black ‘F’, the title stomping in white capitals down the character’s backbone. The aesthete might think this retrogressive. And yet it feels right.
The study of the relationship between the ‘part’ and the ‘whole’ (or meronymic relations) has well-trodden roots in Euclidian geometry, Aristotle’s urban organicism and Nietzsche’s political thought. Aristotle, for example, understood the relationship between the individual and the city as a part-whole interaction. For him, the city was a natural organism. The relationship between the component parts (the Grecian subject) and the urban entirety was essentially the same as that which holds between the parts of a natural organism and the organism itself.
Returning to the present, EINE’s experiment in meronymy makes a clear and certain sense in the context of London’s own endless splicing and congealment. Likewise, Franzen’s novels deal with that other restless organism: the all-American family. An emergent interest in the grapheme – the boldly isolated character – feasibly fits into an emergent cultural exploration around this question of parts and wholes. J.S. Mill – another philosopher who has written on this tangled relationship – outlined the idea of ‘emergence’: complex part-whole systems always retain the potential to generate fresh structures. In a typographic context such as this, that might mean new alphabets, new characters, and new ways of communicating through writing.
© Gareth Lewis 2010