About
 























Lucas Kilian,
ABC Buechlein, 1627


How to talk to images
No one is sure how many images there are on the internet. Google has nearly a billion. Some people say it is hundreds of times more than that. Some people say that you can find a picture of anything on the internet, as though the entire visual world is reflected there. But although we are used to hunting for images using search engines, we still have to use words to describe them. If we type in the word "square" we are likely to get pictures of shoppers in Times Square. And how can you search for an image that defies a verbal description, or one that has no counterpart in the world of symbolic language?

Despite the fact that the internet contains far more image data that text, it still forces us to name everything, reinforcing the barrier between images and words. The modern age rationalised language into discrete symbolic functions with their own internal relationships. Yet language was not always treated in such a rigid and divisive way. Before this period it was believed that written words shared a close relationship with other objects in the natural world, a kinship that originated in the primal language that God had given to Adam. The Baroque was the last period in history when this belief was still practiced - a transitional time when experimental science was pursued alongside astrology, the calculus with sympathetic magic, and nature was a continuous text of words and things.

Nature as a text
Up until the end of the Baroque, the basis of knowledge and language was resemblance. Every thing bears a signature which is the mark by which its resemblances can be known. Knowledge consists of unearthing and deciphering these hieroglyphics from the visible surface appearance of things. Aconite is good for the eyes because its seeds are tiny dark globes set in white skin-like coverings. The walnut rind is good for injuries to the head while the nut is good for internal ailments because it looks like the brain. This principle was not limited to physical things - marks and signatures were present in the shapes of letters, the orthographic formation of words and in the ordering of sentences. Words group syllables together, and syllables letters, because there are virtues placed in individual letters that draw them towards each other or keep them apart, exactly as the marks found in nature also repel or attract each other (Ramus, 1572). Writing was a way of creating textual objects which were as natural as tress and birds. The placement of letters and words along a line followed an order that resembled the tendency of birds to perch themselves along the branch of a tree.

All the languages of the world together make up the image of the truth, by analogy rather than signification. The Middle Eastern languages write from right to left following the daily movement of the first heaven. The Western languages write form left to right following the path of the second heaven, home of the planets. The very act of writing itself was to reconstitute the natural order of the universe in the spatial form of a text.




Paulini, 1570, Italy


Lucas Cranach, 1596


Venice, C16th

      
The Memory of Letters
Our modern Roman alphabet still bears the traces of its origins in mimetic marks, graphical characters and pictograms. Its invention can be followed back over 4,000 years to a Semitic people living in Egypt who constructed the first completely alphabetic script. To do so, they borrowed a small set of Egyptian hieroglyphs and changed their meanings so that they represented only phonetic sounds. But they still kept the names of the objects they depicted - the Egyptian picture of a house was taken and its name was converted to the Semitic word for house "bayt" and used to represent the sound of its first letter - a "B" (which it still does today).

Every stage in the history of the alphabet tells a story about the people that created it. The capital letters we use today found their standard classical form in the Roman square capitals inscribed on Trajan's Column in Rome nearly 2,000 years ago. Their straight lines, geometrical symmetry and chiselled end points set the model for our own serifed Times Roman typefaces. Yet the Column of Trajan was constructed to celebrate a military victory. In a carved frieze that spirals up the 100 foot tall column, the Romans are depicted in their defeat of the Dacians - a Germanic people who were their rich and powerful neighbours and therefore a threat to the ambitions of Rome. With typical thorough ness, the Romans obliterated the Dacian civilisation, massacring its population or forcing them into slavery. They replaced its towns and cities with mines to tap the Dacian gold deposits, much of which would go to pay for the column that commemorated the event. The Roman alphabet you see in the Mimeticon is taken directly from the inscription on Trajan's Column.

The Semitic people who created the first alphabet were mercenaries, foreign workers and servants who lived in imperial Egypt around 2000 BC. The alphabet used in the Mimeticon is taken from an archaeological discovery in 1992 in Egypt at Wadi el-Hol or "The Ravine of Terror". It is a desert road surrounded by steep cliffs which was a notorious spot for ambushes by bandits. Some time around 1900 BC a mercenary Egyptian army including many Semitic soldiers passed through this passage and, as was typical at the time, etched prayers for their safe journey into the cliff walls. But the Semitic soldiers wrote in their own alphabetic script instead of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The reasons why the Semitics developed this radical departure in writing are not hard to understand however. The Egyptian writing system at this time was a mish mash of pictograms, ideograms, syllabograms as well as some phonetic characters. This complicated system of about 700 hieroglyphs took many years to learn and literacy being largly restricted to a specialist class of scribes. But by representing the language in a small set of standard and purely phonetic characters, the Semitic people created a writing system that was easy to understand and open to everyone to learn. They used what is called the "acrophonic" principle - making the letter represent the sound of the first initial of the name of the object it depicted. By keeping the letters in the form of simplified but still recognisable objects, it enabled children to learn the letters appearance, its name and the sound it represented all in one go - a convenience that we have sacrificed to graphical reduction.

The history of the alphabet is bracketed by two opposing political movements - the desire of the Semitic people as second class citizens in a foreign land to express themselves without submitting to the restrictive script of their host country. Two thousand years later, the Romans create an indelible and irresistible statement of their dominance in the finely crafted discipline of the Roman square capitals chiselled into the marble of a war monument.

The decay of mimesis
The history of the alphabet is also a history of the decay of memories and of the decay of mimetic language - the loss of the concrete visual expression of the world in which it was used. The Mimeticon is the start of a quest to recover this history and revive this older approach to language, images and knowledge. Searching by visual appearance could be thought of as a form of writing, resulting in "strings" of images retrieved from the public space of the internet as it is being used. Image based recognition is a fundamentally different approach compared to text based searching, yet is reminiscent of many of the characteristics of previous textual cultures, most recently the Baroque.


Egyptian "pr" (house)

Semitic "bayt" (house)


Inscription on Trajan's Column


Detail from Trajan's Column 114AD


Semitic script from 1900BC


The road at Wadi el-Hol


Baroque Emblem Book