Artist Exercises: Connecting Artist-Educators Across Geographies brings together artists and artist-educators from Asia and the Asian diaspora, and is premised on the creative manner in which artists mediate our experiences. The cohort for this series, formed through an Open Call, has made connections between AAA’s digital archival collections and their own situated contexts and educational environments. The connections range from speculative and personal to directly using archival materials as part of their workshop or programme. While these exercises were attempted with the artist-educator’s longstanding groups of learners in their own contexts, they can be applied in wider contexts and locations.
Joey Chin is an artist and writer based in Singapore with an interest in social engagement. In this exercise, she focuses on the presence of handwriting in AAA’s archival collections as a starting point to dwell on the contemporary experience of technologically mediated writing. She is interested in the visuality of handwriting, and the myriad ways in which we communicate with each other.
When was the last time you handwrote a letter, a greeting card, or anything of length? With emails and text messages as the primary mode of communication today, writing by hand is now considered quirky, not unlike using an analogue camera or the typewriter.
Consider how handwriting, or the very act of writing, was highly regarded during a time when society was not literate. Even a pen in the nineties in Singapore could be considered a status symbol. Certain brands of pens were presented as gifts with the recipient’s name engraved on it. A set of Japanese gel pens with glittery ink in colours outside of the classroom’s requirements (blue and black for general work and green for corrections) could propel a student into popularity.
Writing and text production tools from the letterpress and the typewriter, to computer or technology-aided writing, have all contributed to the gradual decline of writing by hand. Today, it is found that due to excessive usage of touchscreen phones and tablets, children’s finger muscles are not developing sufficiently to allow them to hold a pencil correctly.
Yet, it is not to say that technology is all gloom and doom. It has enabled people who are able to speak a language fluently, but not able to read or write as well, communicate efficiently. They can now send voice messages, use the diction function, or enable predictive text messaging. These functions can also be helpful for people with different levels of language or dialect literacy.
Before a child learns to write, it is the act of scribbling and drawing that comes first. They explore attempts at drawing shapes and figures representative of real-life objects: a yellow circle for the sun on the further most left or right of the paper, long green zig-zags for grass on the lower part of a drawing, a house made up of a square, and a triangle for the roof. It may not be too different for an adult encountering how to write a foreign script. Giving shapes, lines, and curves to a letter or a character, where the strokes start and end along the ascender and descender, is not unlike allocating background and foreground for a drawing.
In that sense, drawing can be seen as the very beginning of composing a written message to communicate with others.
The exercises below aim to reflect on ways of writing, communicating, and creating the written word in today’s times. They also explore the relationship between drawing and writing.
- To reflect on the functions of handwriting and technology-aided communication
- To explore our own relationship with language and its acquisition: what it means for people who are not (digitally) literate or native to a language, thereby enhancing our understanding of different languages from a new perspective
- Create tension between familiarity and distance in writing, and to give materiality and physicality to words
- To consider the act of writing as one of drawing
These exercises have been conducted with children, ten-years-old and above, and with adults who are artists and art students. It can also be taught to inter-generational audiences that have different experiences with writing and technology, leading to a varied and rich discussion.
Grandparents, parents, and children can discuss the similarities and differences in their personal experiences and styles of writing and handwriting, their place in the world then and now.
Discussions can be supplemented with personal archives of diaries, cards, letters, birth certificates, official documentation, typographic styles of sign boards of shops from the past, or handwritten notes. There can also be conversations on digital literacy and other methods in which information is created, conveyed, and received.
I have found that people with an interest in text-based art, conceptual art, and typography will find some of the references useful. It can also be taught to anyone who does not have a background in art.
Lastly, these exercises may be of interest to migrants or people who are bilingual. Many of the participants of these exercises, especially Exercises 2 and 3, have a non-native, foreign-language perspective to some of the languages explored.
Conceptual art, calligraphy, text art, writing
Teaching Concepts & Artistic Practice
I am an artist and writer whose practice explores writing, text, language, and communication. As an individual, I am particularly intrigued by the Chinese and Greek language, which have challenged and confounded me for years.
In my art practice, I view the Chinese character as a picture composed of lines, swishes, and teardrops; the Greek letter as a drawing made of flicks and flourishes—my own way of making sense of the language and script that evade my tongue and hand.
These exercises are grounded in looking at language and writing in a visual manner.
Through personal documents including handwritten notes, a certificate, and the typewritten documentation of a talk, these archives can prompt discussions on the production and styles of text.
- Exercise 2: Collections related to Fung Ming Chip and Xu Bing
Using experimental forms of visual art and writing, these artists push the boundaries of language and what it means to assign meaning, form, shape, and sound-to-words. These archives can stimulate conversations on the role of drawing and writing in language and literacy.
- Exercise 3: Frog King Archive
This archive illustrates how materiality and even physicality are involved when the production of calligraphy goes beyond the conventional scale, size, and materials used.
Exercise 1: Ways of Writing
Do we communicate differently when we hand-write versus when we text? This exercise explores if and how we write differently depending on the medium and platform.
- Pen/pencil, paper
- A smartphone or a laptop
- 30 minutes
Ask participants to handwrite something for 15 minutes with a pen and paper: it can be to themselves, a family member, an old friend, or anyone they have in mind. Participants are free to decide on the content, and they are encouraged to be honest and intuitive in their writing, putting whatever they have in mind onto paper.
Next, ask them to reproduce the content from the letter using one-to-two methods below for 15 minutes:
- A text message without any character limit (e.g., WhatsApp, iMessage, WeChat, Line, KakaoTalk)
- A text message using only emojis (using mobile phone or https://emojikeyboard.org/)
- A 160-character limit SMS (using mobile phone or https://www.afreesms.com/freesms/)
- Any micromessaging platform
Post-activity Discussion Questions
- How often do you write by hand?
- What was the process of handwriting like?
- What was the experience of translating a handwritten note into technology-aided methods?
- What did you find interesting, challenging, or fun?
- What was the difference in the content of the handwritten note and other methods? (This can refer to stylistic differences like use of abbreviations, to the process of creating a message in different forms.)
- What content did you keep or omit in the process and why?
- Was there a method you preferred?
- Would you send this personal note to the recipient? Please share your reasons.
- Is there a difference in writing something personal, meant only for your eyes, versus it being viewed by others?
- What language did you write in and why?
- Participants are not required to send whatever they have created to their recipients.
- Participants do not have to share what they have written, unless they want to.
Examples of Work:
Further Resources on Correspondences and Letters
- Handwritten and typed versions of a letter written by Roberto Chabet to Dr Ernesto G. Tabujara, Chancellor of the University of the Philippines (UP), dated 7 April 1988.
This is a handwritten note requesting for a typewritten letter. Have you ever had to toggle between different apps that perform similar functions on your smartphone?
- Letter from Gerardo Tan to Roberto Chabet, dated 10 December 1990.
The sender wrote in capital letters. Why do you think that is the case? What do you think the experience is like writing only in capitals? What are the implications of capital letters in an email or text?
- Certificate of participation presented to Roberto Chabet by the Zeta Orion Athletic Club of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Laguna.
Chabet finished Third Place in the 22km Fourth Invitational Marathon on 28 February 1982.
Look at this certificate. How was it produced? What do you think was the role of the person who filled in the blanks? Compare the handwritten and printed features in this certificate.
- Talk at the U.G.C . Seminar on Children's Literature - An Illustrator's Point Of View by K. G. Subramanyan
This text is from a talk by K. G. Subramanyan. Who do you think created this text? Examine the various edits and changes. Do you think these edits were made on the spot, or later? Compare the differences between creating this in Word versus the typewriter.
Exercise 2: Writing Through Drawing
Do you remember how you learned to write? This exercise is a re-imagination of how we mastered writing through thinking of letters as shapes and lines.
- Pen/pencil, paper
- 20 minutes
Ask participants to choose a word about three-to-five letters long. With that word in mind, they have to develop a set of instructions on how to write this word, imagining that they are meant for a person who is able to speak and understand your medium of instruction, but who is unable to write.
For example, if the word chosen is “Cat,” written with a capital “C,” how can our instructions be clear so the learner is able to replicate the word?
Consider the following instructions:
- Draw a crescent moon facing left (using a common object for reference with clear directions), or
- Draw a circle and erase its right half (using a common shape for reference with clear directions)
X Write the letter O and erase half (our imaginary learner does not know what an O is, so avoid using other letters for reference. Direction is imprecise: top half or bottom half? Left or right half?)
Consider the following instructions for the lower case “a”:
- Draw a small circle, its height about 50% shorter than the “C” created earlier (this acknowledges the difference in upper and lower case letters)
- Draw a straight vertical line to the farthest right of this circle. This line must be connected to the circle. This line must be of the same height.
Consider the following instructions for the lower case “t”:
- Draw an ambulance cross (using a common object for reference), or
- Draw a plus sign (though participants can make an argument for or against the usage of the plus sign, if a mathematical symbol is considered part of literacy), or
- Draw a vertical line the same height as the letter “C” created earlier. Then draw a horizontal line cutting into the middle of the vertical line. This horizontal line should be half the length of the vertical line.
Post-activity Discussion Questions
- Is there a way to simplify or give more exact instructions?
- Do you, or anyone you know, have difficulty reading or writing a particular language? It can be a native, foreign, or second language.
- Did you learn to speak or write a new language as an adult? Compare it to your early experiences as a child. What are some similarities and differences?
- How did you learn to write as a child? Was it through connecting the dots, tracing, or having someone take your hand and guide you?
- Was there a letter you enjoyed/disliked writing? Why?
- Was there a letter you found easier/harder to write? Why?
- Did you get confused between certain letters or numbers?
- Participants can discuss the usage of capital letters, when to use them and how.
- Participants can choose to decide if drawing three long horizontal lines to emulate handwriting paper might be helpful in discerning ascenders and descenders for capital and small letters.
- This exercise can also be modified for other languages. Instead of short words, participants can consider three-to-four stroke characters. Instead of drawing three lines, participants can draw a square instead, sub-divided into quarters to emulate grids for Chinese writing practice.
Examples of Work:
Further Resources on Language, Images, and Text
- Square Word Calligraphy: Xu Bing, 英文方塊字
Xu Bing created Latin letters that look like Chinese characters, creating confusion for people familiar with Chinese and English. Did you learn to speak or write a new language as an adult? How did you translate between languages?
- Logos and Method: Fung Ming-Chip, 字元字法：馮明秋
In Fung Ming Chip’s art, are these words, images, or both? What do these images resemble? How do we assign words to pictures? What makes a word “a word”?
- Non-AAA Resource: Tauba Auerbach: Lowercase Components
If you were to deconstruct a character or word into individual lines, strokes and curves, what would this look like? Is there a sequence in putting them back together?
Exercise 3: Styles and Stylish
Do different writing tools affect the written word? How does your regular handwriting differ when you write another language, or in a formalised style of writing like calligraphy? This exercise looks at how different writing tools, styles, and language influence our output.
- Pen/pencil, paper
- Calligraphy pen
- Letterbrush pen
- Marker pen
Other experimental forms
- Pen and carbon paper (unable to see what is actually being written)
- Brush and water (evaporates without a trace)
- Brush and lemon juice (invisible, and shows up under heat)
- Twigs and sand
- 20 minutes
Ask participants to write a word, sentence, or quote in any style of calligraphy, or in a different language altogether.
The aim is to write something using a style that is challenging and unfamiliar. They can choose to write on any type of paper, cloth, or even on the ground.
Post-activity Discussion Questions
- How does the style you chose differ from the way you would usually write?
- Is there a specific method you prefer, and if yes, why?
- If a person is unfamiliar with the language, will they be able to discern what you have written in calligraphy? Compare this to regular handwriting.
- Instead of paper, what can you write on? Instead of conventional writing materials, what can you write with?
Examples of work:
The Chinese word: at first I decided not to know what the word meant because I thought that this would have influenced me, affecting the aesthetic way in which I reproduced it. So the copying process led me to focus on the aesthetic structure of the word. I copied it by trying to match my drawing with the original as exactly as possible. So I looked at the original in terms of juxtaposition of lines, empty spaces, length...a sort of architectural work really. I also put great attention to reproducing the end of the lines in order to make them exactly the same (as thin as possible). I don't know if I succeeded, and if my drawing—for me it is a drawing—would mean anything to a Chinese reader (maybe the lines are too far? too big? too narrow?).
The quote below: this is definitely not my handwriting style, but after spending some time on the Chinese word, it is as if a more "elegant" approach to handwriting came up quite spontaneously. Interestingly, despite being inspired by the Chinese word, the Latin letters I wrote appeared much rounder. This is because I must have somehow felt the elegance of the Chinese aesthetic. And, paradoxically, if I tried to reproduce the way the Chinese letter is drawn, I think the quote would have looked way more rigid.
- Modern Calligraphy, 現代書法
What do you think is the future of calligraphy? How will text be stylised in the future?
- Experimental Calligraphy Big Action: The Art of —Water: Frog King 實驗書道大行動
Consider the two images above where the artist used a sponge mop and ink to create a large-scale calligraphic work. What is the effort taken to learn an unfamiliar way of writing, and what are the different writing materials which can, in turn, influence different writing speed, positions, and angle? If you were to create the written word on a larger scale, what do you think are its pleasures, messages, or challenges?
What are the implications of creating with water or on sand, where the creation may later disappear without a trace of the word?
At the end of the exercises, facilitators can consider the following:
- Scan or snap photos of the outcomes
- Print them, and arrange them as a simple zine, or
- Put them onto a PowerPoint slide
The aim is to have a visual, side-by-side comparison of the unique words produced from the same exercise.
When I first embarked on creating these exercises, I was certain about the types of art I would be interested in from the archives.
Xu Bing was on the list early on. I was introduced to his work, Square Word Calligraphy, while pursuing an MFA in poetry. I remember being fascinated at how calligraphy and design could turn Chinese calligraphy strokes into English words, causing confusion for people proficient in reading either or both language(s). It gave new meaning to creative writing, outside of the forms of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
Along the way, while looking for collections on similar themes of text-based art, semiotics, calligraphy, and typography, I came across the work of Fung Ming Chip, an artist of words, making art in the form of poetry, seal-engraving, and calligraphy.
Text-based art was a way for me to think of art outside of writing. Creating these exercises and using these archives, I am reminded of the wonder that emerges from accessibility in two forms: how AAA can bring such precious and well-documented collections to viewers and readers who are far away, hindered by distance, borders, and the ongoing pandemic; how easy connections between two art forms—writing and visual art—can be made for a person not initiated to art. I often think I became an artist because I first wanted to be a poet.
The collections went beyond educational resources. They were a source of inquiry and curiosity, a piece of history, and an introduction to artists and works I did not know. It was a glimpse into how people communicated before. I was fascinated by the edits and corrections to a transcript of a talk by K. G. Subramanyan, and the certification of a marathon participation of Roberto Chabet. It made me think of the role of a scribe, or a secretary, or people involved in the production of texts that are not meant to be creative or artistic content. I believe that is the beauty of archives—how it gives insights into the quirks and characteristics of an individual we might know about only as an artist.
Publishing date: 14 September 2022
The AAA Learning and Participation Programme is supported by the S. H. Ho Foundation Limited.