Artblog Celebrating 20 Years!   Support Us Today!

Alphanumeric systems gone awry — Paul Chan at Slought


[Michael is confounded, entertained, and wholly absorbed by Paul Chan’s explorations of symbolism and typeface. Scroll down for a peek at his resume in several of Chan’s Alternumerics font faces. — the Artblog editors] 

Just as word processors let you choose from fonts like Courier and Times New Roman, Paul Chan has provided thoughtfully crafted typefaces in Alternumerics that outshine their quirky WingDings predecessor. Why? In his current exhibition at Slought, Chan confuses the relationship between what is written and its subsequent meaning, initiating a new dialogue from the narratives drawn by his alphanumeric systems.

Make Alternumerics your own

Paul Chan font
“Black Panther omega” (2005), 44″ by 30″, screenprint on Stonehenge white paper, edition of 12.

Alternumerics includes a series of screen-printed fonts. Chan’s prints feature character sets that outline the alphanumeric keys, as well as examples of their use to encrypt text. For a limited time, Slought has restored access to download these fonts for the duration of the exhibition.

Paul Chan font
“ACT-UP” (2002), 44″ by 30″, screenprint on Stonehenge white paper, edition of 12.

Adding meaning to mundanity

It is easy to write off the cryptic character sets from afar, but prints with fonts like “ACT-UP beta” and “Black Panther omega” reel viewers into the complex and dynamic historical fictions illuminated in the pictures and phrases. After downloading these fonts myself, I am capable of converting any digital text document into Chan’s confounding vocabulary.

My resume written in "ACT-UP beta"
My resume written in “ACT-UP beta”.

I chose something mundane–my resume–and watched as my work history was transformed into a series of AIDS crisis-related images and text. “How many more?” My resume cries a strained plea repeating this question, and with each job, the document amasses an increasing numbers of pills peppered with “Silence=Death” written in 19 languages. In an instant, my resume is stripped of its content and replaced with an emotionally charged narrative of images and type, which can be deciphered by one of Paul Chan’s character sets.

Paul Chan font
My resume written in “Sexual healing shift for…”

Then, with the click of a button, I switch my resume to the font “Sexual healing shift for…” and suddenly, my CV reads as a passionate exchange between two individuals that, at times, borders on sexual assault. For example, my name changes from Michael Jeffrey Carroll to “hands off (me) touch me oh god so hot (you) the pleasure the pain (you) hold me hold me baby (you) so silky get off me so hot baby baby of the pleasure the pleasure”.

Attempts to decode

The artist creates a layer of engagement that foils the experience of viewing Alternumerics. In Slought’s gallery space, the viewer is surrounded by screenprints on large sheets of framed paper and left to ascertain meaning from these confusingly formatted texts. One of the vaguest prints repeats the word “blah” but mimics the format of a composition. Outside of the gallery, we are able to decipher some of the seemingly arbitrary compositions Chan printed with the 11 fonts he provides.

Paul Chan font
“Map of the future 1 of 4″ (2001), 44″ by 30”, screenprint on Stonehenge white paper, edition of 12.

The “Map of the Future” series of prints depicts flow charts composed of carefully dissected elements connected by lines. Below each chart is a printed word or phrase, such as “Flirting” and “Demonic sex drugs from the Pleasure Underworld”. I began noticing repeating terms like “desire,” “domestic destiny,” and “advent of happiness”. I wondered: what is the code?

Paul Chan font
“Map of the future 4 of 4″ (2001), 44″ by 30”, screenprint on Stonehenge white paper, edition of 12.

A confounding back-and-forth

Chan’s downloadable fonts include “The future must be sweet,” which turns text into an interconnected web of words and phrases. I decided to try my hand at using this font by transforming “Flirting,” and was quickly met with a flow chart similar to the one I had seen at Slought. By introducing his fonts to the Internet, the artist fashions a system that will continue to obscure and bewilder for years to come.

Rather than leave viewers grasping at straws, Chan instead provides a key for individuals to explore on their personal computer. After realizing the correlation between the words and corresponding charts above them in the series Map to the Future, it exemplifies the unique and satisfying experience of trying to understand the complexities of Alternumerics. Chan makes a phenomenon out of an otherwise arbitrary word or phrase that lacks recognizable significance–even when the source text is decrypted to say something as simple as “Flirting”.

Paul Chan font
“Politics to come” (2005), 44″ by 30″, screenprint on Stonehenge white paper, edition of 12.

We are left scratching our heads, asking “Why?” In creating this phenomenon, the artist presents encrypted text that is alluring because of its superficially indescribable nature. The more challenging the print is to decipher, the more I want to understand what was originally written and its hidden significance. Paul Chan describes this back-and-forth between writing and what it suggests as containing “neither sense nor nonsense,” or, better said in the font “Politics to come”:

“blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah”

Alternumerics by Paul Chan is at Slought from April 14 – May 14, 2015.