Paris-based Vier5 are one of the four design studios participating with documenta 14 (the four others are Ludovic Balland, Laurenz Brunner & Julia Born, and Mevis & van Deursen). Their work could be found across Athens, from the iconic floor-text marble slabs to the Map Booklet insert.
My first encounter with their distinctive font was on my first day in Athens, when I walked past the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum on my way to the Odeion.
Later I picked up a copy of the leaflet that Vier5 designed for the operatic work The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking by Postcommodity that occupied the site of Aristotle’s school.
Although I would see Vier5’s work elsewhere in Athens, as well, to a less extent in Kassel (including earlier work in the bookstore, with the catalogue for documenta 14 curator Pierre Bal-Blanc’s exhibition Soleil Politique), I would continue to align their font with the Lyceum.
But, beyond my own tangential association between Aristotle’s school and Vier5’s font, what other, more concrete, connection could there be?
Thinking about such a connection, I stumbled across the concept of electracy by new media grammatologist Gregory L. Ulmer. In books like Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy and Electronic Monuments, Ulmer sets up a historical trajectory from orality to literacy to electracy. As part of this trajectory, the role of Aristotle’s Lyceum is placed firmly within the developments and mechanisms of literacy. Consider this following description from Electronic Monuments:
Literacy includes the technology of alphabetic writing, culminating in print; the institution of school (origins in Plato’s academy, Aristotle’s lyceum, and the library of Alexandria, founded by Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great) with its practice of method (dialectic: analysis, synthesis); the nation-state as the ultimate order of collective print identity; and the individual experience of identity as selfhood.
In the transition from literacy to electracy, Ulmer would make the invention of photography key, as well as other means of recording and transmission (e.g. the telegraph). But perhaps graphic design in general and the design of fonts in particular, offers an important continuity between these two phases.
In an article for Eye on Design on the design studios at documenta 14, Madeleine Morley singles out Vier5 for the way their font mimics the handwritten:
Parisians Vier5’s signage for Athens experiments with how wayfinding can function at an event. It’s been designed to reflect, as Gallus [docuementa 14 Head of Communication, Henriette Gallus] puts it, “the infrastructure and turmoil of the city itself; it’s a challenge for the visitor in that it’s not simply navigable, which was to some degree our intention.” Vier5’s signage is rooted in documenta 14’s working title, “Learning from Athens” mimicking hand-drawn street signs that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
This slippage between a digital font and a hand-drawn script is nowhere more evident in a prominently placed piece of graffiti that Vier5 must have had a hand in creating, visible from the roof of EMST, one of the main venues of documenta 14 in Athens:
At the same time, this slippage also brings us back to Aristotle’s Lyceum as a site for the institutional foundation of literacy.
There is an analogy for what we are doing when we collaboratively explore the possibilities of new media. We are to the Internet what students of Plato and Aristotle were to the Academy and Lyceum. When the Greeks invented alphabetic writing they were engaged in a civilizational shift from one apparatus to another (from orality to literacy). They invented not only alphabetic writing but also a new institution (School) within which the practices of writing were devised. Here is the salient point: all the operators of “science” as a worldview had to be invented, by distinguishing from religion a new possibility of reason. Electracy similarly is being invented, not to replace religion and science (orality and literacy), but to supplement them with a third dimension of thought, practice, and identity. “Electracy” is to digital media what literacy is to alphabetic writing: an apparatus, or social machine, partly technological, partly institutional. We take for granted now the skill set that orients literate people to the collective mnemonics that confront anyone entering a library or classroom today.
Here we can find some way to explain an association between Vier5 and Aristotle’s Lyceum that builds on both the transition and continuity of institutions of orality, literacy and electracy. Listening to the audio-work of Postcommodity (about migration, movement and learning) within one of the foundational sites of literacy, Vier5’s graphic design directs us to the font as a key marker of electracy and, in turn, poses some significant pedagogic questions. If a font, which both mimics the handwritten, but also betrays its pixelated, digital construction, connects an ancient site of philosophical learning with the graphic design of floor-text, graffiti, books and pamphlets of a contemporary art exhibition, then what are the implications for the lessons conveyed through this medium? Furthermore, what kind of ‘learning from Athens’ takes place between the work of Aristotle and his students, Postcommodity and their listeners and Vier5 and their, for want of a better word, users?