Posted on 2012/10/25 by

Perceiving Typewriter Art

Paul Smith Typewriter Art Video

Paul Smith (September 21, 1921 – June 25, 2007) was a typewriter artist from the age of fifteen on. Smith was diagnosed with severe spastic cerebral palsy as a young child. He was unable to attend school as a result of this disability. It took Smith close to 16 years to learn to talk and 32 years to walk; however, slowly and methodically, Smith learned to master the typewriter. Around the age of eleven, Smith created his first image on a typewriter retrieved from a neighbor’s trash. He was unable to press two keys at the same time; because he had to use his left hand to steady his right one, and therefore always kept the locked shift key down to produce his art. His works were created solely with the following characters: !@#$%^&*()_. Smith’s pieces mostly depict people, animals, Church figures, trains, landmarks or photos from his fans. To manipulate the desired shading, he would press his thumb directly on the ribbon. One picture, being worked on for two to three hours each day, could take anywhere from two weeks to months for Smith to finish. (All biographical information on Smith was taken from this much longer youtube video:

Smith’s Typewritten Copy of the Mona Lisa

What Smith did by “typing” art was reproduce/recreate (or translate/copy) an image using the typewriter. The pieces Smith created already existed either in prior art forms or true-life images, before he began typing. Smith saw in his mind (or based on the actual image he was copying) exactly where each symbol needed to be placed before he typed each symbol. Henry James describes his dictation process as being “effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech” (Bosanquet 7). To him everything flowed as it should, not even the pause of a comma could slow his process. In fact, the commas dictated in James work, are just as much a part of the piece as any other symbol introduced to the thought process while typing. Commas, and the methodical process of spelling out each word didn’t halt James as he dictated to Theodora Bosanquet (7). Just because punctuation forced him to take a breath, the thought itself didn’t cause the piece to slow down, it was simply a part of the whole. Similarly, in the video above, Smith appears very deliberate in his movements. He knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish with each keystroke. Smith’s flow of thoughts was continuous in the same way that James’ dictation was. Each symbol, whether punctuation or letter, was individually placed (or dictated) onto the page to form the greater picture.

Nichol’s Snore Comix Number Two

Nichol’s Snore Comix Number Two: Hand drawn and typewritten

In a combination of rigid type structure and Smith’s manipulation of symbols, bpNichol incorporated typewriter art into his creations. Unlike the structure of James’s uniformly typed page or Smith’s recreation of existing photos or paintings, bpNichol’s images were not imitations or recreations. The artwork that Nichol produced disrupted the idea of the writing process that Vilem Flusser discusses in The Gesture of Writing. Not only is the experience of creating (the engagement with the typewriter and hand-drawing) the image different, so is the reader’s (or perceiver’s) connection with the image. By methodically placing letters at a set distance apart (grid-like qualities of the typewritten text) the perceiver “can create meaning semantically and visually, horizontally and vertically” (

Both Smith and Nichol’s images show the importance of the deliberate placement of words/characters on the page. The Spatialisme and poetic constellation are used not only physically but also metaphorically in both these works. As McCaffery and bpNichol mention in Rational Geomancy “the page becomes an active space, a meaningful element in the compositional process and the size and shape of it becomes significant variables” (65). Not only is the space that the artist uses important, but also the characters/word choices create the final image that the viewer perceives and interprets. Each individual letter typed onto the page creates a lasting imprint upon the larger picture, which is produced in the layers of additional symbol choices. The individual icons found on a page are symbols within a photograph within a page, making it a multidimensional presentation. These layers add to the overall teachings of the so-called “machine” which is created in the artwork.

In the beginning of Rational Geomancy “Part Two: Narrative” Nikolai Foregger’s quote states, “Don’t look around yourself for inspiration. We have only one teacher: THE MACHINE” (59). According to bpNichol, the creation, itself, is “the machine” to those perceiving it. Based on this notion, the piece becomes the active teacher once viewed by the perceiver. All three artists (James, Smith, and Nichols) have created their own versions of this machine, and each one educates using different methods of perception. Smith’s images are easy to perceive because what you see is a copy of something already familiar. When looking at the recreation of Smith’s Mona Lisa, the experience of the image lies in the mere fact that it is a copy of the original. Smith’s transcription of the image shows the perceiver what they expect to see. For example, the narrator of the Smith video above states, “a good copy? No an excellent copy” Either way, it is recognizably a replica. Therefore, a preconceived notion of interpretation already exists for the piece of art the perceiver knows as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The mechanism of the piece is derived from earlier perceptions of the original.

The teaching method of Smith’s machine is different than that of Nichol’s whose art is primarily left to the viewer’s raw interpretation due to its originality. Nichol’s creations allow the art come alive in the mind of the viewer, more so than Smith’s, in the sense that the viewer may not understand what the image is trying to depict, but as a result there is more room left for interpretation. Unlike Smith’s recognizable forms, which may evoke recycled perceptions, Nichol’s “machine” creates an element of curiosity and excitement. Provoking deeper and more intricate perceptions of the piece. Due to his uniqueness, Nichol’s was, arguably, completely in control of the writing (or drawing) process; however, as a result, could never expect to regulate the viewer’s ultimate perception.

It appears to be that the individual keystrokes, which create the image as a whole, determine the depth and weight of each perception. Smith’s success came in his mastery of his physical disability and the control he has been able to show in his artwork. If this is the goal of his machine’s lesson, then he succeeded; each stroke meticulously copies the images he is recreating, thus mastering the perception of that piece and his own body. Nichol, on the other hand, succeeds in his abstractness. Unlike Smith whose method of recreation allows him to control the perception of the viewer, Nichol’s original pieces show his individual choices and symbol placement but doesn’t allow him to direct the viewers perception. Given these differences, can we argue that a few keystrokes into type art we may be able to tell which elements of the piece the artist will be able to control best? Does this depend on the ease of interpretation and perception?

Works Cited:

“About Bp: A Short Biography & Select Bibliography.” An Online Archive for BpNichol. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.

Bosanquet, Theodora. Henry James at Work. London: Printed and Pub. by L. and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth, 1924.

Flusser, Vilem. “The Gesture of Writing.” Manuscript. Flusser Studies 08 (May 2009). Accessed 16 October 2012.

“REPORT 2: NARRATIVE” Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine: The Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group, 1973-82. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992. Electronic Resource– CLUES.

NorthwestCamera. “Typewriter Artist.” YouTube. YouTube, 09 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 Oct. 2012.

Typewriter Artist.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Aug. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2012.


— Emilie Arsenault

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