Sweeping Beauty: the Physical Act of Writing

Once upon a time, I was a calligrapher; but I am no longer. I penned menus, award certificates, birthday cards, whatever was needed. Yes, that was before digital fonts. So when I watch the video below, I recognize the strokes, can almost feel them. I think that my experiments in haptic drawing are somehow related to my earlier experiences of cursive writing and calligraphy: writing, communication, as physical acts that require more than banging away at a keyboard.

Okir_Analog_2-23-2014 - JVengua_edited
Haptic drawing.

When you do calligraphy, usually you are bent over a tilted drawing table as you carefully move a pen over paper or vellum that has just the right tooth and absorbancy. The ink has a certain consistency so that it flows easily and is not too thick or too thin (unless you want to get a shading effect into the line). You’ve studied a number of letter forms and are intimately familiar with the styling of each letter, the thick and thin stems, the little twists and turns.

If you have lost the habit of writing and live surrounded by digital fonts, letters are just distant cyphers (in Arabic, sifr: empty, zero)–an array of style choices. But in writing by hand, you create something that carries traces of your physical effort; it graphs your physical existence. No matter that you are writing in a form penned by a thousand other calligraphers; each letter will always be your own, because your hand/brain/body produced it. It goes the other way, too: the letters and language, honed by generations through writing, become more intimately traced into your muscle memory and synapses.

I like that the guy in this film is writing big, using his whole body, allowing the liquid to arc and splash. It’s a dance, and it looks like fun. And he knows what he’s doing. You can really get a sense of how the letters are constructed by watching how he moves the broom:

“Sweeping Beauty,” from BOOOOOOOM!