Tap, tap, tap. The sound is odd, yet familiar. Could it really be the clickety-clack of a typewriter? But why would there be an antiquated writing machine at the University at Albany, a global center for nanoscience?
On the second floor of the University Art Museum, follow that tap, tap, tap and what appears is not an old Smith Corona but a larger-than-life film of comedian Michael Winslow, “the man of 10,000 sound effects,” mimicking the sounds of typewriters.
In his film, Spanish artist Ignacio Uriarte captures the essence of 32 different typewriters, from horse-and-buggy days into the disco age, through the talents of Winslow, the guy who plays Sgt. “Motor Mouth” Johnson in the “Police Academy” movies and TV shows.
WHERE: University Art Museum, University at Albany
WHEN: Through Dec. 4; museum open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
HOW MUCH: Free. (Parking is $5; free on Saturdays)
MORE INFO: 442-4035 or www.albany.edu/museum
“It’s a kind of auditory time line,” says Corinna Ripps Schaming, the museum’s associate director and curator of “Courier.”
Reading in different way
Glancing at the picture of an orange IBM typewriter on the exhibit's postcard, it’s hard to imagine that college students born in the early 1990s would be interested in such primitive communication.
“They get it. . . . it’s cross-generational,” Ripps Schaming says with assurance. As the mother of two teen daughters, she has traversed from Underwoods to the youthful underworld of texting and IM’ing. Typewriters still appear in movies and TV (“Mad Men”), and the physical act of tapping to communicate, with thumbs or fingers, on a cellphone or iPhone, is still with us.
“Courier” features works by 11 artists from five countries, including the U.S., who “explore the physical, communicative and iconic properties of the typewriter,” but there is so much more than that to think about here, if one slows down enough to experience it. Mostly black-and-white, this is the kind of exhibit that doesn’t come to you, so you must go to it.
“There’s a lot to read in this show, but it’s not meant to be read in a conventional way,” explains Ripps Schaming.
Remember Ann Hamilton, who created “corpus,” an expanse of white paper fragments that fell from the ceiling in the super-sized gallery at MASS MoCA? In “Courier,” we see tiny (less-than-6-inch-square) but eloquent Hamilton: a soundless, 13-minute video of a fingertip slowly erasing a single letter of type on a pane of glass, then retracing that movement, to print the letter again in reverse.
A place to chat
Xu Bing, who was born in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution and now exhibits his artwork around the world, has always been interested in language and culture. For years, he has collected safety manuals from airplanes because he was fascinated by their use of symbols, like stick figures, frowning faces and other icons, that could be universally understood.
His “Book From the Ground” has computer stations where visitors can write words and watch them become translated into “airplane symbol speak” on a large screen mounted near the computers.
“Students gravitate to the keyboards and Xu Bing. They come in here and chat,” says Ripps Schaming.
An 80-year-old man who visited recently was tickled to see the four 1890s typewriters in the exhibit — a Blickenderfer, a Williams, a Hammond and a Smith Premier — borrowed from James Siena, an artist and collector of typewriters, who wrote an essay for the "Courier" catalog.
‘Drawings’ and a ‘diary’
On the walls of the second-floor, we see works by Lee Etheredge IV, the master of “typewriter drawings,” in which repetitive patterns and columns of typed letters and words are dense with markings, not unlike fabric or stitchery. In some of the works, Civil War-era song lyrics are typed onto landscapes where soldiers once fought.
“Many of my drawings are experiments in logic where I discover the images upon completion,” Etheridge writes on his website. “Often, I set rules for these drawings, and by doing so, create order from randomness.”
Next to Etheredge's works on paper, visitors tend to linger before “It was me. Diary 1900-1999” by German artist Daniela Comani.
On a vinyl curtain more than 19 feet tall and 9 feet wide, Comani creates a faux diary of 365 days in the history of the 20th century, and in each one-sentence entry, Comani inserts herself: “Sept. 19: From today on, I have to wear a six-pointed yellow star on the left side of my clothing” and “Aug. 5: I find Marilyn Monroe dead on her bed.”
On the first floor, there are a series of images by Leona Christie and Gavin Christie in which lists of dates and places and events in someone’s life are embossed repetitively into paper. Visually, the shape of the letters, the white-on-white impressions in the paper, are so interesting, it almost wouldn't matter if they weren't in English.
The label offers few clues to the story behind the artwork. But check the label again. The Christie pieces have an audio guide, indicated in red below the title and artists’ names. All you have to do is pull out your cellphone and tap in the number on the label. You can also access the audio guides, catalog essays and exhibition list from the museum's website.
“Courier” is the first show at the University Art Museum to use these audio guides, and most of the works have them.
The audio guide reveals that Leona is an associate professor of art at the university who teaches printmaking and digital imaging, and that Gavin is her 39-year-old brother, who lives in Detroit with their parents. Gavin is an autistic savant, and every day, he rides his bicycle through the neighborhood and then goes home and types a list of what he saw and experienced.
Leona’s drawings, prints and animation have been shown at The Drawing Center and the Pierogi Gallery in New York City, and at the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.