“Image & Language” was the theme, but like most themes, it could apply to almost any conference you care to name. It worked reasonably well, though, as a description of this one.
Berlin is a fascinating city – cosmopolitan, fluid, lively, and, by the nature of its history, contingent in a way that few other cities are. I’d never been there before, so the city was part of the experience for me. And since I spoke only the tiniest shred of German – though more after a week in Berlin – I found the “language” part of the conference theme particularly apropos.
Most of the conference was conducted in German, naturally enough, although it was ostensibly bilingual and some of the presenters spoke in English instead. (There was simultaneous translation available for the main track of programming, though not for the other two. I didn’t always bother with it, preferring to listen to the rhythms of speech and pick up what I could, but whenever I used the free headsets, the translators’ effort seemed heroic. It’s a tough job, trying to capture not only the meaning but the tone of a peroration by Günter Gerhard Lange.)
One of the most fascinating presentations was one that I’m sure I missed ninety percent of: transplanted Croatian Natasha Drakula’s tour-de-force play on words, “Brachspilder.” (The title was Englished as “Peech spictures.”) She tapdanced through the sounds and meanings of words and phrases in her adopted language in a manner that I could tell was brilliant, even if I could follow it only in part. (I didn’t even try listening to the translation; it would have been impossible.)
Max Bruinsma, editor of Eye magazine, explored the changing nature of words on screens (in English): “screens are for watching, paper is for reading,” yet he is an editor who doesn’t own a printer and does most of his reading on screen. His compatriot, type designer Gerard Unger (whose typeface Gulliver is the text face of one of Berlin’s daily newspapers, Der Tagespiegel), apologized for his poor German (and made a brief offer to deliver his talk in Dutch) and then gave a clear demonstration of why we use both words and pictures (“Why Pictures, Why Words?”). Unger later turned around and gave a talk in German at the small, smoky CaféTypo stage about the typeface he designed for the jubilee celebration next year in Rome.
I missed the opening talk by academic Bazon Brock, professor of aesthetics at Wuppertal. I was told that his ideas were sometimes hard to follow even for native German-speakers, but if the bits I picked up from his brief comments at the press conference on Thursday morning were any indication, it would have been fascinating. Again, ideas and language working together in interesting ways. That’s the mix that typography serves, isn’t it?
Some of the presentations were more familiar to attendees of U.S. design conferences. Matthew Carter delivered a talk (in his usual wry, informal but erudite English) about the deep history of distressed type and disintegrating lettering (“DeSign and DeFace”), with wonderful photos of things like mistakes in monumental carved inscriptions and gravestones with corrected typos. Carlos Segura gave a crowd-pleasing tour of the extensive portfolio of T-26 and Segura Inc. (He always seems to go on a little long, but people love it. Must be that Segura himself seems so unassuming – and of course that the work is good.) Kai Krause, creator of Kai’s Power Tools, talked a mile a minute – in German – about everything you could conceivably imagine that his software products might do. The three guys from House Industries – Rich Roat, Andy Cruz, and Ken Barber – all dressed alike in red sport jackets, joked and showed off their super-American retro style in type and type packaging; the program called their style “Neo Futurist typography,” but it’s hard to imagine fonts based on the hotrod lettering of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth as anything but retro and crazed.
Erik Adigard talked in fluent but heavily French-accented English about the the internet as a theme park and the work he’d done on the characteristic look and feel of Wired magazine and Wired online. (Bazon Brock had spoken of the internet as a work-in-progress.) I suspect Adigard’s accent gave the translators fits, but it was fascinating.
Javier Mariscal spoke very little, mostly in English or Catalan, but showed a dancing array of exciting images. One of the most fascinating aspects for me was hearing the voice-over of a Catalan political video that he’d done – simply because Catalan is a language I’m not used to hearing, though I recognize it on the page.
Tibor Kalman was scheduled to speak, but listing him on the program can only have been a bravely defiant gesture; not only was he not there, but a few weeks later he was dead of cancer. He was represented at the conference by a timed, multi-screen slide show that he had put together.
As a book designer, I was interested in hearing what Roswitha Quadflieg had to say about her 25-year career making carefully printed, gorgeously illustrated literary books. She was poised and articulate in German on the main stage (the translation made her talk quite clear, though it lost her style), and in the evening I stayed for part of her presentation, with Eva-Maria Hagen, of the works of twenty of the poets she has published (this was not translated).
There was much more; no one ever gets to everything at one of these events. Isabelle Rozenbaum showed a short video that expressed her approach to photographing type and people’s lives. Gerd Fleischmann showed slides of signage in Vietnam, and his students had put together a thick book from their travels there. Erik Spiekermann, Joachim Peters, and Heide Hackenberg kept things moving as rotating masters of ceremony.
This was the third Typo Berlin conference organized by FontShop Germany, so the organizers knew what they were doing. The crowds were large, with hundreds of attendees, about 40% of whom (I was told) were students. I had thought that in a year when the annual ATypI conference will be in the U.S., a lot of the European type community who might not make the trip across the Atlantic might show up here instead, but in fact there were relatively few outside of the people on the program. It was, however, an eclectic, varied, and even sometimes inspiring program; I think the attendees got their money’s worth.
The location made a difference. The conference took over the large exhibition center called the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (formerly the Kongresshalle), a dramatic modern building in the Tiergarten park, backing onto the river Spree. If you ask a taxi driver to take you to the “Haus der Kulturen der Welt,” he or she will look at you blankly; they know it either by its old name of Kongresshalle or by its nickname, “der schwangere Auster” – the Pregnant Oyster. No one’s sure what a pregnant oyster would look like, but the looming curves of the main hall do suggest such an image.
Within this space, easily reached on the #1 bus, was room for three tracks of programming, a small exhibition space, and places to sit or mill around. Unfortunately for an American nonsmoker, cigarettes were permitted everywhere except the main hall; the low-ceilinged café, which would otherwise have been a natural focal point (and, for many people, was), got so hazy with tobacco smoke that after half an hour there I felt like a smoked sausage. (Or maybe a smoked oyster.)
Outside the Oyster, not only was the spring weather a changeable April mélange (one morning it even snowed, for a few minutes), but the city too was changing – sometimes quite literally while you watched. Where the Wall once stood at the Potsdamer Platz, you could see the city building itself, day and night: new buildings by Renzo Piano and Arata Isozaki on the western edge, a waste of raw construction sites to the east. The Platz der Republik, outside the renewed Reichstag building with its new glass dome, was a parking lot for construction vehicles – even though on the following Monday the German parliament was moving from Bonn to Berlin and would have its first sessions there. It was a time of change. Friends familiar with Berlin told me that the change had been evident for a very long time.
The world of typography is in flux; the city of Berlin is in flux. It may be a facile comparison, but the juxtaposition seemed apt.