Pope Leo: El Elope (the first and second)

Saturday, March 1st, 2014 by contromal

In preparation for my presentation this coming Tuesday, I came across munk.org (in particular http://munk.org/typecast/2013/07/03/typewriterart-pope-leo-el-elope-1969/), which publishes “Pope Leo: El Elope” in its entirety. The one included on this website, however, is the first version published in grOnk in 1969 (compared with the version in Writing Surfaces (p 16), which is published in 1970.

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At first glance, not much really changes between the two versions. But Riddell makes one tremendously important choice: he replaces typed text with hand-written text. Why would he do this?

Almost the entirety of Riddell’s work presented in Writing Surfaces manipulates type-written text, but here he opts to exclude this machine from the artistic process. Perhaps Riddell simply makes this decision for aesthetic purposes. Maybe pairing cartoon/hand-drawn with mechanical/typed-speech proved unpalatable. But I think it is more than this. In the second frame on the embedded (1969) photo, the typed words physically take up over a quarter of the frame. For the supposed regularity of the typewritten word, the presentation comes off as a little awkward and unplanned. The perfectly spaced, unalterably-sized typeface literally obscures the character Pope Leo. In the second version, this is not the case. There are two ways I interpret this artistic decision.

First, I wonder if Riddell, in some way, felt that as an artist, his creative process was being hindered (instead of helped) by technology. Rather than enhancing the capabilities of the artist, did the technology just get in the way? I have quoted Zielinski before and I believe he is again applicable here: “The history of the media is not the product of a predictable and necessary advance from primitive to complex apparatus. The current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (Deep Time of the Media 7). Perhaps Riddell’s choice not to use the typewriter suggests that technology in its “best” state is its appropriate state for the art being produced (or for its appropriate utilization). If media archaeology is non-linear, would it follow that the production of art, too, is non-linear?

Second, is it possible that where the human and machine directly intersect (through representation on the page – here I am taking Kittler’s approach that lumps handwriting and the page on one side of technology and opposes it with typewriter-esque machines and their relatives), Riddell privileges the human? Returning to the second frame, Riddell’s choices indicate that he is acutely aware of the visual decisions he makes and their purpose. Instead of privileging language (or the machine, as discussed before), Riddell privileges image. More importantly, he privileges an image which signifies “human.” The words in Pope Leo’s speech bubble remain constant, but the vehicle which delivers them changes from machine to human hand. Pope Leo becomes the focus of the frame. Riddell gives Pope Leo’s entire face and upper body a make-over. He no longer smiles, but looks head-on, mouth agape. Four letters organize and reorganize in a bubble, which Riddell relegates to a small corner of the frame. In fact, this particular bubble is pushed almost out of this frame altogether, as the majority of its area overlaps the gutter and the previous frame. Pope Leo’s presence dominates the frame. Furthermore, Riddell complicates the frame’s background, adding windows and a corner. This hand-drawn, visual business combines with the speech bubble and its text to surround, but not impinge upon the image of Pope Leo. The restructured lines of the page lead to a focus on this once obscured character.

Our class discussion have talked about whether or not we can ever have an assessment of the machine that is void of the human, but Riddell’s choice to replace the typewritten words with human hand-writing leads me to question the inverse. If we remove the “machine” are we left with a product which is “more human”?

PS – Does this “imperfection” of type covering an image (if we assume this was a mistake and really is, in the artist’s eye, an imperfection) remind the audience of the artist’s humanity? Is this the opposite of what Kittler thought would happen? That is, can the presence of the machine actually emphasize humanness?

– Renée

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