For 2015, The Conversant is partnering with Open House, a new online journal of poetry and poetics. This interview concerns Kate Robinson’s work with the visual poetry of letterpress sigil design. It was first published by Open House in November 2014.
Cosmo Spinosa: Let’s start with some preliminary questions to position your work with sigil design. What initially inspired these sigils? Who or what are your influences for this work? Some cursory research I’ve done on sigils and their history has shown that sigils are considered to have magic powers, being a sort of signature unique to a person or entity that is used in rituals, holding a special place in the practice of magic. Did you begin creating your sigil designs with magic in mind? Did you consider this a magical process?
Kate Robinson: I first became aware of sigilization through my former boyfriend, although it could have also been a mutual friend of ours, but I’m pretty sure it was Jed. He would draw sigils himself as a magic practice. It’s a way to focus one’s intention and manifest desires or protection. Initially this was just a personal practice, it wasn’t really intended as art, or, if I’m totally honest, fully magic. I’ve always been fascinated by letterforms at a sort of basic level. When I was a kid/teen I would doodle alphabets, it’s kind of surprising to me that I didn’t become a type designer…anyway, I think I sort of pretended that I was making them for magic purposes, these letterform symbol doodles, but really I think I just enjoyed manipulating the familiar forms into unfamiliar and pleasing symbols. So I guess my influences were my friends, who were using them for their more serious magic practices, and some sort of innate interest in letters. There are artists who have sort of secondarily influenced me, like Jen Bervin and Anni Albers. Albers, a weaver, often used a typewriter to make weaving patterns, and Bervin encountered these while doing a residency at The Albers Foundation and decided to make her own versions, some of which were in I’ll Drown My Book. “The Preliminary Pattern Study” (featured in 580 Split and the TIL anthology) is explicitly after them. Then there are some artists who aren’t really influences as much as sort of coincidences, people currently working in this mode. Letterpress printers Jack Stauffacher and Graham Moore are doing sort of similar things, layering letterforms, Stauffacher’s being more sigil-like than Moore’s. As well as some painters, I like Elijah Burgher, but some of those I don’t like at all, there’s one guy, Will Boone, who just seems to layer the letters on top of one another with no play of balance and form. I find those paintings to be really flat.
I actually think that this weird blend of the aesthetic and the semi-spiritual really did a lot to push both of those aspects of my personality forward. Making sigils and patterns out of letters, as you’ve noted, has become an increasingly defining point of my art practice, and not just in a sort of “art as spirituality way”. It’s increased my understanding of balance and form, integration, shape, layering, it’s really impacted my aesthetic sense so deeply. Additionally, engaging with sigilization also pushed my other magic practices forward, while initially I think I was just fucking around, at this point I definitely use sigils in a more intentional and focused way, to successful ends, and I’ve become a lot more witchy in a number of other ways, for example, my tarot usage has definitely increased. I think that actively engaging my body in these practices somehow proved to me that they actually work on some level, even though that wasn’t necessarily my initial goal. My press isn’t called Manifest out of coincidence. It’s very much rooted in embodiment and ritualized manifestations of intention and desire.
The term sigilization was coined by artist Austin Osman Spare in the 19th century. He was really just naming a process that had been in practice in various cultures for centuries (Norse runes, for example, are sigils, and there are sigils in Kabbalah). The process begins with the practitioner writing down a word or phrase that gets at the thing that they want to manifest, then they break that down into individual letterforms and reassemble them into a new symbol. The precise methodology by which this is done is explicitly personal to the maker, this is basically the only “rule” of sigilization, that the maker makes up the rules. Well, the other “rule” I guess is that the resulting symbol is supposed to be as far away (visually, semantically) from the original stated intention as possible. I don’t always follow that rule, but I generally do try to make the symbol “unreadable”. There are general guidelines, like Spare said to eliminate repeating letters (so if you were making a sigil of the word “sigil” for example, you’d work with one “s” one “i” one “g” and one “l”), and many people adhere to that guideline, but you don’t have to. I’ve made sigils using every single letter of a four-word phrase, as well as using only the repeated letters in a single word.
The process of shifting the letterforms around, deciding which ones you’ll use, which can be eliminated, which get subsumed into other forms when combined, how you balance your symbol, what the organizing principles are, etc. can only be personal, really. And in the time that it takes to do it, when you’re shifting the forms, you’re charging them, there’s a transfer of energy happening, and that’s absorbed into the sigil. The process and the product are completely linked in that way. The resulting symbol would be meaningless/powerless without the process of making it, the designing, that’s how the intention gets focused onto it. It really is a fine balance of aesthetic sense and magic intention.
CS: You talk about “charging” the sigil with energy as you’re designing it. Can you elaborate on what that process means to you? For the most part, the sigils I’ve seen from you look as though they are made using printing tools and a press or a computer program/printer. Do you begin these sigils by drawing them by hand and then refining them and turning them into standardized, printed material, using a computer? Do you think that this has some recourse to how these sigils are charged?
KR: Usually if I’m making a sigil on the computer I start on the computer. Sometimes I do some doodles in my notebook beforehand, but not usually. For the digital ones I type the word or phrase out on InDesign, then I flow each letter into its own text box. There’s so much freedom to mess around with them there, so much moreso than when drawing. I mean, of course there’s more freedom in drawing, duh, but I’m not actually much of a drawer, and I’m a bit obsessed with type, and with the consistency of form/line that you can achieve with manipulating digital type.
When I’m making sigils on the letterpress the process is a little bit more involved. I’ve printed a whole bunch of black letters on tracing paper using the two fonts of wood type in the Mills studio that I used to make these sigils. Basically I’ve created a “font” of see-through black letters that I can tape together to get to the form I want. Then I divide them into layers to figure out how to go about printing them. There are things I can do in InDesign that I can’t do on the letterpress, for example, mirroring the letters so they’re backwards. You can’t print backwards from lead/wood type (except, actually, you can, if you do a two step process that I’ve yet to tackle in my own work, but with which Emily McVarish totally blew my mind in her book Was Here…I could go on about her/experimental printing techniques, but this isn’t the forum…), and the angles that you can achieve are dependent upon the wedges you have available to you. I like working under these constraints. Now that I’m not working in the Mills studio I’m going to have to make myself a whole new set of letters with the type we’re collecting in the Material Print Machine print shop at OMNI.
I’m very much the sort of printer/artist who works with what she’s got in the shop, or who is interested in process and materials, thus wants the strengths of the medium I’m working in to be the focus of a work. Like, I could very easily design a really complicated sigil on InDesign that I then make into a polymer plate and print it on a letterpress. A LOT of the revival of letterpress that I see around me is in this way of working, someone makes a plate of an image or text that they want and essentially just stamps it on. To me it seems pretty pointless because it totally misses the richness of what makes letterpress such a compelling medium to work in, like why make it letterpress if you aren’t using that medium to its full capacity? If it were me I’d just print those things on a laser jet or something and call it a day. With letterpress you can build each layer of your print by hand. Literally each dot on that layer (or plane, if you will) can be built up by the artist, and the way that they interact with each other is important.
To me, in this context, the notion of “charging” the sigil is literally just focused intention, which goes hand-in-hand with the process of designing it, whether on the computer or letterpress or by hand on paper. I spend an amount of time being very very focused on these forms and the layering of them and my attention manifests in different ways according to the medium I’m using. The word or phrase that I’m working from starts off being at the forefront of my mind, but the longer I’m working on it the more that word or phrase is sublimated into my body or into the forms themselves. So much of what I work to achieve is purely formal, the relation of one stroke or dot to another, it’s like a zooming in, it’s also like the notion that the resulting symbol shouldn’t resemble the initial phrase. This distancing that happens as I focus is integral to the resulting symbol. The “charging” isn’t an incantation or a charming that happens, it’s just that focused energy being absorbed by the symbol. I would argue that this is just as true for the body-screen channel that happens when I’m really focused on InDesign vs. in the letterpress studio. I think that to say that engaging with the directly physical is more “real” than the digital is sort of dumb at this point in history, where so much of our lives is mediated by this body-screen channel.
CS: Now I’d like to get more into specific projects that you have been working on. In Dark Matter, there are repeated patterns of “W”’s overlaid on one another to different degrees and then inverted, rotated, and shifted to form new patterns. The patterns themselves are always the same, but the orientation of the letter changes around the axis, changing our perspective of the letter. This got me thinking about the materiality of language and about referentiality. As I was looking through this project, certain questions came to mind. For example, what does it mean when we no longer meditate on words, but instead on letters themselves—the things that words are comprised of? What, then, are we meditating on? The discrete units making up language and therefore, literally, the phonic and graphic material of language? The materiality of language? How do you think your work enters into this conversation? What does this say about materiality and referentiality? Am I totally off the mark in reading your work in this way?
KR: Dark Matter is a really systematized project. Grids on grids on grids that I put through some pretty regimented constraints. I made two different grids of 10 pica square squares of “w”s. Picas are a measurement used in letterpress, 6 picas = 1 inch. The bottom grid is simply a grid, squares that are 10p each are spaced 2p away from each other in a grid of 5 x 5. In the top grid the “w”s shift slowly away from each other as you move across the rows and down the columns, each “w” 3 pts further away from the last. Points, unlike picas, have held over into the digital age. Y’know, pts, like in a font. There are 12pts to every pica, so that 12 pt font is also 1 pica tall. I then “locked” these two grids into two distinct layers (I’m making these on inDesign), so that I just had two stable layers to work with that I could copy and paste and manipulate as needed. The bottom layer stays where it is, but the top layer shifts. The first layered grid is aligned by the top left corner, in the second layered grid the top layer shifts 3 pts to the right, and in the third it shifts down 3 pts (in addition to the 3 pts it had already shifted horizontally), so essentially the top layer is shifting across and down the page with each iteration. These iterations all have both layers of “w”s pointing upright. In the next series of iterations I flip one of the layers upside down, then I flip the other, then I flip both. Then I’m going to start to turn them, by degrees, clockwise, then counterclockwise…if you start to think of it you realize that the number of iterations, while finite, is still quite large. Large enough to fill quite a large book, which is what I intend to do.
I explain all of this, which is really quite simple, but becomes sort of dizzying when one tries to articulate it without the means to physically SHOW you, to start to answer your questions about materiality by illustrating that at its base level this project is sort of pure materiality. It’s the literal materials of language put through regimented manipulations, an experiment. At one point I was describing it as an experiment or a study in densities, which I think is one way you could think of it, but it’s also an experiment in proximities, opacity, or intersections. I set forth a rigid set of material rules and focused on one letter. I picked W, which might be the only aesthetic choice I made. I picked it because I felt like it just naturally would create some interesting shapes. Every letter would be interesting to me, though, even a lowercase “l”, because I’m interested in space and densities. I also like “boring” things. Or repetitive, drawn out, “slow” things.
I’ve been obsessed with what could possibly be meant by the “materiality of language” since I first heard the notion in undergrad. I can think about the “materiality of language” in two senses: 1) wherein I see the manifestations of language in mundane day to day life, for example the subjugation of women and brown people through language and its institutions/constructs, and 2) its literal material, the paper, ink, binding, screen, editorial framework, extra textual content. It’s how I got to letterpress in the first place, the book art studio seemed a natural place to somehow embody these ideas, work through them on a physical level that matched the way I was working through that other aspect of materiality in my queer/feminist/race theory classes. Through learning how to print, one becomes acutely aware of the space of the page. You have to account for every single dot. With lead! It’s so heavy! And the labor of letterpress is (or should be) totally invisible, it’s a framework holding something else up, just like language itself. It’s all very poetic, if you ask me.
This project wanted to really just totally do away with any sort of semiotic meaning making or expression on my part, which is a logical next step from the sigils and the patterns in my mind. The sigils were based in language in that they were drawn from a specific word or phrase, as were some of the patterns, but not all, with those I began to move to letterforms dissociated from words. Dark Matter actually rose out of “Preliminary Pattern Study”.
I’ve been moving towards a less and less referential engagement with language for a pretty long time at this point. Started with aping Language poets in undergrad. I think this comes from a lot of places, first and foremost a frustration with poetry specifically and language more generally. But it’s not only frustration, it’s also wonder at form, wonder at the linkages we have entrenched in our brains around these different forms, and how they speak to us. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m trying to zoom in really really close to language. I think that there is a really radical inclination exposed here, in the idea that I could get back to some sort of primordial understanding of the stuff that makes up our language, with its subjugation and destruction so bound up in it, it shows my sort of socio-political idealism, I think, that I wonder if there is some root in the forms, and that maybe through this sort of experimentation I could discover another language. No, an entirely other semiotic system, not language, something else. Something pre-language in the hopes of using that root to go a different way. Maybe “discover” is the wrong word, hah, this totally illustrates my point about the fucked up things we’re working with. “Discover” to me is so steeped in subjugation of people, people’s bodies as property, land as property, etc. etc. I don’t want to “discover” anything.
Maybe it’s “asemic,” but I don’t think that’s quite right, because it subsumes and is built out of established symbols, although it’s not necessarily communicating on a semantic level, so maybe asemic is an appropriate term. Back to your questions, though, or sort of, pointing at your questions, I don’t know if I have an answer to any of them, or even if I want to answer them, but I like to think about them. That’s not a cop out, I just don’t think that answers of that sort are my goal. I don’t like answers, much prefer questions. You are in no way off the mark in thinking about this work in that way, but I love that you ask “what are we meditating on”? because it gets at what I think I’m trying to do, which is give something up to the void, an abyss of that question “what are we meditating on?” “what does this mean?” “what does it mean to mean?” Maybe if someone encountered this text as I imagine it when it’s finished (1000 pages? full bleed printing all the way to the edges of the page), and allowed themselves to truly look at it, “read” it, some sort of meditative state beyond language could be reached. Allowing your thoughts to drift past the theatre of your mind.
CS: Some of these sigils and overlaid patterns are reminiscent of high-end fashion branding. Can these pieces be read in conversation with ideas of marketing? This has become a sort of “brand” for you and your work. It is recognizable stylistically of coming from a certain maker, even if it is, in the case of the wheat-pastes, publicly anonymous. Would you consider this work as engaging with or criticizing issues of late capitalism? On overproduction of commodities, especially luxury commodities via the overproduction of “the brand”? Would you consider this work subversive in ways other than the obvious-putting up unapproved signage? A few things struck me about your wheat paste sigils. First of all this notion of public art. Living in Oakland, we have a lot of opportunities to view public art, “illegal” and “legal”. I live in Fruitvale, where there are plenty of public murals, commissioned graffiti, and illegal graffiti. Much of this art is temporary, given the city’s desire to rid itself of graffiti, especially when it is viewed as related to violence in the community or tagged on private property. But in this attempt to rid itself of graffiti, often, beautiful works of art are destroyed. How did you go about posting these sigils in public? Were you ever worried that you would be “rolled”? How long did it take before these posters were torn down? Do you know if they were torn down by the city or by passerby? Did you ever feel a sense of risk in posting these signs in public?
KR: It’s really really interesting to me that you read this, as it’s surely there, but no one has brought it up to me at all. In fact, this was part of the really short essay that I wrote framing the wheat pasted sigils project (forthcoming feature in Tripwire), the connection of this practice to marketing. When I imagined this project I was thinking about an intersection of the magic practices I described above, graffiti, and advertising, in particular the wheat pasted posters you see in big cities, usually advertising a movie or an album release, and usually posted in multiples on a construction site, or on a blank wall that’s been covered in graffiti removal. I wondered what sort of effect could be had by posting magic symbols with secret messages of encouragement instead of messages to buy things. So, yes, there is a subversive intention, for sure. Whether or not it achieves a subversive impact is hard to say, though, as I don’t really know how people perceived them, although Emji (Spero, editor of Timeless Infinite Light, fellow book artist/poet, frequent collaborator, dear friend) did get some really great “reaction shots” when they were going around photographing them for me while I was at work the morning after we’d posted them. I’ll say more about those in a little bit, but it was very exciting to me to see images of people interacting with the posters, trying to decipher them.
It’s funny, I made the posters about two years ago, but it took me all this time to build up the nerve to actually post them! Yes, I was totally scared of getting “rolled.” Or, I didn’t really know how difficult it would be. In a lot of ways it was a pretty naive undertaking, cause I didn’t know the first thing about wheat pasting or graffiti writing, at least not in a practical sense. Emji and another punk friend, Andy, finally pushed me to do it (not to mention a solicitation from David Buuck for that feature in Tripwire). Turns out that it was actually super easy and super thrilling and I can’t wait to do it again! If you put the wheat paste in a spray bottle you can just slap up the posters in a matter of seconds and move on. We did it at night, covered a nice chunk of Uptown/Lakeshore in about an hour or maybe two. The posters were up for a lot longer than I expected, actually. I sort of expected them to all get ripped off within the first day, but some of them stayed up for over a week! I don’t really know who ripped them down, probably mostly passersby. I think the only sense of risk that I felt was in the act of posting them, I never expected that they would be traced back to me after they were up, although my pressmark is printed on all of them. I do plan on doing more, though, and I have more ideas for other kinds of public posters. For one, I want to make a series of really beautiful and large monoprints that contain secret unreadable messages (the one I’m mostly obsessing about is “fuck the police”). This idea is connected to the sigils in that it’s experimenting with focused intention and that they’d be public, but it’s also different because the sigils were letterpress multiples. These works would be singular, and totally temporary. In that way it’s pushing up against the notion of the singular work of art in a gallery worth thousands or millions of dollars. This is a singular beautiful work of art printed on shitty newsprint, posted up on a dirty wall in a “scary” city (Oakland), and destined to be destroyed. Like, at least the way I conceive of it, it’s actually completed as a whole work of art when it gets destroyed. This thought just occurred to me after I typed that last sentence, but it’s almost like I’m viewing these works as little cycles, a process of conjuring/writing the phrase or intention ➔ making the actual sigil or poster ➔ posting ➔ viewer interacting ➔ destruction.
CS: My next question is about the “reaction shots” you sent me in the wheat pasting document. There is an interactive element to public art, and that can be seen especially in these reaction shots–people trying to read the sigils, craning their necks to figure out what they say. Is this the sort of engagement that you expected for your sigils? There is always a dual construction in art, writing, music, etc.–the maker’s intention for the piece and then the reception of the piece by the viewer. The fabrication and the actual experience. It seems to me that in most of these reaction shots, folks are trying to read what is “written” on the poster, to make some sense out of it, and then that simultaneously they are enjoying this experience of trying to put together what is being said. I guess my question is, what are these posters saying? When I look at them, I go through a similar experience of trying to piece together words. It’s a sort of gestalt. I always resign myself to the idea that I’ll never really know what the posters are saying, that that isn’t the point of the work, that the point is in this attempt to make something out of it other than what it is. Is that the point? Are these “saying”/”meaning” anything? And if so, do you necessarily want to disclose that information? Is it important?
KR: That was definitely the sort of engagement that I was hoping for. It’s impossible to ever ensure that the reader or audience will “get” what you’re putting out there, and I think that a lot of my work, not just these pieces, wonders about that fact, lives in a weird gap between meaning and un-meaning. Recently I read a brief questionnaire that Carleen Tibbitts filled out in Swine, an online journal, to accompany her quite lovely and bewildering poems. The question was something like “what do your poems mean?” and she said something like “I don’t know, that’s up to whoever’s reading them.” I can really relate to that perspective. It’s not that they’re meaningless, word salad, just a jumble or something, in fact there’s infinite meaning, but it all comes out of the engagement of reader and text.
My hope is that I can make or write things that are so engaging on a bewildering level that it doesn’t matter that they resist a codified meaning. I think this is achieved with the sigils in a better way than in a lot of my poetry because they are so far removed from language, ie. they don’t look like language, don’t look like words/phrases/sentences, so right off the bat the reader engages with them in a different way. BUT it’s almost impossible to resist, as a person entrenched in and determined by culture, as a person entrenched in and determined by language, trying to figure out what they MEAN! I love the picture of the guy with the little girl, you can’t see his face, but his head is cocked in a way that it’s clear he’s puzzling over what he’s looking at. I love to wonder what he walked away with. They do mean something; they’re clearly made of letterforms if you look at them at all, and they’re made out of actual words and phrases, and the phrases are actually printed on the bottom of the posters in transparent ink, the viewer can read them if they look closely enough, but it doesn’t really matter if they “get” it or even try to “get” it. The experience of the bewilderment is all that I’m going for, the looking, the making something out of it, as you say, but I wouldn’t say that obscure something is “other” than what it is. I think that something is exactly what it is. It’s all of those obscure things that come to mind as the symbol rises through your mind, all the layers. I just read a quote in Maggie Nelson’s book The Art of Cruelty, she’s quoting Richard Foreman, the avant-garde dramatist: “…what I try to show is the opposite [of a clear, single, dominant meaning that teaches the viewer how to live/think/be]: how at every moment, the world presents us with a composition in which a multitude of meanings and realities are available, and you are able to swim, lucid and self-contained, in that turbulent sea of multiplicity.”
I just read that last night, but it stopped me dead in my tracks, really, he totally articulates exactly what I’m trying to do with literally everything that I make.
CS: Something that I think about a lot is “the stakes” of writing and making art. It seems important that we know what is at risk in making artistic choices, even if what is at risk is ultimately very little. What do you think is at risk in your work? Or, in other words, what ideas does this work emphasize and propagate? Does this question about stakes and risk enter into your practice?
KR: I think about what’s at stake ALL THE TIME. Which isn’t to say that I necessarily have the answer, ever. The question of risk is twofold, I think. On the one hand it’s asking what is at risk culturally with the work, like what are the implications in the wider culture by putting something out there. The other way to think about risk is what is the risk of putting this out there in relation to the reader-writer relationship. These questions are sort of the same, or have a tendency to collapse in on each other, I think, but their differences are significant, I think. With a lot of this writing or “writing” that I do I think there is definitely a risk of alienation, that the viewer or reader will be frustrated by the fact that they cannot simply “get” the work, that when called upon to pull something up from themselves and project meaning onto this meaning-resisting thing they are angered or irritated by it and write off the work as meaningless or frivolous and, to be honest, I’m just as interested in that response as I am in the opposite, where the reader is delighted by the challenge and wants to keep looking. I am totally ok with this work making people uncomfortable. This alienation is also part of the wider cultural implication, too, I think. Maybe what’s at stake here is the transformation of people’s lives through wild imagination. That seems sort of outlandish to say, and I cannot claim that I’ve achieved that (yet), but I do think that this work propagates a sort of queerness, in the academic sense of the word, a queering of understanding and reading, a willful resistance to be named…the implications of resisting codification are immense, especially in a socio-political arena. Queerness is definitely something I think about a lot, both in the sort of academic sense and in the practical reality sense. In fact, exploring queerness in both of those senses is partially what got me here doing this kind of work. Queer people, queer bodies, queer relationships, they all resist the established forms of existence that society has laid out for us, to sometimes brutal ends. They are reimagining what it means to be a human, taking the trappings of gender and sexuality that we get handed down and reconfiguring them in ways that are better suited for those inhabiting them.
Kate Robinson is a poet and intermedia book artist living in Oakland, CA where she creates artists’ books as Manifest Press and works as a curatorial assistant at Letterform Archive. With the collective Material Print Machine, she received an Alternative Exposure grant in 2014.
Cosmo Spinosa is co-editor of Open House.