As part of a side project, a blog, which collects various musings of a mostly political nature, I have produced an art book which I’ve called Excavated Wisdoms.
The title requires an explanation, which I figured might in turn make for an interesting design blog post in its own right.
It started a few years ago with me wanting to push myself, and to not always behave like a nice, well-taught, neat and orderly graphic designer. I periodically grow tired of that professional imperative, a bit like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to bed, or eat his oatmeal porridge.
I was thinking to myself, ”What is the worst I could do as a graphic designer?”
The answer came pretty quickly: ”Make something illegible!”. ”Make a mess!”
And it occurred to me that I actually LIKE making messes. I’ve always found that the rational side of me acts as a bit of a censor, and that the creative side of me embraces the messiness. Messy design seems to tell a story, whereas tidy, minimalist design seems to wear its corporate suit-and-tie and put on a show that is not necessarily genuine. Picasso said it best: ”The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”
At the same time, I was rueing the entertainment-ification of our news, and the proliferation of ”Fake News”. It was bothering me that it was so easy for people to make lies seem plausible, and that even the truth was being boiled down into less credible and increasingly categorical, poorly nuanced soundbites.
It was bothering me that all this focus on brevity and clarity, all this spreading of bite-sized information, didn’t actually help us determine what was true. It seemed to not prompt us to think and try to verify the information. If anything, the ease and the speed with which we were consuming information seemed to make us more oblivious to the truth, and more likely to swallow actual falsehoods.
Around this time, I came upon a very fascinating magazine called ”Found”. I bought an anthology of it for my wife for Christmas (OK, it was really for myself, I confess). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is very engrossing and fascinating. It’s basically a collage of found bits of communication: discarded letters, postcards, torn out ads with handwritten notes, shopping lists, thrown away print-outs etc.
Given the obvious lack of context for these artefacts, they always seem slightly mysterious, but also very appealing. You’re trying to understand what’s going on in a person’s life that would make them write the message you’re deciphering, and this detective work is very satisfying.
The artefacts are also obviously difficult to decode, typographically as well as linguistically, since they are usually handwritten, or at least poorly written. And many of the artefacts are worn, crumpled, grimy, ripped. To say they have ”patina” is being charitable. But I found this didn’t really bother me. In fact, it only seemed to enhance their credibility and ” truthiness”, and motivated me even more to try and decipher them. Which really seemed to activate my brain on many levels.
It occurred to me that what I was doing seemed akin to excavation: I was digging through layers of time to try and make sense of something. And that also seemed like an apt analogy for my own writing process: I have a feeling that there is something already there, buried inside my brain. I just have to dig it out, and the words act as my shovel. It turns out, Michael Ondaatje had the perfect description for this: ”As a writer, one is busy with archaeology”.
So, I decided to take nuggets of wisdom – good quotes that I found to be especially profound – and add layers of grime to them, to deliberately make them harder to read and understand. To treat them as artefacts of buried truth rather than texts to be read, or messages to be communicated.
Why quotes? Well, here I am going to lean on W. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly claimed that ”Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” There has to be something of value at the end of the excavation process, and wit is certainly valuable.
So, here we are. I’ve produced some 60+ ”excavated wisdoms”. Most of them are witty. Some are less legible than others. All of them are messy and grimy, but all of them contain a nugget of truth, if only we are prepared to dig for it.
So: let’s start digging!