conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 06.12.2023
PAUL PRUDENCE: THINKING LIKE AN ALGORITHM
HAND-PLOTTING AND TYPEWRITINGS
Anika Meier: Paul, you have a background in textile design. How did you get into art?
Paul Prudence: My first degree was in textile design, but subsequently I shifted my path towards art, first by doing a post-grad diploma in textile art and then an MA in fine art. So, although I initially set out on an educational path in textiles, specifically printed design, I was always working on art projects, or at least thinking about art and researching its various historical movements since my early teens.
AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
PP: I would say very early. I can remember that even in primary school, I was incredibly excited during art classes and had it in my head that's what I wanted to do.
AM: You’re known for repurposing an ordinary typewriter to behave like an electronic plotter. Why a typewriter?
PP: I had been aware of and inspired by the concrete poetry movement, and as a writer, I was thinking about ways in which I could combine writing and visual art for a while. It was only by chance that one day I found an old Silver Reed typewriter in a charity shop. I bought the machine, took it home, and it sat in the corner of my studio space for some months before I tried to use it. When I did, the keys were a bit clogged and the ink was dry, so there was no typing to be had from it. Through a bit of frustration and some luck, I began to experiment with holding a pen in place while I typed and moved the platen roller up and down. I immediately recognised that I had a rudimentary mechanical plotting system sitting right in front of me.
The idea of having a hand-operated mechanical plotter in the age of expensive and sophisticated electronic plotters amused me. From then on, I set out to explore ways in which to develop techniques for mimicking processes and algorithms. Even after nearly three years of using this technique, I am still finding new patterns and systems.
AM: Have you ever considered working with a plotter?
PP: Actually, no, I haven’t considered working with a plotter because I am fascinated by what happens when I try to 'become' the program and think like an algorithm. By casting myself as an iterative loop and obeying the discreet instructions of a program, I become aware of certain features and processes that are usually inaccessible. I can experience the iterations, interactions, and repetitions of a program in 'human time' rather than at the hyper-accelerated rate of computational time, where those processes have become abstracted and hidden within an enterprise of invisible electronic interactions. When I attempt to think (and type) like an algorithm, I enter into an internal machine-like monologue and become the looped-I-am.
AM: You've stated that you “(mis)use vintage manuals and electronic typewriters." On your X account, you regularly share artists that inspire your artistic practice, for example, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt. How did you learn about artists using typewriters to create art?
PP: Through research. I believe that one of the most important roles of an artist is to know their field historically and have a good understanding of the precursors and pioneers who have made important contributions to their chosen area. Since a significant part of my time is involved in researching the works of artists and works I admire, I also like to publish references from the past for the benefit of interested communities on my X account.
I adore Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt's work, who even today continues to create new work at the age of 90. She is known for her geometric and concrete work that she calls "typewritings," which she worked on in the 1970s and 1980s. She sent these works to friends and artists as part of the mail art movement.
AM: You work with letters, lines, and patterns. How do you approach working on a new project?
PP: My projects are weighted towards interesting aesthetic outcomes, and sometimes, although not mandatory, they also have conceptual foundations. Basically, if I hit on a visual formula that works, a pattern, or an algorithm that looks interesting, I tend to exhaust as many of its possibilities as I can. As a form-finding and exploratory process, this often leads me to new and better outcomes. Often, a pattern might connect with a concept I am reading about, and then the aesthetic and concept might fuse. An example might be SPECTRAL DENSITY DRAWING, where I became interested in the idea of hand-plotting—without getting too technical—the power spectrum of a time series. Another example might be the drawing HUMAN ERROR, where I explored the fragility of human computation when compared to that of machines.
AM: TEXT.ILE is your first long-form generative art. What is the idea behind the title?
PP: It seemed like a natural progression to work on a piece that continued the trajectory of my current work with physical typewriters but also linked back to my old training as a textile designer. So the title combines the two areas with a single word. In my most recent physical typewriter drawings, I noticed a strong shift towards decorative patterns, stitch-like marks, and the interweaving of signs and letters. The end results had a strong resemblance to woven designs.
Since my method for constructing these drawings was iterative and somewhat algorithmic, I became curious to explore the idea of programming something similar for a generative piece. Of course, as with any project, the piece began to diverge visually from the original drawings, but to some extent, the outputs became even more textile-like. The piece is generated by weaving strings of letters, numbers, and glyphs in decorative patterns; some resemble weaves, some look like embroidery, and others appear to mimic knitting.
AM: Is it different working on a long-form generative project than working on your typewriter art? What are the challenges?
PP: There are both similarities and differences. They are similar in that both domains are always about fine-tuning a process of pattern making, basically a series of numbers, or even a series of 0s and 1s, or switches that create interesting configurations. For example, how does a sequence of X's and Z's in different combinations create a global pattern that can then be further combined with other patterns on a single page? What do these global patterns, when combined, begin to say about process and constraint? What do they imitate, and why? Sometimes they look like cellular automatons, sometimes cypher sequences, or sometimes self-filling curves or mazes; sometimes they resemble knitting patterns or sequencer patterns in musical software. This intimates the idea that there is cross-referencing of processes across domains, and this I find very interesting.The big difference between a gen art project and a typewriter drawing is the temporal aspect of each project. The physical typewriter art—because I am exclusively acting as the system—often needs to be done in one take, usually somewhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours. They are meditative, but they also require my full attention, ideally without breaks, to achieve the desired effect. A generative piece requires me to explore the curation of randomness in phase space, which means I need to find a way of generating x number of unique pieces that are different and similar enough, and with enough interesting aesthetic variation, to call it a 'single piece', and this is the challenge. The challenge is how to curate randomness and surprise while still fitting into the realm of aesthetic acceptability.
AM: You mention concrete poetry as a source of inspiration for TEXT.ILE. Can you tell us more about your inspirations?
PP: Yes, historically aside from Wolf-Rehfeldt, other fascinating pioneers in the field include people like Henri Chopin, who did an incredible series of pieces that included over-typed lines of words and glyphs to create optical patterns and moire effects, somehow combining perceptual art with concrete poetry. There is also, of course, Anni Albers, who, although known for her textile work at the Bauhaus, also created very beautiful typewriter studies that imitated textile effects. I'm also very interested in pioneering work from the past that combines computational techniques with text, and here the work of Sonya Rapoport comes to mind, especially her piece: SHOE-FIELD MAP (1982–85).
Recently, I discovered the work of Ferdinand Kriwet, who used text as his main material and, aside from creating aesthetically compelling works, concealed cryptic messages in his pieces with writing that can be read in spirals or is inverted or mirrored.
One of my favourite typewriter artists working in the medium right now is Egidija Čiricaitė. She creates very complex text patterns, which are also based on traditional Lithuanian textile designs.
AM: Thank you!