Sometimes, in the space between one language and another, a misapprehension can become art. We see this in one culture’s affinity for another culture’s dross. The cliché of this phenomenon might be ham-handed American comedian Jerry Lewis –loved by the French; or the banality of Japan’s Hello Kitty - loved by Americans. While working at Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, Archotus was asked to create way-finding signage for Gallaudet University that would operate between American Sign Language and the written word. The hope was that we might come up with a new form of signage, a kind of frozen ASL. And, in the spirit of Jerry Lewis and Hello Kitty, the fact that we didn’t know American Sign Language could be a potential asset.
The context and content were straightforward. We were redesigning the public spaces of the University’s residence halls, and inside the main entrance of each hall there was an Information Desk and Wall. The Desk was the domain of a student greeter-cum-factotum. Close to The Desk was The Wall, a floor to ceiling tack-able surface where posters and notices could be placed.
The initial design called for “Information” to be spelled out in a six-inch sans-serif font, somewhere in close proximity to The Desk and The Wall. The client asked if we could integrate artwork into the sign, using the gestures of sign language to say “Information”, without spelling it with actual letters, and without pictograms of ASL “finger spelling”. Ideally this new “sign” would be both the signified, and the signifier, to go back to Semiotics 101.
In struggling with this abstraction, previously unintelligible relationships were revealed to us. The act of signing appears gestural to those who hear with their ears and speak with their mouths. But to those who speak with their hands and hear with their eyes, the hands are the mouth – the primary transmitter of meaning, the unelaborated information – and the face is the hands – the site of the gesture, the emphasis, the sub-text. The relationship a hearing person expects is, in fact, inverted; and this inversion is the cause of misapprehension. Those that hear with their ears read the expressions of emphasis in a hand-speaker’s face as pronouncements of emotion that seem exaggerated and baroque.
A similar lack of understanding happens at the hands. This is where our attempt to create a new form of visual signage was going all wrong. We were attempting to pull hand movements out of time, scrub off the “z” dimension, and place them on a two dimensional surface. What evolved was a series of lines that carried no meaning as they were removed from their frame. We were trying to document what we thought was a simple gesture, but by removing the movement itself and the reference back to the human body, we dissolved its meaning.
We use gestures to convey information, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Gestures are active ancillaries of both communication and thinking, regardless of whether one speaks with the mouth, the hands, or otherwise. Linguists assign a kind of sub-narrative to gestures, in which a gesture not only emphasizes the words being spoken, but also conveys unspoken thoughts, both about the subject of the statement, and the identity or state of mind of the speaker and the interlocutor.
As architects we are taught many ways to visually represent ideas; and sketching is the most basic visual medium for most. Given the hierarchy of work in a typical architecture firm, and the rushed time of client meetings, sketching is often the most common way an executive level architect will convey a project. Sketching feels gestural, indeed, the intent is to capture a physical essence of a spoken idea; to use the fewest lines in the shorted period of time to convey the most amount of information. It is communication through the movement of a hand tracking in space.
In this respect sketching is analogous to signing as a form of communication. In a project meeting one day, we were discussing color. In ASL, the sign for the color black is a horizontal sweep of the forefinger across the forehead. To the mouth-speakers present, the sign seemed highly gestural, and none of the implications one might assume from such a gesture have anything to do with the color black. Drowning? Lobotomy? Sweating, perhaps? Wearing a hat? There, we were on to something. The Gallaudet team explained that the sign was derived from laborers who, after hours of working, when they removed their hats they would have a black line across their foreheads. The one-fingered slide across the forehead indicated this line of black.
In signing, the body and the space in front of it become the medium on which an image is produced. That image is a signifier for an abstraction that becomes, to some degree or another, removed from the sign. Yet signifier and signified can be universally understood in the same manner that converging lines on a page can resolve as perspective, once the logic is known. In the case of black, the logic of the sign is a kind of narrative. The narrative confirms the sign, and then falls away, the sign is forever after an understood abstraction.
Another hand sign we learned quickly was the signifier for glass. As if to prove the many ways in which signs relate to experience, the sign for glass is almost a one to one relationship. Tap your front teeth with your fingernail. That’s glass. A haptic, material quality, it is a sign without narrative. For a hand-speaker it is the equivalent of onomatopoeia. Yet, again, this is a sign that, taken as a gesture, would be confusing to a mouth-speaker. Tapping the teeth with a fingernail is more an expression of mental state, implying a state of thoughtfulness, or intent listening. Or a subtle way of indicating that a friend has food stuck between her teeth.
The sign for Information is straightforward. One hand starts at the head and extends forward to the interlocutor at the same time as the other hand starts at the mouth and extends forward. Both hands start with fingers pursed –tips touching; they then open up as they go through the motion, as if offering something. It is a bit like blowing a kiss, and with it, a thought.
Gallaudet had put the Information Wall art idea to Kaori Takeuchi, an artist and Gallaudet graduate known for Manga-inspired work. Her concept was a version of the kind of drawings you see in text books on sign language: photo-realistic figures creating the signs, with movement waves following the travel of the hands. There were two sets of hands, “start” hands and “finish” hands. While this approach made sense, and provided us with a starting point, it did not feel abstract enough to become something other than a text book illustration.
We took Takeuchi’s images though a distillation process, trying to find the minimum information in “Information”. What holds more meaning, the hands or the face, or their relationship? We started with both, with the idea that you could have a kind of alphabet, an array of fixed units that described the sign: minimized face with eyes and mouth, hands with digits and a larger thumb. The face implies the level of the hands relative to the body. Perhaps, with sweeping movement lines, you could abstract any sign from these?
We soon found out that this did not work well. The face was too face-y, the fingers weren’t doing anything for us, and other accidental meanings were starting to impose themselves. Our proto-alphabet, while generic, was not dynamic. The more elements we got rid of the clearer the idea became.
The face became a circle, the hands, merged into the movement, and we began to have a pictogram that made sense, if one knew the ASL sign for information. To situate our pictogram between ASL and written language, we replaced the face with a lower case “i”. Our new pictogram iterations had moved into the space between ASL and written language.
Our creation, we realized, was an unsophisticated version of Asian associative and pictographic-phonic characters. Pictographic characters are, at their root, sketched gestures that depict an object or idea. They are referential and convey meaning though a visual association that is buried in culture and symbolism. Associative characters depict relational concepts between a series of two or more pictographic elements. The meaning is inferred in the relationship of the elements.
To create a two dimensional gesture sketch based on a hand-signed language, each element is necessarily associative: the hands, the movement, the body, must be implied even if one or more falls away. It is two levels removed: the sign is derived from an abstraction, and our abstraction is then derived from the sign.
Unfortunately, we were never able to put our experiment into production. The dormitory renovations ran into the new academic year, and the Gallaudet project team found more important things to spend their time and money on. We were left only with new knowledge, and an experience that we hope will inform other projects down the road.