Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Vernacular Typography project: documenting the city's disappearing art

One of the ironies of the mass-information internet age is the rise of handcraft. From craft beer to paper-making, from the use of a certain color tint known as "folk-art blue" (even by self-taught outsider artists) to labor-intensive textile creation, the increasing amount of handcrafting is a response to the ubiquity of corporate branding and, even more so, the easy availability of "how-to" information.
What's ironic about the rush to make the old new again is the abandonment of the art that often surrounds us. This is especially true in cities, where hand-made signs and advertising are fast disappearing in the rush to demolish and replace.
This displacement is no longer just in New York City and other major areas known for the swing of the wrecking ball. Yet the vanishing act is more pronounced and noticeable in urban areas: history slowly disappears day by day, without notice or record, especially when it comes to a city's signs and signage. At Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, curator Jerimiah Moss interviewed Molly Woodward about her ongoing project, Vernacular Typography, which documents the city's daily attrition and is now expanding to cities around the globe.
Currently, Vernacular Typography contains over 5,000 images of found typography from Argentina, Chile, Cuba, England, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States. Website materials emphasize that contributions to the Vernacular Typography effort will allow the project to expand to new cities and incorporate new elements into the project (printed matter, interactive maps, video shorts, interviews with signmakers, etc) that are vital to the preservation of visual communication in the built environment.
The NYC typography record includes numbers, ghost signs, hand-painted signage, grammatical errors and fading fallout shelter signs -- reminders of the atomic age. The larger global project hopes to encompass much more. In her own description Woodward hopes to create "a collaborative effort with local typographers and sign-makers to document, map, and preserve these fragile remaining examples of a representative cultural art form that is being swept away by the uniformity of corporate advertising, which ignores and subverts local history and tradition in large and small urban areas: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Kowloon, Melbourne, and Sydney, and in smaller, fringe communities, like Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Alice Springs."

Here's an excerpt of the interview with Molly Woodward at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, by curator Jeriemiah Moss.
Q: How are you defining "Vernacular Typography"?
 A: I guess it should technically be Vernacular "Lettering," but I define Vernacular Typography as the found lettering that exists in the built environment and surrounds us everyday. It doesn't have to be pretty or use an existing typeface, it's just any visual representation of language. ...
Q: What do we lose when the vernacular typography of the city streets vanishes from sight?
A: A sense of the city's history, and also a precious visual resource. Typography can you tell you a lot about local culture and urban communication and when we don't see it, our sense of the city is diminished. 
Q: What do you think might be the psychological impact of living in a city where the native typography is replaced by homogeneous corporate signage?
A: I think there's less of a personal connection to a specific place. With standardized corporate advertising, signs are no longer representative of a group of people or a neighborhood, just a business that could be anywhere in the world. For natives, connections to the past are lost, so a sense of home or a memory of a place is devalued. And for visitors, there's less of the unique experience you get from traveling someplace new. 
Vernacular typography is such an incredible marker of regional identity, spatial orientation, and even personal history. If we lose it altogether, we not only lose that individual and cultural connection, but also a physical map of the city, which is why documentation and preservation are so important.

Vernacular Typography can be accessed here. (Images from the Vernacular Typography website.)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Eudora's Purple Hat": cocktails with literary pedigrees

At this point in the long holiday stretch into December, the only thing left to do with Thanksgiving turkey is throw it out the window. And since no one has dared concoct a turkey martini there will always be one, last, unbound culinary frontier. We hope.

In New Orleans, however, drinks named after literary figures and their works is a bartender's sport. The Houston Chronicle reports of a cocktail in search of a party -- not hard to do at the Monteleone, a venerable New Orleans hotel, and at times home to Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Hemingway.  

Maggie Galehouse, of the Chronicle, and her pal were at the Monteleone on a rainy Friday afternoon. She reports they were "now, officially, wet and thirsty." It seems appropriate  to suggest a cocktail in a literary mood -- "Eudora's Purple Hat," one that even carries a reference to a short story written at the very bar of the Monteleone by Eudora Welty herself. Galehouse writes:

...we were really looking for drinks that somehow reflected writers or their works. He told us some other bars we could try — the Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt hotel, French 75 at Arnaud’s restaurant — and then, just as we were preparing to leave … the aha moment.

“You know, a few years ago, the hotel hosted a party for Eudora Welty’s 101st birthday,” Allen said. “I created a drink for it, based on her short story, ‘The Purple Hat.’ ”

(It was 2010, and the celebration included a screening of a short film based on the story.) “We’ll take one,” I said.

Welty, apparently, wrote the strange little story at the Hotel Monteleone bar. Indeed, the story is set in a bar, “… a quiet little hole in the wall. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Beyond the open door the rain fell, the heavy color of the sea, in air where the sunlight was still suspended. Its watery reflection lighted the room, as a room might have lighted a mousehole. It was in New Orleans.”

There’s a bartender and two patrons at either end of the bar; one of the patrons is a fat man, the other a nervous younger man with shaking hands. The fat man tells a story about a mysterious middle-aged woman who wears a “great and ancient and bedraggled purple hat” each day to the Palace of Pleasure, a gambling hall where he works. The woman keeps a syringe and a vial in her hat, which she secures with a long pin. She meets the same young man — or the same sort of young man — every afternoon. “I have watched her every day for thirty years and I think she is a ghost,” the fat man observes. “I have seen her murdered twice.”

Welty’s story raises more questions than it answers: What does the purple hat represent? Is the lady who wears it a ghost? Does the young man at the bar know more than he lets on?

As Allen mixed us a “Eudora’s Purple Hat,” he told us the ingredients: citrus vodka, black raspberry liqueur, crème de violette, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and an egg white.

“When we made it for her birthday party, we served it with edible violets,” he told us. ...

The full story is at the Houston Chronicle's Bookish blog. The photo of Eudora Welty, at top, is from the Southern Literary Trail.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

from "Batting Against Castro," Jim Shepard [1996]

(Castro with the Minneapolis Millers 
at the Junior World Series, 1959) 
... The Marianao skipper overmanaged and ran out of pitchers. He had an outfielder come in and fling a few, and the poor guy walked our eighth and ninth hitters with pitches in the dirt, off the backstop, into the seats. I was up. There was a conference on the mound that included some fans and a vendor. Then there was a roar, and we stretched forward out of the dugout and saw Castro up and moving through the seats to the field. Someone threw him a glove. 
He crossed to the mound, and the Marianao skipper watched him come then handed him the ball when he got there like his relief ace had just come in from the pen. Castro took the outfielder's hat for himself, but that was about it for uniform. The tails of his pleated shirt hung out. His pants looked like Rudolph Valentino's. He was wearing dress shoes.

I turned to the ump. "Is this an exhibition at this point?" I said. He said something in Spanish that I assumed was, "You're in a world of trouble now."
The crowd, which had screamed itself out hours ago, got its second wind. Hurricanes, dust devils, sandstorms in the Sahara -- I don't know what the sound was like. When you opened your mouth it came and took your words away.

I looked over at Batista, who was sitting on his hands. How long was this guy going to last if he couldn't even police the national pastime?

Castro toed the rubber, worked the ball in his hand, and stared at me like he hated everyone I'd ever been associated with. He was right-handed. He fussed with his cap. He had a windmill delivery. I figured, let him have his fun, and he wound up and cut loose with a fastball behind my head.

The crowd reacted like he'd struck me out. I got out of the dirt and did the pro brush-off, taking time with all parts of my uniform. Then I stood in again, and he broke a pretty fair curve in by my knees, and down I went again.

What was I supposed to do? Take one for the team? Take one for the country? Get a hit, and never leave the stadium alive? He came back with his fastball high, and I thought, enough of this, and tomahawked it foul. We glared at each other. He came back with a changeup -- had this guy pitched somewhere, for somebody? -- again way inside, and I thought, forget it, and took it on the hip. The umpire waved me to first, and the crowd screamed about it like we were cheating.

I stood on first. The bases were now loaded for Charley. You could see the Marianao skipper wanted Castro off the mound, but what could he do?Charley steps to the plate, and it's like the fans have been holding back on the real noisemaking up to this point. There are trumpets, cowbells, police whistles, sirens and the god-awful noise of someone by the foul pole banging two frying pans together. The attention seems to unnerve Charley. I'm trying to give him the old thumbs-up from first, but he's locked-in on Castro, frozen in his stance. The end of his bat's making little circles in the air. Castro gave it the old windmill and whipped a curve past his chin. Charley bailed out and stood in again. The next pitch was a curve, too, which fooled him completely. He'd been waiting on the fastball. He started to swing, realized it was a curve breaking in on him, and ducked away to save his life. The ball hit his bat anyway. It dribbled out toward Castro. Charley gaped at it and then took off for first. I took off for second. The crowd shrieked. Ten thousand people, one shriek. All Castro had to do was gun it to first and they were out of the inning. He threw it into right field.

Pandemonium. Our eighth and ninth hitters scored. The ball skipped away from the right fielder. I kept running. The catcher'd gone down to first to back up the throw. I rounded third like Man o' War, Charley not far behind me, the fans spilling out onto the field and coming at us like a wave we were beating to shore. One kid's face was a flash of spite under a Yankee hat, a woman with long scars on her neck was grabbing for my arm. And there was Castro, blocking the plate, dress shoes wide apart, Valentino pants crouched and ready, his face scared and full of hate like I was the entire North American continent bearing down on him.

-- from The Paris Review Book, 2003
(Fidel Castro, President of Cuba 1959-2008)